Author Archives: Gil Troy

Gil Troy

About Gil Troy

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

No, It Is Not That Hard To Be A Jew.

This article was written in response to Enrique Krauze’s working paper, It’s Still Hard to Be a Jew, which was presented at the Bronfman Vision Forum’s Judaism as Civilizations: Belonging in Age of Multiple Identities, a project of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation.

Es iz schwer tzu sein a yid. It is hard to be a Jew. I hate Sholom Aleichem‘s weary expression;  to me it reeks of herring and Holocaust, of Jewish weaklings and wimps, of Diaspora and despair. It does not speak to me as an American (and an American historian), privileged to be part of one of the greatest success stories in world history. Nor does it speak to me as a Jew born over a decade into Israel’s existence, viewing Israel and Zionism as one of the last century’s great redemptive stories.

proud zionist woman

Woman at a pro-Israel rally

The expression reminds me of my debate with my late Polish-born grandfather. Having fled the Polish army during the First World War, arriving in the Golden Medina, America, just before the immigration restrictions of the 1920s began, he saw anti-Semites behind every tree. He embraced what the great historian Salo Baron dismissed as the lachrymose view of Jewish history, seeing the Jewish experience as a vale of tears.  In contrast, I, a post-Auschwitz New York Jew and Zionist, appreciated the triumphs shaping Jewish history as well as the tragedies.

Reasoned Optimism

My stance is both ideological and tactical. Ideologically, I consider the phenomenon of Jewish continuity and the story of rebuilding Israel as among the great miracles of human history. I delight in seeing Jews in New York living the most modern, technologically-sophisticated, culturally-enlightened, intellectually-rich life any human being has ever dreamed of, while being able to pray three times a day, study Talmud in sleek corporate board rooms, and eat kosher food in trendy restaurants. And I marvel at most Israelis’ quality of life, building equally sophisticated lives in the Jewish people’s ancient homeland.

At the same time, strategically, given our modern culture’s lures and happy talk, I do not believe we will inspire a next generation if we make Judaism all about oppression and dilemmas. I have seen from working with Birthright Israel participants that members of this generation want to pursue their own particular Jewish journeys rather than be burdened by the ancestral guilt trip.

Are We Moving to the Right?

In one of the funnier–but more absurd–appeals for the Jewish vote in 2008, the trash-talking comedienne Sarah Silverman recorded a video for TheGreatSchlep.com, a website urging young Jews to lobby their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.

In her direct, conversational style Silverman riffed: “And I know you’re saying, like, ‘Oh my god, Sarah, I can’t believe you’re saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.’ Yes, that’s true, but you’re forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: nana, papa, zayde, bubbie, plain old grandma and grandpa.” 

As more than a million viewers watched the video on YouTube, and as moralists lamented the crass ethnic appeal, political analysts questioned the central assumption. While Jewish voting studies are unreliable, considering the statistically insignificant number of Jews in most samples polling the American population, most anaylses suggest that zayde and bubbie vote Democratic far more reliably than their grandchildren.

Jews as New Deal Democrats

Although Jews generally voted Republican from the Civil War through the Great Depression, most Jews became loyal Democrats thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his sweeping reforms. For decades thereafter, many Jews and non-Jews considered American Judaism and American liberalism mutually reinforcing ideologies.

Even today, the Urban Dictionary, the web’s street-savvy guide to slang, defines Jewish Republicans as people “who considers themselves to be Jewish but [are] ignorant of Jewish values, common sense, and/or the platforms, actions and reputations of the two major American political parties.”

These days the Urban Dictionary definition is anachronistic. Since the 1980s, the number of Jewish Republicans has grown significantly. They are a minority in the Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but Jewish Republicans are no longer merely an anomaly or a punch line.

The Neoconservative Backlash