The story is told of
the 19th-century Hebrew author, Y.L. Gordon, who paid a call on
Leopold Zunz, the grand guru of 19th-century Wissenschaft—Wissenschaft
des Judentums. Zunz asked Yalag, "What do you do?" "I'm a Hebrew poet." "Oh?
When did you live?"
instructive story. The story tells us much about the baggage that used to be
carried around by Jews, maybe in some cases yet is, in our encounters. While
there has always been a healthy mixture of history and memory in how Jews
parse the agenda, few Jews in the first decade of the 21st-century
would give Leopold Zunz's response. When it comes to the public-affairs
agenda, American Jews are interested in the future of the Jewish past.
What are the
stories in the 2004 election for the American Jewish community?
First, what does
the Jewish community look like? How many Jews are there? Who cares?
Any Jew who is not living in a coal mine in New
Zealand is aware of the Sturm und Drang surrounding the counting of
American Jews. What's the problem with counting Jews? Like any other people,
you count up births, you count up deaths, and—voila!—you have a
number. The fact is you don't. No, you have bupkes.
wants to be put in the position of determining the answer to that most
sensitive question in contemporary Jewish life: Who is a Jew? Marketers have
created any number—seven or eight—of Jewish identity constructs: individuals
of Jewish parentage, religion Jewish, Jews by choice (English translation:
converts into Judaism); the list is endless and spread wide.
Jewish Population Survey, using similar numbers, estimated anywhere between
5.5 million and 6.84 million in 1990 and from 5.2 million to seven million
in 2000. Other estimates figured fewer than four million and up to eight
million. Nobody wants to say who is a Jew.
observation about the demographics—one of the salient questions for the
American Jewry is that of population growth. The American Jewish community,
generally speaking, is way below zero population growth, with a birth rate
of about a half child per family.
What do American
Jews think about issues? To quote Milton Himmelfarb's old saw, "Jews earn
like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans." The English translation:
Jews have traditionally voted Democratic.
formulation of the classic positioning of American Jews bears some scrutiny.
Yes, Jews have traditionally voted for Democratic candidates; and yes, Jews'
support of a social-and-economic-justice agenda has often run counter to
their economic interest. Their primary motivation has been the Jewish
tradition of social responsibility and concerns for Jewish security.
Does this trend yet pertain? Recent data suggest
that the answer is a forthright "Maybe." On the one hand, according to the
authoritative AJC's 2002 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, Jews are
much more likely to describe themselves as liberal than as conservative.
On the other
hand, recent exit polling suggests that in national elections the Jewish
flavor may be increasingly Republican. Three things have kept Jews from
voting Republican in the recent past. First is residual loyalty to a
social-economic-justice agenda. Second is strong support on the part of most
Democratic administrations for the State of Israel, going back to JFK. Third
is the alliance of Evangelicals and Republicans.
course, the antipathy toward Evangelicals comes up against Evangelical
support of Israel, whatever motivates that support.
On the third
hand, when asked about their views on public-policy issues, Jews’ responses
to the classic indicators—church-state separation, reproductive choice—fall
squarely in the liberal column. A notable exception is the death penalty—a
majority of Jews continue to support capital punishment.
there appears to be some softening of the traditional liberal Jewish
position. Immigration has turned from a civil rights issue into a security
issue in the post September 11 world. Today, the Jewish grassroots,
traditionally strong on immigration, has become more conservative than the
Jewish organizations that represent them on this issue. American Jews are a
second, third, fourth and fifth generation community—very far removed from
those who got off the boat. The issue was once crucial for American Jews. In
the 1950s it was the Jewish community that played a leading role in
immigration reform. The post September 11 world of 2003 is not the world of
The September 11
dynamic is crucial in another area—civil liberties. While American Jews,
both on the street and in the organizations, still express strong support
for civil liberties protections, Jewish groups have been tweaking their
traditional stances in this arena. Re-examination is too strong a word;
recalibration is what is happening.
Another item on
the domestic agenda—again small, but very important—growing out of the
findings of the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population authorities is the
aging of the Jewish community. How old are we? We are really old. Jewish
voters will be looking toward the party that has care for the elderly,
prescription drugs, and those kind of issues on the platform and the
candidates who articulate these concerns.
