Jeffersonian vs. Jacksonian Jews: Revisiting Jewish Political Behavior in the 21st Century

June 20, 2018

The 19th-century contest between Thomas Jefferson’s prescription for America and that of Andrew Jackson’s populist ideas are being played out today in this nation’s politics. In some measure, Donald Trump’s rise to political prominence can be tied to the populism identified with Andrew Jackson’s vision for America. By contrast, Barack Obama’s presidency symbolized a globalist perspective, one that more appropriately could be aligned with aspects of Jefferson’s view of what America ought to become.

Americans in general find themselves living in very different political worlds, and so it is with America’s Jews. These generic divisions can be demonstrated for example by Rust Belt Americans, whose ideas radically disagree with the views of those individuals who might be described as “liberal universalists.” By every standard, class, economics, religion, geography and culture, these distinctive groups of Americans have differing ideas about what it means to “be an American.”

Indeed, we find today among some of our citizens an “America First” orientation, with its emphasis on nationalistic policies concerning this country’s direction and destiny. Lacking trust in government and other civic institutions and questioning political leaders’ ability to deliver on their messages, these populist voters in the fall of 2016 embraced the counter-establishment message of Donald Trump, helping to elect him the 45th president.

By contrast, the urban-oriented, big-city voters, comprising this second voter cohort, embraced the liberal, globalist policies of Hilary Clinton. Drawing on David Goodhart’s analysis of the American political scene, “The Road to Somewhere,” we find two totally divergent worldviews emerging among this nation’s electorate. Those folks who relish the return to “the good old days” when people felt rooted in their communities, jobs and lives (i.e., somewhere) are seen as embattled against globalists who focus on the future with its emphasis on “anywhere,” affording them the opportunity to reimagine the world, and more directly, this nation.

We are reminded that the Jeffersonian camp’s liberalism is aligned with a fundamental belief in a commitment to social progress and global engagement, as reflected in our third president’s views on commerce and a commitment to international agreements. A significant cohort of Jewish voters in this country embrace these ideas, as do Jefferson’s philosophical orientation about the rights of the individual. In drafting the Declaration of Independence, he acclaimed, “all men are created equal.” Later, he expressed these ideas in his inaugural address:

“Though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression.” 

Just as Americans in general appear to have limited points of connection and shared agreement with their fellow citizens who hold contrary political views, the Jewish political divisions reflect a similar disconnect. Aspects of these competing ideologies have attracted specific Jewish constituencies. Jewish Republicans today include a significant number of Orthodox voters, while also enjoying a growing commitment from newer American-Jewish constituencies, including Iranian, Russian and Israeli citizens. Correspondingly, secular and Reform Jews, along with a majority of Conservative (religious) Jews, identify as Democrats.

The Jeffersonian camp’s liberalism is aligned with a fundamental belief in a commitment to social progress and global engagement.

American-Jewish Voters
Jews often see their politics through four lenses. One’s worldview provides insights into what America’s role ought to be in the world. Identity politics defines how Jews understand and pursue their specific self-interests. A third criteria involve the differing perspectives on the role of government in society. Finally, where does religion fit into the social construct (religion and society)? 

 The liberal “worldview” perspective desires that this nation employ the resources of the international community in promoting our strategic interests. A contrasting outlook contends that America has core interests that can be defended only by the United States. Jacksonian Jews have become increasingly distrustful of the United Nations and other global bodies in advancing this nation’s policies and in protecting Israel’s well-being.

Identity politics can be addressed from a distinctive Jewish focus. “Is it good for the Jews?” may serve as the essential question, as many Republican Jews embrace Donald Trump as being “good for America and the Jewish community,” citing his pro-Israel actions as emblematic of why this president ought to be seen as favorable to the interests of American Jewry. By contrast, when viewing this administration, many liberal Jews see this president as problematic, even dangerous. Israel’s welfare, they would argue, must be seen in the context of America’s larger interests on the international stage. The Jacksonian camp endorses Trump’s positions on Israel, Iran, the Palestinians and the U.N. In contrast, Jeffersonian Jews oppose the president’s policies in connection with the U.N. and international cooperation, the Middle East and an array of domestic issues.

