I live in a small conservative town and I am often asked why most Jews vote for the Democrats in nearly all elections. In the last presidential election, an exit poll indicated that over 75% of the Jewish vote was given to Obama. The reasons are complicated , but I will nevertheless give my opinion sprinkled with the facts.
Jewish presence in America can be traced to the Dutch settlement of New York, but a large migration of about 200,000 came from Germany in 1860. Then between 1882 and 1914 approximately 2 million Jewish immigrants, mostly destitute, came from eastern and central Europe and Russia. They were escaping vigorous religious persecution that began before the Crusades, lasted through the Inquisition and continued through 20th century pogroms. Their common goal was to escape tyranny and oppression and find better social conditions.
One can paint a romantic picture of the Jewish immigration from Guggenheim to Gershwin, but the average immigrant did not speak English and had limited vocational skills.
For centuries, in much of Europe and Russia, Jews were forbidden to live in urban areas, prohibited from participating in municipal functions and were relegated to dealing only in used goods. With limited skills, those newcomers to large cities like New York found themselves in low-paying sweatshops primarily in the garment industry.
During this mass immigration to America, Jews in all walks of life experienced anti-Semitism and cultural clashes with their new countrymen. Still no other place on Earth provided the unbridled opportunity and lack of legal or other restrictions against immigrants.
In 1887, the Russians passed a law virtually prohibiting Jewish students from entering the state university system. This changed the profile of the average immigrant and groups of education hungry immigrants arrived, including many with radical social change on their minds. These new arrivals reacted to deplorable working conditions in their new environment and quickly clashed with the American establishment.
Eventually, Jewish Socialists created Jewish trade unions, especially in New York’s garment center. Chief among these was the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, founded in 1900, and later the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America was organized. Both unions were amongst the first labor organizations in America that prohibited racial discrimination.
Shortly after the turn of the last century, Jewish politics in New York became mainstream with the Socialist Party successful in fielding several local candidates. At the time of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, many Jewish immigrants sympathized with the Communist-Socialist movement. After centuries of persecution in Russia, a system designed to be fair and equal to the proletariat held a lot appeal for Jews.
On a national scale socialism faired badly. The American Communist and Socialist Parties never received more than one percent of the vote. As a result, a number of Jewish intellectuals in 1936 joined the New Deal coalition under Franklin Delano Roosevelt, bringing their brand of social democratic politics into the political landscape.
Century-old Socialist legacy
Jewish socialist attitudes toward Jewish identity and culture are often misunderstood. Jewish religious teachings are rife with social equality, charity and sharing–albeit with other Jewish people. American Judaism tends to interpret these tenets as inclusive of all people regardless of religion, ethnicity or race. The liberalism that many American Jews exhibit to this day descends partly from a century-old Socialist legacy.
Jews from Europe and especially Russia came to America without false dreams about returning to their native countries. Assimilation was often difficult and a natural bond was fused with the Democratic Party that professed equality for minorities, the oppressed and the working class. During FDR’s presidency and for a time afterwards, , the infamous “white-shoed” Republicans were strong proponents of prohibiting Jews from entering Ivy League universities, selected country clubs and Wall Street firms. The Republicans of that era were known to be anti-unionists.
Unique from many other immigrant groups, the Jewish American is an American first while at the same time they are also bound by a religious social consciousness that is part of their heritage. In this respect, many prominent Jewish-American personalities view Israel’s actions against the Palestinian Arabs as oppressive, unwarranted and heavy handed.
Jewish Americans often encourage a soft political agenda, which may be construed as anti-Israel or anti-Zionist. Unfortunately, the current world political climate is aggressively anti-Israel and, paradoxically, some in the American Jewish community are supportive of this point of view. This does not lessen the huge amount of individuals and organizations, both Christian and Jewish, that have unwavering support for the state of Israel.
We have all seen political parties morph and evolve and party actions don’t always coincide with their rhetoric. One or more issues may feature prominently in a party’s political platform, but that doesn’t mean the opposition party has the contrary point of view but prioritizes it less.
I rarely find myself at odds with my liberal Jewish friends about social issues. We disagree about the importance of social issues relative to America and Israel’s international security and domestic economic agendas. I believe in the paramount importance of firm international leadership and social transformation will follow naturally. A number of my friends believe political correctness and social tinkering will eventually lead to harmony and world peace.
My concern about Israel is best exemplified by a quote attributed to Benjamin Netanyahu, “If the Arabs put down their weapons today, there would be no more violence. If the Jews put down their weapons today, there would be no more Israel."
Louis B. Kravitz is the president of Paragon Lines, Inc., an international ocean transportation company and he is Chairman Emeritus of KWMV-LPFM, a radio station in Westcliffe, Colorado.