For the overwhelming majority of Americans, Labor Day weekend is the unofficial end of summer. But like other federal holidays, such as Memorial Day, which were once rooted in specific historical experiences such as the carnage of the Civil War, the first Monday of September is no longer tied specifically to a celebration of the labor movement.
Labor unions are still with us, but in an economy that is no longer dominated by manufacturing industries they are but a shadow of their former selves both in terms of their numbers and their political muscle. The Jewish labor movement, which was once a dominant force in the life of American Jewry, is now almost entirely a function of memory.
A century ago, most Jews were immigrants or the children of immigrants with a large percentage working in sweatshop industries in which the labor movement was essential to the creation of better conditions and pay. But while the ideologues of labor focused on class distinctions, they underestimated the genius of the American system that fostered social mobility, and the ability of poor and working class people to ascend to the middle class. The opportunities afforded by the American commitment to mass education and the principles of economic freedom served as a pathway by which the descendants of those sweatshop denizens became a Jewish community largely composed of prosperous, college-educated professionals.
Today’s American Jews have little in common with their working-class forebears, let alone those Americans who currently toil in blue-collar jobs. But, as Milton Himmelfarb’s famous quip about Jews “earning like Episcopalians but voting like Puerto Ricans” illustrated, their politics are largely based on the same policy assumptions that animated those who marched to protest the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City and later cheered for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal.”
Many liberal Jews can still be heard mouthing some of the same platitudes about the plight of the poor and the working class that could have been uttered by their grandparents. While they speak of “social justice” rather than socialism, the basic intent is the same. But Labor Day is an apt moment to contemplate the disconnect between the liberal rhetoric that harkens back to the heyday of the Jewish labor movement, as well as the needs and voting patterns of today’s average American. Elites who mimic the rallying cries of the Jewish poor a century ago don’t understand why working-class voters have little interest in the political patent nostrums they are peddling.
One example is the debate about immigration.
Jewish liberals raised on the memory of the great migration from Eastern Europe to the United States and the cruel refusal of the Roosevelt administration to rescue the doomed millions who were slain in the Holocaust are now the loudest advocates for illegal immigrants.
While that sounds like it is consistent with Jewish history and values, it is based on the false premise that the situation in 2019 resembles that of either 1899 or 1939. The America of more than a century ago was a country that needed immigrants to work in the labor-intensive manufacturing industries that were fueling America’s rise to global power. The vast majority of those who cross the U.S. border illegally are not fleeing for their lives, as Jewish refugees from the Nazis were. They do want a better life, but the country they are attempting to enter isn’t the same place that welcomed Jewish immigrants, as well as other nationalities, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the same hopes. The industries and jobs that existed then have either disappeared or now have shrunken labor forces. Opposition to immigration has always existed. Yet if working-class Americans are largely opposed to the notion of a new mass migration into the country composed largely of illegal immigration, it’s because they know an open-borders policy is a threat to their already precarious financial existence.
The same principle applies to contemporary discussions about economic inequality.
While the gap between the rich and the poor is troubling, the policies pushed by many Jewish liberals are not in the interests of grassroots Americans. Union members generally like their health-care plans, but if the “Medicare for all” plans of the left were adopted, they would lose their current insurance and be condemned to endure worse coverage.
Liberal economic orthodoxies do more to block the traditional path to better jobs and entry to the middle class that served past generations so well than to ease their way. For example, raising minimum wages is part of the left-wing catechism, though hiking hourly rates for workers always lead to fewer jobs as businesses fire people they can no longer afford to pay.
This leveling impulse is also having a deleterious impact on the other engine of social mobility: education.
In New York City, liberal elites led by Mayor Bill de Blasio are seeking to undermine, if not completely abolish, public schools that cater to gifted students. Such special schools offered the children of the Jewish poor a way to exploit their talents and ascend to the heights of every sector of American life. But while they have allowed so much of public education to become a dead-end for today’s children trapped in poverty, liberals now see schools for gifted kids as an obstacle to schemes that are more interested in racial quotas than advancement.
It is any wonder then that today’s average voter rejects liberal elites and helped elect Donald Trump president? They know that these top-down schemes are more likely to hurt than help them and rightly resent being told that their opposition makes them “deplorables.”
Concern for the poor is deeply embedded in Jewish faith, law and tradition. Yet blue-collar Americans are far more likely to view liberal fixes as a threat to their jobs and their values. Those who seek to revive the spirit of the Jewish labor movement should recognize that what they are selling is exactly the sort of limousine liberalism that today’s American workers understand is out of touch with their needs.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.