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How and why the Jewish American voter might be changing

In the wake of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech from Jerusalem, Jewish Americans reflect on their relationship with the Republican Party: past, present, and future.

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President Donald Trump, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hold up a signed proclamation recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights at the White House in Washington on March 25, 2019.

Manuel Balce Ceneta, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Before Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s prerecorded remarks from Jerusalem aired Tuesday night during the Republican National Convention, the speech was already mired in controversy.  

Earlier in the day, Democrats opened an inquiry into the unprecedented event that served as a powerful visual reminder of President’s Donald Trump’s controversial decision to relocate the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a city revered as holy by Jews, Muslims and Christians.

During his speech, Pompeo listed the move as one of the administration’s foreign policy wins, remarking that Trump brought the embassy to “this very city of God, Jerusalem, the rightful capital of the Jewish homeland.” Pompeo also pointed to the Trump-brokered “Abraham Accord,” calling the plan to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE a “peace deal.” 

While outside observers might assume that such steps would shore up Jewish American support for Trump, Jewish Americans themselves have a much more complicated relationship with both the 45th president and the Republican party. Making up only 2% of the population, Jewish Americans constitute a small slice of the voting pie — but in a hotly contested state, that sliver can make a difference.


President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, right, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin are pictured during the opening ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, May 14, 2018.

Yonatan Sindel via Associated Press

While many Jewish Americans are pro-Israel, most rank the Middle Eastern country low on their list of political priorities, casting their ballots instead on the basis of domestic issues, experts say. And those votes are, by and large, cast for the Democrats.

In 2016, 70% cast their votes for Hillary Clinton. And academics — remarking that Democratic Party affiliation is a deep component of Jewish American identity and pointing to a strong dislike of Trump — don’t expect this election to be any different.

At the same time, approximately one-third of Jewish Americans are Republicans. It’s a significant minority and the Republican Jewish Coalition claims that Jewish support for the GOP is only growing. Is it a paradigm shift? Some young conservatives think so. 

Republicans first

While most Jewish Americans today are Democrats, the country’s first Jews were Republicans. 

“From the 1860s to 1912 was an overwhelming pro-Republican vote,” says Steven Windmueller, a professor of contemporary Jewish studies and history at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute for Religion in Los Angeles. In the late 1800s, most American Jews, he explains, were of “German Jewish descent” and they “really admired Lincoln.” 

Though the name was the same, it was a very different Republican Party then; at that time, the Democrats’ ranks were filled with Southern conservatives intent on preserving segregation. 

But two crucial changes occurred that would flip Jewish party affiliation. The first was the Great Migration of Black Americans to the north, where they had stronger voting rights and were heavily courted by the Democratic Party, which began realigning its politics to gain and retain the Black vote. The second was a massive influx of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, where many had been immersed in left-wing thought. These new immigrants were also poor, living in crowded tenements and working blue collar jobs. 

Simply put, the new version of the Democratic Party was a better fit for the new Jewish Americans; the already-established Jewish Americans followed the ideology that had once made the Republicans appealing — following it all the way to the Democrats. 

“With the reversal of roles (in the parties) came a corresponding shift of the Jewish voting patterns,” Windmueller says, “a trend that was apparent in the early elections in the 1900s and that showed most dramatically in 1932 for (Franklin D.) Roosevelt,” when the Jewish vote went “85% or 90%” for that Democratic candidate. 

Who shows up?

While Jewish Americans “became Democrats for economic reasons in the 1920s and 1930s,” says Kenneth D. Wald, a professor at the University of Florida and the author of The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism, they “embraced the U.S. from the (country’s) founding because it made sure that rights and political agency were not based on religion.” 

“More than anything else Jews built a political culture around the idea that they had equal rights in a secular state,” Wald says. 

For many decades, Jewish Americans didn’t have to actually consider the separation of church and state when they stepped into the voting booth. It became an issue, Wald explains, “in the 1970s and 1980s when they saw the Republican party becoming more evangelical,” a group that he says saw America as inherently Christian.  

“Once it became clear that the Christian right is basically the Republican Party they became solidly Democrat, 3 to 1,” a ratio that turns up in Jewish voting patterns today. 

Windmueller expects these numbers to hold in this election, as well. But, he says, “The question is: Who will show up?”

In general, Jewish Americans register to vote in larger-than-average numbers and also turn up at higher rates than other groups on Election Day. But in 2016, “for the first time, we saw a decline in the number of Jewish voting,” Windmueller says. 

He explains that young Jewish progressives “basically stayed home”— disappointed that Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who identifies as independent, was not the Democratic nominee. And Jewish Republicans who didn’t support Trump didn’t vote “out of a feeling of frustration.”

