Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why did the Jews vote for Obama?

Australian polymath JR started our ongoing (if desultory) colloquy by wondering, here, why the Jews, in America, continue to support their political enemies and eschew an alliance with their real friends.

Shmuel Rosner analyzes the 2008 election results at Commentary
, here, and provides I think a fairly good if detailed explanation.

A few highlights:

Once again, Republicans and politically conservative Jews find themselves engaged in wrenching discussions about why the Jewish vote is so unyieldingly Democratic when the GOP can honestly claim it is a far better friend to Israel and the Jewish people than its rival. In fact, its support for Israel has earned it so little in the way of credit from the American Jewish community that it can only be seen as a matter of underlying principle.

The answer may be that there is a continuing, and fundamental, misunderstanding of the political issues that motivate American Jews. According to the American Jewish Committee’s 2008 edition of its annual survey of Jewish opinion, conducted in September, a majority of Jews, 54 percent, wanted the presidential candidates to “talk more” about the economy. By contrast, only a tiny fraction, three percent, wanted to hear more about Israel. Similar evidence of the relative electoral unimportance of Israel comes from a survey taken by J Street, which asked likely Jewish voters to check off the two issues, from a list of thirteen, “most important for you in deciding your vote for President and Congress this November.” Fifty-five percent chose the economy, 33 percent the war in Iraq, 15 percent energy, and 12 percent the environment. Just 8 percent chose Israel.


Obama and his campaign understood they had a weakness they needed to confront, and he began to court the Jewish vote. Speaking regularly to Jewish groups, and giving interviews to the Jewish and Israeli press, Obama emphasized his strong support for Israel’s security (“sacrosanct”), his determination to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (“no option is off the table”), and even his opposition to the division of Jerusalem (a position from which he almost immediately had to backtrack).

This pattern—of Republican hopes swelled by apparent Jewish concern about Democratic softness on Israel soon dashed by a savvy Democratic response—is now a recurring one. Prior to the 2004 presidential election, some Republican strategists believed that President George W. Bush was likely to outperform his Republican predecessors by receiving a Jewish vote similar to the record share (38 percent) Ronald Reagan received in 1980. In December 2001, a survey by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) went so far as to conclude that “If the election were held today . . . more Jews would vote for Bush—42 percent—than for former presidential candidate Al Gore, who received 39 percent support.”


The fact that Republicans have repeatedly been unable to play the Israel card is not solely due to the fact that Israel is no longer the central issue on the Jewish-American agenda. In the 2008 American Jewish Committee poll, a large majority of Jews still claimed that they felt “very close” (29 percent) or “fairly close” (38 percent) to Israel. The inescapable conclusion is that if a candidate claims to be a friend of Israel, the claim will be accepted and believed, so long as his positions on other issues are deemed acceptable. And given the extent to which the bar has been lowered, all one has to do to qualify as “pro-Israel” is not actively agitate for the country’s demise.


The question now is whether Republicans have any hope of winning the Jewish vote at any point in the future. The answer is: Perhaps. In a generation. If certain demographic trends hold firm. In November, the Orthodox Union compiled a list of precincts “with high-concentrations of Orthodox Jewish voters,” from which it was clear that the Orthodox tend to vote Republican in much higher numbers than the Jewish community overall. Indeed, it is even possible that the Orthodox constitute a majority of the Jews who vote Republican. Given that the Orthodox are younger than the Jewish average, and are proportionally growing much faster, over time one might expect the share of Jews who vote Republican to increase.

This is not to say that the efforts of politically conservative Jews and Jewish organizations to win support for candidates on the Right are of no value. There is a danger, in fact, that if such efforts decline in intensity, Democrats will be freed to take Jewish support entirely for granted whatever the positions they take on Israel and no matter what risky policies they are willing to experiment with that place Israel in peril. Following the Obama landslide among Jews, Republican activists such as Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, argued with some justification that by pressuring Obama on Israel-related issues, his group and others had forced Obama’s hand, leading the Democratic nominee to speak full-throatedly on Israel’s behalf and put himself on record before taking the Oval Office as a President who has committed himself to ensuring Israel’s safety at a uniquely perilous moment.

The entire article is worth reading.

