Commentary Magazine


Another Look at the Jewish Vote

. . . seeing a man standing opposite him with drawn sword in hand, Joshua went up to him and asked him, “Are you friend or foe?”

—Joshua, 5:13

While the Shiites were holding those TWA passengers hostage in Beirut, ABC News-Washington Post polled more than a thousand Americans. One question they were asked was whether they agreed or disagreed that “the U.S. should reduce its ties to Israel in order to lessen the acts of terrorism against us in the Middle East.” Somewhat more than half disagreed, not wanting the United States to reduce its ties to Israel. About a third agreed, wanting the United States to reduce its ties. The rest had no opinion.

Israel is a major Jewish interest. I postulate that those who did not want the United States to reduce its ties to Israel were more pro-Israel than those who wanted the United States to reduce its ties.

Men, the pro-Reagan (those who approved of “the way Ronald Reagan is handling his job as President”), and Republicans were more pro-Israel than the anti-Reagan (those who disapproved), women, and Democrats:

The U.S. Should Reduce Its Ties to Israel
Agree Disagree (Percent) No opinion
Total 32 53 15
Pro-Reagan 26 61 14
Anti-Reagan 43 45 12
Democrats 37 50 13
Republicans 28 57 15
Independents 29 53 18
Men 26 62 12
Women 37 45 18

For the excess of pro-Israel over anti-Israel sentiment in each of these categories, subtract the percentage agreeing from the percentage disagreeing. From most to least pro-Israel, we get

Men 62 26 = 36
Pro-Reagan 61 26 = 35
Republicans 57 28 = 29
Independents 53 29 = 24
Democrats 50 37 = 13
Women 45 37 = 8
Anti-Reagan 45 43 = 2

The pro-Israel margin of the pro-Reagan was 33 points higher than of the anti-Reagan, of men 28 points higher than of women, and of Republicans 16 points higher than of Democrats. It is reasonable to assume that the pro-Reagan were more conservative and the anti-Reagan more liberal, and that as usual men were more hawkish and women more dovish.

For Jews, it was not supposed to be that way.

In the 1984 National Survey of American Jews (NSAJ), conducted by Steven M. Cohen in the first half of that year for the American Jewish Committee,1 almost a thousand people answered a questionnaire. They were a representative sample, whose information about themselves closely resembled what was already known about American Jews. For instance, they reported that in 1980 they had given Carter a plurality, Reagan not quite two-fifths, and Anderson not quite a fifth. That is what the networks' exit polls had reported about Jews in 1980.

Jews are one of the more educated and civic groups in America. Only a sixth of the NSAJ respondents had not gone to college; three-fifths were college graduates, and of these a majority also had at least one graduate or professional degree. Nine in ten said they had voted in 1980.

Concerning each of fifteen American groups or institutions these Jews were asked whether they thought most of the members of that group or institution were anti-Semitic, or many were anti-Semitic, or some were, or few were, or whether the respondents were not sure. The highest combined most-or-many-anti-Semitic rating was for blacks. The lowest most-or-many-anti-Semitic ratings were for Democrats and liberals.

_____________

Let us look at the blacks first. When the questionnaire went out Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan were in the news and on Jews' minds. Asked whether they thought Jesse Jackson was anti-Semitic, of the more than four-fifths who were not unsure ten respondents said yes for every one who said no.

It is not prejudice that leads Jews to believe blacks are less well-disposed than whites, because that is what opinion polls routinely show. At the 1984 Democratic convention a Los Angeles Times poll found most black delegates with a favorable opinion of Farrakhan, after he had said what he said about Hitler, Jews, and Judaism.

The 1984 NSAJ questionnaire included a kind of popularity contest. Ten groups or institutions were listed, and the respondents were asked whether their impression of each group or institution was generally favorable, or generally unfavorable, or mixed, or whether they had no impression. The NAACP was third most popular, after the UJA and rabbis. Its favorable-minus-unfavorable margin was also third. In a telling reversal, the proportion of respondents with a favorable impression of the NAACP was the same as the proportion who thought most or many blacks were anti-Semitic—54 percent.

Aside from blacks, the groups or institutions rated as more anti-Semitic than average were on the conservative or establishment side: the Pentagon, the State Department, and big business, between 39 and 44 percent most-or-many-anti-Semitic; and Catholics, mainstream Protestants, and fundamentalist Protestants, 40, 42, and 46 percent.

