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Reagan and the Jews

During the national election of 1984, the Republican party spent at least two million dollars to directly influence the Jewish vote. This effort failed. Jews are the only white “have” group in America to withstand the Reagan landslide: they voted two to one for the Democrats and are, with blacks, the last members of the old New Deal coalition to support the party as strongly as they did in the past.

Some Republicans have argued that the Jewish vote for Reagan has been underestimated; others are trying to explain this “aberration” as having been caused by last-minute switches over the issue of separation of Church and State. Many leaders of Jewish organizations thought they could deliver an unusually high Jewish vote to Reagan and now they are trying to account for their failure to do so. During the campaign, a number of Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform rabbis, speaking for themselves, came out for Mondale, but figures of much heavier weight in the Jewish community asked Jews to support Reagan. They included Max Fisher, the honorary chairman of the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Agency for Israel; Jacques Torczyner, a past president of the Zionist Organization of America; and George Klein, a major builder in New York and a central figure in the Orthodox community. In conversations with well-placed Jews, the argument was made that a large Jewish vote for Reagan was necessary in order for the Jews to influence government policy on behalf of Israel. This argument, so far as I know, never made its way into print in any of the publications of the Republican National Committee, but it was very much at the center of the appeal to Jews. Toward the end of the campaign it was published, I noticed, in a mailing piece sent to Jews in Bergen County, New Jersey, where I live, by the local branch of the “Jewish Republican Coalition.”

That this argument was on the minds of important Jewish leaders is beyond doubt. On the morning after the election Ma’ariv, one of Israel’s two large afternoon newspapers, interviewed a number of them to get their reaction to the election. Yehuda Helman, the executive vice-president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the central representative body of the Jewish establishment, told Ma’ariv‘s New York correspondent: “We now will have a very hard task to repair the damage that the Jewish vote has caused; the Jewish organizations will have to struggle to restore their influence in the American establishment.”

The same theme was stated more openly and with greater passion by Abraham Foxman, the second-ranking professional staff member of the Anti-Defamation League. Foxman insisted that the exit polls taken by the press and television, which showed Jewish support for Mondale by two to one, were wrong, and that the vote was actually 53 percent for Mondale and 47 percent for Reagan, a bare majority. (He attributed these figures to Republican sources.) Thus, Foxman asserted, Reagan indeed had advanced substantially beyond the 40 percent that he had received in 1980 against Carter. Foxman said that the Republicans had made a serious effort to influence the Jewish vote and they had spent large sums to do so. “If the results of the polls will not change, and if the facts as given by the Reagan Election Committee will not be proved, then the Jews will have a very great problem with the Republican party…. The Republicans might then say, we have no interest in the Jewish minority.”1

Foxman softened his analysis at the end of the interview, as did Helman, by emphasizing that on the issue of Israel there was no difference between the two parties; support for Israel was a bipartisan matter in American politics. The same theme was elaborated a few days later by the American–Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), the group that lobbies on behalf of Israel in Washington. In the November 26 issue of AIPAC’s weekly. Near East Report, its editor, M.J. Rosenthal, wrote that “some people are uncomfortable with the very noticeable Jewish vote for Mondale. They fear that the Reagan administration will ‘take it out’ on Israel.” Rosenthal denied that this was so. “That mentality,” he wrote, “…is rooted in the diaspora experience.” It has “no relevance today.” It was “certain,” he wrote, that “the President is not going to determine the US course in the Middle East with a copy of the election returns from Great Neck and the San Fernando Valley in his hand.”

The connection between the Jewish vote and Jewish influence in the White House was so much on Rosenthal’s mind, however, that he returned to it at the end of the column. “It is insulting to the President—and to the American Jewish community—to suggest that when casting their votes on November 6, 1984, Jews should also have cast fearful glances at the White House. That was once our way. It is not any more.”

The forces in the Jewish establishment that were disappointed by the vote thus moved back to asserting the bipartisan nature of American support for Israel. Rosenthal himself seemed to be getting ready for disputes with the administration over the export of sophisticated weapons to some of the Arab states and a revived Reagan plan for the Middle East. He predicted that Reagan’s policies will not always be acceptable to pro-Israel forces. Perhaps he was taking account of the fact that Democrats continue to control the Congress and gained two seats in the Senate, while Democrats are still governors of thirty-four states and mayors of most of the large US cities.