(Having completed an initial reading of Martin Goodman's Rome and Jerusalem, I next propose to present his thesis as to how the Flavian dynasty's need for military credibility inadvertently set in motion 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. Perhaps later today.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Thank you, JR

My collegial interlocutor, JR, has a few words in a recent post kindly directing his readers to this blog for more of our discussion of the relative merits of Jewish and English national survival strategies. I will have more to post on the subject soon. Currently I am almost finished reading Martin Goodman's interesting history of the Judean wars and subsequent anti-Jewish persecutions, Rome and Jerusalem, which I think bears on our discussion here. When I sort out my thoughts, I will post them here.

Today JR has a few interesting comments reflecting his interest in onomastics. I would agree that the simple English names preferred by the House of Windsor (formerly the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, formerly the House of Hannover) are best for those in Anglophone countries.

He begins with this statement:
Personal names are rather an interest of mine. I find them revealing. They tell me a lot about people's background. When I hear surnames like Kerkorian or Krikorian or Khachaturian I know, for instance, that the person is of Armenian origin. And a Hryniuk or a Gavrishchuk is of Ukrainian origin etc. The "ian" or the "uk" endings tell the story.
Although that may be generally true, I hope he doesn't take it as an invariable rule. The "ian" ending is also found in many Iranian names, which are not Armenian, including Iranian Jewish names. And even among some Persian Baha'i families who originated as converts from Judaism to Baha'ism (how's that for a jump from the frying pan into the fire!)

A Wikipedia entry on Persian family name states:
Many last names that end in "ian" (or sometimes "yan") are traditionally Persian last names (though this is also common in Armenian last names, which are not related).
In Australia, I would bet that most names that end "ian" are Armenian rather than Persian, so JR's rule of thumb probably works well.

I don't know why he should object to changing a surname, however. As I have hinted, the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was not immune to the desire to have a more "English" dynastic name, and the Battenburgs were obliged to become Mountbattens at about the same time. Many immigrants change their surnames to make them easier for their new neighbors. And sometimes families have a reason to renew themselves with a new designation. When Kara George became a the Serbian national hero, it was natural for his heirs to call themselves "Karageorgevic" instead of his old name, "Petrovic."

All the more for cultures which did not, and many which still do not, use family names at all. JR's near neighbors in Java, for example, have a complex and fluid system of names, but most of them use only one name, a given name, without any family name at all.

Whatever works, I guess.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Jewish Commonwealth in The Land of Israel

My interlocutor JR has already posted a response to last night's post, immediately below.

He notes that he is "feeling rather ill today" so I want to begin by wishing him a speedy and complete recovery.

I will respond to his interesting comments at greater length after I have had more time to think about them.

But I did want to post one additional item for consideration.

JR remains committed to the idea that a "nation" represents a people governed by their own government and laws in their own territory.

I want to point out that the Jewish nation certainly met his definition of a nation from the time of Joshua's conquest of the Holy Land to the dissolution of the Jewish commonwealth by the Romans, that is for more than 1500 years.

Which is longer than the English nation has existed in history.

One aspect of what makes the Jewish nation unique in the world's history is that unlike the many other peoples who were uprooted from their homelands and dispersed in the ancient empires of the world, the Jews maintained a national identity during centuries of exile. Even two thousand years later, the Jews were able to re-establish a Jewish commonwealth in their original ancient homeland, using their original ancient language, and maintaining many aspects of their ongoing and original national, cultural, and religious heritage.

JR also raises an important question here:
I am immediately drawn to renew my discussion with Punditarian -- who has just written a long post in support of his contention that Jews are a "nation". I am at something of a loss to know why that seems important to him -- "ethnic group" is the normal appellation -- but I will comment nonetheless.
One reason that this issue is important is that the genocidal Muslim jihadists and their useful idiots among Western leftists try to belittle the Jewish State of Israel as a theocracy or a religiously exclusive government. But the Jewish identity of the State of Israel is a national identity, and not solely a religious identity, although the Jews do have a particular religious culture.

(And of course it is ironic that the jihadists make such a claim, since every Muslim state in the world unselfconsciously proclaims Islam as the basis of its legislation, and they have no qualms about banding together as explicitly Muslim countries. It is the Muslim countries that aspire to univocal religious culture, and in no Muslim state are any other religions truly free and unthreatened. Christian and Muslim Arabs have more civil rights in Israel than they do in any Middle Eastern Arab Muslim country.)

