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Jewish political conservatism — a tradition or a trend?

WASHINGTON — When Murray Friedman tells people he’s writing a book about the history of American Jewish conservatism, it usually elicits a predictable gibe: Must be a short book.

That the Jewish community has long been among the most liberal segments of American society remains an incontrovertible fact. But it has not been uniformly so, and an increasingly outspoken number of Jewish conservatives are trying to underscore that point.

Even as the vast majority of Jews continue to vote heavily Democratic, they assert that there is a strong current of conservatism tugging at American Jews.

“There’s a clear-cut movement of Jews to the right — intellectually, politically and socially,” said Friedman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University and director of the American Jewish Committee’s Philadelphia chapter.

Although there may not be a lot of concrete data to back up that claim, Jewish conservatives say there continue to be misperceptions about Jewish political attitudes.

“There is a mistaken understanding that Jews are liberals and always have been,” said Elliot Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a former assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration. “The history of the American Jewish community is actually a history of equal amounts of conservatism and liberalism.”

Little is known, however, about the history of American Jewish conservatism, which is why the Feinstein center and the Jewish studies department at American University recently convened a two-day conference to explore its historical and religious roots. It was the first conference of its kind.

“Political conservatism actually does draw from a wellspring of Jewish political philosophy, law and historical experience,” Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history and chairman of the department of Near Eastern and Judaic studies at Brandeis University, told the recent gathering of historians and activists at American University.

While Jews were central to the formation of American political liberalism, Jewish conservatives remained largely isolated and unorganized for most of the 20th century.

They gained an important voice as Commentary magazine, published by the American Jewish Committee, transformed in the late 1960s into a neo-conservative opinion journal. But it wasn’t until the 1970s and 1980s that Jewish conservatives gained wider attention, particularly with many serving in the Reagan administration.

Recent years have seen the ascendancy of a cadre of young conservative Jewish intellectuals and activists working in Washington think tanks, the media, academia, and as lobbyists and grassroots political organizers.

Matt Brooks, who serves as executive director of both the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition and a conservative think tank affiliated with it, the Jewish Policy Center, said an increasing number of Jews are turning toward the conservative message as it becomes “more and more difficult, if not impossible, to intellectually defend the welfare state as it has previously existed in this country.”

As what he called a “more compassionate” model of conservatism has evolved, he added, “that has been very attractive to a larger and larger segment of the Jewish community.”

Others are a bit more equivocal about a trend toward conservatism.

“The returns are not in,” Abrams said. “What is growing is the view that knee-jerk liberalism is not particularly Jewish, that at least it’s legitimate for Jews to be found on all sides of issues.”

Friedman said that although he sees a clear movement of Jews to the right, that movement has been counteracted by the community’s “very strong fears of the Christian right, and what they see as threats to the separation of church and state.”

There are enduring fears, he added, “of conservatism as a sort of handmaiden of the right or even of fascism and totalitarianism — fears that Jews will be christianized by the emergence of the Christian right as a continuing political force in American life.”

While Friedman sees Jews moving to the right, a number of Jewish activists and opinion leaders dispute that view.

“There’s really no hard evidence that the American Jewish community has become more conservative in recent decades, and most evidence points in the other direction,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, who was invited to present a liberal Jewish view at the conference.

“The only statistic that you can prove,” he added, “is that if you ask Jews are they more conservative, they will say they are, but it is not represented by what they believe or by how they vote.”

Indeed, there is little in recent election statistics that suggests a change in Jewish political leanings.

Nearly 80 percent of American Jews backed President Clinton in the last two presidential elections, while nationally three out of every four Jews have voted for Democratic candidates in congressional elections through the 1990s.

And of the 34-strong Jewish delegation in Congress, only two are Republicans, one in the House and one in the Senate.

Some Jewish conservatives, however, say there is evidence of a shift in recent local elections.

They cite the mayoral races in New York City and Los Angeles, where Republican Mayors Rudolph Giuliani and Richard Riordan have twice received large majorities of the Jewish vote. They also point to a 25 percent increase in Jewish support for New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman that helped boost her to re-election in 1997.

They also cite recent surveys of American Jews on issues such as school vouchers and the death penalty that they say indicate a more conservative bent than election returns would suggest.

Few dispute that the Jewish conservative movement has grown in recent years, buttressed in part by the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But most remain unconvinced that the movement has significantly altered the basic shape of Jewish political attitudes.

“Whatever gains Jewish conservatives may have made in recent years,” wrote author and newspaper columnist J.J. Goldberg in his 1996 book “Jewish Power,” the “overall profile of the Jewish community — Jewish voters, Jewish officeholders, most Jewish social activism, and majority opinion on the Jewish street — remains overwhelmingly Democratic and liberal.”