Cornell University Press Authors' blogs

American Jews as “Liberal” as Ever

Return to Home

Donald Trump may be the most pro-Jewish, and certainly pro-Israel, president in American history. In 2018, Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. In 2019, he recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli. And earlier this year, he revealed a peace plan that was widely viewed as favorable to Israel. What is more, Trump spent his life working among and socializing well with Jews, and his daughter, Ivanka, is a convert to Judaism, raising her children in the faith. For all that, American Jews remain overwhelmingly Democrat in affiliation and broad sections of the community, especially many of its pundits and intellectuals, express palpable hostility to Trump.

In short, most American Jews remain very “liberal,” just as they have done for over a century. While other white ethnic groups have moved to the “right” as they became wealthier and more integrated, Jews started out much further to the “left” and they have remained outliers. American Jews are also noticeably more liberal than Jews elsewhere.

My book explores the phenomenon of the American Jewish left across the twentieth century. I look at three generations to show that the phenomenon has persisted across time and different contexts. I discount explanations of Jewish politics that have emphasized antisemitism and class as causes. These factors were not paramount in the United States. In fact, the opposite situation prevailed. Jews have objectively been broadly socially accepted in America and have achieved unprecedented material prosperity there. It is precisely these conditions that have challenged Jewish identity, especially concepts and practices of exile. The American Jewish left was not a response to antisemitism or working-class hardship, but rather, I observe, an ongoing effort to renovate a secular or non-orthodox Jewish identity against relentless forces of bourgeois assimilation and ethnic dissolution. In this effort, American Jews have long identified with out-groups and challenged essentially white-Protestant social norms. By understanding the Jewish left as serving a purpose in this way, we can better explain its persistence and also the peculiar distribution of its expression.

While most American Jews identify on the left, not all sub-groups have done so. Ultra-orthodox Jews, whose numbers are now growing but were historically small in the United States, are much more conservative than their secular counterparts and always have been. They are also the most visibly Jewish Jews, belying notions that Jewish leftism can be explained by marginality. Further, in the past, the more assimilationist German Jewish community, which predated Russian Jews in the country, were less radical and more Republican than their Eastern European peers. While this group has since faded away as a distinct community, we can still observe that Jewish converts to Christianity are more Republican in affiliation than their secular ethnic counterparts. Overwhelming leftism has mostly prevailed among secular ethnic Eastern European Jews and their descendants. This distribution in political expression points to the function of American Jewish left-wing postures.

Of course, American Jews are assimilating faute de mieux. The intermarriage rate among secular American Jews is very high. But it is precisely in their ongoing left-wing sentiments that American Jews remain distinct from other groups of comparable reference, suggesting the persistence of Jewish identity. If American Jews were fully assimilated, we should not expect them to differ so markedly in political expression from other whites. American Jews’ “liberalism” remains an exercise in and indication of non-assimilation. My book is an important resource for understanding the origins and evolution of the American Jewish left. Neither Republican outreach to Jews nor Trump’s strong support has shaken this commitment. Time will tell if factors, such as antisemitism or anti-Zionism among left-wing parties, will dissolve the bonds between American Jews and “liberalism,” as they have done in France, Canada, and Britain, but for now, such friction has not rattled the American Jewish community out of its established patterns.

Get The Politics of Nonassimilation: The American Jewish Left in the Twentieth Century, for only $20.20, this week only, with promo code 09TWENTY!

David Verbeeten received his PhD in political history from the University of Cambridge. He works as an insurance consultant at ConsenSys, a blockchain software company. He was previously an underwriter at Munich Re of Canada.

Book Finder