Galvanizing support over the past couple of election cycles, the Tea Party consists of a number of groups that have coalesced around a shared ideology: “The Tea Party is an American populist political movement…. It endorses reduced government spending, opposition to taxation, in varying degrees, reduction of the national debt and federal budget deficit, and adherence to an originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution.”1 The Tea Party movement grew out of the history of American conservatism. More directly, it drew on the popularist tradition framed in late-19th- and early-20th-century America, where groups sought to redefine the respective roles of government and citizen. Today, there are four Senators and 62 Representatives affiliated with the Tea Party. Additional members of Congress identify with the movement and its ideas but have not formally joined the Tea Party Caucus, founded in 2010 and chaired by Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
Are Jews involved in this movement in any significant way? There is anecdotal and some preliminary statistical evidence, based on a 2010 Pew Research Center study, that while American Jews by and large remain liberal, there is a small subset of Jews that, while not necessarily identifying with the Tea Party, express strong support for Tea Party ideas — specifically, their thoughts on economic and social issues.2 Among the economic elements, the size and performance of government and with reference to the social indicators, same-sex marriage, abortion, and gun ownership.
Freelance writer Bill Berkowitz, who has monitored right-wing movements, confirmed that “There is no doubt that there are Jews involved with the Tea Party movements.” But given the group’s posters (one depicts tax money disappearing into a funnel with a Jewish Star of David on it) and comments heard at its events, Berkowitz suggests that “[If] Tea Party organizers are as politically savvy as some of its Religious Right forebears, it might try to tamp down its more virulent anti-Semitic participants while at the same time keeping an eye out for a handful of charismatic Jewish personalities to point to as Tea Party allies.”3
A 2011 study I headed surveyed a cohort of about 2,300 Jewish voters and showed some 880 individuals who identified the Tea Party platform as “refreshing.”4 The research affirmed a political division among American Jews; especially among Republican Jews, differences in values and policy ideas about what is important to Republican Jewish voters was observed. The research also noted the growing divide of discourse between Jewish liberals and conservatives.
Findings confirm that the more religiously conservative or traditional a person is in his or her practice or belief, the more likely that that individual would resonate to the views and values of the Tea Party movement.
Two measures examined within the Pew study and replicated in my research confirmed that Tea Party advocates adopt a conservative approach to the economy and tend to take socially conservative positions. Tea Party backers also heavily endorse the rights of gun owners. Jews are politically more complex than simple party labels. There has always been a small cohort of Jews who have endorsed libertarian ideas. Now, not only has this group felt more empowered, but also other Jewish voters fearful about their financial future and that of the nation have found common cause with the Tea Party ideology. As Jews have become more deeply embedded in the mainstream of American society, their politics now emulate, to a greater degree, the diversity of ideas that define the broader culture.
Yet, as Washington, D.C. journalist James Besser reported, quoting Fred Zeidman, a longtime Jewish Republican leader in Texas, “The idea of the Tea Parties scares the hell out of the Jewish community, and I can’t tell you it’s unjustifiable in some cases. There are some candidates out there that are clearly unqualified.”5
While it is difficult to calculate the strength of Jewish involvement with the Tea Party, there may be a growing base of political interest in the economic and social principles of this movement.6
Judaism and American liberalism are understood to be compatible: Why not also Judaism and conservatism? American Jews want to feel that their Jewish identity is aligned with their political passions. As some begin to question the size and direction of government, and, more directly, specific social policies, they are finding themselves outside the liberal community and looking for a better fit. The neo-isolationism of some Tea Party ideologues, though, would run counter to the intense commitment that binds many Jews — especially within the Republican ranks — to the pro-Israel agenda. Whether this movement’s foreign policy ideas and
social extremism serve to drive a wedge between Tea Party activists and conservative Jewish voters, remains to be seen.
2 Scott Clement, “The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues,” Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, February 23, 2011email print