Whatever their connotations may be, the words “liberal” and “Jew” have often been paired together, and with reason.
“Jews are among the most strongly liberal, Democratic groups in U.S. politics,” said the Pew Research Center report “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” that was released on Oct. 1. “There are more than twice as many self-identified Jewish liberals as conservatives, while among the general public, this balance is nearly reversed.” (See sidebar.)
Yet politically conservative Jews do exist, and several in Wisconsin were willing to state their reasons why they take that position in contrast to the majority of the Jewish community.
“Among the most fundamental conservative values is that morality is universal,” said Jim Beer of Fox Point. “Liberals would say morality is relative to the individual, culture or racial/ethnic group.
“The conservative will look to the individual for the source of good and evil whereas the left will see society, racism or poverty. We see crime as being caused by bad character. The left sees it as being caused by racism or poverty.”
“The left tend to come to their positions by their feelings, while people to the right tend to look at results and behavior, which is very Jewish,” Beer said. “Behavior is more important than feelings.”
Howard Stern of Whitefish Bay agreed. “Conservatives tend to be more pragmatic, factual based, while liberals tend to look at issues from a more emotional perspective,” he said. “Emotionalism can make it difficult to see the unintended consequences of your intentions.”
“For example,” he continued, “the War on Poverty that began in the 1960s was well intended, and our government has spent billions to solve the problem through welfare, but we have not decreased the level of poverty.
“Conservatives care as much as liberals about this issue, but we believe the private economy should have incentives to create more jobs and enlarge the pie for everyone. This would reduce the need for welfare, although we do believe there should be a government funded safety net for those truly in need.”
“The welfare system has destroyed families and set many of our communities backwards,” Stern contended, “yet the liberal agenda continues to push for more welfare. There are many in our country that truly need charity, but consistent with the Jewish value of tzedakah (charity), this should come from the individual and not government-funded welfare.”
Stern and Beer also denounced stereotyped images of conservatives. “The biggest misunderstanding is that conservatives are mean, don’t care about the poor, don’t care about the less fortunate,” said Stern. “That is just untrue.”
“The left see themselves as kind and compassionate, which they are,” said Beer, “but they see conservatives only about themselves and money.”
Nevertheless, Beer continued, “conservatives volunteer more time and money, because when the Bible says we need to take care of widow and the poor, it is saying that it is each of our obligation to do that, not the government’s.
“Before government took over that responsibility, people took care of each other well. Jewish organizations would band together and care for the poor. It was a shanda (shame) to be on the government dole, not just for the poor person but for the community. We are supposed to take care of each other.”
Leah Robbins of Milwaukee’s East Side said she made a political journey from liberal to conservative.
“The things I felt as a liberal, I now believe as a conservative: tolerance to other people’s views, open-mindedness, respect for other’s opinions,” she said. “I don’t find that on the liberal side anymore.
“I find conservatives more open to solutions and new ideas. Liberals seem to view anyone conservative as automatically evil. It’s not that you disagree with me, or you think my ideas are wrong, you think I’m evil, that there’s something inherently evil about conservatism. People should be judged by their actions, and results, not by a D or R next to their name.”
Mark Laufman of Madison considers himself a fiscal conservative and a social moderate.
“Since I manage money [for a living] I understand if we have too much debt, interest rates will go up,” Laufman said. “It will hurt the economy, and once the economy is hurt, you can’t take care of poor people. The Democrats have taken on spending without being fiscally responsible.”
Robbins also said she became conservative because it jibed with Judaism’s emphasis on personal responsibility.
“In Torah, even poor people give tzedakah,” she said. “If you’re given tzedakah, you have an obligation to give tzedakah from your tzedakah. It’s never this learned helplessness which is horrific and destructive, and it sends people a message that they can’t do any better.”
And the issue is not just poverty. “We don’t hold people accountable for their actions,” Robbins said. “Look at Milwaukee, the state of our city… Teen pregnancy, high unemployment, inner city killings, it’s all either not better or gotten worse, and [a liberal administration] will continue to get reelected because there’s no accountability for a liberal Democratic politician. I think a lot of conservatives have just thrown up their hands in frustration, knowing there are solutions, but not having a voice to help solve them.”
Robbins holds both Israeli and American citizenship. She also contends that conservatives are better supporters of Israel.
“There is a false morality out there [among liberals] that Israel shouldn’t defend itself,” Robbins said. “There is the idea of moral equivalency, that somewhere along the line, that the terrorist has a voice, or an opinion.
“When you walk into a café full of women and children with a suicide bomb, you’ve lost any moral standing or voice that you had. There is no moral equivalency between Israel defending itself against rockets sent into schoolyards, and those that shoot the rockets. Suicide bombers are evil. We’ve lost our ability to say what’s right and wrong and it’s not healthy.”
Laufman said he works with politicians to help foster American/Israeli relations and has traveled to Israel with members of Congress. He also believes that conservatives and Republicans are better friends of Israel than liberals and Democrats.
“I was [Wisconsin Republican Gov.] Tommy Thompson’s finance chair, and Tommy was a wonderful supporter of Israel,” he said. “In this state [of Wisconsin] we don’t have anyone we can call that are Democrats. … These people should get phone calls and the liberal Jews don’t do it, and not only that, they write negative things about Israel all the time.”
Beer said it was what he perceived as the different liberal and conservative attitudes toward Israel that made him change from liberal to conservative.
“My parents were from Europe and my mother was a Holocaust survivor, and as a kid it scared me,” Beer said. This led to misgivings about Judaism and Israel. “I toed the leftist line that Israel was to blame, and I felt embarrassed about Israel.”
Then the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the U.S. occurred, then the Second Intifada (Palestinian Arab uprising) happened in the Israel administered territories, “and the whole world was blaming Israel,” said Beer. “That was the tipping point for me.
“There’s no greater example of a decent society versus a depraved society than is typified by Israel and its enemies. Clearly conservatives are stronger supporters of Israel.”
Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer. His website is Joshuabecker.info.