With reference to the role of government, the Jeffersonian camp sees society as open to celebrating alternative ideas and divergent cultural expressions. It views the role of government as enhancing and promoting social change. Jeffersonian Jews believe that a vital, just society is dependent on the political and social inclusion of all Americans, as they push back against efforts to marginalize minorities and women. Jacksonian Jews, on the other hand, believe that government, as an institution, ought to have a more focused, limited role. Behaviors and practices that violate the social norms of the culture should be rejected. In the mindset of a political conservative, “Constitutionalism” ought to define the limits of government activism.

The fourth criteria focus on religion and society. In the mindset of Jewish liberals, the “wall” of separation between church and state protects this democracy from any one religion or religious ideas from dominating and influencing the political culture. By contrast, Jewish conservatives see religion as a core asset and value of the society. They believe that religious ideas and practices ought to be encouraged and celebrated within the public square, while rejecting the separationist position as not reflective of the intent of this nation’s founders.

In some measure, each camp has a fundamentally different outlook on the contemporary political environment. Jacksonian Jews see the world as a dangerous place for Jews in general and Israel in particular. Having a proven friend in the White House is an essential ingredient in fighting anti-Semitism. A Jeffersonian Jewish perspective might see some of the president’s actions as providing short-term victories without fundamentally changing the basic condition or his policies contributing to the rise in religious violence and social tensions.

Managing Threats to Jews
Jewish political conservatives worry about left-wing, anti-Israel political activities while being less concerned about the alt-right and other right-of-center political expressions, in light of the support that Israel enjoys within the conservative camp. Jewish progressives, on the other hand, appear to have concerns about extremist positions on the far left and right within American politics. A particular worry for this constituency centers on the alt-right and extremist groups’ ties to the current president and his agenda.

The liberal “worldview” perspective desires that this nation employ the resources of the international community in promoting our strategic interests. A contrasting outlook contends that America has core interests that can be defended only by the United States.

How We See Israel
The internal Jewish divide around Israel is a central element in this larger battle over the Jewish future. As American Jews, what should our relationship be with the Jewish state? Two perspectives are driving this debate as well. Israel defenders would argue on what basis should Diaspora communities have the right to publicly critique Israel over its policies and actions? Ought that “right” be left to the citizens of the Jewish nation? Responders from the Diaspora push back, challenging that assumption, noting that Israel was created as the collective expression of the Jewish people, and as such, all Jews not only have the right to express their views but have an obligation to assert their ideas.

Each camp offers a set of complaints about the other. For example, Republicans see liberal Jews as undermining the core interests of Israel. They identify J Street and New Israel Fund, among other institutions, as offering messages and providing support to causes and policies that Jewish conservatives view as problematic. Trump Jews are accused by progressives of focusing only on narrow Jewish interests, demonstrating minimal support for broader social and humanitarian concerns. Liberal Jews worry that the Jewish political right does not appreciate the more subtle interests, core values and agendas that define evangelical Christianity.

Allies in the Battle for America
Each of these constituencies has identified political allies that embrace some, if not all, of their policy positions. Liberal Jews see many of their positions championed by Latino and African-American organizations, specific Protestant and civil liberty interest groups. By contrast, fundamental religious constituencies and an array of conservative political organizations embrace the Israel-U.S. relationship. Certainly, this president’s actions must be seen as reflecting the values and interests of many Jewish Republicans. In turn, Jewish progressives do not find either the messages or actions of this White House to be appealing to their sensibilities or civic priorities.

The political behaviors and beliefs associated with these two definitions of American democracy may provide some clearer insights into the competing viewpoints found among American Jews. As Jews move into the fifth generation of their Americanism, they are increasingly taking on the characteristics and values that more appropriately reflect the mainstream ideas associated with these different definitions on American political identity. If, in the past, Jewish voters were committed to a more consensus-based political orientation, then today as part of their acculturation into 21st-century culture, Jews are rapidly taking on the attributes of the larger social order.

We therefore ought not to be surprised by a growing divergence of Jewish political practice that reflects less on the shared interests that once defined the “Jewish vote” and that currently promotes a more generic view of this nation’s diverse and changing political dynamics. Today, little binds together America’s Jews. At this point, can we even be defined as a community? That term implies a set of shared values and common goals. As part of our divergent American journeys, there is little that appears to bind together Jacksonian and Jeffersonian Jews.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. A different version of this article appeared at an earlier date on eJewishphilanthropy. His writing can be found on his website, thewindreport.com. 

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