US Jewry only makes up two percent of the electorate, so even if the entire Jewish community comes as one to vote (which won’t happen), it cannot in any way sway the outcome of the elections in favor of one nominee or another. And yet, “the Jewish vote” is a term that has been accompanying US election cycles over the years, and it appears there have never been so many efforts made to win the support of such a small community.
The simplest answer to the question why do US presidential candidates try to woo the Jewish community is that: Jews is news. It’s always interesting to know who the Jewish community supports, and what the overall mood within the community is.
But a closer, more in-depth examination reveals several more established reasons to the incessant courting of the Jews.
A study conducted by Prof. Gil Troy as part of the Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies at Haifa University raises several reasons that could provide an explanation for Trump and Clinton’s pro-Israel speeches and statements.
“American Jews are relatively quite wealthy, they’re large donors and very politically committed, ” said Troy, a US presidential historian and a history lecturer at McGill University in Montreal. “According to estimates, the Jewish contributions to the current presidential election constituted 50 percent of the sum total of donations to the Democratic Party and some 25 percent of the sum total of donations to the Republican Party.”
Troy went on to note that in key swing-states, which help determine the outcome of the election, there is a high concentration of Jews, and they have a considerable influence relative to the community’s size.
The fact the overall voter turnout in the US barely passes 50 percent, while the voter turnout in the Jewish community is 85 percent, also increases the importance of the Jewish vote.
Another reason is that much like in Hollywood, there are quite a few Jews in key positions across the US. Beyond the Jewish share in the presidential candidates’ campaigns, there are also 10 Jewish senators, 19 Jewish Congressmen and three Jewish Supreme Court justices. It’s hard to ignore such a significant presence of members of the Jewish community in senior positions, and this presence has a cumulative, significant effect.
However, Troy claims that on the practical level—rather than the political one or in consciousness—the Jews only played a marginal role in most election outcomes. “Even with a high voter turnout and high concentrations of Jews in key states, there simply isn’t enough American Jews to affect the US elections, ” he said.
Good news for Clinton
The Republican nominees can give warm speeches at AIPAC (the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington), embrace Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and make decisive statements against Iran and Israel’s enemies, but on election day they will almost always be disappointed. Since the 1928 elections, most of the Jews have been liberals, with some 70 percent voting for the Democrats.
In his study, Troy determines that the classic explanation for Jews’ support of the Democratic Party is the liberal nature of Judaism. Basic Jewish tenets like charity, justice and social justice find fertile ground in liberal ideology. In addition to that, many American Jews consider their liberalism part of their Jewish heritage—like an impressive immigration story, silver candlesticks, or grandma’s Matzah ball soup recipe.
Historically, it was President Franklin D. Roosevelt—a great liberal icon—who became the object of admiration for US Jews and brought them to the Democratic Party. And even though the Republican Party is more pro-Israel than before, and is even perceived as more pro-Israel than the Democratic Party, American Jews continue voting for the left, which represents their mentality, ideology and cultural identity.
In this regard, Troy notes that Jews tend to vote for liberal values more than for pro-Israeli stances. This doesn’t mean that American Jews aren’t pro-Israeli. On the contrary, they perceive the Democratic Party as taking a strong pro-Israeli stance.
“Today more than ever, many American Jews are sticking to their liberalism, ” explains Troy. “They are united by their fear of the Evangelists, of the Donald Trumps and of the Tea Partiers. Their liberalism is defined by freedom and autonomy.”
All this is excellent news for Hillary Clinton. Recent history teaches that over 70% of Jews voted for Obama for both of his presidential terms, despite his many points of friction with the Israeli government, largely because of his support for marriage equality, healthcare and other subjects on the liberal agenda.
A party of gentiles
During the Democratic primaries, Clinton competed against Bernie Sanders, the first Jew to win a presidential primary. Despite his Judaism, Sanders’s views on Israel seemed closer to those of Obama. Sanders believed in Israel, but also said that we need to discuss “the needs of the Palestinian people.”
