The tendency of Jews to support Democratic candidates and liberal ideas is well known. This "liberalism shows no signs of flagging," Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab wrote in 1995, "because Jewish defensive needs, domestic and foreign, have been so congruent with the nature and program of the more liberal party." (1) Among the most recent books to discuss the origins and nature of this subject are Marc Dollinger's Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (2000) and L. Sandy Maisel's and Ira N. Forman's Jews in American Politics (2001). (2)
Jewish political behavior, however, has been and is becoming more complex than the conventional wisdom suggests. There has been little examination of the Jewish conservative political tradition. More recently, however, a number of political scientists and historians, including Jonathan D. Sarna, David G. Dalin, Jerald S. Auerbach, and the late Charles Liebman have begun to explore this dimension of American Jewish life. Among other origins, these writers trace it to biblical roots and medieval commentators, most especially Maimonides. (3)
Here in this country during the early years of the twentieth century, German Jewish leaders like Jacob Schiff, Louis Marshall, and Julius Rosenwald were conservatives politically. Even the broader body of Jews divided their vote equally in national elections between Republicans and Democrats. In 1916 and 1920, for example, some 45 percent and 43 percent, respectively, voted Republican in presidential elections. Of the eleven Jews elected to the House of Representatives in 1920, save for one Socialist from New York and two urban Democrats, the rest were Republicans. (4)
As is well known, the historic Jewish Democratic breakthrough developed during the Roosevelt and New Deal years. Jews played a prominent role in shaping New Deal social welfare policy, funded and staffed many of the nation's leading civil rights organizations, and were deeply involved in securing passage of postwar anti-discrimination laws. (5)
The years following the war until the early 1960s marked the highwater mark of the Jewish liberal tide. The battle against Nazism had been fought and won, the United Nations created to assure that such devastation would never reoccur, and what many saw as a solid basis laid for social progress was based on liberal ideas and strategies. With Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy signaling a New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson promising a Great Society, Jewish Democratic majorities grew in 1964. And although the Jewish Democratic vote declined somewhat as recently as the 2000 election, former vice president Senator Albert Gore managed to gain the support of more than 80 percent of Jewish voters.
What this article seeks to address is whether a new set of circumstances has emerged which finds Jews moving away from traditional liberal moorings and becoming more conservative. It suggests that such a trend has been underway for some time. At the heart of this shift lies a growing sense of threat that many Jews have come to feel both at home and abroad, coupled with the softening of the image and performance of leading conservative figures. But this is getting ahead of the story.
Historian Michael E. Staub has identified a "crisis of Jewish liberalism" beginning during the postwar years, or what some historians have called the "golden age" of American Jewry. Even as Jews were participating in disproportionate numbers in various civil rights demonstrations and supporting other liberal causes, it was becoming clear there were growing reservations, he writes. The basis of concern grew out of the civil rights revolution coming north, and the uneasiness felt by many Jews about the movement of African Americans into their neighborhoods. These fears were exacerbated by the policy of busing African American children into white neighborhoods to achieve greater desegregation. Staub cites a number of Jewish, civic-agency officials critical of Jews on this score, including the present author's January 1963 essay in the Atlantic Monthly entitled "The White Liberal's Retreat." Staub concludes that "observers agreed (or illustrated by their example) that there was already in the several years leading up to 1965, a conservative trend among American Jews and a movement away from liberal support for desegregation policies and civil rights activism." (6)
However, this move to greater Jewish conservatism was still very new, if indeed it could even be called that. A more substantial shift, however, began to take shape following the racial disorders of the 1960s. From 1964 to 1968, major cities like Philadelphia, Newark, Detroit, and Los Angeles experienced rioting that involved widespread looting and burning of businesses. While the public and a presidential commission appointed to investigate the rioting focused on racial anger and despair among African Americans, what was little understood at the time was that Jews were victims as well. Many of the businesses in ghetto areas were owned or run by Jews who now found themselves directly in the path of the urban storm.
The growth of crime affected Jewish merchants left behind in these areas. As the director of the American Jewish Committee in Philadelphia at the time, I began to keep a record of Jewish victims, and I found that, in the four years between 1964 to 1968, twenty-two Jewish merchants were killed in robberies and twenty-seven were shot or severely beaten. In one instance, I met with a husband and wife team who ran a grocery store in South Philadelphia and complained of harassment, only to learn from the newspapers a few days later that the man had been murdered in a robbery. (7)
The situation was further exacerbated by the emergence of a number of African American leaders who turned away from Martin Luther King's integrationist ideas and policies in favor of "black power," and who engaged occasionally in antisemitism. Black nationalists, including Stokely Carmichael, H. "Rap" Brown, and Malcolm X, also linked the struggle of African Americans in this country to the battles of peoples in the Middle East and other parts of the world against colonial oppression. A number suggested that Israel had become an outpost of Western imperialism in the Middle East, a counterpart of Jewish exploitation in black ghetto areas.
Coincidentally, the Six Day War erupted in 1967, during which surrounding Arab countries threatened to drive the Jews of Israel into the Mediterranean Sea. This and the Yore Kippur War that followed in 1973 sent shock waves through the Jewish community. In contrast with widespread secularist and universalist values characterizing Jewish political behavior during the "golden age," many Jews turned inward. They became aware increasingly of the need for tougher policies to protect the Jewish State and to cope, as well, with growing crime rates within the United States, as forcefully advocated by conservative politicos. (8)
In 1968, Jewish anxieties came to a head in the battle over community control of the schools in the Ocean-Hill Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Following the firing of nineteen Jewish teachers by black nationalist leadership in 1968, Albert Shanker, head of the predominantly Jewish teachers' union, closed down the New York City schools in three strikes, precipitating one of city's worst contemporary crises. The political impact of these racial confrontations in New York and elsewhere was felt almost immediately. A majority of Jews voted against Mayor John V. Lindsay, a liberal Republican who ran for re-election in New York in 1969 and advocated community control of the schools. (9) Summing up the Ocean-Hill fiasco, historian Jerald E. Podair found "the liberal consensus" in ruins, "divided by race and class, and between clashing visions originating from its right and left flanks of what 'liberalism' meant." (10)
Ninety miles to the South in Philadelphia, an estimated 50 percent of the Jewish vote was cast for Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, the law-and-order candidate, in his successful race for mayor against a liberal Republican in 1971. Four years later when he ran for reelection, the Jewish vote for Rizzo grew slightly to 53 percent. When Rizzo overreached, however, and sought to change the charter that would permit him to run for a third term, Jews reacted negatively. He lost two-fifths of that vote, suggesting Jews still remained uncomfortable with behavior that did not put first the broader community good.
The election of Edward I. Koch in 1977 to his first of three terms as mayor of New York was a further indication of the growth of more conservative tendencies among Jews. Koch liked to refer to himself as "a liberal with sanity." In his first race, he denounced "poverty pimps" who had helped to inflate welfare costs, and he sought to remove ineligibles from the welfare rolls. (11) A New York...