This could happen again in 2020, Windmueller says. In particular, we could see, “Jewish progressives sit this one out.” 

He’s quick to add, however, that scenario is hard to imagine “because the degree of dislike (of the president) is pretty high.” A 2019 Gallup poll found Trump’s approval rating to be 26% among Jews — the lowest of any religious group. 

“That could translate to turnout,” Windmueller says, adding that, if it does, he expects 80% of Jewish American voters to favor Democrats. This would be in line with CNN’s exit polls from the 2018 midterm elections

Jews for Trump

But Neil Strauss, communications director for the Republican Jewish Coalition, offers a rosier picture of Jewish support for the GOP that reflects long-term trend lines. 

“Essentially, in my lifetime, the percentage of Jews voting Republican has gone up,” he says.

Strauss points to a generational gap favoring the GOP, citing a poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute that found non-Orthodox millennial Jews are less likely to disapprove of Trump than their older counterparts, The millennial approval rating of 33%, Strauss observes, “is a lot higher than their grandparents.”

Trump and the Republican Party enjoy their highest support among the Orthodox Jewish minority. In that quarter, the trend is the opposite of other Jewish groups — with 57% approving of Trump and 43% disapproving. With the Orthodox birthrate outstripping that of other Jewish groups, they are expected to have a larger influence in years to come.

But, zooming in on millennials and the Orthodox neglects the whole picture.

Asked about poll data showing a majority of Jews are still leaning Democrat and largely disapprove of Trump, Strauss chalks it up to the president being misquoted and mischaracterized in the media. He says that racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, is a prime example. According to Strauss, commentators should have offered the full quote, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” rather than cherry-picking the end of the sentence. 

Strauss stressed that Trump’s policies at home and abroad have been good for the international community, the U.S. and Jewish Americans. 

In particular, he points to recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state, the Abraham Accord, and his 2019 signing of an executive order that extended Title VI protection to Jews — a move, Strauss says, that makes pro-Israel Jewish Americans feel more comfortable expressing themselves on college campuses. 

But these same moves, which were controversial within the Jewish community, all raise the question of whether Trump is trying to court the Jewish vote or shore up his support among Christian evangelicals who support Israel from a biblical perspective. Most Jewish observers agree that it’s the latter. 

“Trump must be perplexed,” Herb Weisberg, a political science professor at Ohio State University, muses. “He keeps trying to do things that he thinks favor Israel and it doesn’t get any more support from American Jews.” 

He says when most American Jews step into the booth to cast their vote, Israel is eclipsed by domestic concerns.

Orthodox Jews, however, are the exception, weighing support for Israel more heavily than other Jewish groups.

 But at 2% of the population, Jewish Americans constitute a relatively small vote.

“If a state has a really close election, the Jewish vote can tip it, of course,” Weisberg remarks. “The left hand vote can tip it. Every vote can tip it. My impression on Israel is that Jews that would be the most supportive for Trump … were already voting Republican. That’s why (supporting Israel) is not going to help the Jewish vote. It’s really for the evangelicals.” 

Jewish libertarians?

Weisberg says the Jewish value of “tikun olam” — world repair — is one of the things that keeps them liberal. Similarly, for many, “being a Democrat is part of being Jewish.”

However, while Weisberg studied Jewish attitudes toward domestic policy, he encountered a trend that that suggests connection between Jewish identity and party affiliation could be could be “fading.” On the issues of LGBT rights and government economic policy, he found that many Jews want the government to stay out of Americans’ bedrooms and wallets.

These Jewish libertarians, he says, “aren’t consistently Republican or Democrat. Some are Republican. Some are independent. ... I would expect that they could swing in either direction depending on the issues of the day.” 

Elie Shapiro, 21, is an embodiment of several of the trends that could eventually change the face of Jewish American political life: he’s young, he’s Orthodox and he’s Republican.

Raised in a modern Orthodox family, he is a staunch Trump supporter because he believes the president supports religious freedom at home and is strong on Israel. Speaking to Deseret News while taking a break from canvassing for Trump’s reelection campaign, Shapiro says that most of his Jewish friends are “very liberal, unfortunately.”

They are, Shapiro adds, “misinformed.”

Reflecting on the reality that Republicans are a minority in the Jewish community, Shapiro remarks, “I was raised to do what I believe is right and not just follow everyone else.”

And though “sleepy Joe,” as Shapiro calls the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, might take the Jewish vote, he’s certain that Trump is going to win.

Correction: An earlier version attributed several quotes regarding polling to Kenneth D. Wald. The quotes should have been attributed to Steven Windmueller.