End of Jewish golden age on Capitol Hill?
July 4th, 2011
12:32 PM ET

End of Jewish golden age on Capitol Hill?

By Dave Schechter, CNN

The following may cheer those who complain that Jews exercise too much influence in the American political system.

“The massive overrepresentation of Jews on Capitol Hill, long a source of pride for the community, has been shrinking in recent years and could drop in the coming election cycle from 41 to the mid 30s, a level last seen 15 years ago,” Nathan Guttman recently wrote in The Forward, the Jewish newspaper.

Perhaps a golden age of sorts is coming to an end.

“It is the drawing down of a generation that believed in civil service,” Jacques Berlinerblau, director of Georgetown University’s Jewish civilization program, told Guttman, citing generations of post-World War II American Jews who, as Guttman phrased it, “saw special value in entering public service and also in reaching beyond the interests of their own community.”

Berlinerblau expanded on the subject in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

In my own writing I have referred to this half century as the era of 'secular Yiddishkeit.' It was the moment when the children of immigrant Jews of Eastern and Central European appeared to take over the world. They excelled in art, science, politics, journalism, academe, etc., and they did so in numbers completely out of proportion to their actual size. Of late, Jewish population growth has stagnated somewhat. The great generation of secular liberal Jews is graying. This may be one reason why we are witnessing a substantial, though not necessarily alarming, decrease in Jewish representation in many fields.

A January report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life on the religious makeup of Congress notes that Jews were barely 2 percent of the 87th Congress in 1961-62, so the generations that came of age after World War II did indeed make their mark.

Today, Jews make up more than 7 percent of the 112th Congress while being just 1.7 percent of the U.S. population.

There are 13 Jews in the Senate and 28 in the House, all but one a Democrat; the lone Republican is House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Since the 112th Congress convened in January, two Jews have resigned their seats: Jane Harman of California (to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) and Anthony Weiner of New York (you know . . . those photographs).

Of course, the vagaries of electoral politics play a role.

When Republicans are ascendant, such as in the 2010 election, the Democrats lose seats, including those held by Jews. Indeed, seven Jewish lawmakers lost seats in the last cycle. Already there are concerns that redrawing the lines of congressional districts in California will eliminate a House seat currently held by a Jewish Democrat. Of course, Democratic fortunes in 2012 will hinge, in part, on the strength of President Barack Obama’s electoral coattails.

But there are also irrefutable demographic trends at play.

“While experts disagree on the short-term significance of shifts in Jewish political representation, all point to the likelihood of a long-term decline," writes Guttman. "Growth in Jewish population is stagnant and composes an increasingly smaller portion of the population in general.”

Kurt Stone, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University and author of two books on Jews in Congress, told The Forward that the decline in Jews in Congress "won’t matter much in terms of the Jewish agenda.”

Peter Beinart set off a firestorm in some Jewish circles last year when he wrote about a declining affinity among younger Jews for the “Jewish homeland.”

“Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel," he wrote in the New York Review of Books. "And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. Particularly in the younger generations, fewer and fewer American Jewish liberals are Zionists; fewer and fewer American Jewish Zionists are liberal.”

Beyond Israel, Guttman notes that, “On social issues that are dear to the community, much depends on the broader makeup of Congress, since Jewish priorities on domestic issues are largely aligned with those of the Democratic Party."

Indeed, coalitions are the way policy is made on the Hill. If your share of the population is not growing, it’s best to align with someone whose is.

Reports Guttman: “Changing demographic realities are pushing Jewish activists to seek a political partnership with Latinos, America’s fastest-growing minority group, for help in supporting the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Judaism • Politics

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