When it comes to ideologies and parties, Jews think they can tell friend from foe:

Think most or many of the following groups are anti-Semitic
percent
Democrats 6
Liberals 7
Republicans 29
Conservatives 35

Democrats get a low-anti-Semitism rating, while blacks, Christians, and conservatives get high-anti-Semitism ratings. What Democrats are left once you exclude blacks, Christians, and conservatives? (More Democrats call themselves conservative than liberal.) The Democrats Jews call friends are an abstraction. The real, flesh-and-blood Democrats gave a lower-than-average pro-Israel answer in the ABC poll.

Republicans gave a higher-than-average pro-Israel answer, but Jews do not regard them as friends. Those diplomas must surely mean—must they not?—that Jews are smart. In the face of the Republicans' being more pro-Israel than average, it takes a special kind of smartness to think them unfriendly—and in the face, too, of such things as the even division of the eight Jewish Senators between Republican and Democratic, although for every Jewish Republican there are five or even six Jewish Democrats.

In the Treatise of Human Nature Hume says: “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Jews have used reason to justify loyalty to old passions that have become anachronistic passions.

_____________

Many more Americans voted for Reagan in 1984 than in 1980. The Democrats nominated Geraldine Ferraro for Vice President because they calculated that she would attract not only women but also Catholics and Italians. Thereupon most women, most Catholics, and most Italians—most Italian Catholic women—voted for Ronald Reagan. The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers went all out against Reagan, and most teachers voted for him.

While the 1984 NSAJ confirmed that in 1980 more Jews had voted for Jimmy Carter than for Reagan, it also showed that, “knowing what you do now,” most were glad that it was Reagan who had been elected. That was only one reason why the Jewish vote for Reagan was expected to rise in 1984. In the event, what happened was so exceptional that it became a nine days' wonder. The average of five national exit polls' figures had Jews giving two-thirds to Walter Mondale and a third to Reagan, less than in 1980. In 1985 Steven M. Cohen got over half of his 1984 respondents to answer a new questionnaire, and he has been kind enough to show me the result. They too had gone two to one for Mondale over Reagan.

After the 1968 election I wrote here what was eventually to become an anonymous aphorism, that Jews had the incomes of Episcopalians but voted like Hispanics.2 It may no longer be true. First, Episcopalians are not what they used to be. Second, while according to the CBS-New York Times exit poll Jews and Hispanics voted about the same in 1984, according to the ABC-Washington Post poll the Jewish vote for Mondale was 13 points higher than the Hispanic. Let me rephrase the aphorism: Jews vote like Hispanics, only more so.

The prevailing explanation of the Jewish vote in 1984 is that by election day most Jews felt that the Christian Right, identified with the Republicans, was more of a threat than Jesse Jackson, identified with the Democrats. If only because the Republican convention was later than the Democratic one, on election day the alarm that the Christian Right occasioned among Jews was fresher, less dissipated by time, than the alarm occasioned by Jesse Jackson. Besides, Jews think they need worry less about blacks than about white Christians, because blacks are weak and white Christians are strong: in Cohen's 1985 NSAJ almost nine in ten characterized “American Christians” as “powerful” and “secure.” By “Christians” Jews usually mean white Christians.

Anecdotal evidence supports this explanation. A Democratic activist told me about his debates before Jewish audiences in California. As soon as his Republican opponents started to do well, as they often did, he would cry, “The Philistines are upon you, Samson!”—the Christian Right has taken over the Republican party and must not be allowed to take over the country. That never failed.

A Republican activist told me how impervious Jews were to his questions.

Q. Jackson and Farrakhan?

A. Yes, but they're only black.

Q. Assad and Arafat's friend Jackson's probable veto power over a victorious Mondale's choice of a Secretary of State, and what that would mean for Israel?

A. Mondale won't give him that veto. Besides, not to worry, the fact that we're voting for Mondale doesn't mean we really expect him to win. [This is another way of saying, “The Gentiles will protect us by not voting like us.”]

Q. The Democratic convention refusing to consider a resolution condemning anti-Semitism and racism, in contrast to the Republican convention applauding Ronald Reagan, George Bush, and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick's denunciation of anti-Semitism and praise of Israel?

A. Yes, well, that Democratic convention thing was bad, but didn't a committee say something or other afterward to make up for it? And what difference do resolutions really make?

My last bit of anecdotal evidence comes from an academic political scientist who has done important work in government. After the election he and I agreed that Jews had voted more from the gut than on issues. Then he told me about his brother, a professor of economics in a great university, who preferred Reagan on the economy to Mondale but proceeded to vote for Mondale. Asked why, this professor in a great university said, “I watched the Republicans on television, and they didn't look like my kind of people.”

