For years, Jewish Republicans have prophesied a migration of Jews from the Democratic Party to the GOP. I myself worked that line during the Reagan administration. Our view was that President Ronald Reagan’s strong support of Israel would wean away Democrats who supported Israel. We had hopes because the Jewish community was so negative on Jimmy Carter—in part because of his support for the arms sales to Saudi Arabia and dissatisfaction with his ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young. The Jewish vote for Reagan in 1980 was circa 40 percent—still a modern high.
But it was not to be. The 1984 Jewish vote for Reagan was only 31 percent. The reason was not a Democratic or Republican view of Israel but rather issues of church and state and Christian America. After Reagan’s 1984 nomination in Dallas, he spoke to a group of Texas evangelicals. His speech today would be considered tame, but at the time it was seen (by the Jewish community at least) as an affirmation of Christian America. I vividly remember a panel on which I appeared in September 1984 with Tom Dine, then executive director of AIPAC, and Deborah Lipstadt, the expert on anti-Semitism. In the 1980s version of the “green room,” Tom expressed to me his frustration that the Jews did not seem to want to talk about Israel, only about church and state. I responded that the question of the role of Christianity in America went directly to the extent to which Jews felt at home in the United States—and that this, for most Jews, was a more immediate issue than Israel.
In every election since then, Republican Jews have trumpeted that this is the year, finding hope, for example, in scattered polls that showed younger Jews more open to the GOP message. But in the main, they read the entrails wrong. Sixty-nine percent of Jews voted for Obama in 2012, 71 percent for Hillary in 2016 and a whopping 79 percent for Democrats in the 2018 midterms.
The latest iteration of the dream came this spring when a 23-year-old figure skater, model, political activist and poet, Elizabeth Pipko, announced a new group, Jexodus, designed to wean Jews away from the Democrats. The actual architect of the effort (and its title) was apparently a longtime conservative activist named Jeff Ballabon.
Pipko took her cause to Fox and Friends, where she declaimed, “We left Egypt, and now we’re leaving the Democratic Party.” Fox’s number one viewer took up her cause, retweeting her mantra. And the White House is clearly taking the dream of Republican Jewish recruitment seriously. Both Trump and Vice President Pence spoke at the recent Republican Jewish coalition meeting in Las Vegas this spring. Trump himself laid down the campaign’s marker, stating that “the Democrats hate Jewish people” and that they are “advancing by far the most extreme anti-Semitic agenda in history,” and raising a $10 million war chest from the Republican Jewish Coalition to press the point. Republicans hope the intemperate remarks of Rep. Ilhan Omar and other freshman Democrats will allow them to turn Omar into the new poster face of the Democrats for the Jewish community. And they hope the strong connection between Trump and Bibi—and Trump’s stellar reputation in Israel—will do the trick.
Analytically, there are reasons the GOP should be hopeful. The sources of energy in the Democratic party, including African Americans, Hispanics and progressives, have become increasingly disenchanted with Israel. Some of them are becoming increasingly vocal, crossing what were previously considered red lines. At the same time, the sources of energy in the Republican party, such as the evangelical “base,” have become increasingly attached to Israel. And while a majority of Jewish political money is still Democratic, more and more big-ticket donors are Republican.
One state where the GOP war chest may make a difference is Florida, where its roughly 470,000 Jews make up 3.4 percent of the potential voting population. The Florida Jewish population skews to the elderly, among whom intense emotional support of Israel and collective memories of anti-Semitism are more pronounced.
Meanwhile, American Jews feel more integrated and at home in America. Indeed, most Americans view Jews as part of the privileged class. But does this mean that they will finally jettison Milton Himmelfarb’s mid-20th-century adage that Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans? One can’t ignore this possibility. There is no better example than Trump telling the Republican Jewish Coalition this spring that there is no more room in America for immigrants—that, in words reminiscent of the 1930s, the boat is full—and being widely applauded.
Still, the political landscape has changed considerably since the 1980s. The Zionism of Bibi is heavily freighted with ethno-nationalism—not the violent ethno-nationalism of Serbia perhaps, but ethno-nationalism nonetheless. An Israeli political environment where even rule-of-law right-wingers like Ze’ev Jabotinsky (and maybe Menachem Begin) would not find a place in the Likud today is a far cry from the liberal Zionism that once so excited American Jews. Polling shows that the Israel of today (like it or not) carries less political weight for younger American Jews. And a 2018 survey by the American Jewish Committee found that 57 percent of U.S. Jews “disapproved” of Trump’s handling of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
And the GOP has moved as well. The party of Trump is a far cry from the party of Reagan. Social issues, beloved by evangelicals, have moved closer to the core. And ethno-nationalism has become a hallmark of the age of Trump. The concern of the Trump base with immigration, like the language of “America First” (so reminiscent of Charles Lindbergh) or the use of tropes favored by white nationalists are not issues that attract American Jews. It is early days, but I suspect the GOP’s hopes will be dashed once again.
Marshall Breger teaches law at Catholic University.