Now or Later, Will Jews Become Republicans?

Jewish Americans have traditionally always been Democrats. They were part of the grand coalition of immigrants and religious minorities that supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt (90 percent went his way in his last two elections) and many dems before and after him. In some elections they cast almost as many votes for a progressive third-party candidate than for the Republican.

On the local level, they were reliable Democratic Party workers, union supporters, and sympathizers with any and all downtrodden groups. More than any other American ethnic group, they have voted “to the left of their pocketbook”—that is, they voted much more for Democratic candidates than other Americans with comparable wealth and income. Perhaps it was the Jewish sense of fairness—“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” the Torah says—combined with the idea that Jews are safest in a world that is peaceful, democratic, and fair.

The traditional Democratic coalition has of course frayed in many ways: the Dixiecrats (appropriately) became Republican, the unions (sadly) have waned in influence, and the new groups of immigrants are not reliable Democratic voters. But the Jews have stayed with the Dems.

Or have they?

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Jewish voters had a serious romance with Republicans during the Eisenhower years, voting 36 and 40 percent for the old warrior in two elections. World War II was vivid in Jewish minds, and Ike was their hero. Kennedy, Johnson, and Humphrey got over 80 percent of their votes–back to normal. But starting with the Nixon reelection campaign, and then in the Reagan-Bush-senior years, roughly a third of Jews were voting Republican again.

Bill Clinton brought them back to the Democratic fold. But starting in 1992 the percentages of Jews voting Republican in successive presidential elections has been 11, 16, 19, and 25. This year the huge dissatisfaction with George W. Bush—unless the economy and the war are dramatically better by October–will probably reverse the trend. But there are underlying forces that may bring more Jews into the Republican fold over the next few presidential cycles.

First, a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll during the second Lebanon war in 2006 showed that support for Israel was nearly twice as great (84 percent) among Republicans than among Democrats (43 percent). According to a 2008 Gallup poll, 71 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Israel, but the number rises to 84 for Republicans and falls to 64 for Dems.

On the question of how Americans view various religious groups, a 2006 Gallup poll found that the Jews (are you ready?) are viewed more favorably than any other religious group major or minor–58 percent have a positive view of Jews, with only 4 percent negative. But here again, the number is 70 percent for Republicans and 51 for Dems. (To be fair, Dems see all religious groups less positively, except for atheists.)

Then too, the major Jewish denominations (not surprisingly) differ in their party affiliation: Republicans make up about 23 percent of Reform Jews, 25 percent of Conservative Jews, and 42 percent of Orthodox Jews. Party affiliation aside, guess which denomination is growing fastest?

In 40 years of voting, I have never yet voted for a Republican, except perhaps in an occasional local election where a particular person’s competence and character made the difference. It is very likely I will vote Democratic this time too. But I find these numbers distressing. I am not a one issue voter, but more and more I wonder why it is that whenever I hear or see someone say what I like to hear about Israel in the media, that person usually turns out to be a Republican.

Among Christians, it is increasingly clear that the liberal Protestant churches are simply and almost officially anti-Israel, while the conservative evangelicals are intensely pro-Israel and even pro-Jewish. I haven’t quite gotten over what the Dems did to Joe Lieberman in Connecticut in ’06. And I remain extremely uneasy about Obama’s foreign policy advisors. If the left wing of the Democratic Party prevails, will it always be a reliable friend to Israel?

I guess I care too much about too many things—health care, racial equality, education, and fair play generally—to ever pull the lever (alright, touch the screen) for a Republican in a presidential election. To me, their solutions are wrong both morally and pragmatically. And I shudder to think what my parents would say if I took that momentous step. But, ever so slightly, for the first time in my life, I am wavering.