A Gratz College professor looks at Jewish presidential candidates — and Jewish voters’ potential propensity for electing them.
With Bernie Sanders running for president, and Michael Bloomberg possibly waiting in the wings to throw his hat in the ring, the odds of being able to vote for a Jewish presidential candidate have never been higher. However, Jerry Kutnick, professor emeritus at Gratz College in Elkins Park, told the congregants at Main Line Reform Temple in Wynnewood that most Jews will elect a candidate that will bring the most change to not only Jews, but to America as well, regardless of that candidate’s MOT status.
Kutnick spoke about American Jewry and the coming election on Feb. 21, as part of the Hassel Adult Education program at the synagogue. Among the topics covered: what the Jewish vote means, the history of how “we” have voted in the past and what changes have taken place.
“You couldn’t get the Jewish vote by putting it in the Jewish name,” he told the Jewish Exponent. “I think the majority of the culture believes Jews are voting over Jewish issues. There’s no such thing as Jewish political behavior.”
He told the audience that although Jews make up only two percent of the vote, the amount of eligible Jews that vote is higher than that of most other minorities.
“It’s so important what the 98 percent do,” he said. “Jews are always paying attention to the majority.”
Before diving into the current election, he discussed the history of Jews and voting using philosophies of three different authors. Lawrence Fuchs, who wrote the Political Behavior of American Jews in 1956, believes Jews vote and live based on chesed, kindness and tzedakah. He also recognized that people who were observant are typically right wing, while the rest of the Jews trend toward liberal characteristics.
The professor explained it’s hard to find a Jew who lives like this and cares about America as well. Fuchs’ views don’t really apply today, he said.
Ben Halpern differs greatly from his philosophy. Halpern published The American Jew: A Zionist Analysis, where he asserts that people care as much about being Jewish as they do about being American. Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews who rarely interact with society may only think about themselves, not America.
“According to Halpern, Jews are not voting for Jewish values,” Kutnick said. “They are voting for what’s good for Jewish identity and a connection with the Jewish people.”
Charles Liebman, author of The Ambivalent American Jew, has similar views to Halpern. Like Halpern, he believes Jews value being American and Jewish, but also says Jews will change their religion and practices to be comfortable here.
“They want to have their cake and eat it, too,” he said.
Kutnick noted how American Jews today are closer to Liebman and Halpern’s beliefs — with the exception of Orthodox and radical Jews, who are not caught up in this hoopla.
“They’re not trying to believe everyone,” he said. “It doesn’t bother them.”
The professor said Sanders is being criticized because of his ideologies, not Judaism. When has anyone heard him called “Bernie the Jew,” he asked.
“If there is backlash against a Jewish candidate, there’s backlash because he calls himself a socialist Democrat and maybe his campaign is too radical,” he said. “I have not read somebody say, ‘What, another Jew?’ ”
Kutnick remarked how the Jewish vote always matters, but no Jews are really pushing for Sanders or Bloomberg.
“Every American goes into the voting booth and votes the way they want,” he said. “It’s very possible that many Jews won’t vote for Sanders.”
Among the 30 attendees at the event was Caren Dubnoff of Wynnewood. Dubnoff, a political science professor for more than four decades at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., enjoyed the presentation.
Dubnoff told the Exponent she is not surprised Jews make up two percent of the voters.
“One of the reasons they’ve had influence beyond their numbers is, they vote compared to others, but in addition, they live in strategic areas and the electoral college actually has favored the minority vote,” Dubnoff said.
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