Sunday, September 6, 2009

Anti-Semitic Assumptions from the Radical Left

While wandering through my local bookstore, I began browsing a book called The Speech. It was a fascinating compilation of editorials and analyses about Barack Obama's famous "A More Perfect Union" address, delivered during the crucible of his 2008 election campaign. When I came upon an essay by a man named Adam Monsbach, and saw from skimming that it addessed (at least in part) the issue of Jewish sentiments toward Barack Obama, I paused and began to read.

What I came across outraged me, and the reasons for that outrage deserve further attention. When I was a student at Bard College, I remember hearing one of my collegiate acquaintances - a proud left-wing radical named Noah - talk about how Jews were notoriously conservative in their politics and had an ingrained animosity toward the African-American community. When I pointed out that Jews are on average overwhelmingly Democratic in their voting patterns, that the disproportionately large number of Jews in Congress were likewise overwhelmingly Democratic in composition (and even more so today than they were back in 2004), and that non-partisan polls had found that Jews were more likely to be pro-choice, anti-Iraq war, pro-gay marriage, and left-wing in their economic philosophy than any other religious group, Noah dismissed me out-of-hand. Implicit in the defense of his position was that he was himself Jewish, and thus in no way capable of being an anti-Semite.

In his essay, Monsbach took a unique spin on the same theme I heard espoused by Noah - he argued that Jews over the past half-century have sacrificed their liberal idealism because of their assimilation into "white culture", and are therefore inclined toward racism against African-Americans, an assertion he repeats as if it were not a personal opinion but an established fact, and which he therefore sees no need to support with anything beyond fragmentary anecdotes (the veracity of which, given his own clear biases, are automatically questionable) and the somewhat odd notion that, because black anti-Semites like Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Louis Farrakhan have apologized for their Jew-hating past, any Jews who remain suspicious of them must be harboring those feelings due to racism (he then tries to argue that Jews have made a point of forgiving Mel Gibson, something that was certainly news to me and my countless Gibson-hating Jewish friends). From this, he goes on to claim that Jews, because they have experienced relatively little anti-Semitism in the United States, have gone from persecuted minority to accepted members of the white elite, and thus revel in seeing blacks (and presumably other persecuted groups) instead of themselves as being part of "the other". While he doesn't go so far as Noah and outright claim that Jews are now conservative, the intended interpretation of these assertions (particularly for a left-wing radical picking up this text) is unmistakable. And of course, Monsbach insists throughout his essay that, as a Jew, he is obviously incapable of being anti-Semitic (although I will admit he possessed a subtlety that was lost on Noah).

Rather than begin this piece by addressing how it is indeed quite possible for Jews to be anti-Semitic, I shall instead focus on why the assumption that Jews are conservative, when made by a liberal and used as an implicit criticism of the community (as done by Monsbach as well as Noah), could only be anti-Semitic in origin.

1) Jewish-American history does not support this claim. First, let's look at the statistics. In every presidential election since 1924, a majority of Jews have supported the Democratic candidate because of his left-wing ideology; every Democrat since 1928, with the sole exception of Jimmy Carter in 1980, has received at least three-fifths (or 60%) of all the Jewish votes cast, and usually quite a bit more than that (the average Jewish vote for Democrats from 1928 to 2008 is 75%); and every third-party candidate who has received a disproportionately high number of Jewish votes has been left-wing (Socialist Eugene Debs in 1920, who received 38% of the Jewish vote compared to 3% of the general vote; Progressive Henry Wallace in 1948, who received 15% of the Jewish vote compared to 3% of the general vote; John Anderson in 1980, who received 14% of the Jewish vote compared to 7% of the general vote), while no right-wing third-party candidate has ever posted statistically significant results. Buttressing this data is a plethora of other juicy details from American Jewish political history, such as the fact that of the seven Jews appointed to the Supreme Court, all of them have been liberal and all but one was appointed by a Democratic president (Herbert Hoover being the lone Republican to appoint a Jew), or the fact that most of the prominent Jewish figures in American political history (and particularly after the wave of Eastern European immigration between 1881 and 1914) have been associated with left-wing rather than right-wing causes, from anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman and labor leaders like Samuel Gompers and Sidney Hillman to civil rights workers like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and countercultural figures like Abbie Hoffman and Lee Weiner (this, of course, completely ignores the countless Jewish elected officials who have been prominent liberal Democrats, including the likes of Ernest Gruening, Abraham Ribicoff, Jacob Javits, Herbert Lehman, Simon Bamberger, and Milton Shapp, to name only a few).

2) Contemporary data about Jewish-American political beliefs do not support this claim. For starters, let's look at that old trope - promoted by the likes of Congressman Jim Moran and academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt - that massive support for the Iraq war by American Jews was a key factor in Bush's involvement. While it is clear that smaller Jewish lobbies (like neo-conservative think tanks and the Zionist AIPAC) did support the war, a survey taken in 2003 (at the very beginning of the invasion of Iraq) found that 54% of Americans Jews opposed the war, compared to only 43% who supported it, making Jews less supportive of the Iraq War than any other American religious group at the time. The most recent comprehensive survey conducted of the positions held by American Jews on major political subjects (the data of which comes from September 2008) found the following opinions:
- 44% identified themselves as liberal, compared to 30% deeming themselves moderate and only 24% considering themselves conservative.
- 56% considered themselves Democrats, 25% as independents, and only 17% as Republicans.
- 75% believed that the best way for America to handle its energy needs would be by developing alternative energy sources, with only 7% supporting greater energy production, 6% preferring greater energy conservative, and 10% supporting all three steps.
- 54% of Jews considered the economy to be the most important issue in the upcoming presidential election, with the next largest number (11%) believing health care reform to be key, followed by 6% placing the greatest emphasis on the war in Iraq, 5% on energy independence, 5% on terrorism, and a mere 3% on Israel.
- 73% liked Joe Biden while only 37% liked Sarah Palin.
A similar survey taken in 2007 (which addressed certain subjects that weren't included in last year's version) yielded other revealing information:
- 59% disapproved of the war on terrorism, while only 31% approved.
- 67% believed we never should entered Iraq, while only 27% still supported that decision.

