Why American Orthodox Jews are Voting Red, and the non-Orthodox Blue

The divide between American Orthodox Jewry and their non-Orthodox compatriots is growing – not only religiously but politically as well. Conventional wisdom has it that at base this is about Israel, or rather whether Israel is even a salient issue at the American ballot box. For the Orthodox it seems very much so; for other Jews (increasingly) far less. Given the perception that President Trump is “good for Israel”, this would explain why the Orthodox would vote again for the president. For other Jews, relatively neutral and/or apathetic regarding Israel – some even antagonistic to Israel’s policies – it makes sense from their perspective to focus on domestic issues, where the president is sorely lacking (at least from a liberal standpoint).

All of this is largely true, but doesn’t address the more underlying fault line running through American Jewry. In two words: “nationalism” vs “universalism”. Parsing them, though, demands a bit lengthier explanation.

For almost all of its glorious history, Judaism has been a religion and culture of a specific nation. Indeed, it is the only one that (at least mythically) began its journey with all the people gathered together: Mount Sinai. But beyond that origin story (Abraham to Jacob were proto-monotheists, but not “Jewish” in any sense of the word; indeed, they could not have been, as the term “Jewish”/Yehudi stems from Jacob’s son Judah), and despite its monotheistic bent, Judaism didn’t and doesn’t see itself as a “world religion” of a purely theological nature. Indeed, proselytism was never an integral part of its credo.

It need not be stressed that “nationalism” is the foundation upon which Trumpism rests: Make America Great Again – not bettering the world, but rather the United States. This is the fundamental source of American Orthodox Jewry’s support of Israel (the Jewish nation-state) and in parallel, for Trump (“nation above world”). Orthodox Jews in the U.S., based on their profound attachment to the Jewish People (and its rejuvenated state), are naturally attracted to a politics that echoes such a nationalistic weltanschauung.

Non-Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, due to secular education, acculturation, and even assimilation, are drawn to the universalism of the American creed. Indeed, their Judaism is expressed quintessentially through the term “tikkun olam” – reforming the world. This has never been a cardinal principle in the Jewish tradition (although some minor aspects can be discerned here and there), but it has now become the guiding “light unto the nations” for the non-Orthodox. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that “or la’goyim” – a light unto the world – never meant that Jews should actively change the world but rather actively upgrade themselves morally in order to be a model for others.) Thus, non-Orthodox Jews in America by and large have now come around to a universalistic form of cultural Judaism, relatively bereft of ethnos. From there it is but a small jump to viewing Israel as somewhat aberrational, not only due to its particular policies (vis-à-vis the Palestinians etc), but intrinsically as out of step with contemporary, liberal values given its heightened nationalism and ethnos-driven creed of Zionism, i.e. first and foremost, a Jewish State.

All this also explains the great enthusiasm that recent right-wing Israeli governments have shown towards President Trump – and their antipathy to President Obama, a symbol of multiculturalism and a person deeply attuned to the world at large. Reinforcing this chauvinistic propensity are the ultra/Orthodox in Israel who have significantly gained in political power and demographic strength. Thus, there is a remarkable “politico-cultural” synchronization going on between the current nationalistic American government and nationalistic Israel society and politics – thereby feeding and reinforcing the Jewish-American divide discussed above.

In the final analysis, the Jewish “divide” in contemporary America is not merely a matter of Trump vs. Biden, but rather goes far deeper than that. We are probably witness to a seismic shift in Jewish voting patterns – from Blue to Red – that will only gain in strength as the Orthodox (most ultra-Orthodox among them as well) increase their demographic numbers while the rest of American Jewry decline proportionally as a result of rampant intermarriage and general assimilation. Whether all this is “good for the Jews” (or for Israel) is another matter altogether.

Sept. 24, 2020

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