There was no explicitly Jewish issue in the midterm congressional elections just concluded. No real debate about Israel, though Israel was holding a parallel election. No discussion about prayer in the schools, though issues about the schools were prominent in some states. Nor about quotas, though the Supreme Court had just concluded a vital hearing about college admissions procedures.
No Jewish issues in these elections – except for the most vital Jewish issue of all.
That would be the fate of democracy in the United States. Jews may disagree about taxes, Social Security, climate change, trade policy, even about the role of Palestinians in Israel. But here in the United States – a traditional haven for Jews, with a founding ethic that was welcoming to Jews in the 18th century and vital to Jews in the middle of the 20th century – the one value cherished by all and is (in this context this is not too strong a word) worshiped by all, is … the American political system.
And while some Republicans won and some Democrats lost, while AIPAC’s role was celebrated or deplored, while familiar faces disappeared and new ones emerged, there is broad agreement that the big winner of November’s balloting was … democracy.
This was the surprise that shouldn’t have been surprising.
It was surprising because so many of the commentators thought that inflation and abortion rights would be top of mind among voters. Those issues were, to be sure. But so was democracy.
The VoteCast survey of more than 94,000 voters nationwide conducted for The Associated Press by at National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago confirmed the primacy of inflation; that was natural as inflation rates hovered about 8 percent around Election Day.
But the AP/NORC poll also showed that 44 percent of Americans considered the future of democracy their top voting issue.
Don’t jump to conclusions about that. Both Republicans and Democrats are concerned about democracy – but for different reasons. Election deniers on the GOP side think that the Joe Biden victory in 2020 was a travesty against democracy. Progressives on the Democratic side believe the Capitol riot and state laws making voting more difficult are a barrier to democracy.
But one way or another, Americans are concerned about democracy. And that brings them firmly into the Jewish camp.
From the earliest settlings on the Atlantic shore, Jews have believed that democratic values are an umbrella – both bringing Americans (including them) under one protective covering and protecting Jews from the hailstorms of hatred that have been occasional part of the American political climate.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were not Jews; Jefferson’s views on even whether God exists have fueled scores of Ph.D. theses. But it is incontrovertible that their values are Jewish values – apart, of course, from slavery. Abraham Lincoln, who abhorred slavery, wasn’t Jewish, but read his two Inaugural addresses and his Gettysburg Address and try to argue that he wasn’t steeped in the Old Testament. Franklin Delano Roosevelt? His critics surely claimed he was Jewish. Harry Truman? Eddie Jacobson, his Army comrade – and supreme advocate for granting diplomatic recognition to Israel – saw Jewish values in his onetime business partner. Bill Clinton? He held the first Seder in the White House. Even some of the figures Jews generally deplore have had elements appealing to Jews – Woodrow Wilson, who made Louis Brandeis the first Jewish jurist on the Supreme Court; and Donald Trump, with Jewish grandchildren and the chief executive who moved the American embassy to Jerusalem.
Mr. Trump, to be sure, generally is reviled by Jews; the American Jewish Committee survey in 2017, long before the Capitol insurrection, found that three quarters of Jews had a negative view of the 45th president. That figure stayed stable or grew slightly through his presidency. The AJC’s 2021 survey found that two-thirds of American Jews disapproved on how the Republican Party responded to antisemitism. The 2022 midterms were widely viewed as a repudiation of Mr. Trump.
Moreover, one element of the 2022 midterms was not a surprise: The Jewish vote went Democratic by a two-to-one margin.
Perhaps the most significant element of the midterms occurred in Pennsylvania, which is not called the Keystone State – its moniker since the early days of the country – for nothing.
Come January, Josh Shapiro will be the governor of the commonwealth, an important marker in the history of Jews in politics not only because he is Jewish but also because of the way he is Jewish.
Other politicians have given their Jewish identity prominence, particularly former Senator Arlen Specter (in office 1981-2011), also of Pennsylvania, who spoke often of his immigrant parents from Russia and Ukraine and had two Orthodox sisters; onetime Senator Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota (in office 1978-1991), who was born in Berlin and who fled with his parents to escape Nazi rule); and, of course, former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (in office 1989-2013), who was the history-making Democratic vice-
presidential nominee in 2000 and who brought attention to his Orthodox traditions.
Even so, Mr. Shapiro’s emergence as the top statewide official in Pennsylvania is a significant event. The state has nearly a half-million Jews, making it the 10th most Jewish state by population.
Mr. Shapiro is a graduate of a Jewish day school. His children attend a Jewish day school (and that was an issue in the campaign after Republican nominee Doug Mastriano accused Mr. Shapiro of having attended an “elite” private school). He ran a remarkable introductory television advertisement in which he spoke of putting time aside each week for a family Shabbat dinner (“I make it home Friday night for Sabbath dinner because family and faith ground me,” he said). It was perhaps the only time in American political history when two challahs were a prominent part of a political ad. In a campaign season that gave new meaning to the struggle for democratic values, Mr. Shapiro’s challahs gave new meaning to the marketers’ term “product placement.” Θ
David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.