The Jewish Vote

Seeking the party of the outs.

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In post-revolutionary America, the Democratic-Republicans were on the side of church-state separation, and the Federalists were more likely to support church estab­lishment, blue laws, and religious tests for voting. In the Jacksonian era, the Whigs, rather than the Democrats, were more likely to push for blue laws and were more sym­pathetic to the temperance movement. In post-Civil War America, the GOP was domi­nant in New England and the Upper Midwest, and Republicans, too, adopted the Whig's worldview.

In many cities at the turn of the century, it was the WASP, mugwump, clean-government types (often Republicans) who opposed ethnic-dominated machines. On the issue of municipal reform, they could appeal to Jewish voters. But when these same reformers pushed for enforcement of Sunday closings, they lost their Jewish im­migrant constituency.

In the 20th century, this pattern continued, despite the fact that Democrats abandoned their libertarian impulses with regard to government's support for the so­cial welfare state. Prayer in school was supported at midcentury by Democrats in the South as well as by the majority of Republicans. However, by the end of the century, the Christian Right had made school prayer an almost exclusively Republican issue. Moreover, late 20th-century Republican opposition to such issues as abortion rights also made Jewish support for the party problematic.

Looking Out for Other Jews

A second thread throughout American history is Jewish concern over the fate of their co-religionists abroad. Neither Democrats, nor Whigs, nor Republicans were consistently on the right side of this issue. In antebellum America, Jews both re­warded the Democrats for Van Buren's protest of the Damascus blood libel [in which several Syrian Jews were tortured in 1840 following accusations that they ritually slaughtered a monk] and pun­ished Buchanan's Democrats for the president's refusal to criticize the pope in the Mortara affair [when papal police in 1858 kidnapped a Jewish boy who had been baptized by a household servant].

Post-Civil War Republican presidents won praise from Jews for criti­cizing Romanian or czarist anti-Semitism. But when President Taft opposed an at­tempt to abrogate a discriminatory Russian trade treaty, he paid a price in Jewish votes during his reelection campaign.

In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt's increasing antagonism toward Hitler's Germany created a loud uproar among isolationists in both parties. Yet, the lasting impression among American Jews was the contrast between Democratic antifascism and clear inter­nationalism and Republican intransigent isolationism.

Support for or criticism of Israel has, of course, influenced Jewish voters. Truman's quick recognition of the Jewish state brought benefits to the Democrats in 1948. Eisen­hower seemed not to have been hurt by his pressure on the Israelis in the 1956 Suez cri­sis, but the same cannot be said for Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980 or Republican George H. W. Bush in 1992.

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Ira N. Forman

Ira N. Forman is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the research director of the Solomon Project.