This year’s Jewish vote has also posed a problem for the Jewish intellectuals who call themselves neoconservative. Leading the Jews away from liberalism and the Democratic party has, of course, not been the only or even the main purpose of the neoconservatives. Their influence among Jews, however, became an issue of some interest during the 1984 election. Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee and closely identified with the neoconservative viewpoint, published an article by Irving Kristol in its July issue with the title, “The Political Dilemma of American Jews.” He advised the Jewish community to take Jesse Jackson seriously as a continuing threat to its interests:

In foreign policy he is pro–Third World and anti-American, pro-PLO and anti-Israel—and he is on the way to making this the quasi-official foreign policy of the black community. …He has already indicated that he will be coming to New York in 1985 to back and stump for a properly militant black candidate against Mayor Koch in the Democratic primaries. The black–Jewish polarization that would ensue is almost too scary to contemplate.

Jesse Jackson was firmly hung around the neck of the Democratic party.

On the other hand, Kristol argued that the commitment of the Moral Majority “to a set of ‘social issues’—school prayer, anti-abortion, the relation of church and state in general—that tend to evoke a hostile reaction among most (though not all) American Jews,” should not be taken as threatening. The campaign of the Moral Majority on these issues “is meeting with practically no success” and “the Reagan administration has got absolutely nowhere in its espousal of these issues.” What is important is that the “Moral Majority is unequivocally pro-Israel.”

Kristol argued at some length that the support of Jewish interests, both domestic and in relation to Israel, required Jews to move to the right, away from their old Democratic associates whose foreign policy was still influenced by soft-minded internationalism, muddled liberalism, and an increasing tendency toward a foreign policy excessively sympathetic to the third world and hostile to Israel He ended his article by asserting that it is not even any longer in question that the American Jewish community and its “traditional allies”—whether among blacks, liberal intellectuals, or the leaders of organized labor—are moving away from one another. “That is an established fact—and one that American Jews must candidly confront.”

This implicit plea to support Reagan failed. The Republican Campaign Committee itself has claimed for Reagan some 40 percent of the Jewish vote, hardly more than he received in 1980. In a post-election interview with The New York Times (December 18, 1984), Kristol simply observed that about a third of the Jewish vote had been voting Republican in recent elections.

In the weeks since the national election, much more information about the Jewish vote has become available through exit polls taken on the day of the election. The American Jewish Committee recently published a pamphlet on the results of a national survey done by Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Queens College, on “The Political Attitudes of American Jews in 1984.” This was based on a random sample of 996 Jews who were questioned between April and August 1984, that is, when the controversy over Jesse Jackson was at its height. More significant still are two major, as yet unpublished, studies of the Jewish vote in the election. The Jewish Community Relations Council in New York has analyzed the figures for seventeen election districts in the five boroughs of New York, most of which have Jewish populations of at least 70 percent. For the country as a whole, the American Jewish Congress did an exit poll of 2,700 Jewish voters in fourteen cities, including all those with sizable Jewish populations.2 Taken together these three studies give an informative picture of Jewish political opinions and voting behavior.

In 1936, 11 percent of the Jews who voted supported the Republican candidate, Alfred Landon. In the American Jewish Congress exit poll on November 6, 1984, 79 percent of the Jews identified themselves as liberal or moderate, 10 percent as conservative. When asked their party allegiance, only 12 percent said they were Republican. It seems clear that about one-tenth of Jewish votes have been unshakably Republican since the days of the Great Depression. No generalization will apply precisely to the views of all of them or indeed to any of the other voting groups I shall discuss. I think, however, that most close observes of Jewish life will agree that for the most part this group is made up of descendants of the Jews, largely from Germany and Central Europe, who came to America before the mass migration from Eastern Europe that began around 1881. Many members of this group see themselves as belonging to the American business elite and have long wanted to believe that they are part of the old America, which they take to be represented by the Republican party.

Another group with a pronounced tendency to vote Republican consists of Orthodox Jews, most of whom arrived in the United States after World War II. In Hassidic communities of Boro Park and Williamsburg in New York City, Reagan beat Mondale four to one. This was not an unprecedented victory: in 1972, Nixon beat McGovern in these same election districts by the same margin. For these Jews parochial issues count heavily. Nearly all ultra-Orthodox Jews, for example, send their children to religious day schools and they want state aid for such education. This community is also the most hawkish in its position on Israel, and it prefers Republican tough-mindedness, real or verbal, toward the Russians.

  1. 1

    The Ma’ariv interviews have been translated from the Hebrew text.

  2. 2

    My thanks to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and to Henry Siegman, executive vice-president of the American Jewish Congress, for making the data for these studies available to me. The interpretation in this article is my own.

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