Opinion: Do Jews still have a place in progressive politics?

If Republicans cut loose their white supremacist reactionaries while progressives continue to deny Israel’s right to exist, American Jews’ votes could shift rightward.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton and Cantor Olivia Brodsky of East End Temple.

Rabbi Joshua Stanton and Cantor Olivia Brodsky of East End Temple. Hannah Stampleman/Jennifer Weisbord

Historically, between 70% and 80% of American Jews have voted for Democratic candidates. We are politically progressive because of our values, heritage and approaches to justice, and we play an outsized role as leaders, organizers and benefactors of progressive causes and candidates. Yet much could change this year. Below the surface, many American Jews now question whether there still is a place for us in progressive politics. Even in progressive Jewish communities, which tend to prioritize social justice and economic equality, Democrats no longer have a lock on our votes. American Jews overwhelmingly support peace as a path to Israel’s security, which recently has risen in importance among the bouquet of issues that Jews typically prioritize.

If Republicans cut loose – or at least mute – their white supremacist reactionaries and antisemitic tropes, progressive Jews’ votes could shift rightward. This, of course, would have to include some significant changes in word and deed from presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump. If Democrats primary their own anti-Israel zealots, or if President Biden succeeds in forging peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia – or even more remarkably, between Israelis and Palestinians – Democrats could retain or gain support from American Jews who support Israel. 

Much has changed for progressive Jews since Oct. 7th, when Hamas launched a war against Israeli civilians, killing more than 1,200 people and taking over 200 hostage. Before the bodies were buried, some of our neighbors, colleagues and friends rose to celebrate Hamas at a rally in Times Square, which was endorsed by the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Already, the local DSA chapter had used boycotting Israel as a litmus test for its political endorsement. Now, its leaders seemed to be rejoicing in the murder of Jews.

By the time Israel’s military response began, we knew that the social climate would get ugly – but we could not have anticipated the torrent of pro-Hamas, anti-Israel venom online, at protests, in our neighborhoods and even in casual interactions at schools, in the workplace and on college campuses. We saw signs and expressions of support for Hamas and heard the lack of sympathy for Jews reeling from the largest mass murder of our people on any single day since the Holocaust. Threats and attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions have spiked, and many of us have experienced anti-Jewish name-calling on the streets.

Our high school students endured anti-Israel walkouts that took place on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and our college students were publicly singled out in class. One of our college students even said they were “shunned” for being Jewish, with fellow students refusing to acknowledge her presence in classes or make eye contact with her. Adults in our community encountered blatant anti-Jewish sentiments in the workplace and senseless organization-wide emails equating Hamas’ terrorism with Israel’s military response. Many more lost friendships or a sense of belonging in social circles and the progressive organizations that have been their life’s work.

Nothing Israel could have done would have appeased some of our politically progressive neighbors, colleagues and friends, who seem opposed to Israel’s very right to exist. They saw our weakness as Jews, and they pounced.

Our sense of betrayal is deep, and it will be enduring. It could also have a profound political impact in this year’s primary and national elections. For the first time in our lives, some of us are questioning whether we will continue to vote straight-ticket Democrat. President Biden might well have earned our continued affection through his tireless allyship and pursuit of peace. But what of the local congressional representative with whom we share many values – but who did not support the resolution to combat antisemitism on university campuses? What about local members of the “Squad” who speak about Israel in hateful ways? What about those who have said remarkably little about Jewish suffering at all?

If we are asking these questions in Lower Manhattan, one can only imagine how many other Jewish communities are asking similar questions in less politically progressive areas of the country. Progressives have a lot of soul-searching to do about why they aid, or at least abet, flagrant antisemitism. Jews have a lot of soul-searching to do about how to stay in relationship with our historic political home.