Home / News / LocalRSS Feed
Does Jewish observance determine your vote?
October 29th, 2008
Is Judaism liberal or conservative? Is God a Democrat or a Republican? How would Moses, or Moses Maimonides, vote in the 2008 election for U.S. president and other national and state offices?
Should U.S. Jews vote from purely communal self-interest and values, feeling that we are supposed to be “a people that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9)?
Or shall we vote from a more universal perspective, as in “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Malachi 2:10).
These may sound like frivolous or even satirical questions, but they actually point to an observed reality — namely, that a Jew’s kind of religious observance and belief often correlates with how that Jew will vote in elections.
“If you look at the poll data coming out, the Orthodox community is certainly more Republican than the Reform community in all the polls I’ve seen,” Jonathan Sarna told The Chronicle in a telephone interview on Oct. 20. Sarna is professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and author of a celebrated history of “American Judaism.”
Indeed, as Sarna wrote in an article for the Boston Globe just before the 2004 presidential election, an American Jewish Committee poll then found that 60 percent of Orthodox Jewish voters said they would support incumbent President George W. Bush.
And after that election, articles came out with titles like “The End of the ‘Jewish Vote.’” Authors of such articles contended that the Jewish community is no longer monolithically Democratic, as it has tended to be since at least the 1930s, but now increasingly resembles American Christians in correlations of religious observance and voting. Why should this be?
Principles and interests
The great American satirist and journalist Ambrose Bierce in his “The Devil’s Dictionary” cynically defined politics as, “A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”
But observers interviewed by The Chronicle cited principles and interests as factors and reasons in the correlation between the level of Jewish observance and voting.
Milwaukeen Rabbi Avner Zarmi is Midwest regional vice president of Agudath Israel of America. This Orthodox organization is non-profit, does not endorse candidates and, Zarmi said, works with both major parties. But it does take predominantly conservative positions on issues when it lobbies and files friend-of-the-court briefs.
“The fact of the matter is that the Democratic Party is far to the left of anything resembling Torah values,” Zarmi told The Chronicle in a telephone interview Oct. 20.
“Take, for example, the issue of abortion,” he continued. In Jewish law, unrestricted abortion “is not precisely murder, but it comes close” and “we cannot believe people have a right to choose abortion any more than they have a right to choose any other example of moral turpitude.”
“To anybody with traditional values,” Zarmi said, “if there is something the Torah doesn’t want done, it probably is not a good idea for us to be in favor of it or of broadly permitting it.”
Zarmi then pointed out two issues that might be considered less matters of value than of interest. “We send our children to private schools,” he said. “So the rank hostility of many Democratic candidates to any [tax-funded] relief to parents who don’t use the public school system is another source of contention.”
Finally, there is “the war against Muslim terrorism,” said Zarmi. “It just doesn’t seem that the Democratic Party is as serious about prosecuting this war as a war. I keep hearing things about ‘police actions.’”
From a Reform perspective, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch also cited a combination of principles and interests. He is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Madison and husband of Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, director of clergy programming for the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
“Someone wiser than me said that the way to a stronger Israel is a stronger America,” Biatch said in a telephone interview Oct. 20. And the way to make America stronger is “through all constitutional pathways,” like enforcing separation of church and state and “ensuring that all minority groups are treated fairly” and making “everybody freer.”
As we strive for equality for others, we make ourselves more free as well,” he said.
For example, when the liberal members of the Jewish community advocate for the rights of homosexuals, that not only increases the overall freedom in our culture, but “we have homosexual members [in the Jewish community], and that makes it incumbent for us to fight for their civil rights,” said Biatch.
Perhaps these combinations of principles and interest could be said to constitute what Milwaukeean Mordecai Lee called “the sociology of the theology” of the religious movements.
Lee is a former Democratic state senator and former executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations who is now professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
“I think the sociology is as important as the theology,” Lee told The Chronicle in a telephone interview Oct. 20. “Jewish fundamentalism like all fundamentalism is triumphalist: ‘Our side is the one that’s right. Everybody else is wrong.’
“The more progressive religious movements are more pluralist: ‘I’m OK, you’re OK; live and let live.’ The sociology of the theology reflects the ideology of the two major political parties.”
Nevertheless, the Orthodox community constitutes “no more than 10 or 12 percent” of the U.S. Jewish community, said Sarna. “Consequently I do not think we’re going to see a massive move toward the Republicans” in the coming elections.
“My sense,” Sarna continued, “is that when all the votes are counted, 65 to 70 percent of the Jewish community will vote Democratic.”
Zarmi pointed out that the Orthodox community itself is not monolithic in tending to vote for Republican or conservative candidates. The states of New York and New Jersey, which have between them “the largest Orthodox community in the country,” have tended to vote for Democrats at least in local elections, he said.