Just possibly, the plausibility and the anecdotes may be yet another case of what everybody knows to be so that is not necessarily so. Of Cohen's 1985 respondents only one in six or seven had voted primarily against Jackson(ism) or against Falwell(ism). Further, of those who had so voted more voted for Reagan on account of Jackson (9 percent, higher than a quarter of all Reagan voters) than for Mondale on account of the Moral Majority (6 percent, fewer than a tenth of all Mondale voters). Or so they said.

They were also asked, “In your view, who would have posed a greater threat to the interests of American Jews: Jesse Jackson (in the event Mondale were elected), or the Moral Majority (as a result of Reagan's victory)?” A third said Jesse Jackson, more than the quarter that said the Moral Majority. An eighth said neither, almost a fifth said both, and a tenth were not sure.

_____________

A cartoon that is a favorite with producers and consumers of polls shows a pollster shouting at a man he is interviewing, “Those are the worst opinions I've ever heard!” A number of NSAJ percentages bring that to mind.

There are contradictions or at least ambivalences that I can accept with a smile, probably because they are mine too. For instance, two successive agree-or-disagree questions in 1984:

Agree Disagree(Percent) Not Sure
In general, I support . . . welfare and food stamps 75 17 8
. . . [W]elfare and food stamps have had many bad effects on the very people they're supposed to help 64 23 13

Some are harder to accept with a smile. Again, successive items in 1984:

To help reduce deficits and relieve world tensions, U.S. military spending should be cut 59 27 14
In order to be a reliable military supplier of Israel, the U.S. should maintain a strong military capacity 61 24 15

Successively!

Some evoke a kind of pity for the poor little rich girl. At a time when prejudice and discrimination are lower than ever before:

Anti-Semitism in
America is currently not a serious problem for American Jews
40 47 13
Virtually all positions of influence in America are open to Jews 31 58 11

On the other hand,

The U.S. has offered Jews more opportunities and freedom than any other Diaspora country 83 6 10

This is at any rate not inconsistent with

Capitalism works better than socialism 73 7 20

Jewish self-definitions are elastic.

With a quarter of the respondents calling themselves conservative, why did only an eighth oppose government aid for abortions for poor women? In the old joke about a Jew wearing a captain's cap to go with the boat he has just bought, his mother says to him, “By me you're a captain, by your father you're a captain, but by the captains are you a captain?” By the conservatives, how many Jews who call themselves conservative are really conservative? It is easy to be Right of the Jewish Center and Left of the Gentile Center.

Similarly, with more than a quarter doubting or denying that capitalism works better than socialism, why did only 1 percent call themselves radical or socialist?

_____________

The worst opinion was this:

Agree Disagree(Percent) Not Sure
President Reagan was basically accurate when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” 50 35 15

This was a question about truth. They had the next item for agreeing with the worldly wisdom that toute vérité n'est pas bonne à dire, not every truth should be told.

Whether or not President Reagan was factually correct, he displayed poor judgment in calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire” 66 25 9

Of the half who disagreed or were unsure that the Soviet Union is an evil empire, Cohen writes: “Were the President more popular among Jews, the ‘basically accurate’ statement probably would have received more support.” Suppose Jews were asked to agree or disagree with this, in a future survey: “President Reagan was basically accurate when he called the state of Israel a friendly democracy.” Would half disagree or be unsure? Would more agree only if Senator Kennedy or Senator Hart called Israel a friendly democracy?

In calling the Soviet Union what he did, President Reagan was saying two things about it, that it was an empire and that it was evil. According to the Book of Esther, the Persian empire extended from India to Ethiopia and comprised 127 provinces, each with its own people and language. The Soviet Union extends from East Prussia to Japan. I do not know the number of its provinces, but the number of languages spoken in it is said to exceed 500. Who can deny or doubt that a country like that is an empire? It must have been President Reagan's adjective, evil, that aroused the resistance.

Why, especially among Jews? Besides all the other fine qualities and deeds of the Soviet Union, it is also the enemy of Judaism, Jews, and Israel. In the Soviet Union, Hebrew teachers are sent to prison. Hebrew teachers! There's a gang of desperadoes for you. Yet only half of American Jews could bring themselves to agree that the Soviet Union is an evil empire.

The cause of this oddity is that so many Jews are doves. Admit that the Soviet Union is an evil empire and you may have to admit that it has evil intentions. Certain dovish positions then become harder to hold on to, like cutting the U.S. defense budget. The way out is to deny or doubt reality, to say that the Soviet Union is not or may not be an evil empire. Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.

