For most American Jews, the core of their Jewish identity revolves around ideas relating to social justice rather than thinking about Israel or observing Jewish religious laws and traditions. That has long been obvious to observers of a community, the majority of whose members have either discarded religion from their lives altogether or who affiliate or identify with liberal denominations of Judaism. This was confirmed again by the most recent definitive study of American Jewish life conducted by the Pew Research Institute and published in 2021.
That study revealed that when asked to define what being Jewish means to them the most popular answers were, in this order: remembering the Holocaust (76%), leading an ethical and moral life (72%), and working for justice and equality in society (59%). Far down the list were more ideas that are more particular to Jewish existence: caring about Israel (45%), being part of a Jewish community (32%), and dead last and falling below things like having a sense of humor (32%) and eating traditional foods (20%) was observing Jewish religious law (15%).
Given the demographic makeup of American Jewry is predominantly secular that makes sense. Those who identify in some way as being Jewish generally see themselves as part of a community that, while obliged to remember past tragedies affecting their relatives, are primarily interested in ideas that align with their liberal political beliefs.
While Judaism contains elements that are both sectarian and apply only to Jews, as well as universal values, most contemporary American Jewish discourse outside of the Orthodox world revolves around the pursuit of social justice. Liberals are entirely correct to label that quest as quintessentially Jewish though it has often led them to prioritize issues that are secular over those that are related to the security and survival of Jews in a hostile world.
The debate over the wisdom of those priorities is one that conservatives and the more religiously observant may take issue with. But the question to ask about all of this is whether in an era of political realignment, Jews who say they are motivated by a desire to advance social justice are actually supporting policies that do the opposite simply because of partisan loyalties and personal interest.
As astonishing as it may be to those who came of age politically in the 20th century or even the first decade of the 21st, the party once seen as the defender of the working class—the Democrats—is now one that seems to appeal most to the highly educated and the upper classes, and the one that used to be the party of Wall Street—the Republicans—is now one that seems to appeal primarily to the working class.
Given that American Jews are among the most highly educated people in the country—as well as, on balance, more likely to be well off than poor—it is unsurprising that this means that while some groups on both sides of the spectrum are figuratively crossing the aisle, the overwhelming majority of Jews remain firmly in the Democratic column.
Since Jewish Democrats believe that places them firmly on the side of social justice, there is little reason to believe that most of them will be part of the shifting landscape of American politics. Yet even if we must concede that this is an unalterable fact of life, it still begs the question as to why so many of them are supporting some of the most regressive ideas and policies proposed in living memory.
One example is the widespread hostility among liberal Jews towards any measures that are taken to halt illegal immigration into the country. Citing the religious obligation to care for “the stranger,” Jews were among the most hostile to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to build a border wall and to deter, if not shut down, the flood of people pouring over America’s southern border without the legal right to do so. Jewish groups didn’t just support proposals for amnesty for the illegal immigrant population; many employed inappropriate Holocaust analogies and compared those defying the rule of law to those who fled the Nazis. Yet even those who made no egregious comparisons of economic migrants from Central America to Anne Frank believe that President Joe Biden’s decision to more or less halt the enforcement of immigration laws and downgrade border security that amounts to an open borders policy is a matter of social justice.
Yet few, if any, of them stop to think that while their lives and livelihoods are unaffected by the hundreds of thousands entering the country in this manner, those who live in border communities and states are having a very different experience as drug trafficking and violence go hand-in-hand with those who profit from illicit border crossings. Nor do they ponder the fact that poorer and working-class Americans, including minorities, are the losers in this exchange. Though support for a steady supply of cheap labor is, as it always has been, enthusiastically supported by Wall Street, it is low-wage workers who are disadvantaged by this situation.
Perhaps even more egregious is the enthusiasm among liberal Jews for Biden’s most recent policy initiative: a plan to “forgive” what amounts to approximately $330 billion in student loan debt. This is being sold as a way to help struggling Americans deal with the exorbitant costs of higher education as well as helping those on the lower end of the economic scale since there are income limits on whose debts can be written off by the taxpayers.
That claim is among the most disingenuous assertions in recent political history.
While this will likely help a lot of Jewish families, it must also be understood as a massive wealth transfer from the working class and the uneducated to those who either now or in the future will be upper middle- or upper-class citizens. Fully 70% of those who will benefit the most from this policy will be those in the top 60% of Americans by income. Top earners now have a far greater share of student loan debt than those at the bottom.
In an act of perhaps unintentional irony, Harvard Law School Professor Lawrence Tribe took to Twitter to thank Biden for a policy that will be “good news for thousands of my former students.” They should be grateful. But no one should confuse a policy that will benefit some of the most privileged and ultimately wealthy people at the expense of the hard-earned taxpayer dollars paid to Washington by truck drivers, food servers and manual laborers, with justice. It’s nothing less than Robin Hood in reverse.
That this federal spending spree will also help fuel the record inflation the country is currently experiencing, which also disproportionately impacts the poor and the working class, only adds to the injustice and manifest unfairness of this scheme.
Of course, if we really wanted to do something about the cost of college—a genuine problem, as tuitions have risen in recent decades far beyond the inflation rate—we could force institutions of higher education to be accountable rather than pour more federal money into them which only encourages them to continue to overcharge students for degrees.
Seen in that light, it makes it difficult to take a lot of the rhetoric about the imperative to pursue social justice from Jewish liberals seriously. When it comes to government-provided student loans, they are merely pursuing their own self-interest. The same applies to their open borders stands. Far from defending Jewish values about helping the less privileged, what they are doing is supporting ideas that make America less fair for those on the bottom and better for those on the top. You can call that a lot of things, but none of them have anything to do with justice.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.