By Barry Rubin
In the 2008 election, a remarkable 79 percent of American Jewish voters supported Barack Obama to be president of the United States. In 2012 this number is likely to fall by 20 to 25 percent but will remain a large majority. Why is this?
In my book, Assimilation and Its Discontents, I discuss the underlying factors at far greater length and with supporting evidence. Here, I briefly present the key issues. Many of these are very long term. I am quite aware that counter-examples can be offered (e.g., Roosevelt’s failure to help Jewish refugees; the participation of some Jews in conservative movements and the Republican Party) but none of these were the principle factors shaping American Jewish consciousness.
The European Background
Seeking to assimilate or at least acculturate to European societies in the second half of the nineteenth century, the main strategy adopted by Jews was to prove to the masses that they were good people who should not be hated or oppressed. This was to be done by identifying with the people; supporting more rights and a better life for them. Jews would prove themselves to be altruistic, not putting forward their own demands. They would sacrifice themselves, when needed, for the country and its improvement. This strategy tended to make Jews liberal in Western European democratic societies and often revolutionary in Eastern European semi-feudal and dictatorial ones.
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In cultural and business terms, Jews were also modernist. They introduced capitalism; new methods of organization, cultural innovation, and similar things at odds with the way life had previously been lived, going against conservative views. Jews also often fell antagonized nationalist movements, whether they stuck to their own communities (Zionism, Bundism, Orthodoxy) or were internationalist (socialist or Communist), or backed the “wrong” nationalism (i.e., German culture in the Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian lands of Austria-Hungary).
While the liberal, social democratic, and later Communist movements were open to Jewish participation, conservative movements—Christian-oriented, nationalist, and fearful of change—tended to be antisemitic. Jews were viewed as interlopers who wanted to subvert and transform the society and to destroy its traditions. Whether Jews were secular and modernizing or Orthodox and traditional, they were perceived as alien and unfriendly to conservative goals.
Thus, by the early twentieth century, the identification of Jews with liberalism or leftism was already well-entrenched. Twentieth century events—notably the rise of antisemitic fascism—reinforced these connections.
Arrival in the United States
Some of these same patterns prevailed when large numbers of Jews arrived in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most went to big cities where they were socialized by Democratic political machines. The Jewish entrance into public life both on an intellectual and political level coincided largely with the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, who became something of a secular deity in Jewish circles, especially because he led the fight against the Nazis.
The stereotypes that developed with the majority, then, were that Democrats and liberals were seen as open, tolerant, and committed to justice, while Republicans and conservatives were perceived as a coalition of greedy, country club business moguls who didn’t like Jews and neo-peasant bigoted religious extremist who hated Jews. This remains a powerful image in the minds of otherwise-sophisticated Jews down to the present day.
Intensifying these ideas are religious-social values, intellectual romanticism, and sociological patterns prevalent among American Jews.
Religious-social values: There has been a major conflation of Jewish and liberal values in the Reform movement especially, with “social justice” themes being largely taken for granted. Rabbis, including those from the Conservative stream, often sound like liberal politicians on all of the main talking points.
Intellectual romanticism: The idea of a great Jewish revolutionary tradition extending through such historical figures as Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky—both notoriously indifferent and damaging to Jewish interests—and leftist movements is a powerful force among an important stratum of Jewish academics and others.
Sociological patterns: Jewish class and geographical patterns correspond to those of liberalism generally. They live disproportionately in big cities, tend to have high levels of formal education, and are heavily concentrated in certain types of employment as professionals, academics, etc., that are characteristic of being on the left, liberal, and Democratic.
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Factors Specific to Obama
All of the above points are to Obama’s advantage. But there are additional factors that explain the especially high Jewish support for Obama in 2008 and have prevented the numbers of Obama voters from falling even faster and further.
Race: Jews generally feel that having been themselves oppressed in the past they should show that they are especially anti-racist now. This created a near-imperative to vote for the first African-American candidate and to cheer him as president.
Fear: The idea that the Republicans, conservatives, and opposition to Obama are somehow racist and reactionary Christian. Terror at the alleged anti-Jewish religiosity of conservatives and Evangelical Christians is a huge hidden factor in the thinking of hundreds of thousands of Jews. As for groups like Christians United for Israel, they are largely ignored or seen suspiciously as conversion-oriented organizations.
Propaganda: As highly educated and literate people, Jews are more heavily impacted by schools, universities, and mass media that are engaged in indoctrination or highly concerted efforts to campaign for Obama and his ideas. By the same token, Jews as a whole tend to give higher credibility to the fairness of media and academia.
Camouflage: The concealment of Obama’s radicalism and that of those supporting his ideology as supposed liberals plays into Jewish reverence for liberalism.
Obama’s persona: While the notion of Obama as a “Jewish president” is absurd, its appeal to some does in fact have a material basis. His image as an apparently highly educated, supposedly intellectual, superficially sophisticated, cosmopolitan personality fits with majority Jewish preferences.
Obama’s reassurances: He has spent a lot of energy and effort to convince Jews that he like them and likes Israel.
What about the other side?
There are two key answers as to why Jews have not been put off by Obama, his policies, and the broader movement that I call “leftism pretending to be liberalism” or the “New New Left.”
First, to be aware of the lies, misrepresentations, and dangers of Obama and this movement, Jews have to know about them first. The lack of balance in the media, academia, Hollywood, and other key sources of information combined with relentless endorsement of these ideas and either ignoring or demonizing critics means that a large portion of liberal Jews have no idea of any alternative vision.
By the same token, the “suspect” nature of sources providing an alternative vision makes liberal Jews ignore them completely or only note them as false and even evil without ever knowing quite what is being said.
Second, however, even given all of the above points the amount of Jews who have changed their views is quite remarkable. A comparatively large proportion of those liberal intellectuals and Democrats who have become unhappy with Obama are Jews, as noted above at least 20 percent of the 2008 Obama supporters according to polling data.
In addition, there are a serious number of Jews who have serious doubts. Some will stay home on the November 2012 election day; others will vote against Obama but will tell all of their friends that they voted for him.
In this process, Israel is an important factor. That issue is, in effect, the most important doorway out of the conventional pro-Obama, pro-“Progressive” mindset. As polls show, American Jewish support for Israel remains very strong, despite a vocal minority that either opposes Israel altogether or thinks that its leaders are totally wrong and need to be taught how to survive by Obama and those American Jewish groups that support his views on the Middle East.
The key reason why Jews who care about Israel support Obama regardless of his policies actual impact is that they have been convinced that he also cares deeply about Israel’s welfare, an idea they are constantly fed by mass media and pro-Obama Jewish intellectuals and politicians. And indeed that’s why they must convince themselves–whatever the mass of evidence to the contrary–that they need to convince themselves that Obama is good for Israel.
Given all of these factors, if Obama only receives 60 to 65 percent of Jewish votes in November 2012 that will be a staggering achievement for his critics. Note some other points, though that add to this loss for Obama:
How many Jews who otherwise would have voted for Obama will decide to stay home?
How many Jews will tell all their friends that they voted for Obama when they pulled the lever for his opponent?
And how many Jews will not contribute to his reelection campaign or, because of their distress at his policies, give money to his opponent?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.