The lingering Jewish political schism
Two weeks ago, NJJN ran a story about politics in the synagogue. Here’s a line from the piece to summarize: “In interviews with several members of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community it became clear that in today’s polarized political climate, congregants can be left scrambling to hold onto their respective spiritual homes when ideological and religious views fall out of alignment.”
Polarization of the community is nothing new. There always seems to be something to cause a schism. One of the most famous examples was the endless back and forth between the sages Hillel and Shammai two millennia ago; the Talmud records 316 issues they debated. They seemed to disagree on almost everything, with Shammai usually taking the stricter position and rarely winning the arguments.
It is not unusual for people to try to distinguish themselves in order to make themselves seem superior to others, Jews included. After all, we are the “chosen people.” These self-defined divisions can have many manifestations, Orthodox vs. liberal denominations; those more concerned with “social justice” than ritual or tradition; or even early German-Jewish immigrants who looked down on the later arriving Eastern Europeans.
Despite other divisions, at least since the days of the New Deal, the vast majority of American Jews are Democrats, and Jews have played significant roles in American socialist movements. And while there are notable conservative exceptions, it would be fair to say that American Jews lean center to left of center.
In September, the Pew Research Center reported that 74 percent of Jewish voters identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party, compared with 24 percent who identify as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party.
I grew up as a Democrat, served as the first president of the Bronx Young Democrats (YD), attended statewide YD conventions, and worked on a number of political campaigns. The only acknowledged Republican I knew growing up was a fellow from my high school history class. He happened to be Jewish and the godson of moderate Republican Nelson D. Rockefeller, vice president under Gerald Ford and former governor of New York.
As I grew older and became more schooled in economics, I became more conservative, just as the Democratic party was moving further to the left. Eventually, I aligned my voter registration with my ideological position. I was joined by others who would assert, “I didn’t leave the party, the party left me.”
My sister and brother-in-law chide me for my political stance, saying that my father is turning in his grave. Maybe. My father was active in the Democratic Party and I followed his footsteps. However, he was a conservative Democrat, a rara avis these days. In my youth, I was more liberal than he and, on occasion, I would call him a Nazi. If he were alive today he would have difficulty with the policies that reflect the positions of Democratic Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, compared to those of JFK and former Senators William Stuart Symington, Jr., Joe Lieberman, and Edward William Proxmire. Apparently, so do voters in states that went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016.
Epithets and ad hominem attacks abound today, and it seems that so-called progressives are the worst offenders. The foulest I have ever heard a Democrat be called was a socialist, Commie, or perhaps a tree-hugger. However, to be a Republican is to be labeled a Nazi, a fascist, an anti-Semite, an Islamophobe, a homophobe, a racist, a sexist, and anti-immigrant, to name a few. No one wants to engage on the facts when a few unfounded epithets will do.
There was a time for civil disagreement. I joined the Community Relations Committee (CRC) decades ago with the goal of demonstrating that there were members of our tribe who thought differently than the plurality of American Jews — that we didn’t have horns, but deeply held, rational beliefs.
But as the NJJN article points out, the last election was a sea change. Congregations and pulpits have been politicized. Political conversations within families are difficult. Mine is no different.
Nowadays, it is difficult to have a civil dialogue. When we attend social or family events, I am warned not to discuss politics, ostensibly because, on occasion, I get too passionate. But what am I to do when someone asks my opinion?
What is happening within the Jewish community is a reflection of American society at large. The difference is that while Americans may be split down the middle, the division of American Jews is a bit more lopsided.
Studies show that the number of Jews in America is decreasing. We preach that we are a tolerant people. Can we afford to expel Jews whom the majority might consider political apostates, and thus lose some of our best thinkers, as Dutch Jews did with Baruch Spinoza, who was ostracized because of his controversial ideas?
Last week, a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis was desecrated, and a Philadelphia cemetery was vandalized over the weekend. Bomb threats against Jewish institutions are become increasingly common, including 29 across the country on Monday. Jewish students on “liberal” college campuses are being targeted by both students and faculty, with Israel being the stalking horse. There are frequent stories about increasing anti-Semitism on both the right and left of the political spectrum.
When it comes down to it, we have more important matters to address rather than targeting our own for non-conformist political beliefs.