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American Jewry’s Waning Exceptionalism

An interesting article published yesterday in The Forward by Robert Zaretsky on the rightward political tilt of French Jewry highlights well the increasingly unique character of Jewish politics in the United States. If present trends continue, though, in another generation or so American Jews may finally become more similar to their cousins around the world.

In the article, Zaretsky quotes Jerome Fourquet, a French pollster, who cites 40 percent Jewish support for right-leaning and extremely unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which he says amounts to a “pronounced preference” for the political right. As Zaretsky also notes, the right-wing support is far from “monolithic” and falls well short of the oft-cited 78 percent of American Jews who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. In truth, French Jews, though they may now tilt a bit more to the right, seem much more open-minded politically than American Jews, for whom it was big news when Pew discovered recently that only 65 percent identify with the Democratic Party.

If you try to figure out what makes French Jews different, the answer seems to be similar to those generally given for the rightward tilt of Israeli politics. Similar to their proportion in the Jewish state, roughly half of France’s Jews come most immediately from majority Arab regions like North Africa. As in Israel, these Jews seem both more willing to consider the breadth of their political options and to be concerned about Muslim and Arab intentions towards Jews than their Ashkenazi counterparts. So as their political enfranchisement has risen, so have Jewish politics become more balanced.

Far from outliers of course, Israel and France represent the largest and third largest Jewish populations in the world.

American Jews might also be different in that, accustomed as they have become to robust bipartisan support for the Jewish state, they largely don’t feel the issue of Israel is fundamentally at stake in this country. Whatever discomfort they may feel with the policies of a particular administration, here, as opposed to abroad, they may feel certain – rightly or wrongly -  there are certain lines that simply won’t be crossed.

There are other ways American Jews stand out. Few Jewish communities abroad have non-Orthodox religious establishments of any numerical significance. Most have also – like Israel – long-adopted voluntary and stringent security measures that still would look out of place in most American Jewish establishments.

Perhaps the one thing that most accounts for American Jewish exceptionalism is the preponderance of Jews of Ashkenazi heritage, who are probably a larger percentage of the population and continue to hold a largely unchallenged sway over internal and external Jewish politics here to a greater extent than just about anywhere else.

Some changes, though, are afoot. Already in 2001 (the last year that a significant Jewish population study was undertaken), Orthodox Jews made up a steadily increasing 15 percent of the population aged 18-24, with a clear rise also for those who see themselves as “just Jewish” and declining proportions for Reform and Conservative Jews. An American Jewry that is both more Orthodox and more unaffiliated would be more in line with global Jewish norms.

As it has elsewhere, demographics may continue to wage its own irresistible changes. In many ways though many American Jews probably already find themselves outside the global Jewish consensus looking in. If American Jewry ultimately becomes more elastic in its political preferences, it will likely find not only its relations with Jews abroad easier, but the political system at home may become even more responsive to its concerns.