Commentary Magazine

To Russia, with Votes

To the Editor:

Seth Mandel doubts the ability of Avigdor Lieberman, the controversial leader of the secular nationalist, predominately Russian immigrants’ party Yisrael Beiteinu to reach out to American Jews [“The Other Lieberman,” July/August]. However, this assumption might be based on the notion that the American Jewish community is politically static.

To a lesser degree than in Israel, of course, a similar wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union is changing the composition of American Jews. The conditionally named “Soviet Jews” have brought to America the same attitude of self-reliance as their counterparts in Israel have. With the exception of big cities like New York where welfare is shamelessly exploited with the help of local organizations, the vast majority of new Jewish immigrants do not believe in dependence on the nanny state. They lean toward the Republican Party’s worldview. They looked on with surprise when American Jews went to the voting booths and pulled levers for “change.” For they had firsthand knowledge of the consequences of socialist transformations.

Perhaps the American Jewish community will somehow absorb the Soviet Jews’ social experience. This group and their children, who, with luck, will escape liberal indoctrination by American academia, may be more responsive to the ideas and inclinations represented by Avigdor Lieberman’s party.

Izak B. Dimenstein

Grand Rapids, Michigan


Seth Mandel writes:

Izak Dimenstein raises an interesting possibility. He is certainly correct that the wave of post-Soviet immigration has altered—albeit mildly, at least for now—the political preferences of American Jews.

In my article, I posit that Lieberman would need to adjust his approach to foreign affairs in order to attract enough support from Diaspora Jewry to claim Israel’s premiership without weakening the “special relationship.” Mr. Dimenstein suggests I allow for the possibility that Lieberman may not have to change much to meet American Jewry because American Jewry may change to meet Lieberman.

This idea is not without material evidence. In Tablet, Alexander Zaitchik reported that Russian Jews gave 75 percent of their vote to George W. Bush over John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. But there is more to this story than foreign policy. Zaitchik writes: “A month before the election, 81 percent of Russian Jews supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages—nearly the inverse number of Jews nationally. They also expressed heavy opposition to affirmative action and showed less support for on-demand abortion, according to numbers compiled by the Research Institute for New Americans, which tracks the Russian-speaking community.”

Yet the basic explanation for Russian Jewish voting patterns remains the quest for liberty and Soviet Jews’ hostility to a power-hungry state bureaucracy.

Many see an opportunity in the Russian immigrant community’s natural inclination toward certain bedrock conservative principles. There are approximately 6 million Jews in the United States and around 750,000 Russian Jews among them, accounting for about 12.5 percent of the American Jewish population. There are around 7.7 million people in Israel and 1.1 million of them are Russian—about 14 percent. The assumption, then, is that Russian Jews in the United States should have a similar impact on American Jews’ voting habits as their Israeli counterparts have in the Jewish state.

So why don’t they? One reason is voter turnout. In 2009, the state of New York passed a law requiring any city with more than 1 million residents to include Russian translations on all election materials because of the Russian community’s discouragingly low participation in elections. Additionally, upcoming generations of Russian-American Jews are by no means guaranteed to hold their parents’ political views. The most recent polling shows, for example, that younger Russians are more likely to view self-described liberals, reformers, and radicals positively than older Russians do.

But even if the Russian Jewish community were to grow at a fast enough pace to make a dent in Jewish voting patterns, there’s another question we would have to ask ourselves: Do we want American Jews to register unquestioning support for all Yisrael Beiteinu’s initiatives? Recent events, such as the passing of the now infamous “boycott bill,” bear out the prudence of the Dias-
pora Jewish community’s position on some of these issues. I would agree, however, that the American Jewish community should give Lieberman the benefit of the doubt more often than it currently does, and that many of the issues Lieberman champions, far from illiberal, are meant to provide equality for the minority and security for the state.

The truth is, if Lieberman and the Diaspora Jewish community were to meet, it would be somewhere in the middle.

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