Commentary Magazine

Carter and the Jews

By now the Democratic party will have nominated Jimmy Carter and everyone will have forgotten how remarkable it is that he should have won at all, let alone weeks before the anticlimactic convention. Most remarkable of all is the harmony that prevails around him in a party much given to faction and contentiousness. There is hardly room on his bandwagon. From Mayor Daley to New York Times columnists, no one has a harsh word for him. The many normal Democrats who in 1972 deserted their party because they felt their party had deserted them, or had been snatched from them, appear to be back to normal. The old Democratic coalition is together again: ethnics and blacks, labor and the academy, Catholics and Jews. Now one hardly hears about “the Jewish vote.” Only yesterday reporters and commentators were going on and on about the Jews and Jackson, and about Carter’s Jewish problem.

That kind of talk in the press is relatively new. There was not much in 1968, or 1964. In 1960, because of President Kennedy’s candidacy, there was a lot about the Catholic vote, but in the circumstances that was natural: he was the first Catholic candidate since Al Smith in 1928, the first ever. Before 1972, to harp on “the Jewish vote” would have been thought unseemly, bigoted—by Jews of course but also by journalists themselves. It must have been the new ethnic frankness that released the inhibition then, in a year when all the old landmarks were being removed.

Urgencies behind us and order restored, the time is right for reflection.

Let us start with two unsuccessful candidates for the Democratic nomination, Senator Jackson and Congressman Udall. Because of Jackson’s record on Israel and Soviet Jewry, his detractors—not least the Jews among them—called him the Jewish candidate, as if Jews alone were for Jackson, and for Jackson alone. Yet Udall could think it advantageous, in a letter to Americans for Democratic Action, to say that in the Massachusetts primary he was the first choice of the Jewish voters, while Jackson was the first choice of all the voters.

The Jews who preferred Udall to Jackson were on the whole more prosperous, better-educated, younger, and in their outlook more universalist and liberal. (Udall himself, having assessed the popularity of “liberal,” insisted on calling himself progressive.) Such Jews tend to be squeamish about “mere” or “narrow” Jewish interests. The Jacksonian Jews, on the whole less prosperous, less well-educated, older, more particularist, were less squeamish. Yet the distinction is overdrawn. I know Jews who contributed both to Jackson and to Udall, though whom they voted for is their secret: you can send money to many but you can vote for only one. Most Jews gave neither money nor votes to Carter. However it may have been in the South, in the rest of the country Jewish Democrats variously preferred Jackson and Udall—and Governor Brown and the non-candidate Senator Humphrey. Only at the end did Carter start to do less badly with Jews.

It was not that Jews thought him an anti-Semite. When a speech-writer had resigned he quoted Carter as saying: “Jackson has all the Jews anyway” (that myth again). “I don’t get over 4 per cent of the Jewish vote anyway, so forget it. We get the Christians.” I think most Jews understood this to be not anti-Semitism but an application of Gold-water’s Law: you go hunting for ducks where the ducks are. Afterward Carter started hunting for Jewish support. He repeated the good things he had long since said about Israel and United States policy toward Israel, and he saw to it that they got publicity. People of standing in the Atlanta Jewish community were rallied to assure Jews outside the South that they knew Carter, and he was all right.

The commentators asked why Jews were less attracted than other Democrats to Carter. Insofar as the answers given were accurate and complete, they tell us something about the Jews of America that will probably still be so in future presidential years. Insofar as the answers were inaccurate or incomplete, that too can tell us something.

Basically the answers were of two sorts, the first having to do with culture and politics and the second with religion. The cultural-political answer, in turn, was about Jews as Americans of a certain kind, first, and then about Jews as Jews. Briefly, it held that if Carter was not attractive to American Jews, neither was he attractive to other Americans who lived where most Jews lived, had gone to the same schools with them, and were part of the same political culture—emblematically, Americans uneasy about, if not actually prejudiced against, a Southerner and former professional naval officer, nuclear, who seemed to be a provincial and proud of it. With respect to Jews as Jews, the answer was that Carter had made a virtue of being a stranger to Washington—and Washington was where the Jewish community, in advancing such of its interests as Israel or in furthering its civic and liberal causes, had come to know and to be friendly with politicians even from parts of the country where there are few Jews. Why should Carter be preferred to known friends?

