The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Jexodus’ is a GOP fantasy. That doesn’t mean Jews will vote Democratic forever.

History isn’t destiny.

"Jexodus" spokeswoman Elizabeth Pipko is interviewed on the Fox News show "Fox & Friends" on March 12. (Fox News/YouTube) (Fox & Friends on Tuesday. (YouTube / Fox News))

A political organization calling itself Jexodus sprung up in recent weeks, purporting to be a group of frustrated Jews ready to break with the Democratic Party. Organizer Elizabeth Pipko said the name comes from Jewish history: “We left Egypt and now we’re leaving the Democratic Party.” A few days later, as if on cue, President Trump embraced Jexodus, tweeting:

Republicans may be waiting with open arms, but there’s not enough evidence that Jewish dissatisfaction with Democrats will lead to an “Exodus,” with or without the added “J.” Jews consistently vote Democratic, and the GOP has repeatedly failed to win Jewish voters.

At a glance, American Jews resemble an ethnic group that might be expected to support right-of-center policies protecting their own economic interests. As Milton Himmelfarb somewhat indecorously described it in 1969, American Jews’ socioeconomic status is similar to that of Episcopalians, and therefore Jewish voters “ought to be toward the top of the pro-Nixon set” but instead “voted like the Mexicans of the West and the Puerto Ricans of the East — the poor, the racial minorities.” American Jews remember well what it means to be a lower socioeconomic minority in the United States, and most have taken on political identities that call on them to use the success their group has attained to help ease the way for other less-advantaged groups.

Trump and Republicans may try to convert Democrats by promoting the narrative that Democrats are, at best, hostile to the interests of their Jewish constituents and, at worst, anti-Semitic and/or anti-Israel, but they miss that for most American Jews, a laundry list of progressive priorities, including addressing economic inequality and expanding health care, tend to have more influence on voting behavior than policy toward Israel. Additionally, accusations that the Democratic Party writ large is anti-Israel are mostly rhetoric; the vast majority of Democrats favor some form of a two-state solution and close ties between the United States and Israel.

And Jexodus’s organizers are less than forthright about any momentum they’ve gathered. Despite Pipko’s pitch in a recent Fox News appearance that “we” are leaving the Democrats, she was already gone: As she told the New York Post in January, she worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign. Jexodus was launched by a small group of Jewish Republicans to promote a false narrative of burgeoning Jewish affinity for the GOP. “All in all,” as Talia Lavin wrote for GQ, “Jexodus is a whole lot like Blexit,” a similarly portmanteau-named group that presents itself as a wave of black Americans cutting ties with Democrats, though African Americans are one of the few demographic groups that supports Democratic candidates at even higher rates than Jews. In both cases, the proponents fail to acknowledge that while you can always find examples of individual Jewish or black voters throwing their hands up in frustration and leaving the Democratic Party in favor of the Republican Party, the plural of “anecdote” (as I regularly tell my students) is not “data.” There’s no empirical evidence suggesting that Jewish voters are switching parties en masse.

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The American Jewish Population Project, conducted by my colleagues at Brandeis University, estimates across thousands of the best-run surveys that 54 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats and 14 percent as Republicans. Similar estimates were reported in the American Jewish Committee’s 2018 Survey of American Jewish Opinion and the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of the American Jewish community, which found, respectively, that 51 or 55 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats. Fox News, which you might think of as having an interest in promoting the Jexodus line, assessed that 72 percent of Jewish voters supported Democrats in 2018.

Jewish voters are not monolithic. Orthodox Jews, whose view of the place of conservative religious sensibilities in the public sphere tends to be better aligned with Republicans’ political priorities, lean toward Trump: As the Forward reported in 2017, one American Jewish Committee study found that 71 percent of Orthodox Jews supported Trump at a rate comparable to the 70 percent of Jewish voters overall who supported Hillary Clinton in 2016. But most Jewish voters are unlikely to be swayed toward the view that the Democratic Party does not care for them by a party led by Trump, who, as a presidential contender in 2015, apparently thought it was funny to tell the Republican Jewish Coalition, “I’m a negotiator like you folks.” And who, as president, initially balked at unequivocally denouncing participants in the Charlottesville protests, some of whom chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

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An almost-Jexodus did happen once, and it didn’t last. In 1980, disappointed with President Jimmy Carter’s policies toward Israel, American Jews considered alternatives. As Stuart E. Eizenstadt wrote in his memoir of the Carter White House, Carter “aggressively” pushed “a peace process in ways that often alienated Israel and American Jewish leaders” because of the perception that he ignored Israel’s security concerns and forced Israel “to take more risks by trading off its conquered lands for . . . a guarantee in which few Israelis would place much trust.” This perception, together with more general dissatisfaction with the Iran hostage crisis and the state of the economy, contributed significantly to Jewish Democrats’ support for Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) in the Democratic primaries; in the New York primary, Kennedy won the Jewish vote a 4-to-1 ratio.

