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Americans Jews: lean Democrat, but highly divided

Denominational lines divide the community as 87% of Reform Jews favour Biden and 75% of Orthodox favour Trump

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Although a winner has now emerged in the American presidential race, it is difficult not to see America as a profoundly divided country. Proportionately, the popular vote was split more or less equally between the two main candidates, about 51 to 48 per cent, and in terms of votes cast, both Biden and Trump broke the 70 million barrier, more than any other American presidential candidate, winner or loser, in history.

On the face of it, Jewish Americans appear to be rather more unified. US Jews have long been known to favour the Democrats: the closest Jewish Americans have come in the past half century to showing a Republican preference occurred in 1980 when 46 per cent voted for Ronald Reagan, in an election he won against the incumbent Jimmy Carter by a landslide. But over that same period, the average split has been 74/26 per cent in favour of the Democrats. It has fluctuated a little, rising as high as 84/16 in favour of Bill Clinton in 1992, but the general pattern has been remarkably consistent.

Just before this year’s election, there was some suggestion that the balance had shifted somewhat. One poll, sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), found that Jewish votes for Biden and Trump were split two-thirds to one-third in favour of Biden, and RJC quickly proclaimed that the Republican Jewish vote hadn’t been so high since Reagan’s day. But two other polls – one from the left-leaning JStreet, and another from the more neutral American Jewish Committee (AJC) – found splits of 79/21 and 77/23 per cent in favour of Biden (after removing the ‘don’t knows’ and any preferences for candidates other than Biden or Trump), suggesting that little has really changed. The Democrat leaning appears to be as strong as ever.

American Jewish preferences for President, immediately prior to 2020 presidential election

Yet looking a little closer, Jewish Americans are rather less unified than the simple figures suggest. The Jewish denominational differences are particularly striking. In the JStreet study, just 7 per cent of Reform Jews and 28 per cent of Conservative Jews had a favourable view of Trump, whereas the equivalent proportion among Orthodox Jews was 75 per cent. Favourability towards Biden showed the same pattern in reverse: 87 per cent of Reform Jews and 65 per cent of Conservative Jews favoured him, compared to just 19 per cent of the Orthodox.

The RJC and AJC polls found much the same – dramatic distinctions between Orthodox Jews and all other Jewish denominational groups, with the same overwhelmingly pro-Trump leaning among the Orthodox and pro-Biden leaning among the rest. In short, any apparent uniformity among Jews in America quickly dissolves when placed under even the most basic scrutiny.

Moreover, if we pan out and consider the views of Israeli Jews, we encounter even more division. An Israel Democracy Institute poll conducted just before the US election found that Israeli Jews were overwhelmingly pro-Trump, with 84 per cent having a favourable view and just 16 per cent an unfavourable one, once those who didn’t express an opinion were removed from the calculation. The data weren’t analysed along denominational lines, but there is a clear distinction along political ones: the Israeli right is almost entirely pro-Trump; the Israeli left is split down the middle.

So the divisions are clear, between Israeli Jews and American Jews, between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, between the left and the right. We may all be Jews, but if our preferences in the American presidential election are indicative, we differ significantly in terms of our core values.

When we put these data together, global Jewry seems to be split. About half of us favour particularist ideas – make America great, make Israel ours, make Judaism Orthodox – whilst the other half favours more universalist ones – make America fair, make Israel democratic, make Judaism open. And collectively, the risk of tensions, schisms even, along these lines is abundantly clear.

Judaism contains strong particularist and strong universalist ideas. These shouldn’t be competing forces trying to vanquish one another; they should be complementary forces

But the thing is, Judaism contains strong particularist and strong universalist ideas. These shouldn’t be competing forces trying to vanquish one another; they should be complementary forces trying to strengthen one another for the sake of the whole. People on both side of the divides have important things to say, important values to highlight. Redemption lies somewhere in the interaction between them, in the life-enhancing dialogue that builds commonality and helps all of us to find what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” As much as American society needs that right now, so does the Jewish world.

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Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Dr Jonathan Boyd

Executive Director

Jonathan has been Executive Director of JPR since 2010, having previously held research and policy positions at the JDC International Centre for Community Development in...

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