- 67% support creating criteria that would permit illegal immigrants to stay in America, while 14% wanted them to stay for a limited period of time before being deported and only 15% wanted them deported immediately.
- That year 23% considered the economy and jobs to be the most important issue, followed by 19% considering health care reform to be paramount, 16% choosing the war in Iraq, 14% choosing terrorism and national security, 6% choosing immigration, 6% choosing the energy crisis, and 6% choosing Israel.
Here are some more tidbits:
- A survey conducted by Pew Polling in 2009 found that 84% of American Jews believed abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared 62% of mainstream Protestants, 62% of Eastern Orthodox Christians, 48% of Muslims, 48% of Catholics, 33% of Evangelical Protestants, and 27% of Mormons (more Jews supported abortion rights than any other religious group, with the only other one to come close being Buddhists, 81% of whom were pro-choice).
- Jews voted against Proposition 8 (the California initiative nullifying gay marriages within the state) by a staggering 78% to 8%, in stark contrast to the rest of the state (which supported it).

3) Perhaps most important of all, the predictions from the self-proclaimed experts on the Jewish vote that have insisted that they would either not vote Democratic or significantly drop off in their support for the Democrats have been consistently proven wrong. In 2004, articles and polls from progressive as well as Republican sources kept insisting that George W. Bush was poised to siphon as much as 15 to 25% of the Jewish vote away from Democratic John Kerry; indeed, a college buddy even went so far as to bet me dinner at a Tibetan restaurant that not more than 60% of all Jewish voters would actually cast their ballots for the Massachusetts Senator. Instead, Kerry received 74% of the Jewish vote, a drop of only 5% from the amount received by the Democratic presidential candidate (Al Gore) in the previous election, and well above the 60-65% that expert surveys kept predicting (the Tibetan meal was fantastic, by the way). Four years later, the alleged tension between Jews and Democratic candidate Barack Obama was even more hyped up - surveys were produced once again that insisted that only 60-65% of Jewish voters would support Obama over McCain, and so much concern was voiced that comedienne Sarah Silverman even implored young Jewish Obamaites to make a "great schlepp" to their grandparents in Florida to get them to vote for Obama, based on the notion that they were leaning toward McCain. This time, 78% of the Jewish vote went to Barack Obama (an increase of 4% from the results in 2004), and since then Obama's support among American Jews has consistently remained at 79%. In spite of this, stories continue to crop up about "friction" between Obama and the Jewish community, with the media focusing on the few prominent Jewish conservatives who, either due to criticism of Obama's Israel policies or for some other reason, oppose the administration, and acting as if they are emblematic, while pundits like Monsbach and political reporters like Richard Wolffe still write about the so-called lingering suspicion that Jews harbor toward both the president and his liberal beliefs. Oh, and of the forty-three Jews who currently serve in the United States Congress, forty of them are Democrats (two of the remaining three are independents, with only Eric Cantor being the lone Jewish Republican).

In short, if one were to base conclusions about Jewish political affiliations on history and statistical evidence (as opposed to, say, personal anecdotes and searching deep within your gut until a feeling bubbles up from your intestines and reaches your brain to tell you what is true), then irrevocable opinion one would have to reach is that Jews are an overwhelmingly left-wing group. The next question that needs to be asked, then, is why do individuals like my old college acquaintance Noah and the supremely confident Monsbach believe that Jews are conservative?

There are two ways of drawing conclusions about any subject: One is to take an existing body of evidence and, using logical methodologies, extrapolate a truth based on that information; the other is to come to a conclusion first, and then either disregard all subsequently discovered information that contradicts that opinion, interpret and warp that information in order to get it to support your pre-existing belief, or (as Noah and Monsbach seem to have preferred) just avoid doing any research at all and instead base your assertions on anecdotes and intuition. Since it is impossible to believe that either of these individuals used any of the existing data to support their assertions, one can only come to the conclusion that they developed these opinions based on personal prejudices (which in turn they reinforced based on a selective interpretation of personal experiences). Of course, existing stereotypes about Jews - particularly that they are elitist, clannish, place a higher premium on Israel than on any other issue, and above all else, are rich - would support the idea that they would prefer Republicans and conservatives over Democrats and liberals. When you add to that the fact that both of these people belong to the left and have nothing but abject contempt for those on the right, it seems more and more likely that a belief in anti-Jewish stereotypes and a general inclination to dislike Jews in general is responsible for their opinion that Jews are conservative and/or oppose President Obama.

And what of the response that these individuals can't possibly be anti-Semitic, as they are themselves Jewish? Well, I could go into a long discussion about the ignoble history of self-hating Jews, from Nicholas Donin through Karl Marx, but I find myself too tired to engage in any more angry lectures. A brief overview of this blog shows that I have been foaming at the mouth (and hopefully at least partially enriching that foam with nutrients from my mind) for a very long time now. I need a break.

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