The national anger found among the electorate concerns the economy, jobs, health care reform and foreign policy. In addition to recent primary victories around the country by Tea Party candidates, several national polls point to the depth of the public’s anger. A Fox News Poll from June noted that 83 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Independents expressed dissatisfaction with the direction of the nation; in addition, 43 percent of Democrats expressed similar unhappiness with where the country is headed. Similarly, in the Rasmussen Reports published earlier this year, 71 percent of Americans were identified as being “angry at the federal government.”
American Jews are angry as well. Some have suggested that this response could be labeled as a contemporary version of the Maccabees — namely a revolt against the existing order. A number of reasons can be offered to explain this new phenomenon.
Many Jews are upset over how Israel has been depicted by governments, commentators and press reports. Others reflect the concerns that millions of Americans have over the domestic agenda and the economic crisis. Some within the Jewish community have directed their disappointment over these and other matters at President Obama. Still others remain angry over the Madoff affair and its impact in undermining the Jewish communal system and the economic well-being of thousands of families. Certainly, Jews are concerned over the rise of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities on college campuses, across Europe and throughout the Middle East.
A Jewish political backlash, not unlike the Tea Party movement, has begun to emerge. There is growing momentum to mobilize support for Israel among the electorate and to hold politicians accountable for their commitment to the Jewish state. Clearly, some of this discontent is being directed against other Jews who hold views on Israel that align with Peace Now and J Street or other center-left groups. The positions espoused by these dovish groups are interpreted by the Jewish right as giving aid to Israel’s enemies and adding fuel to the negative image of the Jewish state around the world. Activists on the right have in effect created an Israel loyalty test that defines and measures one’s credentials as a pro-Israel advocate; the expression of nuanced positions on Israel has given way to a more definitive expectation of support.
As the divisions sharpen within the community, we are seeing a radicalization of the Jewish political right. At the same time, the Jewish liberal sector is disengaging from the Israel discourse. Of equal concern are those on the left who feel Israel has lost its moral compass. They, in turn, have abandoned their role as defenders of the Jewish state, preferring to align themselves with Israel’s most outspoken critics.
The once-understood communal principle of governing by consensus has given way to ideological clashes that have split the community.
The emerging cohort of angry Jewish activists has taken on the political characteristics of “red-state voters.” They have done this through their support of single-issue concerns, a values-based and at times a faith-defined political agenda, and a specific hard-line position on American security and military defense issues. These Jewish voters have opted to support candidates who more definitively support their policy views and who in turn question the current state of American democracy and politics. In particular, this group has sought to critique the Obama administration for what it perceives as its less than full support of Israel within the international community.
The divisions that now define American Jewish voting patterns are framed by a number of elements. The presence of a new generation of voters includes a significant Orthodox cohort, along with a growing presence of Russian, Iranian and Israeli activists, who generally reflect a more conservative political bent. An emerging base of support on the right can now be found among male baby boomers (55-64), whose voting patterns have increasingly trended right. This political transition is particularly significant among Jewish voters, as this age-cohort dominates the Jewish population-base. Not only worried about their own economic status, this constituency is deeply concerned by what it sees as eroding support for Israel. These trends have been confirmed by recent polls that show a shift of party loyalties among certain Jewish constituencies.
However, a more significant political transformation may be in play. As American Jews have assimilated into the mainstream of this nation’s religious and cultural life, they may be taking on the political characteristics of that mainstream. If “liberalism” and the politics of the left were seen as a representation of an earlier expression of Americanism and as a bridge from the community’s immigrant status to its integration into the mainstream, then today, for some Jews, this engagement with the Republican Party and conservative politics may be understood as a natural transition.
Dr. Steven Windmueller serves as the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus.