With the conventions behind us and about 50 days left, the candidates are looking to garner whatever swing voters they can to firm up the election. Not surprising, Florida is a swing state, and appealing to Jewish voters there could prove crucial to an election victory. Yet, even with the Republican Party claiming that it may gain as much as 30 percent of the so-called Jewish vote this year (not much to brag about, really), the majority of voting Jews still seem to migrate to the Democrats. It begs the questions: Why do Jews seem more comfortable within the Democratic Party? What is it about the changing times that have some people fearing a slow migration of Jews toward the right?
I have heard an argument from people who are fairly smart, well studied, and truly committed to the Jewish religion that “the GOP of the last 20 years is evil incarnate. No question about it!” I was shocked that anyone who disavows racism, embraces the doctrine of open-mindedness that is often associated with the liberalism most Democrats champion, could generalize like that about a party of people in a manner they would abhor if it were aimed at other groups of people.
Yet, the fear and apprehension toward Republicans for Jews runs deep, even to people who seem reasonable in any other instance. So rampant is this fear that when a Jewish philanthropist and businessman named Sheldon Adelson openly supports the Republicans, he gets vilified even by Jews.
Notwithstanding the unpleasant characterizations, Adelson and his wife are quite altruistic people. They give significant sums to support many worthy causes related to Israel, education, and medical research. They sponsor drug rehabilitation centers that also offer employment to those who successfully complete the program, they award grants for cancer research, and are deeply involved in Jewish continuity through such programs as Birthright Israel and others.
Far from evil incarnate, their benevolence represents the best of both Jewish and American values. However, given the criticism of Adelson, it would appear that some very smart people would abandon reason for madness when it comes to the Republican Party, feeling that Jews can find comfort in candidates who better reflect the values of social justice — a tradition that goes back to Moses and Sinai – and they believe that only in Democrats can those be found.
Oddly enough, the Democrats are not traditionally the party of inclusion. There was a time not so long ago when the Democratic Party held what was called “The Solid South.” Their platform included enforcing segregation, maintaining Jim Crow laws, and pushing for more racial divides. Democratic President Harry S Truman's support of the civil rights movement began the change in the party’s thinking, and it was not until 1964 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the Democrats started to come around.
Jews advanced the civil rights movement, which was initially championed by Republicans. Republicans abolished slavery through Abraham Lincoln, defeated the Slaveocracy, and gave blacks the vote during Reconstruction in the late 1860s. Until the New Deal of the 1930s, blacks supported Republicans by large margins. Even in the South, where blacks were often not allowed to vote, they often received Federal patronage jobs from the Republicans. So the notion of Democrats being a natural fit for Jews seems a bit precarious – convenient today, maybe, but not natural.
Every party has its fringes; the GOP is known to attract the likes of white supremacists, or the separatists, while the Democrats attract groups with seemingly counterintuitive platforms, such as “Queers for Palestine,” and those who managed to get the issue of Jerusalem removed from the national platform before the convention last week. None of those groups are very friendly to the Jewish cause, and both parties have to manage discord among its members over its platforms.
There is the school of thought that believes Republicans of today are more aligned with Jewish ideals. Some - maybe, but not all for sure.
The alignment between the religious right and the GOP is not necessarily a Jewish interest. The support for Israel by the GOP is often a result of a deeply rooted belief in Dispensationalist Christianity, where the establishment of Israel in 1948 was seen as the beginning of the return of Jesus. With Jews back in their homeland, all Jews can now return to Israel; then as the Book of Revelation predicts, there will be an epic battle that will take place in Israel, commonly referred to as Armageddon (Jews call it Megiddo) in which good triumphs evil. In that war, two-thirds of the Jews in Israel must die and the other third must convert to Christianity for Jesus to return to rule for 1,000 years as king.
That belief frightens some Jews, and hence, the relationship becomes more terrifying than comforting. History often is harbinger of what the future holds, and history tells us that Jews have been persecuted under the pretext of Christianity more than for any other reason. That is what sticks in the craws of those intellectuals who would paint every Republican with one big brush. Notwithstanding, some of the broadest support for Israel today comes from evangelical Christians such as Pastor John Hagee and his 70,000-strong Christians United for Israel.
As for the issues that often mire these races, such as abortion rights or marriage equality, Jews usually align themselves with the Democrats even though personally, most would not support either. These issues do not rank so high for Jews, and one possible answer is that Jews employ a “live and let live” attitude toward politics, believing that for them to enjoy their rights they have requires fighting for the rights of others, as well. Another answer is that issues like those are usually not widespread within Jewish communities, and, when they do come up, are simply dealt with without too much community involvement.
As for Israel and this president, on paper and by most reasonable measures President Barack Obama certainly has done right by Israel. Still, he and his advisers have managed to say and do things that cast significant doubt even among those who want to believe him. The latest is the alleged refusal to meet with Benjamin Netanyahu later this month, even after the Jerusalem fiasco at the Democratic Convention last week, and the apparent apology on Wednesday to the Muslim community after a Libyan mob killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens over a Youtube movie appeared mocking Islam’s Prophet Mohammed.
There is this rampant gut feeling going around certain circles that Obama is not a true supporter, and in fact, an apologist for Islamic outrage, and that he just did what was politically expedient. If so, and assuming Obama is re-elected in November, never having to face Jewish voters again, he will be freer to follow his heart rather than his politics. If the gut fear is right, and his heart is in a different place than his past politics, a second Obama term could be a very bad time for Israel.
The notion that Jews have a party is flawed. The traditional ties to Democrats and the old-time fear of who and what the Republicans might be is more of an American phenomenon, rooted in many years of political associations rather than religious dogma. If it were religious belief, each party, depending on the issue can claim some alignment with Jewish values. In the end, Jews will vote for who they feel can serve their community’s needs better, and also who will act on Israel as they hope; and that conclusion is as ambiguous as the outlooks of Jews of the left and right leaning streams are often disparate,
Juda Engelmayer is a senior vice president of the New York public relations agency,5WPR