In our selfie-defined culture, it’s usually considered a good thing to get attention, the more the better. But it may not be the case for Jews, or for Israel, to be caught in the firestorm that is burning through American politics in ways not seen since the Second World War. “That Israel is becoming a wedge issue in American politics,” notes author Daniel Gordis, “ bodes very badly for Israel’s future security.”
Jews have been prominent in U.S. political life for generations but have never previously been considered a “wedge issue” as, for example, African Americans were in the past, or Latinos and Muslim Americans more recently. Yet, both sides of the political divide, along with each party’s Jewish allies, now seek to use the threat of rising anti-Semitism to either keep Jews inside the Democratic Party or pressure them to defect to the Republicans.
The 2020 presidential election is likely to make this all worse. As Republicans try to pry Jewish votes away from their traditional stronghold in the Democratic Party, they will emphasize the most divisive political issues that they wager are able to get people passionate enough to switch party loyalties—namely: Israel and anti-Semitism. This is most evident in the Orthodox community where support for Trump has manifested itself in awards to two Florida lawyers who are accused of being Rudy Giuliani’s alleged Ukrainian fixers.
At the same time, conservatives and Trump operatives point to rising anti-Israel sentiment on the left, as well as to signs of overt anti-Semitism becoming normalized in progressive politics even apart from the debate over Israel, as was the case with the former leadership of the Women’s March. For the people driving the wedge from the right, any Jews who don’t back Trump are “disloyal” to Israel and Jewish survival.
Democrats meanwhile, will similarly focus on the threat of anti-Semitism, while pointing to different culprits of course, in order to get out the vote by convincing Jews that their very physical safety, not to mention the future of the country, depends on them voting against Trump. How these electoral strategies will play out remains to be seen but the process is certain to be ugly and divisive.
Liberal and left-leaning Jewish organizations like the ADL and reform rabbinate are operating in ways analogous to the old description of the Episcopal Church as “the Republican Party at prayer.” They tend to focus, both inside and outside the synagogue, on the threat to Jews from white nationalists who, they insist, have been emboldened by Trump.
Both sides are half right in their analysis, and more than half wrong in their prescriptions for what to do about it. Today, both the left- and right-wing forms of anti-Semitic agitation are growing at a moment of profound weakness in even the most solid Western democracies, like the U.K., Australia and the U.S . Slow economic growth and diminishing prospects for a society’s young generation have long sparked anti-Semitic outbreaks. The rebellion against globalization, although largely justified, does not work well for a population identified with cultural cosmopolitanism and seen as successful agents of the global economy.
Unlike their Israeli brethren, most American Jews are comfortably liberal. In fact, of all American religious groups Jews are the most left oriented, with 44% describing themselves as liberal. Most, around two-thirds, find Trump objectionable, reflecting perhaps not only their traditional Democratic loyalties but also a reaction to his sometimes divisive rhetoric. Trumpism, particularly as it is portrayed and sometimes promoted by its acolytes, violates the views of most Jews about issues like immigration and minorities. His tweets—albeit amplified by an almost hysterically oppositional media—can echo the rhetoric of European xenophobes and racists who have traditionally scapegoated and persecuted Jews, and that’s to say nothing of the occasions when Trump has retweeted actual European far-right groups.
American Jews have had good reason to embrace the political norms of the country’s liberal tradition and legal system, which have been bulwarks against extremism and discrimination. This political faith once provided an increasingly secularized population of modern American Jews with a special raison d’etre: the expansion of rights to other minority groups, most notably African Americans.
But this is not 1920, 1960 or even 1990, where the predominant political challenge to American Jews might have come from the right. A look at public opinion in America shows that older, conservative Republican voters have the highest estimations of both Jews and Israel. In contrast, the most negative views of both Zionism and Jews are found among the key constituencies of the progressive left: minorities and the young. The overwhelming majority of Jews, particularly observant ones, still support Israel, well over 80%, but Pew has found close to 40% of Jews under 30 are either unattached or barely attached to the Jewish state.
This shift in attitude should be no great surprise. Younger people tend to be more liberal than their parents and opposition to Israel is now de rigueur in the activist wing of the progressive left and creeping toward the mainstream as well, including in the campaigns of leading Democratic candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg .
The left has also produced the most anti-Semitic presence in Congress in recent history, notably from the much exposed “squad” of far-left congresspeople, sometimes linked to terrorist groups like Hamas and those spreading blood libels. They have joined longtime Israel bashers like Georgia’s Hank Johnson, who is part of an anti-Israel faction in Congress that reaches as high as 70 members; these are not from the backwoods of Georgia, but from the biggest, most racially diverse cities, deep blue states like Vermont and college towns. Universities, here and abroad, are among the largest centers of anti-Israel agitation.
As we head into what will no doubt be a divisive, dirty, and likely outright disgusting political season, the Democrats’ increasingly anti-Israel orientation and insidious acceptance of anti-Semitic attitudes will provide what some Republicans consider a golden opportunity. Trump’s low ratings among Jews actually offer his supporters some hope since he has a lot of room for growth.
Of course, no one expects Jews to start voting like evangelical Christians. And even if they turned to Trump, many states with the highest percentages of Jewish voters, notably New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maryland, are so Democratic that Trump would lose the state under any conceivable circumstance. But in a handful of critical “battleground” states with larger-than-average Jewish populations—notably Florida, Nevada, and Pennsylvania—a shift of 5% or 10% percent, or even Jews avoiding voting at all, toward Trump could prove critical. Most important, of course, is Florida, which, with 3% Jewish population is the seventh-most-Jewish state in the union. The greater Miami area is now the second-most-heavily Jewish region in the country, with over 8% of residents Jewish. Florida’s Jewish population skews older than the national average, which usually means more strongly identified with Israel, and thus, despite its traditional Democratic bona fides, could be more willing to defect in a landscape where Jews have become a wedge issue.
The chance for Republicans to score here is strongest among older and Orthodox Jews, as well as Russian and Iranian immigrants, whose numbers equal at least 50,000 . Communist anti-Semitism is no myth to those roughly half million who come from the former Soviet Union and those who fled the Muslim world—two-thirds of Persian Jews came to America—have tended to be somewhat suspicious of alliances with countries like Iran. These communities could help Trump turn the tide in several states, where the race is projected to be very close. California and New York, where immigrant Jews are also concentrated, are far too committed to the Democrats for any hope of GOP victory, but substantial populations in South Florida and Philadelphia could provide the margins that make the difference in a tight race in November.
More important still could be Orthodox Jews. While the Orthodox are concentrated in New York, over 20,000 live in southern Florida and as many as 12,000 in Philadelphia. Orthodox Jews supported Trump in 2016 by 54% compared to well less than half that among other branches of Judaism and the nonaffiliated.
Trump is also counting on his firm support for Israel winning over some Jewish voters even as he steps on his own tongue by accusing Jews opposed to him of “disloyalty.” As with many aspects of the presidency these days, a sound political calculation concerning Jews and Israel has taken on an absurd dimension as Trump tweeted approvingly a conservative radio host’s lunatic praise for him as “the greatest President for Jews” and claimed that Israelis “love him like he is the second coming of God.” No doubt some small numbeJoel Kotkinr of older Jews may wink and nod at such nonsense, but support for Trump’s Israel policy is actually weaker, notes Pew, among American Jews than it is among Christians, particularly evangelicals.
Like the Democrats, the right also has some nasty nominal allies. The recent shootings in Poway and Pittsburgh, although clearly the product of deranged loners, drew on racist, nativist memes widely disseminated on the fringes of the populist right. These incidents hardly constitute a repeat of Nazi Germany or even John Bircher Southern California but could be enough to keep Jews anchored to the Democrats.
What is needed now is for Jews, whatever their religious or political orientation, to realize that it does the community no good to be treated as a wedge issue. Rather than allow ourselves to be used by political operatives, we need to stand together as a community or, as Benjamin Franklin suggested during the Revolution, we could all “hang separately.” Solidarity trumps, if you will, everything else.
Joel Kotkin is Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange , California and executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism in Houston, Texas. Author of eight books, he writes regularly for the Orange County Register, the City Journal, and the Daily Beast.
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