After Carter won the nomination, The Washington Post’s Robert G. Kaiser wrote, “Of all the groups that make up the traditional Democratic coalition, none is so skeptical of President Carter today as America’s Jewish voters,” speculating that Republican nominee Ronald Reagan or independent general election candidate John Anderson (a GOP member of Congress) could win the Jewish vote. The Christian Science Monitor ran an article on Oct. 3, 1980, with the headline “The ‘Jewish vote’ shunning Carter, moving to Reagan.” Ultimately, although Reagan was elected president, Carter won 44 percent of the Jewish vote to Reagan’s 36 percent and Anderson’s 19 percent, according to Herbert F. Weisberg’s exit poll calculations in a 2012 article for Contemporary Jewry. Given Reagan’s overwhelming victory, the Jewish vote is only a historical footnote. American Jews would have needed to sway the vote for Carter in every one of the nine states where they were most numerous — New York, California, Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland and Ohio — for Carter to beat Reagan.

But results from 1980 show how difficult it may be for Republicans to change Jewish partisan loyalty: In an election in which Reagan earned 51 percent of the popular vote to Carter’s 41 percent, Jews still preferred their least favorite Democratic nominee in nearly a century by eight percentage points over an overwhelmingly popular Republican.

That was the high-water mark for GOP nominees; no Republican has won the Jewish vote since Calvin Coolidge in 1924, when the Democratic and Progressive Party nominees split the opposition. According to the Pew Research Center, Trump earned 24 percent of the Jewish vote in 2016, and if the 17 percent of Jewish voters who Pew estimated cast their ballots for GOP candidates in the 2018 midterms are suggestive, he likely won’t do much better in 2020.

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But just because there’s no incipient Jexodus in 2019, doesn’t mean that Democrats should assume they will always enjoy robust support from American Jews. The British Labour Party is a cautionary tale: British Jewish support for Labour has not been as strong historically as American Jewish support for Democrats, but as recently as 2010, British Jewish preference for the Labor and Conservative parties was evenly split. In July, though, three Jewish newspapers in the United Kingdom published identical front pages accompanied by editorials calling the prospect of a government led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn an “existential threat to Jewish life in this country” because of rising anti-Semitism within the party. Last month, seven Labour members of Parliament resigned from the party they describe as “institutionally anti-Semitic” for its inability or refusal to deal with members’ engagement in historically anti-Semitic tropes, code words and conspiracy theories, including, notably, blaming Jews for the Holocaust and accusations of dual loyalty against Jewish MPs.

The American parallel is clear. Jews are rightfully sensitive to accusations of dual loyalty, a smear popularized in, among other places, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” propaganda first published in Russia in 1903. The pamphlet claimed Jews would privilege Jewish parochial interests over the interests of the countries where they live. The recent controversy after Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) implied that pro-Israel Americans, both Jewish and not, have dual loyalty — and a similar, less-infamous controversy involving an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — provoked justifiable outrage from American Jews and others. It also provided a convenient launchpad for the promoters of “Jexodus.”

Omar, to her credit, has since attempted to clarify her views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict; she has shown that although she may not always be aware of dog whistles traditionally used by anti-Semites to vilify Jews, she is willing to apologize when her speech is offensive; and Democrats hope that the controversy has been, at least for the moment, put to rest. But if Omar — or other Democrats — make future comments using similar tropes, they may provide an opening for Republicans such as those backing Jexodus to drive a political wedge.

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The opening exists because Jewish Democrats are aware that the political left sometimes overlooks or minimizes anti-Semitism. Writing for Tablet in the wake of last year’s massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Carly Pildis described how, when the Jewish community is attacked, the attack is too often addressed as an act of general hate, in “gauzy” “platitudes,” not condemned as violence specifically targeting Jews. More recently, Pildis called out House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.) for attempting to explain some of Omar’s comments by offering that her experience as a refugee was “more personal” than the impact of the Holocaust on its survivors and their children.

The whitewashing of anti-Semitism and accusations of dual loyalty are painful, especially for the many Jews whose love for Israel abides even as they share Omar’s critical perspective toward the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians. At a time when a great deal of hateful right-wing rhetoric is driven by conspiracy theories about Jews such as George Soros, Tom Steyer and Michael Bloomberg, when hate crimes against Jews have become more frequent, and when many Jewish Americans express fear of what they perceive as rising anti-Semitism across all sectors of society, Jewish Democrats expect their party to do more to defend them from anti-Semitism. They also know, however, that American Jews are about 2 percent of the electorate nationally. Losing a substantial portion of that bloc would not affect Democratic electoral prospects in the same way losing a large share of the black vote would. If Jews begin to feel that the Democratic Party will not live up to its promise to protect and defend them along with other groups facing discrimination, they could leave the party to which they have been loyal for decades.

Even so, it seems unlikely that Jewish voters will soon shift to the current iteration of the GOP. But maybe some will choose to stay home on Election Day or direct their political energy toward initiatives outside of partisan politics. Jews are an important part of the Democratic coalition, supporting the party for its promise of social justice and equality for all. For now.