These answers are accurate and complete enough. That cannot be said, however, of the explanation for how Jews felt about Carter’s religion.

This explanation featured American Jews remembering a Bible Belt piety that could go nicely with belonging to the KKK or with following Tom Watson, the Georgia populist, anti-Semite, anti-Catholic, and racist. (Watson was responsible for the one lynching of a Jew in American history—Leo Frank, 1915. Because populist, he could be eulogized by E. V. Debs.) The explanation also featured Jews seeing in that piety a legatee of the “imperial Protestantism” of the 19th and early 20th centuries, for which the only true American was a Christian, and not a Christian alone but a Protestant, and not a Protestant alone but a special kind of Protestant—thus removing Jews threefold from the true America. Finally, Jewish religious worries were invoked: about a fundamentalist-literalist reading, uncomplicated by modern scholarship or the contemporary ethos, of the most anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament, and about a fundamentalist-literalist acceptance of a Christian’s urgent duty to bring the Jews to Christ.

Not only to avoid antagonizing a possible next President of the United States but also to do their duty of being fair, leaders of the Jewish community warned it against being too hasty. Jews were not to assume that evangelicals are all alike, any more than Jews or Catholics. (In the primaries Carter did better with black voters than with white.) As to evangelical imperialism, it is a thing of the past. So far from trying to reconstitute an empire that is one with Nineveh and Tyre, many evangelicals nowadays would settle for inclusion in the accepted mix of American pluralism, from which they feel they have been disdainfully excluded. Above all, Israel is the elemental Jewish interest, and its Protestant friends are now likelier to be evangelical than mainstream and liberal.

None of this is wrong in itself, but it can be misleading. It suggests that only Jews were worried about Carter’s religion, and only as Jews with consciously Jewish memories. It overlooks the people who sneered at Carter, or feared him, for being religious—not evangelical, or Southern Baptist, but religious simply. As with those who shudder at a Southern accent, so with those who shudder at religion. Some are not Jews, some are—and these apt to be unaware of themselves as Jews or to resent being thought of as Jews. The “official of the Kennedy Institute of Politics at Harvard” whom Richard Reeves celebrates (New York magazine, May 24) would seem not to be a Jew. He told Reeves: “I would never vote for anyone who believed in God.” (Reeves comments: “The word usually used to describe attitudes like that is bigotry.”)1



It is true that Jews can have a special set of perplexities about Carter’s religion. In the Europe from which the parents or grandparents of most American Jews came, the regnant Christianity was not Protestant but Roman Catholic, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, or Eastern Orthodox, in the Russian one. Protestant was not really Christian. It was how a Jew had himself christened if he wanted family and friends to understand he was moved by ambition or expediency, not inward conversion. The young Sigmund Freud could think of baptism, briefly, but not to the Catholic church. Nor were the Jews alone in this. Around the turn of the century the Austrian philosopher and former Catholic priest Franz Brentano persuaded a number of his Jewish students, including Edmund Husserl, that a professorial chair was worth a baptism—but not to the real thing. The late Hugo Bergmann wrote that Brentano “advised his Jewish disciples to affiliate themselves with Protestantism, which he called, half jestingly and half respectfully, ‘the religion of the irreligious.’” For most Jews here, only yesterday, the exemplary Christian was Cardinal Spellman. They could take their bearings by him. He did not get along with Eleanor Roosevelt.

When American Jews had risen in the world and moved to the suburbs, they could observe their new neighbors, Episcopalians and Congregationalists, staying away from their churches on Sunday almost as painlessly as the Jews stayed away on Saturday from the temples to which they now found themselves paying dues. Protestants and Jews were in perfect agreement that parochial schools were bad. (Would religious Christians think Christian parochial schools were bad? Religious Jews do not think Jewish parochial schools are bad.) In short, what many American Jews thought they knew about Protestants did not differ greatly from what Brentano had thought he knew.

