Orthodox, Progressive, Invisible

Photo: AP/Al Drago/CQ Roll Call

↑ Orthodox Jews gather on Capitol Hill on September 9th to protest the Iran nuclear agreement. While a more than half of Orthodox Jews (and evangelical Christians) might identify with the GOP, according to a recent Pew study, it’s important to remember that there’s a nearly one-in-two chance that an Orthodox Jew is an Independent or Democrat.

This piece first appeared in The American Prospect and appears here by special permission.

My family was once asked to host a pair of Southern Baptists for Friday night dinner. That, in any case, was how they were described in the email from our synagogue. Our South Jerusalem synagogue often hosts non-Jewish groups from abroad who want to meet religious Israeli Jews.

My wife and I decided beforehand to keep the conversation off politics, American or Israeli. Word had reached our far side of the globe that Southern Baptists were seriously conservative and supported the Israeli right. We didn’t want to give offense or ruin the Sabbath atmosphere with a conversation that started at pianissimo and ended at fortissimo.

Over dessert, though, we discovered that we had misunderstood. Our guests were in fact Baptists from the American South. But they were members of the Alliance of Baptists, which split from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over issues including women clergy, race relations, homosexuality, and how to study the Bible. The SBC describes itself as evangelical; the Alliance doesn’t. As for our visitors, it transpired that they’d politely avoided politics because they’d heard that Orthodox Jews are on the right. Our mutual misconceptions cost us the chance for a long, warm discussion on how religion can power progressive activism.

There’s a price for treating religious groups as homogenous political blocs.

The picture of Orthodox Jews as politically conservative was emphasized by a recent Pew Research Center report. The study says that “in a few ways, Orthodox Jews more closely resemble white evangelical Protestants than they resemble other U.S. Jews.” That sentence refers to the centrality of religion in the lives of evangelicals and the Orthodox, but it also refers to a political dimension. “Other U.S. Jews lean heavily toward the Democratic Party,” the study notes. Among the Orthodox, though, 57 percent lean toward or identify with the GOP. Pew subdivided its sample into ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox Jews. Among the latter, it found that 38 percent agreed that “homosexuality should be discouraged.” Case closed.

Or perhaps not. Let me raise some qualms about the numbers—and even more so about the political danger of reading too much into them.

This Pew report is based on data from the organization’s wider survey of American Jews, in which 10 percent identified as Orthodox. The total sample of Orthodox Jews was therefore small. In statistics, that means it’s less likely to be representative.

In the neat table of results, 56 percent of the Modern Orthodox subgroup lines up as Republican or leaning Republican. But the small print at the end says the margin of error for that group is just over 12 percent. So the result really means that somewhere between 44 percent and 68 percent of Modern Orthodox Jews probably (but not certainly) identify as Republicans or lean toward that party. Suddenly, the picture looks awfully blurry.

This creates an illusion of clearly defined religious groups. In reality, the boundaries aren’t at all clear.

Another problem: The original Pew survey of American Jews asked respondents to fit themselves into a number of categories, mostly denominational. This creates an illusion of clearly defined religious groups. In reality, the boundaries aren’t at all clear.

What could loosely be called the Orthodox community is roiling with debates over feminism, rabbinic authority, ordaining women rabbis, homosexuality, and more. (For an overview of the arguments, read these three recent pieces by Israeli journalist Yair Ettinger.) A better term than Orthodox might be “observant”—referring to Jews who observe the Sabbath, Jewish dietary rules, and other religious laws that structure daily life. Those among the observant who oppose change believe that they, and only they, are preserving Orthodoxy. Some of those supporting change feel that the word “Orthodox” is a suit tailored for someone else. Others insist the label is legitimately theirs.

As an experiment, I emailed some of the observant Jews I know in America and asked which of Pew’s categories they would have put themselves in. Some said Orthodox, some Conservative, some “no denomination.” None seemed satisfied with the choices. I offered some more. “Observant egalitarian”—wanting religious equality for women—was a popular answer. So was, “In one word, Orthodox. In two words, not Orthodox.”

This was not a statistical study. It does suggest a problem with surveying: Inside the community, the more liberal members may be uncomfortable telling a pollster that they’re Orthodox. So the label selects for people who are less liberal religiously—and, I’d guess, politically. As a result, the survey may yield more information about the label than about the community.

But for a moment, let’s accept the numbers, because they affect perceptions among the wider public. In reading survey results, it’s easy to slip from percentages to statements about the entire group. From the information that 57 percent of Orthodox Jews are Republican, it’s easy to record a mental note that “Orthodox Jews are Republicans.” Or, more subtly, it’s easy to think of every Orthodox Jew as if she or he were 57 percent Republican. Neither statement is true.

Let’s reframe: What the number (if accurate) means is that there’s a bit more than a one-in-two chance that a particular Orthodox Jew favors the GOP – and a bit less than a one-in-two chance that she doesn’t.

Likewise, when the Pew Center reports that 68 percent of white evangelicals are Republican or lean that way, try reading it this way: There’s about a one-in-three chance that an evangelical about whom you know nothing else is either an independent or a Democrat. And here too there’s a matter of labels. There are people whose religious language and practice would lead others to identify, or misidentify, them as “evangelical” but who don’t use that name for themselves. Toss them into the mix, and you can be even less sure that the person you just met, and whom you think is evangelical, ascribes to the list of political and cultural beliefs you expect.

If you forget this, and treat people as if they embody poll results, you risk rudeness. Here I testify as one who’s been on the receiving end. In Israel the Hebrew word for “religious,” applied to a Jew, is a rough synonym for both “Orthodox” and “observant.” Election results and polls indicate that most religious Jews are right of center. Many, including me, are not. With resignation, I know that people I meet will see my skullcap and ascribe to me a political stance on settlements, peace, and territories that is an anathema to me.

Another cost of generalizations comes out in practical politics. Before the last Israeli election, a new group called V-15 (Victory in 2015) was organized to get out the vote against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. No one I knew was approached by a V-15 activist. A friend who volunteered with the group explained that it was focusing on neighborhoods known as left-leaning, where it aimed at getting low-enthusiasm voters to the voting booth. My corner of Jerusalem would have been a perfect place to find left-wing religious Jews, some of whom needed an injection of hope, and of middle-of-the-road ones whose votes were up for grabs. But our streets apparently weren’t on V-15’s map.

If polls are more than vaguely accurate, a third of white evangelicals are Democrats or independent. That’s too large a constituency to write off, or to offend with generalizations about their religious beliefs and community.

From afar, I’d guess that there’s a lesson in this for American progressive politics—about reaching Orthodox Jewish voters, but even more so about reaching evangelicals. If polls are more than vaguely accurate, a third of white evangelicals are Democrats or independent. That’s too large a constituency to write off, or to offend with generalizations about their religious beliefs and community.

There’s also an intellectual price for treating religious groups as homogenous. It allows people to map all disagreements on a single line: At one end are religion, injustice, and oppression; on the other are secularism, enlightenment, and justice. The map is useless for navigating the world of ideas and the world of people.

In the end, with all my qualms about the Pew report, I do see an important similarity between Orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians: The politically progressive members of both groups tend to be invisible to outsiders. That’s painful to them, and a loss for other progressives.

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