Ruth Messinger recalled a time, before she became Manhattan borough president, before she ran for mayor in 1997, when New York’s ethnic politics were relatively simple. “For probably 80 to 100 years, there was a simple mantra” for the three citywide seats — mayor, comptroller and council president: “One had to be Irish, one had to be Italian and one had to be Jewish.”
The city’s diversity has exploded that mantra, even when it comes to the Jewish community. As Messinger explained last week on a panel on “Jewish Political Power in New York,” no one candidate today could represent the “Jewish vote,” which ranges from New York Times-reading liberals on the Upper West Side to the Brooklyn Orthodox Jews who went for Donald Trump, and everything in between.
Or as State Senator Liz Krueger, a Democrat representing Manhattan’s East Side, put it: “When I say ‘the Jewish community’ to other legislators, they say ‘Oh — the Israel issue or the Orthodox issue?’ and I say, ‘No, I mean the giant Jewish population of incredible diversity of opinion spread out all across New York City.’”
Last Friday’s panel was organized by the New York Jewish Agenda, a group formed in March to represent what president and co-founder Matt Nosanchuk called the Jewish “liberal mainstream” – perhaps the stereotypical New York Jewish constituency before a concerted erosion of the bloc on the right and the left.
The Orthodox ascendancy, which drew wide public attention during a pandemic that coincided with a polarizing election, is probably better known than the left-wing challenge. But younger progressive Jews have grown impatient with what panelist Stu Loeser – a consultant who most recently helped Mike Bloomberg in his presidential bid – called the “New York Times reader, the NPR listener.” Messinger gave a shout-out to The Jewish Vote, a sister organization of Jews For Racial and Economic Justice, whose politics are more closely aligned with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than old-guard Democratic pols like the outgoing Eliot Engel and Nita Lowey.
And the intra-Jewish diversity doesn’t stop there. Loeser ticked off the phyla: “The charedim, the chasdim, the yeshivish Jews, the Modern Orthodox, the Syrian Jews, the Mizrachi and the Russian Jews are meaningfully different than other Jewish voters,” he said.
Such Jews, he noted, not only live in different neighborhoods but often in different media ecosystems. Charedim get their news from newspapers like Hamodia and Yated Ne’eman, the Yiddish press and Nahum Segal’s popular Jewish radio show. That being said, even among the charedi Orthodox, “they are really segmented and different.” Orthodox voters may have been down with Trump, but notwithstanding their “complicated history” with Muslims tend to be more welcoming of immigrants. Younger voters may not agree with their elders on a range of issues.
The panelists – who also included lobbyist Suri Kasirer and Brooklyn City Councilman Stephen Levin – told war stories of politicians misunderstanding the Jewish vote, usually because they made unfounded assumptions. Kasirer recalled Gov. Mario Cuomo’s amazement when the large Jewish defense organizations came out hard against his plan to boost public support for special education in Kiryas Joel, the Satmar stronghold in Rockland County. “It was very hard to explain how people thought the separation of church and state” could be more of a Jewish value than allowing something that was so important to “a very particular Jewish community,” said Kasirer
And Messinger recalled her days lobbying Washington as president of the American Jewish World Service, and running into members of Congress who assumed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee defined both the Jewish consensus and the Jewish agenda. “They believed that the Jews wanted what AIPAC wanted them to do,” said Messinger. “This was before J Street and some others came along, but they had no idea what their Jewish communities would want in terms of human rights or civil rights.”
The fracturing of the Jewish vote is also making life difficult for the liberal mainstream. Moderator Sally Goldenberg, who has been tracking these fractures as City Hall bureau chief for Politico, asked Krueger about the pro-Palestinian litmus test demanded by the increasingly relevant Democratic Socialists of America. In August, a DSA questionnaire asked City Council candidates to pledge not to travel to Israel as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians.
Krueger, who feels her own progressive credentials are beyond dispute, said she found the questionnaire “shortsighted and dangerous.” She urged progressives — who include, presumably, Jewish supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction movement against Israel — to “think through what the ramifications of these positions are and not seek to shut out such a huge chunk of the American political and voting public. The same for the pro and con on BDS – just stop. You are setting up a fight just for us [progressives] to have a war.”
Panelists had advice for candidates and others seeking to make sense of this political potpourri: Listen. And represent.
Listening means paying attention to what various constituents within and beyond the Jewish community are saying. And representing means introducing non-Jewish politicians and constituents to the diversity of the Jewish community.
“It’s the job of an elected official to know who you are, to know your own backyard but also working in a universe of disparate communities,” said Messinger. “Can you learn to listen? You have to know who you are talking to and find those issues of commonality. When you go into Black and Latinx communities and other communities of color, you have to know what you are doing, and build bridges across lines of difference.”
The segmentation of the ‘Jewish vote’ can be head-spinning not only for political candidates, but for media.
And that sometimes mean standing up for that perhaps endangered Jewish constituency — the mainstream liberal Jew. Krueger said she has sometimes had to explain to colleagues in Albany the obvious: that not all Jews line up with the downstate Orthodox communities – whether the issue is abortion or same-sex marriage. “They need to know that some Jews are coming from a different place,” she said. “I tell them, I’ll find you rabbis who will back me up on this.”
The segmentation of the “Jewish vote” can be head-spinning not only for political candidates, but for media, like this one, that are supposed to make sense of New York Jews. As The Jewish Week thinks about its future, we’ve been asking who we need to be and to whom. Segmentation rankles a lot of our stakeholders, who insist there needs to be a place for a small-c catholic voice that speaks to — and occasionally for — Jews across the spectrum. But it is hard to point to a thriving media property that hasn’t doubled down on reaching a narrow slice of ideologically or religiously aligned readers.
With a mayoral race coming next year, and at least a dozen or so candidates already in the hunt, how we position ourselves to cover the “Jewish vote” becomes more important, to us and the communities we serve. In the meantime, we’re listening.
Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.