About Israel, Jews tell themselves that they can eat their cake and have it. In 1984 three in five agreed that “U.S. military spending should be cut” and immediately thereafter also agreed that “to be a reliable military supplier of Israel, the U.S. should maintain a strong military capacity.” In 1985 more than half denied both that “major reductions in U.S. defense spending will weaken the security of the U.S.” and that such “major reductions . . . will weaken the ability of the U.S. to support Israel.” As the Duke of Wellington said to the man who addressed him as “Mr. Jones, I believe?”—if you can believe that, you can believe anything.

In 1985 Cohen asked some questions probing for a kind of Judaic altruism, and he found it. Eight agreed for every one who disagreed that “Jewish values, as I understand them, teach us that we must make economic sacrifices for the poor.” In another question respondents were asked to agree or disagree that “taxes on the middle class should be kept low or reduced.” Two in three agreed and only one in six disagreed. Two questions later, they were asked about a Jewish interest in low taxes: “Since more Jews are now middle-class, Jewish interests dictate support for candidates who favor lower taxes and limits on government spending.” Agreement dropped to less than half and disagreement rose to three in eight. That is, Jews sympathize with an undifferentiated middle class rather more than with themselves as members of the middle class. In the first, general instance, but not in the second, Jewish instance, it is as if they thought of the middle class as poor, and about the poor they know what the right answer is. It is also true that the first statement sounds like Gary Hart and the second like Jack Kemp.

For Israel, American Jews refuse to sacrifice not economically but psychologically. One question was about agreement or disagreement with the proposition that “even though many Jews think that some black leaders are anti-Semitic or anti-Israel, American Jews should still try to improve relations with the black community.” It was no contest. Very few were unsure, and eleven agreed for every one who disagreed. A later question was about agreement or disagreement with this: “Since the Christian Right has been very pro-Israel, American Jews should overlook their objections to the Christian Right's ideas about America, and work more closely with it to help Israel.” Only one in five agreed, a majority disagreed, and a little more than a quarter were unsure. In the 1984 NSAJ popularity contest, only the JDL and the Moral Majority had received a higher unfavorable than favorable rating, with the Moral Majority far more unpopular than even the JDL.

What are “the Christian Right's ideas about America” that Jews object to? One of those ideas is prayer in the public schools. If the 1984 NSAJ showed Jews opposing by more than three to one a moment of silent meditation in the public schools, all the more must they be opposed to prayer in the public schools. But a recent poll has found that five in six blacks and two in five black leaders agree with the Christian Right about prayer in the public schools.

A related “idea about America” that Jews ascribe to the Christian Right is the blurring of the distinction not only between church and state, but also between religion and politics, between preacher and politician. In that respect, too, blacks are closer to the Christian Right than to Jews. A significant proportion of leading black politicians and public figures have been ministers, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Mayor Andrew Young of Atlanta, Congressman William A. Gray of Pennsylvania, and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, whose campaign for the Democratic nomination depended heavily on the black churches and clergy.

Yet Jews sensibly do not tell blacks that if they continue to be less than zealous for the separation of church and state or of religion and politics—let alone opposition to quotas—Jews will not work more closely with them to help Israel. On the contrary, Jews think that it is they who “should still try to improve relations” with blacks. Toward the Christian Right, Jews are less accommodating. In effect they will not deign to allow it to work with them to help Israel unless it stops being the Christian Right.

With all their Judaic sympathy for the needy, American Jews contrive to forget that Israel is very needy indeed—almost friendless, in need of all the friends it can get. Will the American Friends Service Committee, will the bureaucracies of the liberal churches rush in to befriend Israel if the Christian Right stops being friendly? An opening to the Christian Right would subject Jews to the discomfort of thinking new thoughts and doing new things. Apparently Israel is not thought to be worth such a grievous sacrifice.

Saul Bellow has recalled that when he was young he and his friends once outdid themselves in advanced dialectic. His uncle had less education than they but more common sense. Afterward he said, “Smart, smart, but so dumb!” The English say “too clever by half” and “silly-clever.” Americans say, “Too smart is dumb.”

_____________

Jewish dumb smartness is inveterate. Is it also incorrigible? Let us consider the 1984 election again.

Lyndon B. Johnson liked to tell the story of a young man in the depression who had just graduated from normal school and was being interviewed for a teaching job in a small town in Texas. The chairman of the school board, a Southern Baptist deacon, asked him, “In biology, do you teach Darwin or do you teach Genesis?” The young man answered, “I can do it either way.” Did the Jewish vote in 1984 show continuity with old ways, or did it show change? You can interpret it either way.