Saturday, January 10, 2009

What is a nation?

At the end of last year, JR & I were debating several of the points he raised in what I thought was a generally reasonable suggestion that the Jews might learn a thing or two from the English.

I would like to take up one of those subsidiary disagreements here, namely whether or not the Jews are better designated as a "nation" rather than a community of adherents of a particular religion.

JR offers what he takes to be a commonsensical approach:
I think the only area where Punditarian and I disagree is fairly trivial. He wants to call Jews a nation. I have no strong feelings about that at all. My only point is that Jews are not a race and he seems to agree with that. Nonetheless his use of "nation" is a bit peculiar. In ordinary usage, "nation" refers to the people of a particular place under a single government. So Israel is undoubtedly a nation but Jews generally are not. Whether you call Jews a nation, a people or just a group, however, the only really interesting question, it seems to me, is how they are defined. It is of course an old question that has been debated for many years and Israel itself has effectively thrown up its hands over the matter and declared that you are a Jew if you think you are. Being one of those pesky social scientists, however, I still strive to bring a bit of order out of chaos so I still like my definition that you are a Jew either because of your own religion or the religion of one of your recent forebears.
This is the kernel of his approach:
In ordinary usage, "nation" refers to the people of a particular place under a single government.
Like most commonsense perceptions, there is some truth in that. But that definition really only applies subsequent to the XIXth century. Let's look at the history of a few such "nations."

Take Italy, for example. As a "nation" so defined, it did not come into being until 1870 when (taking advantage of the French defeat in the simultaneous Franco-Prussian war) troops loyal to Victor Emmanuel II seized Rome from the Pope. Before that moment, the Italian peninsula had been for centuries not a united nation, but was divided between various Kingdoms, duchies, republics, and the Papal States. But what permitted Italy to become a nation, was the fact that the Italian people had already developed a national consciousness, and hence a national identity. The unification of Italy was the ratification of nationhood.

Something similar could be said about the German nation before Bismarck, or even about the French nation before Napoleon.

In contrast, look at Iraq or Nigeria, two "nations" with defined populations, territories, and governments. To what degree do the Kurds, Shi'as, and Sunni Arabs really consider themselves part of one nation, with one culture, one history, and one destiny? And I am sure JR remembers Biafra and the jihad waged by the Hausas against the Ibos and Ibibios.

To make these tragedies even more poignant, and pertinent perhaps to JR's laudatory comments about the English propensity for "fudging," note that both Iraq and Nigeria were cobbled together by British bureaucrats who arbitrarily drew single national borders around incompatible and even hostile nations. It hasn't really worked in either case, because there is really no Nigerian or Iraqi nationality.

One might counter that the Hausas, Ibos, and Yorubas in Nigeria, or the Kurds, Shi'as, and Sunnis in Iraq, are not nations, but "ethnic groups." But that just underscores my point. In the ancient world, an "ethnos" was in fact a nation. It is interesting in this regard that the Greek Christian Scriptures used the term "ethnos"(Strong's G1484) to translate the Hebrew word "goy," (Strong's H1471) which means "nation." (Not a "people" which in Hebrew would be an "am." Nor a tribe, which in Hebrew whould be a "shevet." An ethnos is a nation.) The Jewish Scriptures conceive of "70 nations" in the world, including the Jewish nation, and recognize that some of those nations are composed of "tribes." And in late antiquity, the "Ethnos" was governed by an "Ethnarch."

Jewish nationality was also recognized by the Imperial government of Rome. The Sebasteion in Aphrodisias contained a temple to the Roman Emperors that was decorated with sculptured personifications of 50 nations in the Empire, each designated as an "ethnos." Among these were the Dacians and the Jews. An extensive list of nations is also given in the Book of Acts.

The Romans did not necessarily conceive of themselves as a nation, however. Cicero stated:
"Omnes nationes servitutem ferre possunt: nostra civitas non potest."
Cicero contrasts the Roman "civitas" with the "nationes" that the Romans conquered. "All nations can bear servitude, but our civitas can not." Evidently he thought that the Romans were "special." Each community of students at the University in Paris in the middle ages who shared a common origin, language, and laws was considered a "natio."

