September 30, 2004
The Dangers of Apathy
Carla Tanchum is busy. At 20, she studies at USC, has family obligations and works in the entertainment industry. What she doesn't have time to do is vote.
"I'm not at all politically involved," Tanchum said. "There are certain issues that may come to my attention, but I'm not going to seek them out. My family and friends just have so many other things on our plates at the moment that [politics] kind of takes a back seat. Even though it shouldn't, it does."
Tanchum is one of the many young Jews who will be targeted by Get Out The Vote drives like the one now being run by the Religious Action Center (RAC) for Reform Judaism. The nonpartisan group aims to register as many Jews as possible in the run-up to the 2004 election.
In the last election, less than 40 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds (both Jews and non-Jews) voted. Compare that to the 65 percent of the general population who voted, and it becomes clear that younger Jews are at greater risk for political apathy than their elders.
Is Jewish political participation waning? Although there are no comprehensive studies to prove it, many who work in the field worry that it is.
"Whereas the Jewish community has traditionally voted in much higher percentages, our numbers are now approaching those of the general population," said Rabbi Marla Feldman of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, which is overseeing the RAC's campaign. She is especially concerned about the young Jewish vote.
This specter of apathy is descending on the Jewish community as both political parties struggle to entice Jewish voters in the first presidential election since Sept. 11, 2001 -- and amid unprecedented strife in the Middle East.
"There's been very specific targeting of religious groups in the electioneering that's been going on, and that's troublesome because it's very divisive," Feldman said. Although she made it clear that significant numbers of Jews certainly do support both parties, Feldman warned that polarization could be as dangerous as apathy in this close election.
With the 2000 elections having been decided by a tiny margin, and an equally close race heating up this year, new voters could make all the difference. "We're specifically looking at ways to reach under-represented voters, particularly young voters."
The threat of political apathy also plays into the precariously declining relative population of Jews in U.S. urban areas. In a piece for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in 2003, Dr. Steven Windmueller explained the effect: "In relative terms, the impact of American Jewish voting clout continues to decline. Even in Los Angeles County, where Jews account for around 4 percent of the electorate, the Jewish 'leverage factor' in several close state and county races appears to have been minimal." Declining Jewish political participation could make things even worse.
To prevent that fate, the RAC's voter drive is being organized in conjunction with the Jewish Council on Public Affairs and the Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform movements. Meanwhile, the RAC's college wing put voter registration information on the seats of university-area synagogues during the High Holidays this year and informed rabbis how they can encourage voting (within nonprofit guidelines), in addition to simply providing registration materials.
But despite such straightforward nonpartisan Get Out The Vote campaigns, there are clearly partisan issues at stake in the Jewish vote. Pundits on all sides usually agree that Jews have traditionally been the stalwarts of the Democratic Party. Any trend toward apathy would first and foremost hurt the Democrats. And, for obvious reasons, so would a trend toward conservatism.
For young Jews considering voting for the first time, how they interpret the unique issues of 2004 -- including the war on terror and President Bush's support of Israel -- might make the difference between simply staying home, voting as their parents do, or even changing their allegiance altogether.
"I intend to vote for Bush [because of his] policy on Israel," Clyde Isaacson, 28, told The Journal. "He's so strong and he never falters, never thinks twice. When he makes a decision he goes and does it."
"Israel is my main issue in this election," said Erica Waxer, 19. "And that's actually why I'm tending to favor conservative foreign policy."
"I've decided [to vote for Bush], but all my friends disagree with me. I am very socially liberal and they bring up good points, but for me Israel outweighs everything," Waxer said.
Rather than calling it division, some see this trend as a positive and growing shift in Jewish values.
Organizations such as the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and speakers such as Dennis Prager have repeatedly emphasized that Jewish support of the Republican Party is growing, and point to young people like Waxer and Isaacson as proof, despite conceding that many older Jews remain staunchly Democratic.
Indeed, it wasn't Waxer's family who sparked her conservative foreign policy streak. "It's more since coming to campus. I went to Israel last year, and I've gone back on advocacy training, and after going there I really got involved. I consider myself an Israel activist," Waxer said.
