Why do so many of my fellow Jews stay in the Democratic Party’s pocket?
By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
The story has it that during the George H.W. Bush administration, James Baker proposes to his boss an idea that would go against Israeli interests. “The Jews aren’t going to like it,” President Bush says. Mr. Baker replies: “They don’t vote for us anyway—screw ’em!” Fast forward 15 years, when Rahm Emanuel proposes a different idea to his boss that would also go against Israeli interests. “The Jews aren’t going to like it,” President Obama says. Mr. Emanuel replies: “They vote for us anyway—screw ’em!”
Such, one might say, are the advantages of bloc voting for ethnic groups. Just as Democratic politicians assume the support of black voters, the Jews have been in the pocket of the Democratic Party at least as far back as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and though there are few Jews alive today who were old enough to have voted for FDR, they, the Jews, are still in that pocket. This despite the fact that we now know that FDR was not such a grand friend to the Jews, for he did nothing to stop or even slow the Nazi genocide of Jews during World War II, and instead, when told by Rabbi Stephen Wise of the death camps, counseled silence on the subject.
The best face that can be put on this unwillingness, bordering on a genetic-inability, of Jews to vote Republican is that Jewishness, if not Judaism, has at its center a hatred of injustice and a concomitant yearning for equality. All this, presumably, has been ingrained in Jews by their own long history as the scapegoats of tyrants. Being underdogs, the Jews ipso facto are themselves for underdogs. Republicans, traditionally, have been top dogs. Don’t, something in most Jews tells them, go there.
Older Jews, of whom I am one, have memories of so-called “restricted” neighborhoods and clubs—restricted meaning No Jews Allowed. They remember quotas against Jews put in place by private universities. I recall the writer Clifton Fadiman telling me that when he applied to graduate school at Columbia, he was told it wasn’t a good idea, for the English Department there already had accepted his undergraduate classmate, Mr. Trilling, the implication being that one Jew was enough. Large corporations in those days did not hire Jews, or if they did it was made clear that their chances for promotion were greatly limited.
All these arrangements against Jews—real-estate covenants, university quotas, job restrictions and more—were thought to be the handiwork of a WASP establishment that was, with only rare exceptions (FDR, Dean Acheson, Adlai Stevenson), at its heart, if not officially, Republican. To vote for a Republican now, more than half a century later, even though these arrangements are no longer in place, would for most Jews constitute a betrayal. They can’t do it; they simply can’t do it.
In 1999, Irving Kristol, a Jew who could do it, published in the quarterly journal Azure an essay called “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews.” The essay took up the yearning for universalist Enlightenment values on the part of many Jews—values that, on the subject of Israel, for example, worked directly against Jewish particularist interests. “Just because I’m Jewish,” I recall hearing an anti-Israel Jew named Mitchell Plitnick say on television, “doesn’t mean I have to be for killing”—this when the Israelis were defending themselves against Hamas attacks.
Irving Kristol also thought it foolishness for heavily Jewish-funded organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union to litigate against Christian prayer and symbols in national life, since the United States is a country that is Christian at its foundation and is overwhelmingly Christian in its population. Backing the ACLU and other groups in such matters, in the name of a utopian belief in a humanistic, therapeutic, universalist culture in which everyone will agree that none of us has any differences worth maintaining, seemed to Kristol what he called chutzpah—sheer effrontery and stupid in the extreme.
In his essay, Kristol made no mention of the Jewish difficulty in voting for Republicans, no matter how conservative individual Jews may be by instinct and in temperament and, often, even by interest. In the matter of interest, the Jewish vote, along with Jewish money in Hollywood and elsewhere, has helped put in office a president who can scarcely be called a friend to Israel. Jews have voted for Democrats who have over the years instituted such essentially anti-Jewish programs as racial preferences in higher education (the religion of contemporary Jews, it has been said, only half-jokingly, is diplomas). Through federal regulation and high taxation, the Democratic Party has done what it could to strangle the entrepreneurial spirit that was once the pride of the Jewish middle class. Only a schmuck works for someone else is, in some quarters, the 11th Jewish commandment.
For the current political season, I propose a 12th: Vote your mind, not your ethnicity.
Mr. Epstein’s books include “Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).