The Russians are voting (for the GOP)

TwoLubavitchThe Wall Street Journal editorial page, which often covers news stories that the news desk does not want, had an interesting feature this week about a quiet little political trend in American Judaism.

If the “pew gap” is the term used to describe the trend in Protestant and Catholic voting booths, we may end up having to call this one the “synagogue gap.” The problem with that, of course, is that this trend only affects certain sanctuaries.

And what is that story? Here it is in a nutshell:

On November 11, 2004[,] Haaretz News reported, “approximately a quarter of American Jewish voters cast their vote for Bush this time, as opposed to 18.5 percent four years ago. Experts calculate that about 85 percent of Orthodox Jews and about 95 percent of Haredi Jews voted for him. The high birthrate in these two communities helps to explain the significant rise in Jewish votes that went to the Republicans. . . . One thing that can be said for certain: The main issues that divide Israeli society — the moral foundation of life in Israel, and how to bring peace — are also the issues at the core of the disagreement in the U.S. between the Jews who voted for Bush and the majority among them who voted for Kerry.”

Gosh. Family life. Moral issues. And then you add on Israel. This sounds very familiar.

Anyway, the WSJ piece by Tony Carnes of Christianity Today zoomed in to look at a more specific issue: the tensions between the mainstream Jewish establishment — represented by Boston’s Larry Lowenthal of the American Jewish Committee — and Jewish immigrants from Russia.

To judge by his public statements and writings, Mr. Lowenthal’s idea of a faithful Jew is someone who opposes the nomination of Judge John Roberts to the U.S. Supreme Court, supports gay rights, abortion and euthanasia, and demands a strong separation of church and state. After all, as Mr. Lowenthal concluded approvingly in a July op-ed for the Jewish Advocate, Jews are “the most liberal” and “the least religious people in America.”

Imagine his consternation when an avalanche of emails from Russian Jews began to pour in to the Web site of the Jewish Russian Telegraph, a daily blog, in response to his article. About 100 people wrote to say that Mr. Lowenthal needed to stop making “outrageous statements” on behalf of people whom he doesn’t represent. Alex Koifman, who arrived in the U.S. from Belarus in 1978, and whom Mr. Lowenthal trained for his position as a board member at the Boston AJC, criticized his old teacher for overstepping his bounds, saying: “Since when are these concerns [abortion, gay rights, and church-state separation] concerns that are specific to the Jewish community? These are the Left’s concerns.”

Whoa. There’s more to this story, and it all points to the crucial role that religious tradition and practice play in American politics right now. The Democratic Party knows all about this. Its problem is simple, in the terms of James Davison Hunter: How do you appeal to the orthodox without offending the progressives? How do you tolerate the believers you believe are intolerant?

Has the, oh, New York Times had this story? If I missed it, let me know.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Charlie

    Great post, Terry. Not only are high birthrates among orthodox Jews increasing their numbers, but immigration as well. America has a deserved reputation as a place where the orthodox may practice their faith without the fear of reprisals. This has been especially true for Jews from around the world.

    The problem for progressives is that they welcome religious orthodoxy so long as it is politically marginalized. Faith as a hobby is no worse than stamp collecting. But when faith begins to influence public policy, progressives panic. Their commitment is to many truths, not one, and the accommodation of (almost) all moral perspectives and lifestyles. It may be possible to bind the orthodox and progressives together for short-term humanitarian projects (e.g., Katrina relief), but when it comes to politics, they are to each other as the east is to the west.

  • SEV

    Terry, I’m interested in how you came to interpret “the moral foundation of life in Israel, and how to bring peace” as “Family life. Moral issues. And then you add on Israel. This sounds very familiar.” I would interpret the moral foundation of life in Israel as being the claim that Israel belongs to Jews. Family life and moral issues, particularly in reference to american politics, I read as abortion and gay marriage. While I recognize that Jews care about these issues, I don’t see how it relates to the moral foundation of life in Israel. It seems to me that you are cofounding the two.

    Charlie, progressives have no problem with people of faith. It seems only natural that they do better with people whose faith leads them to progressive views, just like republicans only acknowledge people whose faith leads them to conservative views. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

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