Notebook — From the October 2008 issue

Obama’s Jews

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This line of argument mischaracterizes American Jews. They do not amount to some organic whole, nor is their vote the expression of a “Zionist” DNA that Obama has somehow undernourished. If anything, Obama’s campaign is exposing the fault lines among Jews, which are serious, while implicitly challenging the great silent majority to repudiate Jewish organizational leaders (and neoconservative celebrities like Kristol), whose militant simplicities purport to represent them—and don’t.

Since the term “American Jews” encompasses everyone from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Beastie Boys, moguls like Sam Zell to the (arguably deceased) Lubavitcher Rebbe, almost anything you might say about them will be wrong. But this, in a way, is my point. Most Jews see themselves as idiosyncratic citizens in need of a strong social compact. Polls show that 50 percent of Jews call themselves liberal or “progressive”; and only 21 percent, “conservative.”

These liberal impulses have a history. Immigrant and first-generation Jews, as Philip Roth puts it, assumed Democrats were for the underdog, the unions, the anti-Nazi war; liberal activism meant vigilance against anti-Semitism and more: “Our heroes were Roosevelt, La Guardia, and Brandeis,” Roth says; “we were against the Republican oppressor.” Which is why their children, the baby boomers, were drawn to the civil rights movement, the signal experience of their political lives.

“Our sense of wholeness,” Obama writes in Dreams From My Father, “would have to arise from something more fine than the bloodlines we’d inherited.” Most older Jews read such words about identity, or just observe Obama’s body language, and sense a kindred spirit; that Obama admires Roth’s novels hardly seems surprising. As important, Obama is running at least 20 percent higher among voters under thirty than among those over sixty-five. Half of young Jews are marrying non-Jews; they see a competition among cultural forms as natural, an opportunity for vibrancy.

These attitudes extend to world affairs. Almost 80 percent of Jews still say that “remembrance” of the Holocaust is very important to one’s Jewish identity, but most do not draw strident conclusions from this. Pat Buchanan railed against an Iraq “war party,” top-heavy with Jews harboring “a ‘passionate attachment’ to a nation not our own.” Actually, 70 percent of Jews rejected the war in Iraq as early as 2005, a rate higher than that of any other American religious group. Some 70 percent today support America’s working to resolve the Arab–Israeli conflict and exerting pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians. About 60 percent under thirty-five feel an attachment to Israel, but an even greater proportion have never visited.

So it is a fair guess that the approximately two thirds of Jews who support Obama, like the Democratic electorate generally, do so more passionately than they supported various Democrats in the past five presidential elections. The majority certainly do not expect candidates to pander to them regarding Israel. Ask American Jews to list issues that determine their vote and almost three times as many choose “health care” as choose “Israel” (about 8 percent), though very few of them lack health care. Nor—if you look closely, which ardent Zionists do—has Obama argued for giving Israel a free hand; rather, he has insisted on reviving “existing American initiatives” for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking early in his administration. He promised an “undivided” Jerusalem—a capital without barbed wire—not the Likud’s “united” Jerusalem under exclusive Israeli sovereignty. Obama visited Ramallah; McCain did not. And yet the vast
majority of Jews have stuck with Obama.

’s most recent book is The Hebrew Republic (Harcourt). His last Notebook for Harper’s Magazine, “Driverless,” appeared in the April 2007 issue.

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