Election Day saw significant wins by Democrats in key races throughout the country and here in New Jersey, where Phil Murphy’s decisive victory marked an end to the eight-year Republican reign in the governor’s office. If history is any guide, Jews likely played a role in the progressive candidates’ soaring successes.
In an Election Day talk by Rabbi Ken Spiro, the senior lecturer at Aish HaTorah Jerusalem said that 73 percent of American Jews identify as liberal and support Democratic candidates, even if their level of affluence would appear to lead them to choose Republicans as better serving their own economic interests. (Sociologist Milton Himmelfarb famously said, “Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans.”)
So why do American Jews continue to support liberal causes and progressive candidates? Spiro said it’s in their blood.
As the polls were closing on Nov. 7, Spiro presented “In God We Trust: The Impact of Judaism on Modern Political Thought and Jewish Political Affiliation” at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick.
That drive to do good in the world — the mitzvah of tikkun olam, literally “repairing the world” — he said, stretches back many centuries, is rooted in Torah, and was an imperative of the Jews long before most of the world embraced the concept of social responsibility.
The commitment to improve the world has been passed down through generations and explains American Jews’ continuing to identify as liberal, he said, pointing out that, in contrast, only 28 percent of the general American population identify as liberals.
“It’s in the Jewish DNA,” he said.
Terming it “spiritual genetics,” Spiro said until modern times Jews, like other people, lived close together and rarely traveled more than a few miles from their hometowns. Such closed communities provided fertile ground for the cultivation of certain traits to be passed from generation to generation and become deeply ingrained. These traits included a “crazy” drive to succeed, which, Spiro said, helps explain why almost a quarter of the Nobel prizes in math, science, and medicine have gone to Jews.
As they arrived in America in waves in the late 19th century, Jews began to channel their “spiritual genetics” into leadership roles in the labor movement. Over time that same drive led Jews to support and become leaders in the civil rights and women’s movements and other socially progressive causes, said Spiro, and put them in positions to found and helm numerous organizations devoted to helping Jews and non-Jews alike.
These attitudes generated by social concerns quickly spilled over into politics. To this day, Spiro said, most Jews have voted for the Democrat presidential candidate in every race for more than a century — with two exceptions: In his second run in 1980, Jimmy Carter received only 45 percent of the Jewish vote. However, even in that race more Jews voted for the Democrat than for Republican Ronald Reagan, who received only 39 percent; Independent candidate John Anderson made up the gap.
The other exception was in 1920, when Socialist Eugene Debs took 40 percent of the Jewish vote while the eventual victor, Republican Warren Harding, and his Democratic opponent James Cox split the rest.
Jews’ gravitation toward socialism and even a “misguided” early embrace of communism was motivated by the desire to bring positive change, said Spiro. In fact, “the Jewish people have been a civilizing force in the world,” introducing the concept of monotheism, a system of courts and justice, living in peace with neighbors, the importance of an educated society, and social responsibility.
“In a world where Jews are only a tiny percentage of the population, what is the secret of the disproportionate importance the Jews have had in the history of Western culture?” Spiro asked.
Answering his own question, he said the Jewish Bible and its teachings have long influenced American institutions and life, starting with the Pilgrims, Christian refugees who considered their journey a modern-day Exodus, the Atlantic Ocean as their Red Sea, as they fled repression in Europe.
In fact, he said, one of the quotations on the Liberty Bell, “proclaim liberty throughout all the land,” comes from Leviticus, and reflects how the Founding Fathers were inspired by the Jewish Bible.
Yet if it is the teachings and ethical structure of Judaism that have informed the good work of the Jewish community over the centuries, Spiro said, it’s troubling that many Jews act without any real knowledge of Judaism. To wit, research polls have shown the primary connection of many Jews to their religion is through social responsibility.
“I would say God is an Independent, and His platform is Torah,” Spiro said. “The messengers have largely forgotten the message. It doesn’t matter if you run the largest charity in the world; your light needs to recharge and it’s that light of Jews for Judaism that makes us better human beings.”