Why do American Jews continue to defy political expectations by placing support of liberal social issues ahead of their economic self-interest?
“Jews are tikun olam voters,” said writer Ari Goldman, speaking Dec. 3 at the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth. “In our own small way, we want to repair the world. The Jewish vote is value-driven.”
In fact, with the exception of Jimmy Carter’s 1980 re-election loss to Ronald Reagan, Jewish support of Democratic presidential candidates has remained consistent over recent decades. Although Barack Obama’s support among Jews slipped slightly in the 2012 election, he still took 69 percent of the Jewish vote.
Goldman is a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where he is also director of the Scripps Howard Program in Religion, Journalism, and the Spiritual Life.
The author of three books, including the best-selling The Search for God at Harvard, Goldman previously spent 20 years at The New York Times, most of the time as a religion writer.
Both Obama and Mitt Romney waited until late in the campaign to openly court the Jewish vote, said Goldman, and “in the third presidential debate a love affair began: Israel was mentioned 31 times.”
As it became obvious to both sides that the Jewish vote in such swing states as Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania could make a difference, campaigns targeting Jews popped up in places with large Jewish populations. Goldman showed a photo of a GOP billboard in south Florida proclaiming, “Obama — Oy Vey!”
Additionally, billionaire Sheldon Adelson poured at least $150 million of his own money into Republican campaigns, driven in large part by his support for Israel.
Citing the infamous quip made by sociologist Milton Himmelfarb that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” Goldman said that perception has only grown over the decades — and its inverse seems to hold true only for the Orthodox.
The Orthodox, said Goldman, vote for Republican candidates by the same margins as non-Orthodox Jews vote for Democrats, even while a significant proportion, particularly among the fervently Orthodox, live below the poverty line and receive such government entitlements as food stamps and public housing. In New York City, 43 percent of hasidim qualify as poor, said Goldman.
“Orthodox Jews live like Puerto Ricans and vote like billionaires,” quipped Goldman. “The Orthodox Jewish community doesn’t vote its pocketbook. If it did it would vote for the Democrats who fight for those entitlements. But they don’t because they don’t like the Democrats’ social agenda. They don’t like government-mandated contraception. They don’t like gay marriage or abortion.”
Moreover, many in the observant communities questioned Obama’s loyalty to Israel. Goldman, who is himself Modern Orthodox, said at gatherings in his Upper West Side shul and in Orthodox synagogues throughout Brooklyn and Queens, there were whispers that the president was a “secret Muslim who had insulted [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and would turn his back on Israel.”
Ironically, those fears would be put to the test in the weeks following the election. Obama’s statements supporting Israel’s right to defend itself against the missile barrage from Gaza were so strong “they almost could have been written by AIPAC,” according to Goldman.
The president followed that up with staunch opposition in the United Nations to the upgrading of the Palestinians to non-member observer status.
And while he doesn’t think Orthodox voters are likely to embrace Obama anytime soon, Goldman said it was time for them, as well as Israelis, to work with him.
“They need to get used to him over the next four years,” he explained. “They need to stop this ‘Obama is a secret Muslim.’”