The recent political debates that have roiled the Jewish community — on President Trump, on Israel, on the Iran nuclear deal — have broken down neatly between Reform/Conservative Jews and their Orthodox brethren. One side has hewed more or less to Democratic Party orthodoxy, the other to Republican.
But that picture may be too black-and-white, as evidenced by a new study on the political leanings of American religious leaders. The Orthodox community, in fact, may be more politically diverse than many previously believed, though younger Orthodox rabbis appear to be increasingly tending rightward.
Compared to Reform and Conservative synagogues, Orthodox synagogues are more politically diverse
Eitan Hersh, assistant professor of political science at Yale University, and Gabrielle Malina, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, found that while approximately 60 percent of Orthodox rabbis are registered Democrats, close to 47 percent of Orthodox congregants are Democrats. Compared to Reform and Conservative synagogues, where congregants are approximately 80 percent and 65 percent Democrats, respectively, Orthodox synagogues are more politically diverse.
“When they talk about Israel, when they talk about politics in general, they have a fairly diverse crowd,” says co-author Eitan Hersh of Orthodox rabbis. “A rabbi’s bosses are really a board of directors at a synagogue, so I think rabbis are particularly careful about how far they’d want to veer from the politics of their community.”
While approximately 75 percent of Orthodox rabbis over 50 are Democrats, about 60 percent of Orthodox rabbis under 50 are Republicans. “I think if you hung out at YU [Yeshiva University] today, you would see a lot more Republican affinities than you would 30 years ago,” said Hersh.Hersh found a large difference between the political leanings of Orthodox rabbis over 50 and those of their younger colleagues. In their sample of rabbis of Orthodox Union-member congregations, “the overwhelming majority of the older ones are Democrats, the clear majority of the younger ones are Republican,” said Hersh.
While approximately 75 percent of Orthodox rabbis over 50 are Democrats, about 60 percent of Orthodox rabbis under 50 are Republicans.
The data on Orthodox rabbis comes from the Orthodox Union, so it does not include left-leaning Orthodox synagogues or yeshivish or chasidic synagogues. Other data came from denominations’ websites, matched with public voter registration records, along with the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a survey administered by YouGov/Polimetrix.
Hersh suspects that the Orthodox community’s move to the right politically has to do with Israel. He says that Orthodox congregants tend to hold “a traditional right-wing position on Israel, which in recent years has been more closely associated with the Republican Party.” This position on Israel, when held along with more liberal views on social issues, creates “cross-pressure,” a political science term for holding dissonant views on different issues, making it difficult to vote on a party line.
In the most recent presidential election, a poll conducted by GBA strategies and positioned by J Street found that 70 percent of Jewish voters backed Hillary Clinton, with 25 percent supporting Trump. While a majority of Jews across all denominations voted for Clinton, the margin was significantly smaller among Orthodox Jews than among Reform or Conservative Jews. Among Reform Jews, 76 percent voted for Clinton and 21 percent voted for Trump, with 71 percent Conservative Jews voting for Clinton and 25 percent for Trump. Among Orthodox Jews, 56 percent voted for Clinton, while 39 percent voted for Trump.