Why the about face? Once reassured that Obama stands behind Israel, domestic policy became foremost: Koch cannot imagine an America without Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He is afraid that Republicans, led by Mitt Romney—and VP pick Paul Ryan—will abolish those programs.
I relate this story because the 88-year-old former mayor, as sharp as ever, is not so different from most Jews. Despite quadrennial predictions that Jewish voters will abandon the Democratic Party and throw in their lot with Republicans because of Israel, the overwhelming preponderance of American Jews, remain social liberals. Although they need to know Obama is a strong supporter of Israel in order to vote for him, they are not and never have been single-issue voters. This should come as no surprise: For 5,000 years, Jews have practiced community-centered values such as taking care of orphans, widows, the sick and the poor even as they experienced discrimination and persecution. There community-centered values are at the heart of the liberal vision of society. Add into this mix, not-so-distant memories of impoverished immigration to America, and fear, real or not, about America’s commitment to Israel, is not strong enough to wash away the deep psychic gouge left by history. Our 2012 Moment Magazine political survey shows that a whopping 82 percent of the Jewish Americans who responded believe that it is the duty of a Jew to feel a responsibility to care for the poor. That same survey found Medicare to be the top concern of American Jews.
Steeped in Jewish history also makes most American Jews immune to the charms of Ayn Rand, the popular patron goddess of free markets and objectivism. Ayn Rand, born Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum, was a Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union, and left for America in 1925. Once transplanted to the U.S., she wrote passionate novels, among the best the semi-autobiographical We the Living, and later the phenomenal bestsellers, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead. Her embrace of individual rights over all else has transcended generations, inspiring economic conservatives from Alan Greenspan to Paul Ryan and beyond.
Ayn Rand is a fascinating person, but her ideas need to be understood for what they are: the outgrowth of a bright young Jewish woman’s despair and her hatred of communism. Her move to the U.S. allowed her ideas to take root in a painstakingly constructed hybrid American capitalist system. Like kudzu invading and replacing native plant species, her ideas spread whether they made sense in her new country or not. Although appealing to some Jews, among them some libertarian idealists and recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union, her ideas leave the vast majority of American Jews cold. In other words, the economic beliefs of Paul Ryan are unlikely to resonate with most American Jews.
So no matter how much hyperbole you hear about the Jewish vote going for the Romney/Ryan ticket, the vast majority of American Jews are not likely to stray from the Democratic Party. Most still remember when Jews were less well off and wielded less power; and whether they realize it or not, their values have been shaped by millennia of Jewish tradition. This may change in the future but for now, like Ed Koch, they just need a little reassurance from Obama and are not ready to embrace dramatic social domestic change.
Epstein is editor and publisher of Moment Magazine,