Princeton, Religion, and Politics: The Politics of Judaism on Campus

By Ben Koons ’15

In the waning months of the 2008 presidential campaign, the Pew Research Center found that then-Senator Barack Obama surged from 62 percent of the Jewish vote as of June to 78 percent on Election Day. In a matter of five months, he went from nearly 20 points behind the last few Democratic presidential candidates in this demographic to nearly even with them by softening his message on Israel. There are less than seven million people in the United States who self-identify as Jewish, but they are also more concentrated in one of the most important swing states in elections for the past decade—Florida. Four percent of Florida’s voters are Jewish, which is one percentage point more than Obama’s 2008 lead in the state.

Despite his May 2011 speech about Israel-Palestine negotiations based on pre-1967 borders, it seems unlikely that President Obama will lose the Jewish vote in 2012. However, the Jewish population of the United States is becoming increasingly conservative. In a 2008 Gallup poll, half of Jews in all age groups identified as liberal, but among those under 35, nearly twice as many (29 percent) identified as conservative as among older Jews (16-17 percent). The younger generation of Jews is still generally liberal, but moderates are losing out to conservatives. The only Jewish Republican in Congress, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), shines as one of the bright lights of conservatism in Washington and represents a hope for more conservative Jews in the Republican leadership.

Conservatives often pride themselves on not falling into the trap of “identity politics.” An article identifying conservatives based on their faith seems to fall into this trap. In my interviews with Jewish conservatives on campus, however, I found that faith plays only a marginal role in forming political opinions, with the notable exception of opinions on American foreign policy in the Middle East.

Issues Voting

Jews on campus tend to be more interested in big-tent conservatism and economic issues than social issues like abortion and gay marriage. While there are several Jews among the membership of the Anscombe Society and Princeton Pro-Life, none currently hold leadership roles. Jews are prominent though in organizations like the College Republicans and the Tory itself. Jewish officers of the College Republicans include Jacob Reses, a managing editor of this magazine and the current club president, Jared Isenstein, the current treasurer, and Brian Lipshutz, a former president. William Herlands is the Tory’s outgoing editor-in-chief, and the magazine itself was founded by two religious Jews in the 1980s.

American foreign policy regarding Israel unites politically active Jews on campus across the spectrum. Jews predominate in Tigers for Israel (TFI), and an outspoken conservative contingent attends board meetings. However, Democrats have served as president of the group for the last few years. As current TFI president, Ben Jubas, described the club’s political breakdown, “A strong group is conservative, though it’s pretty evenly split. A lot of people unite under a general sense of support for Israel.” Jubas emphasized the importance of engaging in substantive issues without issuing public statements on contentious policies, such as Obama’s suggestion to negotiate along the pre-1967 Israeli borders.

Even though he leads a club in support of Israel, Jubas didn’t consider Obama’s foreign policy to be the deciding factor in his personal voting decision: “I’m somebody who cares a lot about Israel—that’s obviously something that’s important—but I don’t think that’s the determining factor in terms of the American presidential election.” Indeed, most of the respondents I interviewed didn’t mention Israel as the issue most important to them; economic and fiscal issues took precedence.

A Changing Game

As the national trend is for younger Jews to be more conservative, Princeton’s conservative Jews have also become more outspoken. While many of the students I interviewed said they weren’t as conservative as their parents, Princeton’s political climate has given Jewish conservatives a wider venue for engagement. Even as recently as the 1990s, this wasn’t true. As Isaiah Cox ’94, the founder of Princeton’s Chabad chapter, described it, “There wasn’t any pro-conservative movement on campus. You might have one or two lectures a year.” The Intifada was going on at the time, but beyond a half-hearted pro-Israel movement, there was almost no involvement by Jews in conservative organizations. As Cox explained, “I had friends who were conservative that wouldn’t talk about it because there was nothing to gain.”

It’s difficult to find a consensus about whether conservatism dominates in religious and politically active Jewish circles on campus. To Herlands, “It seems that the Jewish population at Princeton, specifically the religious Jewish population, is more heavily conservative than the general student body.” However, Lipshutz was skeptical of Jews being exceptionally conservative, arguing, “Like the rest of the campus, many of the politically active Jews I know tend to be liberal, but there is a good-sized contingent of politically active Jewish conservatives and moderates.” There is no statistical evidence to test these claims, but the conservative movement among Jews has become more robust in its activism in the past two decades. According to Daniel Mark, a member of the Class of 2003 and a Politics graduate student who advises Princeton Pro-Life, “There do seem to be more Jews active in conservative causes now than there were in past years, but that’s hardly a scientific observation.” Even for Jews to consider themselves as representative of the campus’ political milieu is impressive when nationally almost four-fifths of them voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

Does Faith Inform Politics?

A consistent theme among the Jews I talked to was that faith never overtly shaped their politics, but that it might have subtle influences on the way they thought about the political realm. As Mark explained the relationship between his faith and politics, “Obviously there’s no saying exactly what role my religious background played in shaping my political views, but for the most part my individual positions were informed, but not formed, by my faith. My political views are the product of careful thinking about the best reasons for and against each position, and those reasons are not ones that depend on revelation or any sort of faith.  At the same time, I am encouraged by the fact that the Jewish tradition teaches many of the same values that I have come to understand as important for the flourishing of people of all faiths and no faith at all.” Jeremy Rosenthal, a board member of Yavneh, the Orthodox Jewish group on campus,, agreed, “I don’t really see my faith as being strongly related to my religious views, though both are important factors in my general world-view, so I’m sure they color each other to some degree.” Jeremy Furchtgott, a former president of Chabad, was more skeptical of direct ties between the two. “My faith is not directly related to my political views. I am an economic conservative and a states-rights advocate, and I think that my political views do not stem from my religious views, or vice-versa, though they might both stem from the same source.”

In order to become politically active at Princeton, religious conservatives have to debate in secular terms, or else they’ll be unable to convince liberals from other faith traditions. So, the fact that politically active Jews consider faith to have an indirect influence on their politics fits into a broader picture of a politically active Princetonian. However, Jubas argued, “At least in Judaism, the religion doesn’t speak with one voice on these types of political issues.” Rosenthal agreed, explaining, “My religion has many general principles and teachings, but especially when it comes to specifics, there is always a wide spectrum of views. While there is often one ‘mainstream’ view along with other, less widely-accepted ones, I feel this range of views allows for, and perhaps even encourages, reflection and the formation of varying opinions.”

Concluding Reflections

From my informal survey of Jewish conservatives on campus, it seems clear that their political activism should be seen more as the victory of ideology over identity politics than the ongoing struggle to win over demographic groups. As Lipshutz put it, “Jewish conservatives on campus certainly identify as Jews and conservatives, but one of the great things about conservatives is that we don’t buy into liberal identity politics.” Indeed, the main distinction between Princeton’s Jewish conservatives and their Gentile allies is more interest in supporting Israel, but this issue cuts across ideological lines, uniting all American Jews. Princeton’s Jewish conservatives demonstrate the inapplicability of identity politics to the conservative message, which resonates across creeds.

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