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Why most American Jews vote for the Democrats

One question that Israelis have been asking themselves since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 and as radical left-wing voices grow across the U.S. is why most U.S. Jews continue vote for the Democratic party, which they perceive as less supportive of Israel.

The answer is a complex one, which involves history, demographics, values and faith. It also highlights the seemingly unbridgeable divide between the view from Israel and the perspective in the U.S.

Conservatives in the United States also find it difficult to understand the connection between the Jewish community and the Democratic party and its values. Jewish American sociographer Milton Himmelfarb was the one who coined the phrase "Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans."

More than 70% of American Jews consistently vote Democrat, with 74% of the Jewish vote going to Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections and 70% voted for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016.

This is a puzzle for some who believe that, given their socioeconomic status, they would prefer to vote for a party that supports tax cuts and opposes government involvement in the economy.

In general, secular, Reform and Conservative Jews have a propensity to vote Democrat, while Orthodox Jews mostly vote Republican. Israeli Americans and Jews who immigrated to the U.S. in recent decades from the former USSR - who tend to be more conservative - are mostly the exception to this rule.

The connection between the vast majority of the non-Orthodox American Jewish community and the Democratic Party also stems from the former's focus on the value of Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for healing the world), which comes in stark contrast to conservatism and preserving the status quo.

Tikkun Olam also means supporting social justice and the rights of minorities and immigrants. Many American Jews still perceive themselves as descendants of an immigrant minority and therefore feel solidarity towards those who have not succeeded like them and still need assistance from the state.

Contrary to popular belief in Israel, most American Jews see anti-Semitism as a phenomenon that originates from the racist right and not the critical left.

They have watched for years as the white supremacy movement attacked them for their support of the civil rights movement and they draw pride from the famous picture of Martin Luther King Jr. and the renowned Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching together in lockstep in Selma in 1965.

While many in Israel view organizations such as the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic - as well as the moderate critical left that opposes the occupation - there are plenty of U.S. Jews who are members of them.

Efforts to promote legislation against these bodies are seen among American Jewry as an anti-liberal move that infringes on the sacred freedom of expression.

For the most part, Jews naturally support the separation of religion and state. The religious right's attempt to preserve the United States as a Christian country is offensive to them.

They feel solidarity with the American Muslims in this regard, just as they previously united with immigrants from Poland, Italy and Ireland who were discriminated against because of their Catholicism. Liberal Jews also fear the religious right due to their so-called "family values" when it comes to issues such as abortion and LGBT rights.

The recent passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal, proud Jewish woman and an icon to many American liberals, highlighted this connection between American Jews and the left, as do the current two Jewish Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer, who are also considered U.S. liberal leaders.

The tension between Muslims and Jews that is a familiar sight in Europe and influences trends of conservatism (a case in point is the Jews of France), is much less noticeable in the United States. Most Muslims in the United States are not Arabs, so the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a significant part of the identity of these communities. Most American Muslims are also integrated into society and the economy; in contrast to their European counterparts, many of whom live in poor ghettos and see wealthy Jews as much of a class enemy as a nationalist foe.

Liberal Jews see Trump as the antithesis of everything they believe in. The instances of his contempt for women, immigrants and people with disabilities is intolerable in Jewish liberalism and his support of Israel is not perceived as genuine. Most of the Jewish community expects its president to help Israel end the occupation in the West Bank and stop the construction of settlements.

Most of them see the alliance between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - as well as their alliances with other right-wing, populist leaders such as Hungary's Victor Urban, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro and the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte - as a connection that stems from xenophobia and a desire to harm the liberal institutions in their countries. They do not recognize this as support for Israel.

The gap between the political leanings of the majority of American Jews and the majority of Jews in Israel was less prominent when Washington and Jerusalem maintained a bipartisan approach, something that prevented Israel from becoming a cause of strife between the Democrats and Republicans.

However, during Netanyahu's tenure, American Jews believe that Israel has become an arm of the Republican Party, both because of the hostility between Netanyahu and former president Barack Obama (who received 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008 and 69% in 2012), and because of the symbiosis with the Trump administration.

A win by Obama's vice president Joe Biden win on November 3 may improve the situation.

The Democratic candidate has shown impressive support for Israel in his many years as senator, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and vice president, and has the ability to bridge the gap between the Democratic Party and Israel. His running mate Kamala Harris has also supported Israel throughout her career - even before she married a Jewish man.

The Israeli government must also return to a bipartisan approach, not only to preserve the special relationship with the United States, but also to reconnect with the vast majority of liberal American Jews. The gap between them and Israel has widened in recent years, greatly damaging the latter's status as the nation of all the Jewish people.

(This article was published in YNET on 29.10.2020)

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