There’s an old saw in American politics, usually attributed to the sociologist Milton Himmelfarb, that goes like this: “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” That comment, made a generation ago when Episcopalians were a symbol of American power and wealth, indicated that Jews, by and large supporters of liberal causes, often voted against their economic interests.
In analyzing the 2012 vote, I’ve come up with a twist on Himmelfarb, this one about Orthodox Jews: “Orthodox Jews live like Puerto Ricans and vote like billionaires.”
That is my conclusion after studying the fascinating precinct-by-precinct analysis of voting in New York City published in The New York Times. The Times ran a map that showed the five boroughs awash in blue, demonstrating how President Barack Obama swept the city in his epic battle with Gov. Mitt Romney. Obama beat Romney by a whopping 81 percent to 18 percent in the city.
Among the few tiny specks of red on the map were heavily Orthodox areas, such as Brooklyn’s Borough Park and Williamsburg, and Queens’ Kew Gardens Hills. Michael M. Grynbaum, the author of the Times article, writes: “Take a four-square-block slice of Gravesend, Brooklyn, a warren of high-priced residences dotted with Sephardic temples and yeshivas that happens to be the deepest single bloc of Republican support in all five boroughs. On Election Day, 97 percent of the voters there supported Mr. Romney, who beat Mr. Obama 133 votes to 3.”
There was one other significant area in red on the Times map, and that was in the billionaire precincts of the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue and Trump Tower on Fifth. Grynbaum called it “a tiny island of Romneyville amid Manhattan’s deep, blue-state sea.”
Lest anyone take offense at my Orthodox-Puerto Rican comparison, I’ll hearken back to the 2012 Jewish population survey conducted by UJA-Federation of New York released in June. The survey showed a marked growth in the number of Orthodox Jews in the city and a sharp increase in Jewish poverty rates, especially among chasidic Jews, where a full 43 percent qualify as poor.
It is well known that large majorities of Orthodox Jews retained an antipathy to Obama until the end. Charges that he was a “secret Muslim,” that he had insulted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that he would turn his back on Israel as soon as the election was over could be heard over Kiddush in many Orthodox congregations.
Despite the Orthodox, exit polls indicated that Jews as a whole came out in force for the president. Nationally, he garnered 69 percent of the Jewish vote, which was a strong showing but not as good as he did in 2008 when he got 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
While Jews are small in number, about 2 percent of the population, they emerged as strategic allies of the president in the key swing states of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia, all of which were carried by Obama.
Obama won among the Jews despite the efforts by the Republican Jewish Coalition that put up signs like “Obama… Oy Vey!” in South Florida. He also won despite the best efforts — and $60 million — of Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate. Adelson isn’t Orthodox, but he is a billionaire and a vocal supporter of right-wing political causes in Israel. As has been widely noted, not one of the candidates backed by Adelson won an election, not Newt Gingrich, not Mitt Romney and not Shmuley Boteach.
It is unlikely that Orthodox Jews or billionaires will be mollified by Obama’s recent show of support for Israel. But it is worth taking note of Obama’s comments and actions in the days after his re-election when the Israel Defense Forces mobilized thousands of troops on the Gaza to prepare for a ground invasion.
“We are fully supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself from missiles landing on people’s homes and workplaces and potentially killing civilians. And we will continue to support Israel’s right to defend itself,” he said.
He then dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the region where, working with Netanyahu and President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, she brokered a cease-fire agreement, one that appears to be holding.
With Obama re-elected with a clear mandate, those who oppose him have to think about how they will relate to him in the next four years. That includes Republicans, Israeli rightists and billionaires. Orthodox Jews should do the same.