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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The (Jewish) generation gap

This weekend, hundreds of young Jews will head to Florida (led by the yenta in the picture at left) in what Republicans Abroad Israel Chairman Kory Bardash is calling the "Great De-schleption" (Hat Tip: Shy Guy). The young Jews will attempt to convince their elderly grandparents to vote for Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Hussein Obama, in the hope of giving the swing state of Florida to the Democratic nominee. But truth be told, they may be wasting their time. Because the old folks apparently favor Obama in greater numbers than the young people do.
This year’s American Jewish Committee Survey of American Jewish Opinion, released late last week, suggests Obama “seems to have hit a ceiling” with Jewish voters, according to AJC Executive Director David Harris.

In the survey, the Democratic nominee scored 57 percent with Jewish voters overall — a slight decrease from two other recent polls and 12 percentage points below what John Kerry garnered in the same poll in the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.

And in a slap at the conventional political wisdom, the poll suggests younger Jewish
voters are more of a problem for the campaign than older ones.
And the reason that younger Jewish voters are a 'problem'?
The survey designers concede, however, that the number could be skewed by a political divide between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.
In other words, Orthodox Jews have different priorities than non-Orthodox Jews, and a larger percentage of Jewish young people are Orthodox than is the case in their parents' and grandparents' generation.
“Everybody assumes it’s the younger Jews who are most drawn to Obama,” said chief AJC pollster David Singer. “But we found the opposite — in the 60-plus category, 61 percent said they were for Obama, 57 percent for the 40-59 group, and 49 percent for those under 40.”

How did he explain a result that deviates from numerous reports about young Jewish voters flocking to the Obama cause?

“We don’t know,” Singer said. “But it may be that in the over-60 group this may not be as much a commitment to Obama as a reflection of people who have spent their whole voting lives — decades — voting Democratic. That pattern may be continuing to exert itself.”
Over at the Jewish Council on Education and Research Barack Hussein Obama's Jewish 527 group, Mik Moore rejects the idea that young Jews reject Obama.
“From those communications it seems quite clear that Jewish support for Obama — like general support for Obama — is strongest among younger voters.”

Moore said any suggestion that Obama is doing less well among younger Jews is “literally unbelievable.”

And there was also criticism that the AJC poll did not subdivide Jews under 40; it is widely assumed that Obama’s strongest support among Jews is coming from those under 30.
I believe that Singer is on to something.
As usual, there was a stark divide between Orthodox voters and those describing themselves as Conservative, Reform or “just Jewish.”

Jewish Democrats believe there is a new receptivity among Orthodox voters to their message, but the 78 percent of Orthodox respondents who signaled support for McCain, against only 13 percent for Obama, may give them pause.

Several analysts expressed surprise that only 62 percent of Reform voters — the Democrats’ strong Jewish base — said they would vote for Obama.

“Assuming these numbers stay consistent, it suggests that in parts of the country where there are strong Jewish communities, the drift to McCain and the Republican Party may be even stronger than predicted,” said Gilbert Kahn, a Kean University political scientist. “It suggests the Democrats have a lot more work to do.”
It's not really a question of 'more work.' For Orthodox Jews, Judaism is the central part of their life. We attend synagogue two or three times per day (the afternoon and evening services may be held relatively close together in communities where it's more convenient for people that way). We don't work on the Sabbath or the Jewish holidays. We send our children to Jewish schools, and we donate nearly all our charity to Jewish charities (and at a rate much higher than the average American, I might add).

For Orthodox Jews, our first concerns are Jewish concerns. While our views on abortion (to take a hot button that is not specifically Jewish) are nowhere near as strict as Catholic views, those views will take a back seat to concerns about Israel, the Iranian nuclear bomb and parents' ability to get a tax break for their children's private school tuitions. For the most part, those concerns aren't as central to non-Orthodox Jews in the United States. Sure we're concerned about the economy, but we won't necessarily vote for the candidate who will make most efficient use of our taxes if he's going to do it by taking away Israel's foreign assistance budget.

How does this play out with less young Jews supporting Obama? Today's Jews are frequently more religiously observant than their parents and grandparents. In many cities, more and more Orthodox synagogues are opening while synagogues of other streams are closing (or being taken over by the Orthodox). I'm in my early 50's (as some of you may know or have figured out) and I grew up just a few years after the 'Ba'al tshuva' (return to God) movement began. The people who became religious in my generation - many of whom could only read Hebrew awkwardly - got married and didn't just have one or two children. Every time I meet a non-Jew in the US, they are amazed by how many children I have. For that matter, so are many Jews. But in my neighborhood of Jerusalem (and something on the order of 90% of the Americans who immigrate to Israel are Orthodox Jews - yes, that's a fact), we're an average - and maybe even a slightly below average - sized family.

In the community in which I last lived in the US before moving to Israel, there are now 25 times as many Orthodox Jews (and that may be a conservative estimate - I'm making it based on the number of kids in the more 'ultra-Orthodox' school) as there were 20 years ago. Some moved in since I left and some grew up there. The conservative and reform temples in that town have both been taken over by the Orthodox community. In total there are probably four times as many synagogues in that town as there were when I moved there 25 years ago. And when I go back there to visit, I'm one of the oldest people around. All those kids are growing up and voting. And as Johns Hopkins political scientist Benjamin Ginsberg would put it, they're voting a lot like Evangelical Protestants.

If the current trends continue, the Democratic party is going to have a real problem with the Jewish community going ahead. While Jews from other streams intermarry out of the religion, R"L (God save us), Jews who grow up Orthodox very rarely do. The demographics are that Orthodox Jews are becoming a larger and larger percentage of Jews, because we have more children and because so many non-Orthodox Jews leave the faith. New Republic editor Marty Peretz argues in today's JPost that there are very few Jewish Republicans. He doesn't back that claim up with numbers. But however many Jewish Republicans there are, their numbers are likely to be the fastest growing in the US for many years to come (especially if the hard left continues to dominate Democratic party activism).

These demographics play out only slightly differently in Israel. This post is too long as it is, and that will have to wait for another time (maybe when there are elections in Israel). But every survey of American Jews living in Israel (and we are the largest community of American expatriates in the World - 23% of all American expatriates live in Israel) shows overwhelming support for McCain. Is that partly because a large percentage of the American Jews who live in Israel are Orthodox? You can bet on it.


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