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.

The Orthodox community, however,also includes a less traditional group which votes Republican far less heavily. In the Midwood election district in Brooklyn, which contains a diverse Jewish population, including a large proportion of modern Orthodox Jews, Mondale won two to one. Among the relatively poor elderly Jews who live largely on pensions, at least half of whom probably identify themselves as Orthodox, a major concern is for sustained Social Security benefits, and on this issue Mondale’s position would have had strong appeal. In Brighton, the Brooklyn election district with the largest proportion of such people, McGovern, who seemed to many people soft on Israel, lost to Nixon by 43 percent to 54 percent. In 1984, however, Reagan got only 26 percent of the vote in Brighton.

It has been argued, and not only by Republicans, that the Orthodox, and especially the ultra-Orthodox, tend to be under-represented in studies based on questionnaires, studies, and perhaps even in exit polls. (Yiddish-speaking neighborhoods are not congenial to pollsters.) This could be true even if the lopsided vote of elderly Jews for Mondale helps to cancel out, in part, the lopsidedness of the ultra-Orthodox vote for Reagan. It seems reasonable to believe that there is a normal, built-in Republican majority of nearly two to one in the Orthodox community, taken as a whole; for even in the Reagan–Carter election of 1980, and the Ford–Carter election of 1976, the ultra-Orthodox voted three to two for the Republicans. Orthodox Jews thus add perhaps another 10 percent to the irreducible Republican column.

The Republicans, according to this analysis, can bank on about 20 percent of the Jewish vote before a campaign begins. A further question must then be answered: how large did the Jewish Republican vote really grow beyond this irreducible minimum in the last election? The analysis of the New York City vote by the Jewish Community Relations Council concluded that Reagan won 38 percent and Mondale 62 percent of the vote, a 2 percent gain for Reagan over 36 percent in the 1980 election. This difference is statistically insignificant. In fact the findings of the Jewish Community Relations Council, in view of the standard margins of error in sampling studies, are consonant with the New York Times–CBS exit poll for New York state, which posited a Jewish vote for Reagan in the city of 34 percent. Nowhere else in the country is there a concentration of ultra-Orthodox Jews comparable to that in New York City; it is hardly likely, therefore, that the national result was as favorable to the Republicans.

The unanimous evidence of the national exit polls that the vote for Reagan in the Jewish community was less than a third thus seems undeniable. (Reagan’s vote in New York City, moreover, was a few points less than Nixon got against McGovern in 1972.) The most comprehensive of the national exit polls, the American Jewish Congress survey, showed Reagan winning only 28 percent of the Jewish vote nationally. With further weighting to account for Orthodox opinion that is under-represented in the polls, the results of the American Jewish Congress study show a national vote for Reagan among the Jews of about 30 percent. Reagan thus picked up only between 10 and 12 percent above the minimum he could expect from Jews who are committed to the Republican party, and from Orthodox Jews. His 30 to 32 percent was nearly a quarter less than Nixon got nationally in 1972 and only a little more than Gerald Ford’s 26 percent in 1976, and less than his own 40 percent in 1980.

Why have the Republicans lost ground in the Jewish community? Since the election, the favorite explanation has been that Jews were put off by Reagan’s views on religion in public life. A rising tide of anger against the Republican positions in favor of outlawing abortion and allowing prayer in the public schools is supposed to have accounted for the Jewish vote, which otherwise was imagined to have been stampeding to the Republicans, in fear of Jesse Jackson. The turning points for Jews in this campaign are supposed to have been the President’s remarks in the first days of September in Salt Lake City before the American Legion, where he insisted that one should not “twist the concept of freedom of religion to mean freedom against religion” and his failure to modify this view a few days later when he talked to the B’nai B’rith convention in Washington.

Reagan’s position on the religious issue had already upset some Jews in August when his campaign manager, Senator Paul Laxalt, wrote a letter urging some forty-five thousand American Christian clergymen to support Reagan because “he has been faithful in his support of issues of concern to Christian citizens.” At the Dallas convention, the Republican national platform affirmed its support “for the appointment of judges at all levels of the judiciary” who “support traditional family values and the sanctity of human life,” that is, oppose abortion.

The American Jewish Congress, the most politically liberal of all the Jewish organizations, campaigned vigorously against these views during the last days before the election. The other organizations of the Jewish establishment took a quieter position. They did not press Reagan to disavow his right-wing fundamentalist fellow travelers as they had pursued Mondale to denounce Jesse Jackson and Jackson to denounce Louis Farrakhan.

In the American Jewish Congress exit poll, nearly half (44 percent) said that Reagan’s stand on religion and state strongly influenced their vote. Only 20 percent said that Jesse Jackson’s campaign had a comparable influence on them. Nonetheless, despite these answers, I believe the weight of the evidence suggests that the Church–State issue was only marginally important in this election. The Jewish vote was determined by other, deeper tendencies.

The most apparent of these is the continuing perception of the character of the two major parties by a decisive majority of American Jews. The American Jewish Congress survey asked the question: which political party cares most about Jews? The answers were: Democrats, 61 percent; Republicans, 11 percent; 28 percent not sure. In 1983, the American Jewish Committee investigated the attitude of American Jews toward Israel. In its survey, one question asked which American groups were regarded as friendly or unfriendly to Israel. The Democrats, liberals, Congress, and the labor unions were all regarded as “very friendly,” the Democrats most friendly of all. The attitudes of President Reagan, the Republicans, the military, conservatives, mainstream Protestants, and Evangelical Protestants were seen as “mixed,” and if their ratings had been a little lower, they would have been seen as “unfriendly.” The State Department and the major corporations were very near the bottom of the list—“quite unfriendly.” The nearly half of the Jewish voters who say they were influenced by concerns about demands for a “Christian America” were not discovering new threats, or moving in a new direction.