In contrast, Clinton has always maintained the classic strong position of supporting Israel—she has condemned Hamas, terrorism and Sanders’s ambivalence. During her time as a senator, she stood out as a dedicate supporter of the Jewish state. The bottom line is that, despite the historic title of “first Jew to…”it turned out that Clinton won two thirds of the Jewish vote in the primaries.
Now Clinton is positioned before the continuing Republican tendency in which politicians compete against each other to show just who loves Israel more. Trump was even quoted as saying that he couldn’t understand how his Jewish friends financially supported Obama when the president himself was so unfaithful to Israel.
Trump’s question has a complicated answer that Israelis won’t like hearing: Most Jews who vote don’t put Israel at the top of their list of priorities, but rather to prefer to stick with liberal values, which are not met by the Republican Party.
In addition, the revolution that began during the Reagan administration—during which time the complete identification with Evangelical Christians began—branded the Republicans as a party of gentiles, and despite their support of Israel, this group has an internal agenda that is seen as contrary to the Jewish agenda.
More Orthodox, more Republicans
Trump himself doesn’t attract the typical Jewish voter. According to Troy, the candidate’s controversial pronouncements, combined with his personality and agenda on foreign and domestic matters, created cultural barriers and political disgust towards him within the liberal Jewish community.
Many American Jews see him as an existential threat and don’t hesitate to compare him to Hitler. His candidacy has conjured racist and anti-Semitic ghosts. With all this commotion, Clinton enjoys a significant advantage with voting Jews, and the Jewish consensus loyal to Democrats remains in place.
It’s difficult to fully segment the Jewish vote, as the sample size is relatively small. However, previous studies have shown that while the distribution of Jews is 70% voting Democrat and only 22% Republican, amongst Orthodox Jews the data are different. They are more included to vote Republican at 57% and only 36% Democrat. “We can say generally that the more the Jew is Orthodox, the more he tends to be Republican, ” summarized Troy.
Whom are we against?
If you ask Israelis what characterizes Judaism in their opinion, the answer would be conservatism. But in the USA, the answer is the opposite. Troy explains that this comes from deep differences between the communities. “The history of Israeli Jews is not similar to that in the US. While in Israel, tradition is something that is present in everyday life and the rabbinate and Orthodoxy have a role in how Judaism is perceived, in the US, Judaism is the right to be free and completely voluntarily realize signs of religion or tradition.”
He continued, “Jews in the US are happy to be free. It’s an ancient Jewish dream to be like everybody, citizens of the large world. It’s not parallel to what we see in Israel or the challenges that stand before Jews in Israel. The liberal values and voting for Democrats reflects the mood of American Jewry.”
Troy struggled to see a future in which Jews left the liberal camp en masse: “Since Reagan’s victory in 1980, they’ve been saying that the time has come for Jews to cross over to the Republicans, but it hasn’t happened. True, there’s a Jewish vote in the right, but since 2000, we’ve actually seen the liberals increase. The prevailing view is that liberalism and Judaism are the same thing.
“We always think whom we’re for, but sometimes the question is whom are we against. The Jews came to the US in the beginning of the last century, and since then they’ve been free, and they’re afraid that the Christian right and their agenda will take America back to the 50s. More than half of the population see supreme value in the ability to be free in their lives, and this is threatened by the right.”
A few hundred thousand Israelis also hold American citizenship. Asked if there was such a thing as an “Israeli vote” in the US elections, Troy answered, “I think that we’re beginning to see that. We’re trying to build an Israeli-American identity, when it’s pretty clear that in this case, being pro-Israeli plays a central role, and it’s an important value at election time. Some mix between conservatism and secularism speaks more to this community.”
Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation that works to strengthen the ties between Israel and American Jewry, said, “While Israel is not the central issue for Jewish voters, it remains an important issue. Most Jewish voters want to elect a president who will support the Jewish state. Because the US is Israel’s biggest ally, it’s important for Israelis to follow and better understand American politics and its impact on them.