The debate over why Jews vote the way that they do is an old one, but it’s rarely backed by much data except the estimates of the Jewish vote from the last election.
There is, however, one piece of data that currently predicts the Jewish vote. It’s religious attendance.
60 percent of Jews that attend weekly religious services disapprove of President Obama. Only 34 percent approve.
Among those who don’t attend religious services, approval of Obama stands at 58 percent, while 38 percent disapprove.
There are really two Jewish votes: the religious Jewish vote, and the secular Jewish vote.
Something similar happens when we break down Obama’s approval ratings by church attendance. Among those who attend church weekly, Obama’s approval ratings hover between 39 percent and 46 percent. Among those who never attend church, between 53 to 57 percent approve of Obama.
These numbers come from a Gallup poll taken this year that did what few polls of American Jews do in breaking down the seemingly monolithic vote to find some interesting things. The most interesting thing is that the Jewish vote is more demographically out of step with Americans than politically out of step.
When we break it down by behaviors and beliefs, the Jewish vote is not that different than the overall American vote. What is different is the balance of behaviors and beliefs in the Jewish community.
Only 11 percent of American Jews attend religious services weekly. Among Americans in general, it’s over 40 percent.
Recently I noted that American Jews had become a liberal outlier globally, as Jews in the UK, Canada, Israel and Australia were voting conservative. And Jewish communities in those countries also tend to be relatively more traditional and religious than in the United States.
UK Jews are more than twice as likely to attend synagogue services weekly as American Jews.
63 percent of Israeli Jews “believe completely” that there is a God, while only 34 percent of American Jews are certain that they believe in God, a universal spirit or something. 63 percent of Israeli Jews keep Kosher, as do 52 percent of UK Jews and 22 percent of American Jews. Intermarriage is at 44 percent among American Jews, 26 percent among UK Jews, and negligible among Israeli Jews.
Traditional religious values naturally align with conservative politics. And vice versa.
The political Left with its messianic obsessions, environmental apocalypses and fanatical devotion to the cause occupies a space traditionally filled by religion.
When religion leaves, other things replace it instead. The Jewish Left is the hole left by the absence of Judaism and any meaningful Jewish historical, national and cultural identity.
When asked what it means to be Jewish, 56 percent of American Jews mentioned social justice, 42 percent mentioned comedy, and only 43 percent mentioned Israel. 28 percent mentioned being part of a Jewish community. Only 19 percent mentioned anything involving religion.
People with Jewish last names for whom being Jewish is leftist politics and a joke, should not be expected to care about Israel. If being Jewish means nothing to them, why would the Jewish State?
However, among UK Jews, 61 percent cited Jewish peoplehood, 40 percent mentioned social justice, 38 percent cited religion, and 36 percent mentioned the Sabbath. Those are still poor numbers, but they explain why the UK Jewish community is politically healthier and saner than its American cousins.
The political results of that difference in worldviews expressed itself when 70 percent of UK Jews voted conservative while 69 percent of Jews voted for Obama. (Down to 61 percent Democrat affiliation in 2015.)
It is all a question of whether you think being Jewish means being part of a community, a nation and a religion… or laughing at Jon Stewart’s jokes.
Religion is a significant predictor of political orientation, but it is not the only significant factor.
Barack Obama’s biggest base of support is among Jewish college graduates, where he enjoys a 54 percent approval rating (vs. 43 percent who disapprove). Among post-graduates, that climbs to 62 percent against 36 percent.
That is not too radically different from the overall Obama approval ratings for college graduates in the general population, which have hovered between 53 percent and 46 percent.
Among Jews with only a high school diploma or less, 53 percent disapproved of Obama while only 39 percent approved. These numbers are far more negative on Obama than the national average, but the national numbers are skewed by a disproportionate share of minority supporters.
If Jews had the same percentage of college grads and post-grads as the rest of the country, the Jewish vote might be conservative. But while 29 percent of adults overall have a college degree and 10 percent have a post-graduate degree, 58 percent of Jews have a college degree and 28 percent have a post-graduate degree. The fundamental difference here isn’t so much political as demographic.
The problem with American Jews is an internal imbalance in which higher education has displaced traditional Jewish learning, and the ideals of social justice have displaced Judaism. Jewish culture has been reduced to neurotic self-mockery and hipster knowingness.
This isn’t a purely Jewish problem. It’s a situation that exists among some non-Jewish elites whose Christianity does not venture beyond social justice and whose identity is making fun of their own ‘whiteness’. It is worse among Jews because a higher percentage of them live and think this way.
American Jews are more dysfunctional than Jews in the UK or Israel, because their leaders more enthusiastically adopted the worldview of the liberal Protestants they were trying to imitate.
The fight against slavery, and then for civil rights, that came to religiously define some liberal Protestant churches also became the closest thing to religion for liberal Jewish denominations. Abraham Joshua Heschel marching at Selma was a defining spiritual experience for them, incessantly referenced, but incapable of being repeated. It was a theology that depended on the vicarious experience of the otherness of others. Like their liberal Protestant cousins, a secular religious movement was desperately drawing on the religious tradition of another group of people while making oppression into their faith.
British Jews are rediscovering their religion, and the focus on social justice is plummeting for those under 40. But British Jews never lost their sense of self to the same extent that American Jews did. That is why it will take more than the renewed threat to Israel to shift the American Jewish vote. Rising anti-Semitism on the left and the isolation of Jews in liberal spaces, on and off campus, will play its part as it has in Europe, but the European Jews have done a better job of holding on to what being Jewish means.
In both the UK and the US, the middle ground is vanishing with the secular-social-justice Jews leaving while the Orthodox population increases generationally. A third of Jewish children in the UK are being raised in Orthodox homes. New York City will have an Orthodox majority before too long.
An emerging Jewish conservative majority among American Jews will badly traumatize and infuriate a Jewish liberal consensus that views leftist politics as identity and religion. The fallout is already beginning, and it will only get uglier. American Jewish leaders who want a united Jewish community will have to move to the middle. They will have to recognize that controversies such as the protests against UJA-Federation funding of anti-Israel groups are a small taste of much larger things to come.
Jews around the world are living and voting conservative. American Jews may lose Woody Allen and Jon Stewart, but they will gain healthier communities and families. There will be fewer college graduates, but there will also be fewer screaming BDS activists smashing Jewish store windows. And American Jews will finally become part of the circle of Jewish communities around the world and in the Jewish State.
This introductory piece is adapted from: "The One Number That Shows Why Jews Really Vote Liberal," by Daniel Greenfield (June 24, 2015).