Jewish Democrats, however, do not seem overly concerned with either the purported trend toward Republicanism or apathy.
On the apathy question, "I can measure [Jewish political interest] anecdotally," said Ira Foreman, director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a Jewish organization that supports the Democratic Party.
"When we do events now, whether it's in New York City or Cleveland, we get much bigger attendance than in 2000. Both I and my counterpart in the RJC draw [crowds] a lot better this year," Foreman said. "I do think there's a lot of [political] interest in the Jewish community, some of which is in support of Bush," he said. "But a lot of it is generated by a very strong dislike of Bush, as well."
Foreman expects youth voting, including Jewish youth, to increase compared to the 2000 election, but said he would be very surprised if it approached the levels of older Americans.
And on the question of Republicans recruiting younger Jews, Foreman is equally unworried. For this he may have good reason. In the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee's 2004 Survey of American Jewish Opinion, 69 percent of Jews polled said they would vote for John Kerry. Only 24 percent would vote for George Bush.
"Every election I've seen over the past 30 years, Republican Jews say the youth vote will go their way, and that will change the vote. Of course, 35 years later, that hasn't happened," Foreman said. "I think [Jewish political affiliation is] relatively stable from 2000. A year ago Republicans said they were going to get 40 percent of the Jewish vote, now they're hoping get a percent or two more."
And despite the prevalence of young Jews identifying with the Republican Party or shrugging in apathy, it remains easy to find the traditional vociferous Democratic Jews in the crowd.
"I think Bush is the worst president that we've ever had. I've always had some interest in politics, but now everything that [Bush] does is so opposed to what I believe that I'm actually angry at him," said Ben Petuchowski, 19. "It's frustrating when you think that half the country still supports this guy."
"Back in 2000, I would have said I was Democratic because my parents were. But now I really feel like I understand the issues," Petuchowski said.
Despite the allure of Israel as the primary issue drawing young Jews to the American political process, it is not a monolithic concern.
"I'm in favor of funding stem cell research, I think it's important," said Nikki Levin, 20. "I think that Bush shouldn't implement his personal values in [public] policy."
Levin said she considers herself more interested in politics today than during the 2000 election, when she was too young to vote.
"I would say I'm more conscientious today than in 2000," she said. "I feel it's more important to pay attention."
Both Petuchowski and Levin mentioned that their families' involvement in politics did color their political thinking. The old political idiom that children tend to vote like their parents still generally means Jewish support for the Democrats.
One question, however, remains: What is the traditional Jewish Democratic establishment actively doing to counter threats from apathy and conservatism, especially among the youth?
Not enough, says Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), an organization that boasts a significant fraction of young members. "With all due respect, the Jewish left is not offering pro-Israel, pro-peace alternatives that are appealing to young people who want to get involved. That's my critique of my own camp."
Sokatch said it's neither surprising nor wrong that young Jews are becoming engrossed in concern and activism on behalf of Israel since Sept. 11. "The Jewish state has been the great drama, the most exciting and important development in modern Jewish history," Sokatch said. "And so Israel has been the most successful way to bring Jewish people [into political involvement]."
"Since these people are deeply concerned about the future of the Jewish state in the post-Sept. 11 world, that tends to be the largest number of affiliated young Jews. But I don't think that represents the potential of what's out there," Sokatch said.
Sokatch maintains that when young people are given the chance to join a Jewish organization -- like PJA, which engages in a variety of community service activities (as well as supporting Israel) -- the traditional Jewish passion for social justice clearly reemerges.
Whatever the political future of Jewish youth in particular, they still constitute a part of American youth in general -- and that group is poised to make a powerful showing in the 2004 election.
With the latest polls showing a virtual dead-heat in the presidential election, it may yet be the Jewish student attending college in Arizona, the young couple celebrating the New Year in Florida or the young Jewish professional in Cleveland who will decide the election.
Jay Strell, communications director of the youth voting organization, Rock the Vote, broke down the numbers for The Journal: "In the summer were getting 10,000 people per week downloading voter registration forms from rockthevote.com. Now we're getting 20,000 per day."