Jews and Voting in America

The United States was the first country where Jews were granted citizenship on par with everyone else., But even more importantly, the Constitution itself was distinct in that it created a secular state, a place that did not incorporate religion into its official identity.

Everywhere Jews had lived, their religion had marked them as outsiders. In Europe, where the Catholic Church held sway, Jews were sometimes tolerated as tax collectors and money lenders, and therefore necessary to make the economy work. But just as often, they were persecuted as Christ-killers, forced to live in ghettos, or expelled, as happened in England in 1290 and in Catholic Spain in 1492. Jews living in Muslim lands were generally treated less harshly, and in certain cases, as in Muslim Spain, rose to positions of prominence, but Muslim rulers never granted Jews full rights as equal citizens. That happened only in America.

Before 1776, each American colony had its own, uniquely phrased law about voter qualifications. The American Constitution, ratified in 1787, gave the states the power to determine the voting rights of their populace. Typically, white men over the age of 21 who owned a certain amount of land, or paid a required tax, were allowed to vote. In 1789, with the election of George Washington, only 6% of those living in America were eligible to vote. The Constitution stated absolute religious freedom, but it was up to the states to stipulate how it was implemented into practice. This is of course meant that Jews, Catholics, and other minorities (and of course women as well as blacks) were not given the vote in colonial America.

Maryland became the last state to remove religious restrictions, in 1828, which allowed Jews to vote. “The Jew Bill” was a source of great contention in early Maryland. Unitarianism seemed to rule the colony and the bill to allow Jews to enjoy the same status as Christians caused eight years of fractious debate in the Maryland legislature.

In 1870 The 15th Amendment to the US Constitution prevented states from denying the right to vote on grounds of "race, color, or previous condition of servitude". This cleared the way for many disenfranchised people to vote, including Catholics, Blacks, and Jews. That is men of course. Until 1920 when the 19th Amendement was ratified, giving women the right.

There were also periods, especially before the 1920s, when Jews were politically divided by class. For example, most German Jews who'd come to the United States in the mid-19th century and quickly became established in the professions tended to side with the Republican party, which at the time was more liberal than the Democratic party.

The shift continued and intensified in the 1930s, with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Jewish support for Roosevelt can be understood in terms of Jewish self-interest. Roosevelt's liberal economic programs reflected the needs and interests of the largely immigrant Jewish community. His strong internationalist position and his inimical position to the rise of Hitler in Europe found overwhelming support in the Jewish community, concerned with the plight of the relatives they left behind in Europe. Jews supported Roosevelt in large numbers and more generally became staunch supporters of the Democratic party. A Yiddish joke popular at the time captured the overwhelming Jewish support for FDR. “Di Yidn habn drei veltn - the Jews have three worlds: di velt, this world; yene velt, the world to come; un Roosevelt.”

By the 1950s however, Jews were rapidly advancing to the middle class and often beyond. Yet, the Jewish vote remained overwhelmingly Democratic. In a year when a very popular Republican, Dwight Eisenhower, won the presidential election by a landslide, Jews retained their steadfast loyalty to the Democratic Party. This Jewish vote was perceived by some to be against their own self-interest. Here began the "paradox of the Jewish vote". Scholars asked: Why do Jews continue to vote for Democratic candidates, while others with similar backgrounds and economic standing repeatedly vote for the Republican Party?

There has been no clear answer to this question. In some regards, the situation is particularly confusing, taking into account the fact that for the last 20 years (or more), Republican candidates (except for the first President Bush) have all been perceived as more supportive of Israel than many of their Democratic counterparts. There have been several explanations posited over the years attempting to explain Jewish voting patterns. The first explanation cites the importance of social welfare in Jewish tradition. According to this theory, values of social welfare are so entrenched in the Jewish psyche, that Jews, whatever their economic standing, identify more closely with the social welfare positions of the Democratic Party. A second theory suggests that Jews, as opposed to other groups, more stringently maintain their family traditions. In this case, the tradition is voting for Democratic candidates.

Whatever your beliefs or your party affiliation may be, one thing is certain - we should never take for granted our ability to exercise our right to vote. Your vote counts - be sure to get out and vote!

Moment Magazine, 10/24/2022
Association for Jewish
Texas Jewish Post, 11/12/2020

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