American Jews aren’t swinging Right (Unherd)

The Israel-Palestine conflict has not caused a Democratic exodus.

American sympathy for Israel is not turning into a Republican surge. Credit: Getty

Despite sections of the American Left coddling Hamas and criticising Israel in the wake of the former’s atrocities against Israeli civilians, most American Jews do not appear likely to follow co-religionists such as Jared Kushner or Steven Miller into the Republican camp.

In Britain, Jewish Labour MPs outnumbered Jewish Conservative MPs 20 to one between 1945 and the 1970s. Yet by 1983, under Margaret Thatcher, there were more Jewish Conservative MPs than Labour MPs with the same religious beliefs. Today, among Jewish MPs, there are two Tories for each Labour equivalent. Jews are the strongest Tory religious demographic, with the Jewish Chronicle uncovering a 69-22 Tory advantage over Labour in 2015 and a 77-13 margin in 2019. In Canada, too, Jews lean more towards the Conservative Party than the rest of the Canadian population, with the strong pro-Israel stance of former prime minister Stephen Harper deemed part of the explanation.

While Jews elsewhere have moved to the Right, the US remains an outlier. Since the 1970s, American Jews have broken approximately 70-30 in favour of the Democrats, with fluctuation around that average. On the other hand, white Catholics, who leaned Democratic by a similar margin between 1850 and 1970, now incline two to one in favour of the GOP.

Might Hamas’s incursion into Israel and the response among portions of the American Left change their minds?

In order to find out, I conducted a small survey experiment with 140 Jewish American respondents recruited on Prolific, an online survey platform. Half the sample read a short article which mentioned that “Liberals and Democrats are shifting toward sympathy with the Palestinians and away from Israel. In 2014, Democrats were almost 40 points more likely to support Israel than the Palestinians. By 2023, they were 11 points more pro-Palestinian.”

In addition, I recounted a number of the stories coming out of American campuses. 

“The attacks represent ‘a historic win for the Palestinian resistance’, said the National Students for Justice in Palestine, which counts more than 200 campus affiliates across North America. ‘This is what it means to Free Palestine: not just slogans and rallies, but armed confrontation with the oppressors.’ […] Separately, a group of about 35 student organisations at Harvard University issued their own petition blaming Israel for the violence and Harvard for enabling it “through its investment in companies operating in illegal settlements”.

The other half of the sample read nothing before answering questions.

Reading the passage above had no significant impact on sympathy for Israel. Nearly seven in 10 American Jews in the survey took Israel’s side, with only 8% sympathising more with the Palestinians, and 21% with both.

Those who read the paragraph seemed to shift against the Right, in a phenomenon political psychologists term “reactance”. Notably, the shift occurred only among those who support Israel over the Palestinians. That is, pro-Israel Jews who read the above passage leaned 81-13 Democratic whereas pro-Israel Jews who did not read it tilted just 56-23 Democratic. The takeaway here is that events in the Middle East, and the changing attitudes of Democrats toward Israel, are unlikely to produce the kind of shifts in Jewish opinion found in the somewhat less politically partisan contexts of Britain, Canada and France.

Longer term, American Jews are likely to shift toward the GOP the old-fashioned way: through the considerably higher birth rates of ultra-Orthodox Jews and the greater propensity of liberal Jews to marry gentiles. The ultra-Orthodox backed Trump overwhelmingly in 2016 and 2020. As the map of 2020 voting in New York shows, relatively Hasidic Williamsburg, Borough Park and Crown Heights (circled below) stick out as islands of Trump red in a strongly blue city.

Since the ultra-Orthodox, with four times the birth rate of secular Jews, are projected to be a majority of observant American Jews by 2050, and the modern Orthodox are also more Republican than other Jews, the age profile of Jewish voters looks very different from that of other white groups. Among Jews, the large-scale CCES survey shows just a 20-point Democratic advantage among the 18-25s compared to a 40-point Democratic lean among older Jews. For other white Americans, by contrast, the young are considerably more Democratic than the old.

American Jews will become Republican one birth and one funeral at a time, rather than because of high-profile political events that preoccupy the commentariat.

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