It is in the
church-state area that the culture wars within the Jewish community are most
dramatically played out. The endogenous agenda has resulted in an increased
emphasis on Jewish education. This plays out in calls for vouchers for
parents sending their children to Jewish day schools and other such measures
of questionable constitutionality. Many feel that in an era when Jewish
continuity is the priority for American Jews, Jewish education must have
priority over church-state concerns.
that vouchers are a quick fix, appropriate for the 6:00 news, but they mask
the real problem—the reluctance of Jewish Federations and other funding arms
to look at the hard question of reallocations.
Another arena in
which these culture wars are being played out is the candidacy of Joe
Lieberman. Lieberman, a Democrat, has adopted a number of positions in the
constitutional arena that are giving unreconstructed liberals heartburn.
Most Jews still oppose charitable-choice and voucher programs, for example,
but the story is one of growing polarization between Jews often—not always,
but often—along an Orthodox/heterodox divide. This is a candidate who has
placed his Orthodox Judaism front and center (which plays very well with
many religious Christians).
That is good
news with respect to Jews in this society. There is no end to the surveys
that show that Americans, when asked, “Do you have any problem voting for a
Jewish president?” overwhelmingly—over 90 percent—say No. And I believe
them. The bad news is that Senator Lieberman has chosen to fish in some very
Here is a
question for reporters. Unless I'm missing something, I have not seen any
big "Jews for Lieberman" campaign out there. Is Lieberman taking the Jewish
vote for granted, or is the opposite the case? It's something that I would
like to know about.
On the obverse
side of the coin, does George Bush feel aware of Jewish voters? And to what
I am not going
to talk about the issues on the Israel agenda. But, Christian
fundamentalists’ support for Israel illustrates a larger issue of
The last time I
participated in a discussion here at the Greenberg Center, I gave the
following definition of interreligious relationships: Interreligious
relationships are an unnatural act engaged in by partially-consenting adults
following an open prayer. The issue has been dramatically illustrated during
the past few months by the support of Israel by Christian Fundamentalists.
In its barest
form, the question is: Ought American Jews make common cause with
Fundamentalist Protestants around their support for Israel, even as (A) such
support is based on highly dubious and perhaps unfriendly theological
grounds from a Jewish perspective and (B) Jews part company radically with
Fundamentalists on virtually every other issue on the public affairs agenda.
This question is
illustrative of a larger matter—in this case, the progress that has been
made in interreligious relationships over the past four decades. Take the
difference between Fundamentalist-Jewish and Catholic-Jewish relations.
Catholics have traveled many miles down many roads in the years since
Vatican II. Whatever the fault-lines in the relationship, those fault lines
are not deep fissures. There is a formal acceptance on the part of the
Catholic Church of the legitimacy of Jews as a discrete faith community.
protestations to the contrary, there is no clarity or assurance that such is
the case with respect to many of the fundamentalist communities, for whom
conversion of Jews remains at the forefront of the agenda.
In terms of advocacy,
there is a lot of grass-roots advocacy on every issue, at every level in the
Jewish community. The structure of the Jewish community is informed by
American pluralism and federalism, and there are many different voices. This
is the strength of the community, but a problem for journalists. There is no
central hierarchical structure like the United States Conference of Catholic
Some groups are
shooting for that level of influence—arrogating to themselves powers that
their founders never intended. We all go to the Presidents Conference for
quotes and sound bites. But the mandate of the Presidents Conference is to
carry the message of the American Jewish community on Israel to the
administration, period. It's not a policy-making body. However, in recent
years the Presidents Conference, under very aggressive leadership, has begun
to represent itself as coordinator of policy and the official voice of
America's Jews, which it is not. [Part of the problem, in terms of
presenting the story, is that journalists traditionally go to a couple of
people they love and who have traditionally represented, with some
exceptions, more hard line positions, and more nuanced views simply don't
American Jews are a
product of and vehicle for pluralism. Conventional wisdom has it that the
community is disorganized, with multiple organizations expressing themselves
raucously in a cacophonous cluster of voices. The American Jewish polity
speaks with many voices. The Jewish community is not in a danger of being
organized. Most Jews in America do not concede to any one organization the
right to express their views. They'll look to any number of organizations.
I keep in my Rolodex
three or four legal directors of the national Jewish organizations and the
telephone number of the associate director of the Jewish Council for Public
Affairs. Personally I get more knowledge from these guys.