Jews in the United States have a longstanding tradition: Vote for the Democrat. Since 1916 Democratic presidential candidates have picked up an average of 71 percent of the Jewish vote. Only 14 percent of Jews consider themselves Republican, and one in four identify as independent or support a third party.
Love for Franklin D. Roosevelt and sympathy for the underdog propelled Jews leftward in the 1930s. In the years since, many have remained loyal to the Democratic Party and mistrusted Republican emphasis on religious values. Change could be on the horizon, though: Jews who are more religious, such as the Orthodox, tend to be more politically conservative than their non-practicing brethren, and their numbers are growing—partly because of their large families.
“It’s an evolving change that is occurring, where [Jewish] voters may be moving to become more independent, where you have younger and more religiously traditional voters holding sway to the Republican Party, and where you have a growing feeling that Jews don’t necessarily need to remain loyal any longer to a particular set of ideas,” said Steven Windmueller, a political analyst at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. (For more on the wooing of the Jewish vote in this year’s presidential election, see “Splintering bloc,” from the Oct. 20 issue of WORLD Magazine.)
Three Jews who moved center-right over their lifetimes spoke to WORLD about the liberal roots and conservative winds that shaped them.
A 66-year-old resident of West Hempstead, N.Y. (a Long Island community), Terry Simon describes herself as a lifelong Democrat who did a 180. As a liberal in the 1970s, she worked for George McGovern’s presidential campaign, and opposed Newt Gingrich’s early congressional bids: “Back then I thought Newt was evil personified.”
Not long before the 9/11 attacks, Simon began listening to conservative New York talk show host Sean Hannity because of his pro-Israel views. After the World Trade Center towers fell, Simon shifted rightward: She was glad Al Gore, who she voted for in 2000, wasn’t in the White House at the time because she believes he wouldn’t have pursued the perpetrators aggressively enough.
Simon finally changed her party affiliation to Republican last year, and has signed up as a Mitt Romney campaign volunteer. “My one bone of contention is that I’m pro-choice,” she said. Her husband is a Republican, as well, but she still has close family who support President Barack Obama. Simon guesses over half of the congregants at her Orthodox synagogue plan to vote for Gov. Romney next month.
A former Pennsylvania state senator, Bruce Marks is the grandson of a peddler who emigrated from Austria-Hungary before World War I and started clothing shops in West Virginia. Marks’ father, a liberal Democrat, ran the family business while Marks attended the University of Pennsylvania, studied Russian, and soaked up conservative ideals from Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. “That was actually a significant turning point,” he said, “because I had just never been exposed to free market economic thought.”
Today Marks is an attorney in Philadelphia who generally votes Republican but has an independent streak. He voted for Al Gore in 2000, for instance, because he liked Gore’s policy toward Russia. (As it turned out, he thought George W. Bush served excellently in office and voted for his reelection in 2004.) Marks voted for Obama in 2008, hoping for economic turnaround, but is backing Romney this year. Marks’ brand of conservatism is to limit government spending and limit government involvement in social issues like abortion: “I think everybody, but particularly minority people, are always better off when you have limited government, because that means more freedom and less risk that the majority will impose their will or their values.”
Not realizing he was raised liberal until he grew up, Steven Marcus, 47, said his parents never talked about politics at home, and as a “young, dumb kid” he believed media templates touting abortion as the “end-all birth control” and warning that the Christian right was plotting to convert Jews.
After graduating from high school, Marcus moved to Israel for nine years and served in the Israeli military. When he returned to the United States in 1994 he began listening to radio personality Rush Limbaugh define the differences between the right and left—and realized his own values aligned with conservatism.
He also realized the importance of America’s Christian identity. “My relatives, who are very left of center … are still very much afraid of anything that smacks of Christianity, however innocent it might be,” Marcus said.
He’s a political minority at family gatherings, and generally abides by the Jewish principle of Shalom bayit, or “Peace within the house,” when it comes to politics: “In other words, you don’t go there.”
Marcus sells collectible military uniforms and equipment online from his home in Prescott Valley, Ariz., and considers national security and tax relief to be the top two issues this election. With tongue in cheek, he said that, like his liberal Jewish brethren, he’s an advocate of gun control: “For instance, I favor the two-handed approach … in which both arms are outstretched, taut.” Still a fan of talk radio, he enjoys listening to Michael Medved—a Jew who often speaks about his own move from left to right.
Marcus is non-practicing, but said, “Judaism is in everything that I think, do, and say.” He tries to read the Torah each week, and asks himself: How does this apply to my life? How can I be a better person?
“Judaism, per se, is a very conservative religion,” Marcus said. “The Torah is a very conservative rulebook on how to live a good and moral life.”