Unhappy Jewish America

  • THE Vietnam war was raging when Sheldon Zimmerman arrived in Manhattan as a young rabbi. His liberal beliefs blended seamlessly with his Judaism: he once took a youth group from his synagogue to an anti-war march. A few years earlier rabbis marched with Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Jews risked (and lost) lives fighting for civil rights in the South.

Four decades later Mr Zimmerman leads the Jewish Centre of the Hamptons, a synagogue in East Hampton, a seaside haven for New York’s elite on Long Island. As never before, his love of Israel and his progressive politics are tugging him in different ways.This is an unhappy time for Jewish-Americans, and that is unusual. No other Jewish community is as visible and successful, outside Israel. Mr Zimmerman’s synagogue is built around a lovely, light-filled sanctuary of glass and cedar wood. Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, drops in to play concerts. Summer “Shabbat on the beach” draws 200 people to outdoor prayers (try that in parts of Europe, and lines of police would be needed).

Though the congregation includes wealthy donors to Democrats and Republicans, most share a vision of an Israel that is at once Jewish, democratic and respectful of all faiths and none—in part because American pluralism, dating back to the Founding Fathers, played such a role in letting Jews flourish. Mr Zimmerman winced when Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, fired up conservatives at Israel’s recent elections by warning that Arab-Israelis were poised to vote in “droves”. Nationally, Jewish leaders, notably in the Reform movement, expressed public disquiet, explicitly recalling the example of those who marched for minority voting rights in Selma in 1965.

President Barack Obama and aides have been harsher, attacking Mr Netanyahu for “divisive rhetoric”. They have threatened to reassess American diplomatic strategies in the light of Mr Netanyahu’s election-campaign statements that seemed to rule out a Palestinian state while he is in office. Brushing aside the Israeli leader’s attempts to soften that stance, Mr Obama now calls the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace “very dim”.

American Jews feel forced to choose between competing loyalties. Mr Zimmerman was proud to vote for Mr Obama, and is not alone. With the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1980, since 1972 Democratic contenders for the White House have received between 64% and 80% of Jewish votes. But now the rabbi feels his president is bent on the “public humiliation” of Israel’s prime minister. If Mr Obama were running again, Mr Zimmerman would probably not vote for him.

Congregation members harbour nagging concerns that Mr Obama has a vision for Middle East peace that puts wooing Iran, Saudi Arabia or Turkey ahead of Israel’s security (and that he is about to accept a bad deal with Iran that leaves the regime free to build nuclear weapons). More and more youngsters “feel beset on their campuses” by college campaigns against Israeli government policies. Their well-travelled parents worry that parts of Europe are an anti-Semitic no-go zone.

The synagogue in East Hampton has not turned solidly Republican overnight. Mr Obama will not be on the ballot again, and there is “a great deal of support” for Hillary Clinton: fans see her as pro-Israel. But what the rabbi calls the centre of political opinion is “very shaky”.

East Hampton lies at one end of New York’s first congressional district, a moderate seat which in last year’s election was snatched from the Democrats by Lee Zeldin, a hawkish Iraq war veteran who is now the only Republican Jewish member of Congress. The district is home to about 33,000 Jews. At its western edge sits Patchogue, a small town off the highway to New York. Many Jews there remain loyal Democrats. Elaine Pogar sells lingerie at Blums, a fixture on Main Street for 88 years. “Republicans are more for the money, not for the middle class,” she says.

Still, Mr Zeldin insists that more Jewish voters are reaching “breaking point” with the president. Rabbi Joel Levinson leads the Temple Beth El, a homely red-brick place. He suspects that Jewish votes did boost Mr Zeldin, helping him to a swing twice as large as the Republican national average. Mr Levinson switched his own vote in 2012 after years of backing Democrats. The rabbi does not share Republicans’ views on such issues as abortion. He was unimpressed when they invited Mr Netanyahu to address Congress on March 3rd without consulting the president—the partisan fuss obscured what he saw as vital warnings about Iran. But he thinks Mr Obama “petulant” towards Mr Netanyahu.

Jewish votes are only half of it

Treat talk of big shifts in the Jewish vote with caution. Jewish support for Democrats has slipped ten percentage points since 2008, with very religious and male Jews leading the shift rightwards. But support fell from sky-high levels. And with only 5m Jewish-Americans, depending on how they are counted, they routinely swing elections in only a few places, of which Florida is the most important. The Democrats’ problem is that Jewish supporters stiffen the party’s “organisational backbone” and donate a lot of money, argues Benjamin Ginsberg of Johns Hopkins University. Republicans do not need Jewish votes, he says: “What they need is for Jews to support Democrats less.”

Since the terror attacks of 2001, support for Israel has united Republicans. National security hawks and religious conservatives see Mr Netanyahu as a hero in a civilisational clash with radical Islam. In contrast, Israel divides the left. Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism, representing almost 900 synagogues, worries that if Israel becomes a partisan issue, liberal Jews will not vote Republican but they may drift away from Israel. These are anxious times. Jews have rarely had to choose between their American and Jewish identities: that has been one secret of America’s success. They do not want to start now.