Matthew Rozsa explores the divided politics of the American Jewish community.
Although I recall a great deal about the day I was nearly murdered, my conscious memory has suppressed the few minutes during which my head was held under water and my 6th grade classmates chanted “Drown the Jew!” Like a scratched DVD, it skips from the moment right before I was dunked to my immediate reaction after being pulled out of the water by my best friend’s older brother. Arms flailing violently, I landed indiscriminate blows on whoever was in arm’s reach—including the man who saved my life—before rushing ashore to gulp down air and vomit up mud.
As the American Jewish community reacts to the terrorist attack in Paris, many of them are feeling a primordial panic very similar to what I experienced as a twelve-year-old boy. It isn’t simply that some of the same Islamofascists who shot up Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday deliberately chose a Jewish supermarket as the location of their last stand, ultimately leading in the deaths of 4 hostages. Even those of us who don’t follow current events are familiar with the millennia of persecution that our co-religionists have endured, culminating in a Holocaust that claimed six million Jewish lives as part of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution.” To fully appreciate the plight facing American Jews in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it is essential to understand that we live in a world where millions of people have marked us as targets of hatred, or even violence, simply because we are Jewish. The state of nonstop existential peril felt among Jews everywhere as a result accounts for the two greatest challenges faced by the American Jewish community in this century – one involving our political character, the other our very survival.
For most of American history, Jews have been disproportionately associated with the political left, from their conspicuous involvement trade unionism and the civil rights movement to the fact that a plurality have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1924. As Jay Michaelson of The Jewish Daily Forward put it, “Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders.” Conservative pundit Norman Podhoretz came to a similar conclusion, arguing that for Jews “liberalism has become more than a political outlook. It has for all practical purposes superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right.” A Pew Research poll from 2013 confirmed this, referring to Jews as “among the most strongly liberal, Democratic groups in U.S. politics.”
Clashing with this traditional Jewish progressivism, however, is the stark reality that global anti-Semitism is currently on the rise. Last year, an in-depth Anti-Defamation League survey of more than 100 countries found that 26 percent of the people polled held anti-Semitic beliefs. French Jews alone have seen anti-Semitic hate crimes double over the past year; hate speech targeted against Israelis and Jews online has undergone a similarly dramatic increase; explicitly anti-Semitic political parties have been gaining power from Greece to Hungary; and a 2013 survey by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that almost a third of Europe’s Jews have considered emigrating because of anti-Semitism. Not coincidentally, 2014 saw the largest spike in Jewish immigration to Israel in ten years.
At first glance, the tenets of political liberalism would seem entirely consistent with opposition to the anti-Semitism that has been breaking out all over Europe (much of which has originated from the political right, such as in Greece and Hungary). That said, while liberals do overwhelmingly oppose European anti-Semitism, they have been much more likely than conservatives to hold unfavorable views toward Israel since the 1970s. By building settlements into Palestinian territory, engaging in military campaigns that lead to extraordinarily high loss of Palestinian life, and generally treating Palestinians like second-class citizens, Israel’s behavior is the type of thing that American Jews would have been historically predisposed to oppose … had it been perpetrated by any other country.
This most likely explains why Jewish support for Barack Obama fell from 78% in 2008 to 69% in 2012 (the lowest share received by any Democrat since Michael Dukakis) with Jews showing unprecedented support for Republicans congressional candidates (33%) in the most recent midterm elections. To the extent that polls indicate the reason for the drop off, it appears to be because of Obama’s comparatively harsher stances toward Israel. Indeed, while Jews on average voted 80% for Democrats in the thirty-six years after Franklin Roosevelt’s first election in 1932, that number fell to an average of 70% in the forty years since the nomination of George McGovern – the first Democratic presidential candidate to be outspokenly critical of Israel – since his nomination in 1972. Although a 2013 Pew Research poll found Jews were critical of certain Israeli policies, they overall remained overwhelmingly supportive of Israel, particularly when compared to other liberals.
This is because, for all of Israel’s faults, anti-Semitism like that displayed against the Parisian Jews during the Charlie Hebdo shootings trigger an entirely human fear – namely, that you will be threatened by oppression and violence because of your heritage. Contrary to popular prejudices, Jews do not secretly control the world or support Israel out of dual loyalties, and they did not fake the Holocaust or create wars in the Middle East for profit. When Israelis undergo a sharp rightward shift in their politics and, at the end of the day, receive the support of American Jews, it is because they are acting like any group of people which has been persecuted in the past and is continuing to experience it at present. While this doesn’t justify Jewish double-standards when it comes to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the fact that it is understandable and valid should be a prominent part of the conversation.