With delight, liberals greeted the Jewish vote as proving continuity. They saluted the Jews for holding fast to a tradition of unselfish compassion when the rest of America was marching shameless under the banner of “What's in it for me?” as well as for holding fast to a tradition of pursuing peace when the voice of the militarist was heard in the land. They taunted Jewish (neo)conservatives for delivering only a third of the Jewish vote to Reagan.

That is the case for continuity. The case for change is basically this: “What do you mean, only a third of the Jewish vote? Some ‘only’!”

First something must be said about the self-righteous hypocrisy of denouncing Reagan voters for pursuing selfish interest. Democrats lament the dissolution of the New Deal coalition. What was the secret of that coalition's success if not appeal to the interest of each of its constituent groups? In 1984 it was the Democrats who were widely perceived as pandering to the interest of every bloc and caucus that made enough noise, while the Republicans went out of their way to appear to address the electorate as Americans simply. Most people who said they were better off than four years earlier voted for Reagan, and most who said they were worse off voted for Mondale. I remember that one poll also reported on people who said that while they themselves were worse off, they thought the country as a whole was better off. Of these most voted for Reagan. Even people with annual incomes under $12,500 voted for Mondale only eleven to nine over Reagan. What was in it for such Reagan voters?

As to the Jewish vote in 1984, in retrospect it can be seen that what misled the forecasters was the exceptionalness of 1980. It now seems clear that a big part of the 1980 Jewish vote for Reagan was the desire of many Jews to punish Carter. Edward Kennedy beat Carter in the 1980 New York Democratic primary mostly because three in eight voters in that primary were Jews, and they gave Kennedy four votes for every vote they gave Carter.

Only a third for Reagan in 1984? Jews gave a tenth to FDR's opponents and Goldwater, and a fifth to Nixon running against Humphrey. One-third was the previous modern Republican high for Jews, in 1972, when McGovern the unpopular was the Democratic candidate. In 1976 Jews had no particular cause for attraction to Carter or for repulsion from Ford. Voting by party loyalty and habit, they then gave about three-quarters of their votes to Carter. In 1984 they gave less than that to a much more appealing Democrat. Mondale did well with Jews in the primaries. He had been anointed by Hubert Humphrey, whom Jews loved dearly and who in turn had been anointed by Eleanor Roosevelt, whom they loved even more dearly—more dearly, in fact, than they loved FDR himself. Instead of saying that only a third of the Jewish vote went to the Republican in 1984, you could as well say that only two-thirds went to the Democrat. If continuity is there, so is change.

_____________

Only from an American perspective has the left-of-bankbook voting of American Jews been an anomaly. From a worldwide modern Jewish perspective it was the norm. Until only the day before yesterday, as historical time goes, it was still true, as Jews had learned over and over, in country after country, that their chief enemies were on the Right.

But that was the day before yesterday, not today. Even for Jews, sooner or later reality can break in and undermine old, cozy beliefs and behaviors. That has already happened in France and Great Britain.

In France, according to Shmuel Trigano and Jacky Akoka (Jerusalem Letter of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, May 23, 1985), an exit poll in 1983 showed that

the Jewish electorate differed from the rest of the electorate in the 1981 and 1983 elections in that it voted more sharply to the Left in 1981 than did the nation as a whole (65 percent as compared to 57 percent) and showed a more pronounced shift to the Right in 1983 (59.7 [? !] percent as compared to 49 percent). . . . The Jewish electorate is characterized by greater than average electoral mobility.

In Great Britain change has been especially dramatic, as Robert Silver reports (Economist, December 15, 1984):

In 1966, there were 40 Jewish MP's, 38 of them Labour. . . . In 1974, there were 46 Jewish Members of the House of Commons—35 Labour, ten Conservative, and one Liberal. . . . By 1983, the distribution had been radically reversed. There were 29 Jewish MP's—17 of them Conservative. . . .

Recent Labour party conferences have seen the passage of pro-Palestinian resolutions. The party is tainted by association with the New Left where there has recently been disturbing evidence of a revival of anti-Semitic motifs in anti-Zionist literature.

Most French and British Jews, and certainly most Israelis, would not agree with most American Jews that deep cuts in the United States defense budget will neither weaken the United States nor lessen its ability to help Israel, or that Jews can help Israel by spurning Israel's strongest Gentile supporters. American Jews, lucky beneficiaries of a reality less harsh than that of Israelis and French and British Jews, have not yet been forced to stop indulging in the luxury of self-delusion.

It will be a miracle if the luck never runs out. The Rabbis forbid us to rely on miracles.


Footnotes

1 The 1984 National Survey of American Jews: Political and Social Outlooks, American Jewish Committee, December 1984, 60 pp., $4.00.

2 “Is American Jewry in Crisis?” March 1969.

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