The Rise of Jewish Populism

Two Jews may have three opinions but they’re likely to share political preferences. At least that goes for American Jews, who tend to lean left. “Jews earn like Episcopalians,” the sociologist Milton Himmelfarb once wryly observed, “and vote like Puerto Ricans.”

Politically conservative Jews have long rued this supposed contradiction, viewing each election cycle as an opportunity for their coreligionists to come to their senses. Many had hoped the Trump administration’s staunch support of Israel would finally do the trick, precipitating a so-called Jexodus from the Democratic Party. While that never happened, something possibly far more consequential has occurred, in the US but also elsewhere: a growing number of high-profile Jews extolling a decidedly illiberal brand of politics.

Stephen Miller was on the leading edge of this trend. Miller, a descendent of refugees fleeing anti-Jewish violence, rose from obscurity by practicing the dark arts of racial division to become President Trump’s consigliere. In that capacity, he orchestrated some of the past administration’s most draconian policies like the forced family separation of immigrants at the US-Mexico border, which he reportedly said was necessary to preserve the “country as we know it.” His definitive biography is aptly titled “Hatemonger.”

Others have followed in his footsteps. Consider Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer running for an open Senate seat in Ohio. Mandel claims Trump won last year’s election and has called the former president’s GOP congressional critics “traitors.” He does not believe in a constitutional separation of church and state or welcoming Afghan refugees, whom he fears pose a risk for sexual predation. A self-proclaimed “proud Jew,” he nevertheless blamed the coronavirus pandemic on George Soros and characterized those seeking to enforce vaccine mandates as the “Gestapo.” Mandel currently leads the GOP field.

Then there’s Éric Zemmour, the son of Jewish-Algerian immigrants described by Benjamin Ivry in The Forward as a “one-man Jewish antisemitic reality show,” who hopes to become France’s next president. Zemmour has cast doubt on Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus’s innocence, defended the Vichy collaborationist regime, and conceded that “Jewish domination” in politics and finance is “in part true.” And Jews aren’t his primary target; Muslims are. “Islam,” he said, “is incompatible with the French republic.”

Clearly, something is amiss. For some, that “something” is Israel, whose purported preference for ethno-nationalism over its democratic commitments has set a tone throughout the Jewish diaspora.

But Jews living outside Israel tend to have nuanced views about the Jewish state. Blind support for it isn’t required. Neither is mimicry. Besides, the lesson that rights of Jews in the diaspora tend to be imperiled by nationalist governments, or any regime with a suspect commitment to pluralism, is seared into Jews’ collective psyche. As a rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof tells a supplicant who asks whether a proper blessing for the Czar exists: “A blessing for the Czar? Of course. May God bless and keep the Czar – far away from us!”

What then explains the emergence of Jewish populism? Jewish acceptance may be the answer. According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, Jews are viewed most positively among all major religious groups in the US, narrowly edging out Catholics and Mainline Protestants on a “feeling thermometer” scale. Another recent poll, also done by Pew, revealed similar trends across Europe, including in France, where 89 percent of adults held favorable views of Jews. In short, Jews in the diaspora have become “white” – members in good standing of the mainstream.

This positive development has a downside. No longer afraid of the historical depredations visited upon diaspora Jews, Jewish populists have stepped into the demagogic breach. Such is these political entrepreneurs’ confidence that they even feel comfortable trumpeting antisemitic tropes. Seen in this light, the likes of Miller, Mandel, and Zemmour are a sign of Jewish success, the culmination of a tortured path to full acceptance. 

But a bad taste lingers. Naturally: hate always despoils, never redeems. That is especially true when it comes to the anti-Jewish hate central to the populism practiced by some Jews, which undercuts the narrative of Jewish mainstreaming. After all, whatever might be said about Jewish populists, like all populists, they know what their audience wants, regardless of what Pew polls may say about Jewish acceptance. And this they deliver.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the Daily Kos on January 3, 2022.

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