While a perfect storm allowed Republicans to capture NY-9, possibly the most Jewish congressional district in the country, further progress in gaining Jewish support for GOP candidates will require confronting very different mechanisms than simply emphasizing support for Israel.
As best explained in the book Partisan Hearts and Minds, members of both parties have similar stereotypes about what sort of people are in each party, and tend to support the party they associate with “people like them.”
Jews identify as religious minorities and with minorities in general, and as such support the party they associate with minorities. Despite Americans consistently expressing similar levels of favorability towards Jews as Protestants and Catholics, Jews still largely think like oppressed minorities.
This is borne out not only in Jews’ traditional affinity for racial minorities of all kinds (which is of course not a bad thing in itself, and was the source of much heroism in times when other American demographic groups were not nearly as enlightened), but Jews’ high level of affinity for and identification with Muslims. Recent surveys find that Jews are almost as pro-Muslim as American Muslims themselves, and perceive more anti-Muslim discrimination by Americans than actual Muslims do.
The idea that religious minorities must band together against a hostile Christian majority is a key Democratic talking point for maintaining Jewish support. As the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), the leading Democratic Party entity in the Jewish community, recently said in an attack press release on Herman Cain, he allegedly “proved that generalized attacks on Islam can sweep up Judaism and other religions in their path.” In response to the King hearings on the potential radicalization of American Muslims, the NJDC said:
“Representative Peter King’s upcoming hearings regarding ‘The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response’ are truly detrimental – detrimental because they target and single out one community, solely based on its religious affiliation. American Jews – and all Americans concerned about the rights of religious minorities, upon which this country was founded – should be deeply troubled about the chilling effect calling out Muslims through a congressional hearing can and will have on religious tolerance.”
Even Gallup (well, Gallup Abu Dhabi) has gotten into the act, claiming that those who express “a great deal” of prejudice against Jews have a high likelihood of also being prejudiced against Muslims. The problem: it is a simple matter to calculate the former group consisted of about 10 people surveyed, rendering their findings transparently meaningless.
The flip side of Jewish affinity for Muslims is a deep-seated fear of Evangelical and/or fundamentalist Christians, who used to, but no longer, display a highly elevated prevalence of anti-Semitism. Jews express high levels of hostility and negative affect towards Evangelical Christians, Christian fundamentalists, the Religious Right, and other formulations of that general set of groups.
A 2003 Pew survey found that 42% of Jews felt antagonistic towards Evangelical Christians. The 2004 American National Election Study found that Jews on average rated fundamentalist Christians a 30 out of 100 on a feeling thermometer (how warm or cold the respondent feels towards a group, with 50 being neutral). In the same survey, pro-life conservative Republican Evangelical or fundamentalist Christians rated Jews an average of 82, compared to rating Catholics an 80. In a survey sponsored by the NJDC, 90% of Jews rated Evangelicals below 50 on a feeling thermometer, and a study based on that survey found that “Negative attitudes toward evangelicals played a central role in keeping Jewish voters in the Democratic fold.”
Additionally, Jews perceive very high levels of anti-Semitism among Evangelical Christians, (falsely) thinking it higher than any other group surveyed except Muslims.
Stoking this hostility is key to traditional Jewish Democratic strategies. On Monday, I gave a personal account of one such outrage committed by then-NJDC-president and now Obama campaign Jewish Outreach Chair Ira Forman. But his statement was a talking point, not an isolated outburst. Then-DNC chair Howard Dean said Democrats
“believe that Jews should feel comfortable in being American Jews’ without being constrained from practicing their faith or be compelled to convert to another religion”
staking out the position that Democrats’ are the only thing standing in the way of Republicans enacting forced conversions and denying Jews the right to practice their religion.
A look at the NJDC web site’s issue sections makes their strategy clear. While Israel (and a couple “Other” categories and one about misuse of the Holocaust left over from a general campaign against Glenn Beck) is a specific topic, the others are “Separation of Church and State,” “Woman’s Issues,” and “Reproductive Rights.” Much of their focus is on social issues that can be tied into hostility towards religious Christians. Press releases attacking each significant GOP presidential contender as scary promoters of religious bigotry or friends of religious bigots are of course included.
True, Jewish social liberalism and hostility towards religious conservatives form a chicken-and-egg feedback loop that cannot easily be disentangled with observational statistics, but political disagreement need not lead to hostility. Those same right-wing Christians described above who rated Jews an 82 on the feeling thermometer gave liberals a 30 and Democrats a 26. Political disagreement need not lead to hostility. Additionally, the fact that feelings towards Evangelicals predict vote choice independent of social views suggest that these feelings are directly affecting behavior.
Jews on average are wrong about where they fit into the pattern of affinities among American groups. Surveys consistently find that minorities are far more anti–Semitic than whites, and that either there is no difference between the parties in levels of anti-Semitism, or Democrats are more anti-Semitic, or Democrats are more anti-Semitic, but probably because more of them are minorities. Anti-Semitism among Evangelical, fundamentalist, or Religious Right Christians has mostly faded away, going from prevalent in the 1970’s, to maybe slightly elevated or maybe not depending on how you look at it in the mid-1990s, to either equal to or lower than the general population soon after. A Pew survey of Evangelical leaders worldwide finds that their views towards Jews are essentially identical to their views towards other Christian denominations, even though they perceive Jews as less friendly to them.
While Anti-Semitism in America is far from eliminated, American Jews, for the most part, have made it. Although some level of hate crimes and other serious prejudice does exist, for what others think of them, Jews for the most part might as well be a type of white ethnic that practices their own denomination of Christianity. This is not to say that Jews should suddenly develop hostility towards minorities or join Team White Racists, but merely that having largely achieved in-group status, it is beneficial to shake off the fears and hostilities that scholars know to arise from marginalization and insecurity.
Instead, Jews often think of themselves as under siege by a hostile religious majority, a misconception actively promoted by the Democratic Party for enormous political gain. Not only the occasional act of genuine anti-Semitism but prevalent and generally well-meaning misunderstandings – such as incidents where many Jews feel public Christianity is actively oppressing them while many Christians don’t understand why their religious expressions are being restricted – contribute greatly to the Democrats’ false narrative.
Ending the Democratic near-monopoly on the Jewish vote means Jews feeling as safe in America as they really are. How best to do this, I am unsure, but it probably requires promoting interfaith understanding, friendly discussion of non-hostile conflict, and the healing of old wounds, as well as responding with indignant fury to Democratic slander. Democrats love to accuse Republicans of secretly trying to mobilize their base with coded appeals to prejudice. Perhaps it is time to return the favor.