Commentary Magazine


Bloc Voting, Unity, Prayers

Jewish Vote?

With a Catholic candidate for the presidency, the so-called Jewish vote was bound to attract the scrutiny of reporters and the attention of politicians.

The statistics of group voting or opinion are not ambiguous. A hundred workers, chosen at random, will vote and will answer pollsters quite differently from a hundred farmers, chosen at random. Similarly with college graduates and grade school graduates, Southerners and Northerners, Catholics and Protestants, Congregationalists and Baptists. Six years ago Gallup reported that 24 per cent of the Catholics, 31 per cent of the Protestants, and 65 per cent of the Jews disapproved intensely of McCarthy. (The percentages for intense approval were 21, 12, and 5.) There is nothing surprising about such differences. A man’s circumstances, associations, and traditions will obviously affect his values and even his perception of reality.

The ambiguity in the discussion of group voting lay elsewhere, in the possible implication that the groups had more or less the same kind of political organization—that since organized labor urged the support of candidates and parties, and since Negro organizations and newspapers assessed issues and personalities in terms of Negro interests, Protestants and Catholics and Jews must be doing the same. That is not so.

(People tend to exaggerate the effect of recommendations from headquarters. When John L. Lewis failed to deliver the miners’ vote to Willkie it became clear that it was not he who had delivered their vote to Roosevelt four years earlier, and official labor’s war against Robert A. Taft did not keep him from getting more than enough workers’ votes for easy re-election to the Senate in 1950. As for the Jews, they have no political headquarters and they do not take orders.)

It happens that a good deal is known, statistically, about the political attitudes and voting behavior of American Jews. Practically, there are two kinds of liberalism, one relating to such matters as civil liberties and international affairs and the other to minimum wages, social security, and the like. The first kind finds most of its support among the college-educated and the prosperous, and the second kind in the working class. American Jews, uniquely, are liberal in both senses. To understand why, we would have to understand the whole of modern Jewish history. This Jewish liberalism exists everywhere, not only in the United States; in England the Jewish Tory has always been the exception, and it was in France that the Jewish political stance received its classic formulation: Juif, donc libéral. Whatever else Jewish young men and women may do in rebellion against their parents, they do not renounce the parental liberalism.

Almost by definition, when the members of any group show such consistency in their political behavior and outlook, a powerful self-interest must be present. Yet an obvious Jewish self-interest is ordinarily hard to find, in the sense, for example, that Negroes have an obvious political self-interest. Certainly a candidate or a party judged to be anti-Israel could not expect to win the support of most Jews. Still, Israel is not really primary, as we can see from the tendency of Jews to assume that political figures they like must be pro-Israel—rather than liking them because they are pro-Israel. In his last years Roosevelt was, if not decisively pro-Arab, at least not strongly for the Palestine policy that most Jews wanted. Nevertheless, to this day most Jews take it for granted that FDR was a firm friend in Palestinian affairs.

Nor can Jewish candidates expect to find as much automatic support from their fellow Jews as candidates in practically any other comparable group can from their fellows. If the Jews of New York were determined to see a Jewish mayor, there would long since have been one. In general, Jews will vote for a candidate because he is a Jew only when other things are equal—reputation, party affiliation, and the like—or when they feel they have been slighted politically.

Most Jews, therefore, take liberalism as such to be their self-interest, though I doubt that they think of themselves consciously as Jews when they think of politics. There is no point in being self-gratulatory about this. It is an old tradition, and it has had its fatuous episodes.

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Justice, Justice

Let justice be done, though the heavens fall, would be an impressive legal motto if it were not for the medical parallel: the operation was successful but the patient died. Jewish newspapers in Miami and Denver, speaking from the patient’s point of view, have been worried about a legal operation begun in July in the Miami area by the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Jewish Congress. The Florida branch of ACLU, for an agnostic, and AJCongress, for a few Jews and a Unitarian, went to court to compel the cessation of a whole range of religious practices in the public schools, from Bible reading to a horrendous dramatization of the crucifixion.

Ten years ago, where I live, Jewish representatives made a friendly recommendation to the superintendent of schools to tone down some of the excessive sectarianism of Christmas in the schools. He readily agreed. It then got about that he had given in to Jewish pressure, and the roof fell in. The Jews who lived there at the time still do not like to remember the incident, and nothing could persuade them to go through anything like it again.

