For at least two decades, political pundits have regularly seen auguries of a shift toward conservatism among American Jews, and, just as regularly, their prognostications have been proved wrong. Time and again, Jews in overwhelming numbers have ended up voting for liberal or Democratic candidates in national elections. Bill Clinton alone, in his two runs for the presidency in 1992 and 1996, succeeded in capturing a Jewish vote of almost New Deal or Great Society proportions.
But the pundits have not been altogether misguided, either. For if, at the national level, Jews have predictably voted Left, at the state and local level things have been more complicated and more interesting.
In 1997, running for reelection in New York City against an all-out liberal Jewish Democrat, Rudolph W. Giuliani, a law-and-order Republican, garnered some 75 percent of the Jewish vote; in his previous two races against David L. Dinkins, who served as mayor from 1990 to early 1994, Giuliani had already won two-thirds of that vote. Much the same pattern has emerged in the second largest center of American Jewry, Los Angeles, where a liberal administration heavily supported by Jews was overturned by Republican Richard J. Riordan, a Roman Catholic businessman whose trademark issues have been efficient government, jobs, and public safety. In his successful bid for reelection in 1997 against state senator and former student radical Tom Hayden, Riordan’s share of the Jewish vote climbed to 71 percent. Strong Jewish backing likewise helped elect Republicans George Pataki in New York, Jeb Bush in Florida, and Christine Todd Whitman in New Jersey (though Senator Alfonse D’Amato’s share of the Jewish vote fell from a previous high of 40 percent to 27 percent in his unsuccessful 1998 bid for reelection in New York against Charles Schumer).
Nor is it only in balloting that a shift in sentiment can be perceived. Coming to the fore lately has been a new class of Jewish politicians who are uncomfortable with many of the old liberal dogmas. Among the most vocal is Stephen Goldsmith, who recently stepped down as mayor of Indianapolis. Determined to apply market solutions to urban problems, Goldsmith reduced the cost of government in his city by about 25 percent while trimming the municipal workforce by a third. Although committed to the public-school system, he has also supported school-voucher programs in order, as he has said, to “create competition and better services.”
Goldsmith is a Republican, but another Jewish advocate of school choice is a Democrat, U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. And then there is Sam Katz, a former Democrat who last November ran as a Republican in the Philadelphia mayoralty race and was narrowly defeated in a city where the ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans is four to one; according to a study of the election, Katz gained 82 percent of the Jewish vote, including large elements of the liberal middle class. For that matter, Philadelphia’s outgoing mayor, Ed Rendell, is also Jewish, and, though an outspoken Democrat—he currently serves as head of the Democratic National Committee—demonstrated a number of conservative tendencies during his two terms in office. Inheriting a bankrupt city, he set about trimming government by taking on the powerful municipal unions and privatizing some city functions. Toward the close of his administration, and with an eye toward a future race for governor, Rendell expressed the view that the time had come to cut nonworkers from the welfare rolls.
Finally, in the area not of electoral politics but of attitudes and opinions, the picture is once again more variegated than it might seem. American Jews do continue to maintain many traditional liberal postures: more so than other Americans of their socioeconomic profile, they support government spending programs and are resistant to curtailing already existing ones. They also tend to voice liberal views on a broad range of issues involving civil liberties and sexual morality. As successive studies undertaken for the American Jewish Committee (AJC) have shown, most Jews are pro-abortion and pro-gay rights, and most oppose government aid to parochial schools. But as these same surveys suggest, there are countervailing tendencies at work as well.
Thus, in the 1997 AJC survey, 80 percent of respondents favored the death penalty for persons convicted of murder (a rise of six percentage points from 1994). Sixty percent disagreed with the proposition that women, blacks, or members of other disadvantaged groups should receive “special consideration in hiring and promotions as a matter of policy.” A high proportion felt that today’s increased emphasis on separate group identities—whether racial, ethnic, or religious—was dividing American society. On welfare, Jews did not differ markedly from other whites in asserting that government programs were detrimental to their beneficiaries. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, even as Jews have continued to vote heavily for Democrats in presidential elections, the most recent (1999) AJC survey suggests that approximately half now categorize themselves as either Republicans, independents, or unsure, suggesting that even the seemingly unshakable Jewish vote may be up for grabs.
What accounts for these shifts? In part, the answer is demography and other socioeconomic factors. For decades now, Jews have been moving away from the central cities that once produced large Democratic majorities. During the last 30 years, for example, the Jewish population of New York City has declined from two million to just under a million, with those who remain having become more geographically concentrated and also more sharply polarized along religious lines. At the same time, there has been an influx into this country of Jews from the former Soviet Union. One of every five Jews in New York City today was born in the former USSR; in California, considerable numbers of ex-Soviet Jews reside in West Hollywood, Santa Monica, and the San Fernando valley. A comprehensive study of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York released early this year showed strong support for Mayor Giuliani (and for President Clinton, mainly for the obvious economic reasons), and a lesser inclination to associate with the Democratic party than has been the norm for American Jews.