The more unexpected response was to the black issue. Here, the evidence is startling. In the American Jewish Committee study of 1983, Jews gave their lowest and most negative assessment to the attitudes of blacks, a majority of Jews seeing them as unfriendly to Israel. The same views were generally confirmed by the American Jewish Committee survey of 1984, which concerned domestic anti-Semitism. Fundamentalist Protestants were now seen by a majority of Jews as disposed to be unfriendly, and the blacks were regarded as the most hostile of all groups in America. Jesse Jackson was thought to be anti-Semitic by 78 percent of the respondents.

Nonetheless, on election day, the American Jewish Congress survey, in answer to a question about how the Jewish community should deal with black–Jewish tensions, found that 7 percent said to ignore such tensions; 10 percent did not know; and 25 percent said to wait for positive action by the black community. That left an astonishing 58 percent who supported the suggestion that it was up to Jews “to reach out to the black community.” Most American Jews thus seemed quite as aware as Irving Kristol that their relations with blacks are a serious problem. A majority, however, made it clear that they were against confrontation and in favor of attempts to keep peace, even if special efforts have to be made by Jews.

This concern not to exacerbate conflicts also prevails in the Jewish community on most of the other issues on which the neoconservatives have been urging a position of confrontation and toughmindedness. In his Commentary article, Irving Kristol criticized Jewish support for the United Nations. In the American Jewish Committee’s survey of 1984 on Jewish political attitudes, the proposition that “the United States should leave the United Nations” was rejected by three to one, although practically all American Jews are aware of the consistent anti-Zionism of the UN’s General Assembly. A main theme of the neoconservative position is that détente with the Soviet Union is very nearly a policy of surrender by America and that it is against the interests of Israel. The 1984 survey showed that 50 percent of the respondents believed President Reagan had been “basically accurate” in calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” Nonetheless, by more than two to one, the same respondents asserted that the President had shown “poor judgment” when he made such claims.

Overwhelmingly, by 84 percent against 10, with 6 percent not sure, Jews are for a nuclear freeze with the USSR (as the neoconservatives are not); 29 percent favor a more forceful policy toward the Soviet Union, while 55 percent oppose this, and 17 percent are not sure. Virtually without exception, American Jews are for strong US military support for Israel. So far as US military spending in general is concerned, however, their views are mixed. A plurality tends to the “neoliberal” position that the United States could reduce its military spending and still retain a strong military defense.

Taken together, these views on foreign policy suggest that American Jews favor a variety of policies to reduce tension in the world. And while they do not want to sponsor policies that will make for more acute confrontation with the third world countries and the USSR, this is not because they fail to realize that they have enemies in the third world and in the Soviet Union. American Jews, moreover, certainly know that they have dangerous enemies in the Arab world and yet every poll taken in the American Jewish community during the last five years shows that two-thirds of American Jews would trade territories for peace in the Middle East. A strong majority would even recognize a Palestinian state on the West Bank, provided it agreed to live in peace with Israel. As for domestic fears, at the very height of the Jewish reaction to Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan last spring, over half the Jews surveyed said they were for affirmative action; another fifth even supported “benign” quotas. Here too, a large majority of the Jewish community refused to go along with the policies against affirmative action that neoconservatives have been advocating.

The fundamental explanation for this political behavior is not, as Irving Kristol would have it in his Commentary essay, that the Jews are unaware of their own interests. Kristol was trying to convince the men and women of his own generation (the children and grandchildren of the East European migration that ended with the First World War). I believe myself that these Jewish voters understood very well what they were doing. They were reflecting, as he was not, the inherited political experience of their grandparents. What these Jews knew, after the many centuries in which Jews have lived as minorities, was that at the times when the muzhiks became poorer and hungrier in Russia, they could all the more easily be incited to pogroms, and that when European monarchs fought one another, they tended to expropriate Jewish property in order to pay the costs of battle. Self-interest worked together with the ethics of compassion of the Biblical and rabbinic traditions: even an unsatisfactory peace may be better than war, and social peace is worth even major costs. In the past those who promised the Jews a share in the victories won by aggressive strategies have often misled them, from the Zealots, who urged the revolt against Rome in the year 67, to General Sharon, who marched the Israeli Army into Lebanon in 1982.

As the national election campaign wore on, Jesse Jackson did not (despite Kristol’s predictions) become a more acute problem for American Jews. He was careful to avoid attacking support for Israel. The black caucus in Congress was even more circumspect, and it has since made efforts to strengthen its alliance with the Jewish community. Blacks know that they really have nowhere else to go in American politics except to the Democratic party and that the party cannot be an effective political force without Jews. Jews have decided to stay with the Democrats in order, at the very least, to make sure that the alliance among ethnic groups that the party represents should continue to stand for an increasing measure of fairness in American life, however ineffectual and disappointing the efforts to improve fairness in the past have been. If this alliance breaks apart, and the poor have no hope of sharing in political power, an anger might be unleashed in America that would be truly explosive.

Both morally and politically, the American Jewish voters, in my view, did better for themselves, and for social peace and justice in America and the world, than if they had followed the advice of some of their organizational leaders and of the neoconservative intellectuals. Relatively few of them may have read the Talmud but a good many acted as if they were aware of its wisdom: “When in doubt, and the leaders confuse you by divided counsel, go out into the street and see what the people are doing.”

  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.