Last year a young Canadian told me of his bafflement when, after twelve years of education in Jewish day schools, he entered the University of Toronto and found himself for the first time in the company of schoolmates who were not Jews. Ontario being mainly Scottish, its Christianity is mainly Protestant and its Protestantism mainly Presbyterian. This Jewish student knew what it was to live a Jewish life. A Jew was supposed to eat kosher food. A Jew was supposed to keep the Sabbath—not riding, not carrying money, not striking a match. A Jew was supposed to pray three times daily, wearing tefillin on weekday mornings. And so on. The student tried to picture what it was to live a Presbyterian life, and failed. At last he had to ask one of his new friends, “What does a Presbyterian do?”

Not so long ago Jews knew what a Catholic did. A Catholic abstained from meat on Friday, wore a St. Christopher’s medal, went to Mass. Today Catholics do not seem to be doing many Catholic things any more. Having been taught no longer to abstain from meat on Friday or venerate Christopher, many have also learned no longer to go to church.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists still go to church, and there are more of them every year. Their most influential clergyman is Billy Graham, a strong friend to Israel when earlier friends have departed. But the friendship embarrasses many American Jews. He is not regarded as liberal. On the intellectual side, the luminaries of Harvard Divinity and Chicago wrinkle their noses when his name is mentioned. All in all, for people who respect the liberal and the academic he is only dubiously respectable.



At that, Graham is infinitely more respectable than George Wallace, who in 1974 got two-thirds of the votes in the Democratic primary for governor of Alabama. That was striking but not surprising. What was surprising was the proportion of black votes Wallace got. At first the estimate was between 20 and 25 per cent, but later the chairman of the black caucus of the state Democratic party said the black Wallace vote could have been only 15 per cent at most. (The Wallace share of the Alabama Jewish vote remained negligible.) He had become less of an enemy and more of a friend to blacks, so they increased their vote for him. That is standard American voting behavior: punish enemies while encouraging them to change, and reward friends. The black voters of Alabama made no exception even for a Wallace.

Jews tend to feel guilty about such rewards and punishments. To judge from the way in which many Jews behave, the truly moral and fitting thing is to encourage friends to change. Governor Reagan was not a Wallace and was a friend to Israel. He once had to cross a Jewish picket line to get a citation at an Israel Bonds banquet.

Jews like to go counter to interest in other ways as well. Some months ago I was at a Jewish meeting where nobody present was eligible for food stamps. One of the chief speakers was a Senator still yearning for higher things. He gave a rousing speech in favor of redistributing incomes, and he got rousing applause. Afterward somebody told me how courageous he thought the Senator was, telling the rich he was for soaking the rich. I thought how smart he was, understanding that prosperous Jews are seldom so happy as when asked to pass a resolution to share the wealth.

This brings us to. the matter of conservatism. The pollsters say more Americans call themselves conservative than liberal. In New York State the Conservative party is younger than the Liberal party but gets more votes. The Liberal party is heavily Jewish. Ask the average member of a Conservative synagogue whether he is conservative, and he may feel insulted. For Jews “conservative” can be not so much a description as a reproach. Expectably, they were reproached most, and reproached themselves, in presidential 1972. Because 1976 has been more centrist, less split between Left and Right, there has been less talk of Jewish selfish conservatism. Normally it is Jews who talk of it, but the only talk worth mentioning so far this year has been by a black man, the political scientist Martin Kilson of Harvard (American Scholar, Summer 1976).

Professor Kilson finds the Jews of New York guilty of a rampant conservative trend, and Jewish intellectuals guilty of something apparently even more disgusting, neoconservatism—witness the regrettable Nathan Glazer of Affirmative Discrimination.

Having paid his respects to the Jews, Kilson goes on to note that

in presidential elections since 1960—save the 1964 election—the white popular vote has favored the Republican party, the party least likely to initiate public policy innovations beneficial to the needs of Negro Americans. Negroes, on the other hand, have voted overwhelmingly for the Democrats in this period—by no less than 71 per cent and by as much as 87 per cent.