The vocational profile of Jews has likewise changed significantly. Civil service, once the route to upward mobility, has become less attractive. With a lowered stake in public-sector employment, Jews are commensurately less likely to favor expansionary government programs. As Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban planning at New York University, has put it, “Most Jews in New York are concerned with safety, quality of life, and taxes, not public schools and social services, the two largest areas of municipal expenditures.”
There are indications, too, that younger Jews are beginning to shape their political worldview along somewhat different lines from their parents or grandparents. For the current generation, which knew not JFK, let alone FDR, even the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam movements of the 60’s have no real resonance. A poll taken by the Zogby organization during the New Jersey gubernatorial election in 1997 showed that Jews under sixty-five were significantly more likely to vote for the Republican Christine Todd Whitman than were those over sixty-five.
But the most critical factor in the changing Jewish political posture is that, as a community, Jews seem to be turning inward. What we are witnessing today is a hunkering-down—not so much an indifference to the less fortunate as a growing recognition that solutions to society-wide problems are more complex than they may once have seemed, and that even as one must try to remedy such problems it is also necessary to look after one’s own. Jews are also becoming more defensive. At the most basic level, they know that historically they have prospered in periods of order and stability, and they sense instinctively that our own times are dangerous—not only for them, but for the broader social and cultural values (like merit) that have underlain their rise in America. Closely associated with this growing defensiveness is an increased focus on internal issues, especially questions of group solidarity and group survival.
The most striking illustration of this inward turn can be seen in the dynamism of Orthodoxy—the only branch of Judaism, as Jack Wertheimer has pointed out in these pages, that is experiencing natural growth.1 But the perceived breakdown in societal morality and of once-widespread educational norms has also affected Reform and Conservative Jews, some of whom are in the process of expanding or setting up their own parochial school systems and drifting, however tentatively, toward more traditional forms of religious practice.
So unmistakable are these particular signs of change that they have even begun to affect the institutions of the organized community, once the very heartland of Jewish liberalism. Last June, James S. Tisch, president of the UJA Federation of New York, and Stephen D. Solender, its executive head, wrote to the Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA), the national umbrella group of religious and civil Jewish agencies, charging that in its routine identification with liberal causes the JCPA was no longer in tune with the views of broad numbers of American Jews. “We are concerned,” the two officials declared, “that JCPA’s public position on such issues as affirmative action, school vouchers, universal health care, and quality affordable housing no longer represent how many in our community believe the Jewish community’s positions ought to be represented.” Five weeks later, the president of the Jewish federation of metropolitan Chicago chimed in, warning the JCPA that changes were in order “before matters get even worse.” It has been a long time since such frankly ideological grumblings have risen to the surface of Jewish organizational life.
What all this means is that politically Jews are becoming more like other Americans who share their social and economic profile—and also, be it said, somewhat more like American Jews of the pre-New Deal era, before the wholesale shift of the community into the liberal-Democratic camp. Regardless of party affiliation, Jews today are increasingly willing to give their support to politicians who adopt conservative positions on public issues, at least so long as this does not preclude a “moderate” stance on such bellwether issues for Jews as immigration, abortion, gay rights, and the separation of church and state.
This last caveat is crucial. Last December, Frank Luntz, a top Republican pollster, opined to a Jewish policy group that, historically, Republicans had erred in demonstrating “too much anger and not enough heart for the typical Jewish voter.” The way to address Jewish concerns on this score, Luntz seemed to be suggesting, was through the rhetoric of “compassionate conservatism” being espoused by Governor George W. Bush.
Style, however, is only part of the problem. The AJC’s 1999 survey indicates that Jews continue to have doubts about how they are perceived by their neighbors. Indeed, despite the place they have won in American society, they feel that anti-Semitism is still the greatest problem facing them today. They are thus clearly turned off not only by efforts on the part of Christian evangelical groups to proselytize among them but even by such gestures as Governor Bush’s having named Jesus Christ as his favorite philosopher, to say nothing of his effort to keep Patrick J. Buchanan within the GOP fold.
Whether this means that more Jews might be drawn to a maverick candidate along the lines of Senator John McCain is an open question. But it does serve to remind us not only of the rather eclectic nature of the new Jewish conservatism (it is hard, for example, to imagine Jews in any number voting for a conservative like Trent Lott) but of the extent to which American conservatism itself is in a fluid state and up for redefinition. Perhaps for that very reason, the most intriguing litmus test of the changing Jewish political profile may turn out to be not the 2000 presidential contest but the senatorial race in New York between Hillary Clinton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, which pits a woman who embodies many of the classical liberal ideas to which American Jews have long pledged their allegiance against a man who expresses most saliently the particular combination of new ideas with which many of those same American Jews have recently become more comfortable.
Four years ago, in another attempt to take the political temperature of the American Jewish community, the sociologist Earl Raab wrote that if you scratch an American Jew, you will find, as ever, a Democratic voter—but that “if you scratch somewhat deeper, you will not always find a liberal.”2 His words carry still greater force today, when, at least at the local level, you are also decreasingly likely to find a Democratic voter. Where we go from here remains to be seen.
1 “The Orthodox Moment,” COMMENTARY, February 1999.
2 “Are American Jews Still Liberal?,” COMMENTARY, February 1996.