President Obama’s recent public willingness to apply pressure on Israel is the latest step down a long road of increasing ideological discomfort for America’s Jewish community. Once upon a time, you could be a typical liberal Jew and be a Zionist without much internal conflict. Israel was the socialist underdog. While Jews still overwhelmingly vote for the Democratic ticket — 78 percent of them voted for Obama — Israel has increasingly become anathema in liberal circles.
Today, Obama will not so much as dine with Benjamin Netanyahu. Campus anti-Israel activity has burgeoned. You don’t need to go to too many debates to see that nearly 100 percent of the non-Muslim/Arabs on the pro-Palestinian side are liberals. Evangelicals love Israel, but the more liberal churches debate divestment. Fifty-four congressmen recently sent a letter to President Obama asking him to pressure Israel to open up Gaza borders, and questioning whether Israel had engaged in collective punishment. All were Democrats.
A working rule, taking Jews and Muslims out of the equation: more liberal = more uncomfortable with Israel. Europe is more liberal than the U.S. Coastal universities are more liberal than the rest of the country. Lutherans are more liberal than Evangelicals. Jimmy Carter is more liberal the George W. Bush. Increasingly, Jews’ Zionism is grating against their overwhelmingly liberal profile. The people who think like us on most other political issues have grown more chilly to Israel. Why?
After the Six-Day War, Israel found itself in power over a stateless and restive people. Israel saved itself in ‘67 and enabled its people to freely pray at the Kotel. And by the same set of events, Israel helped to make itself look to many outsiders like South Africa. To the justice-seeking liberal, there is an oppressor and an oppressed, and Tel Aviv smells like Sun City.
The left and right have also gravitated towards dramatically different responses to 9/11. On the right, the dominant response has been the notion of an irreconcilable clash of civilizations. This approach has found common cause with Israel. On the left, the response to 9/11 has been engagement. Recall Obama’s attempts to have dialogue with the Iranians and his journey to Cairo. To the liberal seeking Muslim engagement, Israel is more an impediment than a natural ally.
Let’s assume that Israel’s trajectory as conservative friend and liberal bogeyman continues. You will likely see the people who consider Israel a life-or-death issue choose Zionism at the expense of their liberalism. This has already begun to happen in dramatic fashion. In 2000, most Orthodox Jews supported Gore. In 2004, 70 percent of the Orthodox supported Bush, and in 2008, 78 percent voted for McCain. (Remarkably, this means that the non-Orthodox Jewish vote for Obama exceeded 85 percent).
Orthodox Jews’ voting has been quicker to change than their party affiliation. According the American Jewish Committee Survey for 2007, more Orthodox identified themselves as Democrats (42 percent) than Republicans (30 percent). It is a good bet that Orthodox party affiliation will trend towards the Republicans as they increasingly value Israel over other issues. If it’s a matter of insuring the survival of the Motherland, how bad is a moment of silence in public schools?
Members of the less ardent Jewish streams will increasingly choose their liberalism over their Zionism. More unaffiliated and Reform Jews in their formative years will simply not get bitten by the Zionism bug. This secular distancing from Israel is well under way. A 2007 study by demographer Steven M. Cohen found that among non-Orthodox Jews under 35, only 54 percent were even “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state,” in contrast to over 80 percent of those older than 65. Amazingly, fewer than half of the non-Orthodox Jews under 35 said that they would consider the destruction of Israel a personal tragedy.
Discomfort with Israel has thrown roadblocks to the formation of attachment to the state by young secular Jews. Increasingly, when they’re walking by the mock separation wall that protestors have built on campus, they will keep on walking. Without some dramatic change in Israel’s status, we will see the rapid continuing “Orthodoxation” of American Zionism. If you want visible proof, go to your nearest Israel Independence Day Parade.
What if Israel doesn’t get its liberal mojo back? While the percentage of Orthodox Jews over 70 years old is considerably less than 10 percent, the percentage under the age of 18 is meaningfully above 20 percent, and doubling every 20 years. Most liberal Jews won’t abandon the Democratic Party until they die. But that’s just what they’re doing. That, and not reproducing at replacement rates, and having children who marry out.
Since the Christian Zionist Evangelicals ascended within the Republican Party, conservatives have been predicting some great Jewish Awakening, where the Hebrews of Hollywood and Boca and Larchmont wake up and suddenly leap into the hands of the Zionist Republicans. It’s not going to happen like that, because liberal Jews cannot get over their revulsion for “W” and Sarah Palin.
But the Orthodox have shifted to the Republicans, and they have every demographic metric on their side. This change will take many years to play out. Obama will likely win a majority of the Jewish vote in 2012. But the continuation of these trends will ultimately have a powerful impact on the political character of the American Jewish population.
Brett Cohen is president of JGB Management, an investment firm.
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