I’ve spent a lot of time in this space over the course of the past year preaching about the importance for American Jews of strengthening our relationships with other underrepresented communities. The once-vital relationship between Jewish and black leaders that was of such critical importance throughout the civil rights era has withered, and the Jewish community has made fitful progress in efforts to develop bonds with Latino and Asian-Pacific movements.
But as the political, generational and cultural divisions within our own community continue to grow, it may be that the most important bridge-building that needs to happen is actually between Jews. When an in-depth study of American Jews from the Pew Research Study was released last summer, one of the most important findings focused on the dramatically different partisan political leanings between Orthodox Jews and less religiously observant members of the community. When Pew last undertook such a research project in 2013, 57 percent of Orthodox Jews identified themselves as Republicans. Only eight years later, that figure had grown to 75 percent. (By comparison, 70-80 percent of Conservative, Reform and non-denominational Jews call themselves Democrats.)
These rapidly changing numbers are a reflection of a broader trend in American society in which the intensity of an individual’s religious beliefs has become one of the most reliable demographic indicators of partisan voting behavior. For most of modern political history, the most visible differentiator was a voter’s income. (The more money someone made, the more likely they were to vote Republican.) But in the late 20th century, as social and cultural issues like abortion, guns and what were then known as gay rights became more prominent in national politics, the voters’ religiosity—that is, the frequency with which they attend religious services—became more important. A few decades later, these culture wars now define American politics.
So it should come as no surprise that just as evangelical and fundamentalist Christians vote Republican in larger numbers while their less devout colleagues increasingly lean Democratic, the same cultural/religious divide has emerged in the Jewish community. Orthodox Jews, along with Israeli emigres and Jews of Persian heritage, comprise a strongly conservative bloc of GOP supporters, but are vastly outnumbered by the overwhelming Democratic tendencies of Reform, Conservative or secular Jews.
At the same time that this partisan divide is growing within the Jewish community, the number of Orthodox Jews is also rapidly increasing. The Pew study found that 17 percent of U.S. Jews between the ages of 18 to 29 identify as Orthodox, compared to just 3 percent of those over 65. That almost six-fold increase coincides with a similar proliferation in the number of what Pew refers to as “Jews of no religion,” Jews who do not define their Jewish identity according to religious beliefs or practices. Only one in five Jews in the Pew survey said that religion is very important to them, only half of the percentage of the roughly 20 percent of all Americans who say the same thing.
Which leaves us with a widening divide in the Jewish community, with both Orthodox and secular Jewish cohorts both rapidly growing and moving further apart from each other politically. But Jews still represent only about two percent of the U.S. population, which means that our political, societal and cultural influence in the American conversation is now becoming not just small but also divided against itself. That’s not an ideal recipe for any community that benefits from clout—and from protection against hostile outside actors.
No community can—or should—be completely homogenous. And there are considerable benefits to maintaining strong relationships in both political parties rather than being seen as captive to either one. But as the nation’s politics become angrier and uglier, the question is whether American Jews can find a way to avoid that type of polarization and balkanization. There’s no way to predict whether our heritage is strong enough to allow us to overcome heated disagreements over U.S. politics. But it’s becoming clear that our most important bridge-building efforts will need to take place inside the Jewish community before we can successfully reach outward.
Dan Schnur teaches political communications at UC Berkeley, USC and Pepperdine. He hosts the weekly webinar “Politics in the Time of Coronavirus” for the Los Angeles World Affairs Council & Town Hall.
This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.
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