Having maintained a separate identity, with their own language (actually, their own languages), their own laws, their own history, a self-conscious literature, their own particular religion, and having been accepted as a separate community, for better and more ofter for worse, in every empire or territory in which they have lived, the Jews are surely a nation. In fact, I would argue that the Jews are the quintessential nation in world history.

The Jews share their national identity in common; this identity is at least to some extent exclusive, i.e. it is possible to define those who share it and those who don't; this identity is based on ancestry (although like many other nationalities, naturalization is possible); they have a common culture and a shared civil and criminal code of laws; and they have a common and unique religion.

JR's notion that a nation represents a people living under its government in a particular place is however also important.

In the West, the Jew has been considered to be the quintessential landless wanderer, a people without a homeland, forced to move from territory to territory. But in contrast to the Romanies, who at least publicly do not identify any place on earth as their original home, the Jews have never forgotten the Land of Israel or its capital, Jerusalem. The Bible refers again and again to the organic and wholistic identification of the Jewish people with its Promised Land. The Psalmist sang by the rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137, KJV):
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
And after 75 years of exile, the Jewish people were restored by permission of the Emperor Cyrus to their homeland. A unique and unprecedented event in ancient history.

Even more remarkable has been the return of the Jewish nation to the Jewish homeland after nearly 2,000 years of exile in Christendom and in the Ummah.

To the Jews, living as a free nation in their own land has always been the summum bonum. After the exile they of course recognized that other nations would dispute them. And to the XIth century Bible commentator Rabbi Shelomo Ben Yitzchak (known as Rashi, who incidentally traced his genealogy 33 generations to Rabbi John the Shoemaker, and through him to the House of David) the reason that the Bible begins with the creation of the world, was precisely to provide an indubitable deed for the Land of Israel (paraphrased):
Rabbi Yitzchak [Rashi's father] taught that God might have begun the Torah with Exodus 12:2, the first commandment given to the Jews [this month shall be for your the beginning of the months] but began with the Creation so that if the peoples of the world will say to Israel, "You conquered the lands of the 7 Canaanite nations," Israel will say to them, "All the world belongs to the Holy One, Blessed Be He, he created it, and he gave it to the one he deemed worthy."
That quotation also brings us back to the question of religion, and whether the Jews are better identified as adherents of a religion than as a nation. As JR stated it:
I still like my definition that you are a Jew either because of your own religion or the religion of one of your recent forebears.
Why not "your ancient forebears?" Evidently because ancient Jews who lost their religion melted in to the populations that surrounded them, and their descendants are no longer recognized as Jews, and no longer recognize themselves as Jews.

But that obtains because in the absence of their homeland, the Jews maintained a distinctive national identity and culture through the medium of Divinely-commanded behaviors that are commonly considered to be the Jewish "religion." As I mentioned in a previous post, however, many so-called "orthodox" Jewish thinkers do not define Jewishness ("Yiddishkeit") as a religion in the sense that Christianity is a religion. Rather, the Jewish-way-of-life is an all-encompassing national culture, which appears to be a "religion" only because (1) the Jews are in exile from their homeland, and (2) the key features of this way of life are understood to have been ordained by the Creator.

In a sense, it is the Jew's refusal to participate in the whole-world-encompassing "religions" that surround him in the West (Christianity and Islam) which separates him from those worlds, and makes his way of life appear to be a "religion."

One may question whether the ancient Romans, for example, had a "religion." They had a complex way of life in which cult activities were certainly important. But the cults in which they participated included many disparate traditions, and as the Empire grew beyond Rome, the particular cults associated with particular localities continued to co-exist with other traditions that were widespread throughout the Empire. This multiplicity of cultures is characteristic of an Empire, in which many nations are embedded.

Finally, although the Jewish nation includes many sub-groups who do not share all of the same, identical elements (Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, etc.) all of these sub-groups recognize their membership in the Jewish nation and do share many elements. Even those sub-groups who had lost the use of the Hebrew language (e.g. the Amharic speaking Ethiopians) have regained it in the Land of Israel today.