The Jewish Vote, Abortion, and Status Politics

April 4, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The “Jewish vote” came up on Fresh Air yesterday.  The interviewee was Peter Beinart (for the audio and transcript go here), and most of the interview was about Israel, specifically his proposal that Americans boycott products from West Bank settlements. 

Towards the end of the interview though, Beinart said that despite the controversy over his proposal, and despite politicians’ ringing statements of stout support for the Jewish state, Israel was not much of a factor in the Jewish vote.  But if not Israel, then what?
The single biggest driver of the Jewish vote in America is actually abortion.*
On the surface, this makes no sense.  Does the Talmud or any of the commentaries tell us that abortion is a mitzvah?  Does abortion directly affect the lives of many Jews – either as doctors or as patients?  I doubt it.  Instead, at least for American Jews, abortion is a matter of status politics.  Its symbolism far outweighs its practical consequences.

Issues inflated with the air of status politics are important because they signal the relative status of different groups.  These are the issues that usually get classified as “values” issues, a matter of morality.  But the important question is “whose values, whose morality?” because the answer to that question is also the answer to the question, “Whose country is this anyway?” 

My guess is that to American Jews, abortion looks like the flagship of conservative Christianity, with its assertion that America is a Christian country and should be run on principles of Christianity.  Beinart is more circumspect.  He frames the issue as “religious / secular” rather than “Christian / Jewish.”
American Jews are very strongly committed to an agenda of cultural tolerance, probably, in fact, because they're actually very secular. American Jews are much more secular than are American Christians
Maybe so.  Either way, it’s status politics.  It’s about which group – its customs, its morality, its symbols – will be honored as dominant.  So when politicians (invariably Christian politicians) rail against abortion, what Jews hear them saying is “This land is our land, this land’s not your land.”  

(Previous posts on status politics are here and here.)

* I haven’t checked the data, but Beinart sounded as though he’d done his homework on this one.

UPDATE:  PRRI yesterday released a survey of 1,000 Jewish adults (pdf is here).  The main issue, by a mile, for the 2012 election was the economy.  Israel, as Beinart said, was a minor concern.  But abortion ranked even lower.
Other issues that fall at the bottom of the priority list are national security (4%), Israel (4%), Iran (2%), the environment (1%), immigration (1%), same-sex marriage (1%), and abortion (1%).
Beinart was necessarily basing his statement on earlier surveys. Possibly, when the economy was not so clearly the big issue, the status politics issues were more important.  

The PRRI survey makes clear that Jews are liberals, not conservatives.  One minor factoid.  One question asked how well each of several public figures represents Jewish values.”  Leading all others in the not at all well” category was Eric Cantor with 35% saying he was a poor representative of Jewish values.  The figure was significantly higher than Sarah Silverman’s 26%. 


PCM said...

I'd vote for Sarah Silverman for just about anything!

Saif said...
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