Many political commentators and analysts have shpilkes (Yiddish: a state of impatience, nervous energy, agitation) when they think about the way Jews vote in presidential elections.
It was Milton Himmelfarb who famously quipped that, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Which is to say, Jewish voting behavior sometimes puzzles pollsters, not to mention other Jews.
This past week, we held a symposium at Georgetown University, sponsored by the Program for Jewish Civilization, which explored the question of how Jews will cast their ballot in the forthcoming 2012 presidential election. A question that kept coming up, and kept generating shpilkes, was that of the long-awaited Jewish defection to the Republican Party.
In short, Jews since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt have traditionally voted in overwhelming numbers for the Democratic candidate (the outliers being Dwight Eisenhower in 1956 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, who both garnered nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote).
Our speakers were split as to whether this trend would continue in 2012. The benchmark is President Obama’s impressive capture of 78 percent of Jewish voters in 2008. In this video, Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post points to factors that may result in a lower number this time around. These include (1) the demographic growth of ultra-Orthodoxy; (2) the more conservative voting habits of Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union; and (3) the general economic downturn experienced by Jews and other Americans
David Harris of the National Jewish Democratic Council sees it somewhat differently. Every four years, Harris observes, the prediction is made that Jews will make an exodus from the Democratic Party. This, to quote Harris, is “a constant churn in our headlines,” but it never comes to pass. In fact, he cites polling data suggesting that Obama is ahead relative to his position four years ago at this date against Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Harris mentioned that choice is a major consideration for Jewish voters. Indeed, surveys indicate that Jews support legal abortion in all or most cases to the tune of a whopping 93 percent placing them way ahead of any other denominational grouping. Lissy Moskowitz, deputy policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, discussed these statistics. Though she did so with a sense of trepidation. Her organization’s internal research indicates that many women have concluded that the Romney/Ryan ticket will not overturn pro-choice legislation—a surmise that Moskowitz challenges strenuously in her comments.
We thought it would be interesting to hear a religious interpretation of the abortion issue. I draw your attention to this fascinating discussion by Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. The rabbi argues from neither a Republican, nor a Democratic perspective, but a mishnaic one.
In other words, Rabbi Freundel contends that there is fairly clear reasoning within classical Jewish sources about abortion and other reproductive issues. Noting that Judaism is “not a rights-based religion, but a responsibility-based religion,” the rabbi comes to a conclusion about abortion rights that is truly neither right nor left. I leave it to you to contemplate his fascinating analysis.
Of course no discussion of the Jewish vote would be complete without disagreements on the state of Israel. Consultant Jim Gerstein makes the argument that Jews vote for Democrats because of a distaste for conservative policies on social issues and the economy. But, wait, you say. Aren’t Republicans staunch defenders of the state of Israel?
Here, Gerstein cites data well known to all who study Jewish voting patterns, and something that has always been a bit of a puzzler: Jewish-Americans tend to list concern over U.S.-Israeli relations rather low amongst their priorities when selecting a candidate. According to his own polling, only 7 percent of Jews list Israel as among their top two issues.
Richard Heideman of the Republican Jewish Coalition certainly wishes Jews in America would pay closer attention to the Jewish state when they enter the voting booth. In a strong critique of President Obama’s foreign policy, Heideman argues that the administration has failed at the peace process, failed at deterring Iran, failed to build coalitions with reliable allies, and failed to assure the security of Israel, America’s closest friend in the Middle East.
In his riveting address, Ambassador Dennis Ross , Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy for the Program for Jewish Civilization, advances a nuanced foreign policy analysis. He points out that the recent Arab Awakening makes the American relationship with Israel especially important, and no administration has done more “both for Israel and with Israel” than the present one. His astute observations speak for themselves in the following video.
These were just seven of the eleven stellar, shpilkes-inducing talks. I hope you get a chance to watch them all as you think about the election next month and the way members of the Tribe might vote.
Jacques Berlinerblau is an associate professor and director of theProgram for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University and author of “How to Be Secular: A Call to Arms for Religious Freedom.” Follow him on Twitter at @berlinerblau.