Are American Jews finally moving to the right?

Longstanding tensions between the Obama administration and Israel have led to a political shift

Move to the right?
(Image credit: (Illustration by Sarah Eberspacher | Photo courtesy REUTERS))

Back when I worked in the conservative intellectual world, the voting patterns of Jews came up an awful lot.

Most of the original neoconservatives — Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and the circle of writers who published regularly in The Public Interest and Commentary — were Jews who began their political lives on the liberal left and then migrated rightward as they aged. Except that they didn't quite see it that way. As far as they were concerned, their views had stayed constant — they had been and remained Cold War liberals — while liberalism in the late 1960s had changed, becoming anti-American and less inclined to support Israel in its struggle to defend itself in a dangerous and hostile part of the world.

Beginning with Ronald Reagan, it was the Republican Party that defended America without apology and treated Israel as a stalwart ally. And so the neocons stopped voting for Democrats and shifted their allegiance to the GOP. The bond only intensified over the subsequent decades, as evangelical Protestants who fervently supported Israel for their own quirky millenarian reasons became more crucial to the Republican electoral coalition.

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And yet most Jews did not become neoconservatives. Most remained liberals — and loyal Democrats — through the '80s and '90s, and even through most of the 2000s, as George W. Bush treated Israel as a trusted ally in the two nations' common battle against Islamic terrorism.

The consistency of Jewish support for the Democrats didn't much matter to Republican Party operatives; with Jews totaling a mere 2-3 percent of the population, the Jewish vote would never be electorally decisive. Still, the persistence of Jewish liberalism was irksome to many neocons, and none more so than Podhoretz, who in 2009 went so far as to publish an impassioned broadside against his coreligionists with the cry-to-the-heavens title of Why Are Jews Liberals?

More recent trends give Podhoretz and the other neocons cause for hope that a Jewish rightward migration might at long last be underway.

Consider my neighbor in the Philadelphia suburbs. A Jewish stay-at-home mother of three young children who's not very religiously observant, she is nonetheless deeply concerned about the well-being of Israel — and equally distressed about increased tensions between the U.S. and Israeli governments over the past six years, which she blames squarely on Barack Obama. Though she sympathizes with the Republican Party on other issues, it is the U.S.-Israel relationship that most strongly inspires her to identify with and vote for the GOP.

She's not alone. A Gallup poll published last month showed a 10-point drop in Jewish support for the Democrats since 2008 and a seven-point rise in support for the Republicans during the same period. Yes, there's still a massive 32-point gap separating Democratic and Republican party identification among Jews. But just seven years ago, the gap was 49 points.

Why the shift?

Part of the answer could be simple demographics. Only 19 percent of Jews self-identify as “highly religious,” but this most politically conservative segment of the Jewish population has the highest birth rates and the lowest intermarriage rates. As it grows relative to other sub-groups within the Jewish community, the share of Jews identifying with the Republican Party will probably grow as well.

Another part of the answer no doubt has to do with the issue that concerns my neighbor: heightened tensions between the Obama administration and the government of Benjamin Netanyahu at a time when the Jewish state seems more isolated and vulnerable than ever, with civil wars and Islamist radicalism destabilizing the region in every direction, and Iran edging ever-closer to building a nuclear weapon that could pose an existential threat to the nation. All of this is more than enough to test Jewish-American attachment to the Democratic Party.

And that brings me to what might be the most decisive issue — not simply anxiety about Israel's vulnerability and a fear that the U.S. will withdraw its support, but anxiety about being forced to choose between competing loyalties. American Jews have always feared the charge of dual loyalty, with its insinuation that because of their attachment to a foreign power they're somehow less patriotic than other Americans. Beginning with Harry Truman's crucial support for the founding of the Jewish state, the Democratic Party has denied that Jewish voters need to make an either/or choice between the U.S. and Israel.

During the past six years, that has begun to change. From the early conflict between Obama and Netanyahu over the construction of Israeli settlements in occupied areas of the West Bank to the current dispute between the American president and the Israeli prime minister over the wisdom of negotiating with Iran over its nuclear program, the Obama administration's policies have implied that on a range of crucially important issues U.S. and Israeli interests may well diverge and require American Jews to make a choice.

At least that's how things increasingly look from the standpoint of the Democrats.

Among Republicans, things couldn't be more different. The GOP has gone so far in the other direction, in fact, that the Republican Speaker of the House recently sparked an international scandal by failing to go through proper diplomatic channels when inviting the Israeli prime minister to address Congress. That his speech to Congress will likely take aim at the president's efforts to reach a nuclear deal with Iran only makes the invitation more galling. It's almost as if the GOP considers Netanyahu an elected member of our own government rather than the leader of a foreign country.

When my neighbor views the rising tensions, she sides with the Republicans — not merely because she thinks the GOP would pursue policies that are more helpful to the Jewish state, but also because she prefers the Republican message that, rightly understood, American and Israeli interests align precisely.

If Obama is succeeded by a less testy Democrat — or if Netanyahu's Likud party loses upcoming elections and is replaced by a more centrist governing coalition — then U.S.-Israeli tensions might diminish, leading Jewish rates of Democratic support to rebound.

But if Netanyahu is re-elected and Obama and his successor continue to clash with him, increasing numbers of American Jews may feel forced to choose between their liberalism and their Zionism — the real dual loyalty that defines Jewish-American life.

Exploring that tension in a recent book, Peter Beinart predicted that if American Jews were forced to choose between liberalism and the militaristic and expansionist Zionism of the Likud Party, they would side with liberalism. But I'm not so sure — and neither is Alan Wolfe, whose own book about the virtues of diaspora was written to bolster the universalistic liberalism he believes his fellow Jews should (but may not) continue to uphold.

Increasingly ill at ease with Barack Obama's Democratic Party, American Jews look across the aisle at the Republicans waiting for them with open arms, offering a new way to remain loyal both to America and Israel — by abandoning their liberalism.

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Damon Linker

Damon Linker is a senior correspondent at He is also a former contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Theocons and The Religious Test.