For many people, “Jewish Republican” sounds like an oxymoron. American Jews, reciting the litany of “we were strangers in a strange land,” have held fast to progressive social policies that echo the spirit of welcoming the stranger, the orphan, the widow. By the 1970s, the still small voice crying out in the wilderness had become the bell ringing in the morning and in the evening, calling out for justice, freedom, and love between our brothers and our sisters all over this land. By and large, it still is.
But a Pew study from a year ago found that American Jewish values are listing ever so slightly to the right. This shift locates itself mainly in Orthodoxy, a small but mighty denomination with the potential, some say, eventually to close in on the Reform and Conservative movements. Reacting to a sense that support for Israel is faltering on the left, many traditional Jews find themselves attracted to the party that claims to stand by Israel like a pillar of fire. The Republican Party’s more conservative social and economic policies may also be appealing.
A startling revelation follows: on social values and support for Israel, Orthodox Jews and Evangelical Christians frequently align, even if on theological matters they stand a million cubits apart. Meanwhile, the traditionally progressive Jews march off in the other direction.
Is this split growing, and is it affecting our fragile sense of Jewish unity? Certainly, the petty politics of memes, tweets, and status updates make it seem so. Party lines are hardening, arguments are deadlocked, and Facebook friends are getting unfriended. “With that hostility, the political debate can sometimes turn into more of a contest to see who can shout the loudest,” says Matt Boxer of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis. “I suspect that when that happens, people have a tendency to pay more attention to the approximately even decibels of the loudest voices on either side as an indicator of where the election is going rather than scientific polling, but that’s a mistake.”
There’s nothing yet to indicate a shift in voting patterns, although the Cohen Center is developing a statistical model for polling Jewish party identification on a local level. Daniel Parmer, a research associate at the Cohen Center who is working on this model, is confident that the vote of “Jews by religion” will land around 54 percent Democrat, 14 percent Republican, and 32 percent other. “There may be a slight increase in the proportion who identify as ‘conservative’ relative to ‘liberal,’” he says. “This doesn’t necessarily translate to a vote for Republicans though.” Republicans in Orthodox enclaves, concentrated in blue states, are unlikely to sway the national vote.
“Then again,” Parmer says, “this election season has flipped the script in many ways, so who’s to say?”