the brooklynite

Barbra Streisand Doesn’t Live Here Anymore
The death of Jewish liberalism in Brooklyn
By Daniel Treiman

WHEN PEOPLE THINK about President Bush’s base, they don’t usually think of Jews—who, despite vigorous Republican efforts to woo them, gave some three-quarters of their vote to John Kerry.

In Brooklyn though, it’s a different story. Sections of heavily Jewish neighborhoods such as Midwood, Brighton Beach, and Borough Park went strongly for the president—outposts of “red America” in deep blue Brooklyn. In Borough Park, Bush took 82 percent of the vote. While it’s hard to say whether Bush took a majority of the borough’s Jewish vote, he clearly did much better than he did among Jews nationwide.

The president owes his strong showing to solid support from Orthodox and Russian-speaking Jews. The two populations have grown rapidly in Brooklyn since 1990, thanks to high Orthodox birthrates and massive post-Soviet Jewish immigration.

This surge has occurred against the backdrop of the ongoing decline of the remnants of the more left-leaning population of secular and religiously liberal Jews who once held sway across vast swaths of the borough—and who continue to move (or pass) away. As a result, the Orthodox and Russians now comprise 77 percent of the borough’s 456,000 Jews, according to data from the 2002 Jewish Community Study of New York. (By way of comparison, Orthodox and Russian Jews are each roughly a tenth of the national Jewish population.)

These two populations backed Bush in large part because of a widespread perception that he has been one of the best friends Israel ever had in the Oval Office. And Israel is a paramount issue for members of both groups—who tend to have particularly strong affinities for the Jewish state and often have relatives living there.

To be sure, other Jews care about Israel, too. But President Bush’s conservative domestic policies prevented most American Jewish voters from giving him serious consideration.

Orthodox Jews and their highly secular Russian kin, on the other hand, have little connection to the dominant American Jewish political traditions, rooted in New Deal liberalism and early-20th-century Eastern European socialism. Indeed, in a pre-election American Jewish Committee survey of metropolitan New York’s Russian Jewish community, slightly more respondents said they considered themselves Republicans (32%) than Democrats (30%)—and participants overwhelmingly said they’d vote for Bush over Kerry (54%-14%). For their part, Orthodox Jews are often sympathetic to conservative stances on hot-button social issues such as gay marriage, abortion, and government aid to parochial schools.

Republican Jewish activists’ wet dreams aside, this doesn’t mean that the GOP has a lock on these two constituencies. Orthodox and Russian Jews gave their support in 2000 to Al Gore (who was helped by his Orthodox running-mate Joe Lieberman). And notwithstanding their social conservatism, Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jews often back Democratic candidates, with even black-hatted Borough Park Hasidim pulling the lever for liberal pols like Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Jerrold Nadler.

But this behavior shouldn’t be confused with liberalism. American Jews as a whole still, as the scholar Milton Himmelfarb famously put it, “earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” In contrast, Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jews—who with their large families and high poverty rates rely heavily on social welfare programs—often vote Democratic for considerations not of political philosophy but of self-interest.

Certainly, Jewish liberals haven’t disappeared entirely from the borough. Young, well-educated, and often left-leaning Jews are arriving as part of the wave of gentrification sweeping many Brooklyn neighborhoods. But with only 27,000 people living in Jewish households in Brooklyn’s “Brownstone Belt,” this cohort is dwarfed by the borough’s 240,000 Orthodox and 124,000 Russian Jews.

This means that in the borough that produced such liberal cultural and political icons as Barbra Streisand, Woody Allen, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Jewish liberals are doomed to be an ever-shrinking minority within a minority.

Daniel Treiman is the editor of The Brooklynite.