What happened in Miami this summer was much more upsetting—headlines about testimony and scenes in court, vigils of prayer for the defeat of the godless, passionate resentment—and its effects were felt pretty far away. So many Jews and Jewish communities seem to have been annoyed by the court action that AJCongress published a defensive editorial in its journal, based on a survey it had made of editorial opinion and letters to the editor; but the survey itself did not escape criticism.

“Don’t make trouble” is an abject philosophy, but how about the rear-echelon pugnacity that says, “Let’s you and him fight”? And how sensible or fitting is it for Jews to attack Bible reading as equally unacceptable with prayers in the name of Jesus?

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Unity!

Half a year ago there was a brief agitation for a central body for the Jews of the United States. The (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly called on the Synagogue Council, and the Synagogue Council immediately agreed, to take steps toward the creation of an authoritative, central organization. The Rabbinical Assembly passed its resolution because normally, in Conservative circles, opposition to slogans of unity, democracy, and order in the Jewish community would be as unthinkable as a politician’s opposition to home, mother, and flag. This time there was an even more compelling reason. After the Conservative congregational association tabled a motion for affiliation with the World Zionist Organization last year, there was great eagerness to prove that the old Conservative loyalties were not really being betrayed. A rousing vote in favor of something as tried and true as a representative organ for American Jewry was a painless way to affirm those loyalties. The absence of any particular timeliness for the proposal made no difference.

The Synagogue Council consists of six bodies: the Reform and Conservative rabbinical and congregational associations, the Orthodox congregational association, and an Orthodox rabbinical association. The effectiveness of the organization is not great, each of its six constituents having an absolute veto. Its Orthodox constituents are under great pressure from their ultras to leave, since membership implies, or can be taken to imply, recognition of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. The Reform and Conservative elements are very much aware of all this, and the result is immobilism.

The main function of the Synagogue Council is to speak for American Jews in an ecclesiastical capacity. At the White House Conference on Youth early this year, the Synagogue Council representative, faithful to the views of his organization and practically every other Jewish organization, strongly opposed state aid to religious schools. For practically the first time, in such matters, there was a Jewish dissent. Some Lubavitcher Hasidim were in favor of state aid, just as they are in favor of released time. I predict that it will not be long before the Synagogue Council is silent on state aid. Pressure from the right on the Orthodox constituents will take care of that.

Since the Synagogue Council can do nothing about such things as the kashrut scandal—or rather hillul ha-Shem, desecration—it accepts invitations for talking about unity.

With the Conservative rabbis, too, frustration about their real concerns, or what should be their real concerns, may account for part of the enthusiasm for such resolutions. It is hardly because learning, piety, and good works are firmly established among us that the rabbis feel free to turn their attention elsewhere.

Of course, there is the unity of talk and the unity of deed. The Conservatives, for instance, are always for unity and kelal Yisrael (catholic Israel, as Solomon Schechter translated it) in general, but not necessarily in particular. Take education. There are two main kinds of Jewish schools, the communal and the congregational, and over the years the congregational school has been gaining steadily. The Conservative school system is congregational, although the kelal Yisrael ideology should imply support for communal schools. Nor have the Conservatives shown any great generosity or self-denial in relation to communal schools or communal educational bodies. I am not saying that communal schools are better than congregational schools, merely that the Conservatives’ seal for unity does not extend to education. But then, education is important. In the words of Dexter Keezer, who served as a public member of the War Labor Board, “The opinion and decisions/Of the members of this board/Are exclusively determined/By whose ox is being gored.”

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The Commissioner and the Rabbis

The New York Board of Rabbis interprets its geographical jurisdiction somewhat liberally. There are wags who say that for its purposes New York ends where Los Angeles begins. (The Board is a bitter rival of the Synagogue Council.)

This past Rosh Hashanah, the Board tangled with Police Commissioner Kennedy of New York, needlessly, and came off second. At a time when the police were on extra duty because of all the heads of state at the UN, Jewish policemen asked for the traditional right to absent themselves on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, The terrible-tempered Mr. Kennedy, questioned about this on a television program, expressed gratuitous skepticism about people who seemed to feel the need to observe their religion only once a year.

The Board of Rabbis asked for an apology. Kennedy was willing only to say that any interpretation of his remark as anti-Semitic was completely wrong. The Board continued to press for an apology, Kennedy would not give in even to Mayor Wagner, and in the end he won.

The Board of Rabbis was doubly unwise. In the first place, everybody knows that Kennedy is not an anti-Semite, that he is a man of great, even tiresome, probity, and that he does not discriminate for or against anyone. In the second place, he is a lion. If you want to be on bad terms with a lion, either avoid him completely or shoot to kill. The Board did neither, and got clawed.

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