Jonathan S. Tobbin
In a country in which the Jewish population—no matter how generous your assessment of who counts as a Jew—is less than 2 percent, discussions about the importance of the Jewish vote tend to be exaggerated at best. But in New York State, the numbers matter. About 9 percent of New Yorkers identify as Jewish, and given the higher rate at which Jews tend to vote in comparison to our ethnic and religious groups, their influence is considerable.
That explains the willingness of the New York State Democratic Committee to send out a mailer denouncing actress Cynthia Nixon—who is mounting a primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo—as soft on anti-Semitism.
The attempt to undermine Nixon was widely criticized, and Cuomo wound up disavowing the effort. That incident may not have changed much about a race in which polls showed Cuomo leading by a large margin. But reactions to Nixon and her strong connections to the Jewish community also illustrate some important facts about Jewish life, in addition to the growing divide between liberal and Orthodox Jews in this country.
While Nixon is not Jewish, as she said when reacting to the accusations promoted by Cuomo’s followers, she is the mother of Jewish children. She’s also a prominent member of New York’s oldest LGBT synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah. Among those refuting the charge of anti-Semitism was the rabbi of Beit Simchat Torah, Sharon Kleinbaum and her wife, Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful American Federation of Teachers.
This wasn’t the first attack on Nixon’s Jewish bona fides. Back in March, the ubiquitous Alan Dershowitz pointed out that Nixon had signed a petition organized by the anti-Zionist Jewish Voices for Peace—supported by Vanessa Redgrave—that backed actors who refused to appear at a theater in the city of Ariel because it is considered a West Bank “settlement.” Dershowitz tweeted that “if you’re anti-Israel, Nixon’s your candidate.”
But the interesting thing about the incident is how little traction the charge has had in a race where Jews are a crucial voting bloc. Indeed, far from hurting Nixon with many Jewish New Yorkers, it just reminded them that she is very much one of them—a so-called “progressive” who holds liberal values in terms of most domestic issues, as well as those relating to foreign policy and critiques of Israel.
Politicians like Cuomo have stuck to the tried-and-true tactics employed to engender sympathy from Jewish voters. If those running for office in New York have traditionally been encouraged to first visit the “three I’s”—Ireland, Italy and Israel—before declaring their candidacies in order to make friends with ethnic voters, Cuomo has done all three. He pointedly went to Israel during the Gaza war in 2014 to express solidarity at a time when some liberals were disassociating themselves from “Operation Protective Edge” carried out by the Israel Defense Forces. In the course of his two successful campaigns for governor, Cuomo made all the usual rounds of prominent rabbis and yeshivahs.
However, Nixon has followed a different path to Jewish voters.
Before coming out as gay, Nixon was partnered to a Jewish man and had two children who were apparently raised as Jews, attended Hebrew school and had b’nai mitzvot at B’nai Jeshurun, a prominent liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Nixon also has been an active supporter of American Jewish World Service, a group that focuses Jewish philanthropy geared to non-Jewish international causes, and T’ruah, an organization that is critical of Israel’s presence in the territories, though also opposes the BDS movement.
That list isn’t the usual litany of mainstream Jewish groups that those seeking high office generally embrace. She sees herself as one of a growing number of Democratic Socialists whose extreme platform includes the abolition of ICE, as well as strong criticisms of the Trump administration’s pro-Israel policies.
That doesn’t mean Cuomo’s attacks don’t resonate with many Jewish New Yorkers. The substantial Modern Orthodox population, in addition to the fast-growing haredi community, is not likely to view her Jewish credentials with much sympathy. The Modern Orthodox tend to be single issue pro-Israel voters and see the former “Sex and the City” star as just a more famous version of someone like the new Democratic rock stars Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib. Like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose Jewish identity can’t be questioned, Nixon is someone who aligns herself with Israel’s critics even though she has never endorsed BDS.
Haredi Jews may worry about her identification with education reform, which they may suspect as meaning that she will be more focused on cutting funding or increasing regulation of their yeshivahs which, unlike Jewish day schools run by Modern Orthodox or Conservative or Reform Jewish institutions, shortchange secular studies.
For the people the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jewry termed “Jews of no religion” or even those affiliated with the Reform or Conservative denominations, her close ties with progressive synagogues and groups are just as, if not more, attractive than a seal of approval from AIPAC. Far from being out of touch with most Jewish voters, Nixon fits in as one of the tribe, as long as you’re not talking about the Orthodox.
The actress probably isn’t going to upset Cuomo, but if she loses it won’t be because of her unwillingness to sound like a run-of-the mill politician eager to demonstrate love for Israel. While demographics tell us that in the coming decades, a higher percent of Jews will be Orthodox as the 90 percent of American Jewry that is non-Orthodox continue to intermarry and assimilate, the majority of those who identify as Jews may wind up looking more like Cynthia Nixon than not. Far from disqualifying her, Nixon’s style of affiliation and affinity for left-wing Jewish causes may be the future of liberal politicians who are connected to the Jewish community, rather than an outlier.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.