He thinks it unnecessary to record that in those years, when he himself tells us the Democratic percentage of all white voters was under 50 in three of four elections, the turncoat Jews’ Democratic range was from something like 65 to 90 per cent.

Kilson leaves no room for doubt: Democrats are good for the Negroes and Republicans bad. What else can that mean but that Negroes should continue to vote for the Democrats and against the Republicans? For Kilson it can mean this:

. . . the issue at the top of the political agenda for blacks is that of deploying black votes more carefully between the Democratic and Republican parties. The United States appears to be in an era of keenly contested presidential elections, tight races whose outcome figures to be close, with neither party likely to hold the White House for more than two consecutive terms. In this situation blacks cannot afford to nestle too comfortably in the embrace of one party (the Democratic) to the exclusion of the other (the Republican).

If Kilson were a Jew talking to Jews, he could not get away with advising them to deploy their votes more carefully between the Democrats and the Republicans. He could scarcely get away with advising them to deploy their votes more carefully between the Left of the Democratic party and its center. It would be his turn to be called rampantly conservative, or maybe even neoconservative.

The charge of Jewish selfish conservativism (JSC) is far from new. Between fifteen and twenty years ago a nice little intellectual-academic industry was established—manufacturing and retailing JSC. I used to think it was like the garment industry, since there too the manufacturers and retailers are largely Jewish, but I was wrong. It is more like the halvah industry, where not only the manufacturers and retailers but also the buyers and consumers are largely Jewish, and which deals in an oily commodity that exists to feed a habit. Eating halvah is dangerous to your dental health, and swallowing JSC is dangerous to your mental health. The danger to dental health must scare Jews more, though, because halvah production and consumption are down while JSC production and consumption are up.

Not that Jews are the only target of the selfish-conservatism industry. Its most popular item goes like this: if you have defended rationality and intellect against irrationalist and anti-intellectual aggression, you have done well, but if you keep on you are selfish and conservative. If you say that the Soviet Union is an abomination you are right, but if you argue for resisting the expansion of Soviet power you are selfish and conservative. You may, if you are a Jew, stand up for the Jews—their reputation, needs, and very existence—but when you actually do so you are selfish and conservative. Purveyors of this line and the allied JSC one are big in Cambridge and Beverly Hills, which may help to assuage the pain they suffer when they must sternly deplore Canarsie and Forest Hills.



The election of 1972 showed that for Jews the so-called Jewish issues were secondary, and more important negatively than positively. Jews would not vote for a candidate who was against Israel, but neither would they vote for him just because he said he was for Israel. They would not vote for a candidate who was for quotas, but neither would they vote for him just because he said he was against quotas. What negative issue will there be in 1976? That the Democrat is an evangelical? In 1960 Jews were able to vote for the Democrat who was Joe Kennedy’s son.

Analyzing the successive 1973 Democratic mayoral primaries in New York City, William Schneider and his students—who are not to be held responsible for what Kilson made of their data—concluded that among Jewish voters the difference was less between conservatives and liberals, since few Jews called themselves conservative, than between those who liked moderation and those who liked confrontation, division, conflict. I think moderation is a Jewish interest. It is in that sense that most New York Jews voted for a Jewish interest.

Carter is the moderate in 1976. Prejudice against a Southerner can evaporate as quickly as other prejudices which only yesterday were taken to be frozen solid. Carter need not worry very much about his Jewish vote. I hope Jewish voters need not worry very much about him.


1 One wonders why this official voted in 1960—as he must have done, if he were young enough—for his Institute’s eponym, a Catholic believer. Either he has only since come to be unable to vote for anyone who believes in God or, more plausibly, he did not believe Kennedy was a believer, doing him the honor of believing he was a hypocrite instead.

On the other hand, maybe he did not literally mean what he said. Could he have meant, but not wanted to say, that he would never vote for a white Southerner? If the white Southerner were also from the wrong sector of the Democratic party, and additionally believed in God, those would be further reasons for rejecting him. Would this official never vote for Father Drinan, the Congressman, or William Sloane Coffin? Would he not have voted for Martin Luther King, or Reinhold Niebuhr?

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