Alongside the unexpectedly close result of the U.S. presidential election, preliminary polls show that the voting patterns of American Jews did not provide any surprises. It also showed how far a divide exists between American Jews and their Israeli counterparts. Yet following this incredibly contentious election, the Jewish communities in the United States and Israel have a key opportunity to unite, rather than continuing to go down the road of difference and division.
Aligning with their historically overwhelming support for Democratic presidential candidates, American Jews strongly preferred Joe Biden over President Donald Trump this year — 77% to 21%, according to an exit poll commissioned by left-leaning lobby group J Street, and 60.6% to 30.5% in a survey from the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The Jewish vote figures reinforce what we already know about the priorities of Jewish voters. “The Jewish Vote 2020: More Empowered Than Powerful,” a pre-election position paper authored by the Ruderman Family Foundation and award-winning American presidential historian professor Gil Troy, notes that while the overwhelming majority of American Jews identify as passionately pro-Israel, that has not been one of the top issues they are expressing in the voting booth.
Only 4% of Jewish voters identify Israel as their first or second-most important election issue. Instead, 43% prioritize health care, 28% gun violence and 21% Social Security and Medicare. Consequently, Trump’s series of policies that have made him a so-called “dream come true” for supporters of Israel — moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel and more — only move the needle for the Orthodox Jewish vote rather than the American Jewish vote as a whole.
Given the disconnect between Trump’s Israel policy and the Jewish vote in the United States, it is natural to assume that the 2020 election has amplified the divisions between pro-Trump Israeli Jews and anti-Trump American Jews. The Pew Research Center found earlier this year that 71% of Israelis approve of Trump, a figure that far more closely resembles American Jews’ support for Trump’s Democratic opponent. Israel even went as far as naming a new settlement “Trump Heights.”
It is the same challenge and opportunity facing an American population that is more divided than ever following the most polarizing election and presidential term in recent memory. Whether it’s racial tensions or divergent opinions about the best approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, these divisions have centered around the White House, but they extend far beyond Trump himself. Following Joe Biden’s projected victory, it is incumbent upon the American people and their leaders to do everything within their power to find common ground and move the country forward.
In the worldwide Jewish community, a similar divide over the election must be bridged. Trump’s Jewish supporters have touted his pro-Israel record, while his Jewish critics have lamented his immigration policy while accusing him of using dog whistles in a nod towards white supremacy.
President-elect Biden campaigned on a platform rooted in unifying the nation, but inevitably, some of his policies will also become the source of disagreements between American Jews and Israeli Jews.
However, if the right intentions are set from the start and are underscored by community leaders, the dynamics could play out differently during the next four years. Members of the U.S. Jewish community can own their personal passions — and take pride in the ongoing and outsized role that Jews play in the American political process — while simultaneously committing to principles of civil dialogue and mutual respect. Israeli Jews can acknowledge that although most American Jews do not prioritize Israel in the voting booth, they largely remain pro-Israel. American Jews can acknowledge that although Israelis have a relatively strong affinity for Trump, they do not necessarily stand for everything that has made Trump anathema to many Jews in the United States.
In this era of deep polarization, creating unity is admittedly easier said than done. But especially on the heels of a heated election, striving for unity is the only reasonable and responsible option. JN
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation.