THE BLOG

Jewish Voters: Values Trump Interests

03/21/2015 04:25 pm ET | Updated May 21, 2015
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Conservative columnist Ed Rogers recently wrote in The Washington Post, ``I don't know why American Jewish support is so lopsided in favor of the Democrats.'' Here's why.

Jews have conservative interests and liberal values. Most Jews vote their values. So do a lot of other voters whose interests pull them one way and their values another way. For instance, a lot of working-class voters have liberal economic interests and conservative social values. They, too, tend to vote their values.

Jews have two kinds of conservative interests. One is economic. Jews tend, on the average, to be high income and successful in business. In a 2013 Pew poll of American Jews, 42 percent reported household incomes of more than $100,000 compared to 18 percent of all Americans. Like other high-income Americans, Jews have an interest in low taxes and less government regulation. The late scholar Milton Himmelfarb once said, ``Jews have the wealth and status of Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.''

The security of Israel is also a matter of intense interest for many Jewish voters. In the Pew poll, 43 percent called caring about Israel ``an essential part of being Jewish.'' Another 44 percent called Israel ``important but not essential.'' That adds up to an overwhelming majority of American Jews who see Israel as a Jewish interest.

Those for whom Israel is a paramount concern -- supporters of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) for instance -- have long seen Republicans as better for Israel than Democrats. They are hawkish in their foreign policy views, and so is the Republican Party. Many Democrats, including Jewish Democrats, are highly critical of Israel's occupation policies.

The partisan split over Israel has been widening in the U.S. electorate. A Pew poll taken during the Gaza war last summer found sympathy for Israel at 73 percent among Republicans and 44 percent among Democrats. It shows up among Jews as well. In the 2013 Pew poll, half of Jewish Republicans but only a quarter of Jewish Democrats felt emotionally ``very attached'' to Israel.

The exception used to be Congress, where the partisan gap was never very strong. Until now. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's show of contempt for President Obama has provoked anger and resentment among congressional Democrats. Especially after Netanyahu resorted to what many liberals, and many liberal Jews, regard as racist appeals in his campaign for re-election. Netanyahu won, but he won ugly.

The liberal values of Jews are deeply rooted in a history of oppression and a commitment to social justice. And something else.

Since the 1960s, a pattern has developed in the political behavior of Americans. The wealthier you are, the more likely you are to be a Republican. Case in point: Mitt Romney, the prince of wealth. The best educated Americans -- those with post-graduate degrees -- are more likely to vote Democratic: Barack Obama, the prince of education. Jews are disproportionately well educated. Twenty-eight percent of American Jews, but only 10 percent of all Americans, have a post-graduate degree. High educational attainment re-enforces liberal values.

Many orthodox Jews do not share the liberal values of more secular Jews. In the 2013 Pew study, 57 percent of orthodox Jews identified with the Republican Party. Jews are not unique in that respect. Religious Americans of all faiths and backgrounds have become more and more Republican since 1980 -- fundamentalist Protestants, observant Catholics and orthodox Jews.

Liberal values are also less prevalent among Israeli Jews, most of whom are of non-European descent. Prime Minister Netanyahu is trying to have it both ways. He's against a Palestinian state in Hebrew and for a Palestinian state in English. That trick fools no one, certainly no one in the White House.

Gallup reports that the percentage of American Jews identifying as Democrats declined from 71 percent in 2008 to 61 percent in 2014. Still, Jewish Democrats continue to outnumber Jewish Republicans by better than two-to-one (61 to 29 percent).

Republicans are befuddled and Israelis are resentful of American Jews' continued support for the Democratic Party and for President Obama. At the same time, many Jewish Democrats are worried about the decline in Jewish Democratic affiliation. Why is it happening? Because more Jews are voting their interests, particularly their interest in Israel. Not most, but more.