Steve King doesn't understand American Jews. The feeling is mutual

Representative Steve King is making national news again, but in a new twist, for offensive comments about Jews rather than Latinos.

Speaking to Boston Herald radio on Friday, King said, "I don't understand how Jews in America can be Democrats first and Jewish second and support Israel along the line of just following their president." Over the weekend, apparently unaware that he had just validated a classic anti-Semitic trope about divided Jewish loyalties, King claimed that he was defending Israelis.

As my grandmother might have said, what King doesn't know about Jews could fill a book. But after reflecting on the matter, I realized that King's worldview is just as inexplicable to a typical American Jewish Democrat as mine is to him.

It's disturbing that King would expect American Jews to show allegiance to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than to President Barack Obama. While King may see himself as Israel's defender against "Leftists and misogynists" (and no, I have no clue how misogyny fits in here), his assumption aligns with anti-Semitic stereotypes about Jews being less than fully committed to their country of citizenship. Similarly, a few generations ago Catholic politicians like King were commonly accused of being more loyal to the Pope than to the president or U.S. Constitution.

I consider myself a Zionist, but among the issues that have formed my political identity, Israel doesn't make the top 50. Israel isn't the central reason I identify as a Jew either, and I'm not an outlier, according to a 2012 Jewish Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute: "When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half (46%) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20%) or religious observance (17%)."

Furthermore, many Jews who care deeply about Israel do not support the Likud leader or what I would call the "AIPAC party line." The Jewish Daily Forward's editors put it well when they commented that Netanyahu is "not the King of the Jews," and his election victory has "has created a wrenching dilemma" for Jews who believe the conservative Israeli government is not serving that country well.

As Bleeding Heartland discussed here, I supported the Democrats (Jewish or Gentile) who boycotted Netanyahu's speech, not because I am a "knee-jerk" follower of President Barack Obama, but because it was inappropriate for Congress to invite a foreign leader without coordinating with the White House, and doubly inappropriate to appear to endorse one political party two weeks before an Israeli election.

Meanwhile, Representative Steve Israel, a senior House Democrat, demanded an apology: "I don't need Congressman Steve King questioning my religion or my politics." Israel later ridiculed the Iowa Republican for acting like a "Talmudic scholar on what defines Jews." He went on CNN this morning to elaborate:

After first noting that he escorted Bibi Netanyahu in and out of the Congressional chamber when Netanyahu addressed Congress, he let King have it.

"I really do not need lessons from people like Steve King on what it is to be Jewish, or a Democrat." Israel continued, "You know, Steve King, who said America is a Christian nation, should not be lecturing Jews on how we should be Jewish."

Here's one example of King describing the U.S. as a "Christian society" and asserting that "you could not build America without Christianity." Such sentiments are prevalent on the social conservative wing of the Republican Party, which helps drive the overwhelming majority of American Jews to vote Democratic.

When I heard about King's latest comments, my first thought was, "Here's a guy who hasn't spent a lot of time around Jews." That may be unfair. Maybe King has hung out with an unrepresentative sample--namely, the roughly 20 percent of American Jews who consistently vote Republican. But the Jewish Republicans I have known (including my late father and several of his close friends) wouldn't see eye to eye with King often either.

For the benefit of those who "don't understand how Jews in America can be Democrats first," here are a few ways in which King and his conservative allies are diametrically opposed to consensus views within the Jewish community. Bleeding Heartland covered some of this territory five years ago in response to Norman Podhoretz's rhetorical question, "Why Are Jews Liberals?"


King believes abortion should be illegal in almost all circumstances. He co-sponsors the "personhood" amendment, which would declare life to begin at conception and could endanger access to some birth control methods.

Having grown up as a third-generation advocate of reproductive rights, I have long believed that Jews are this country's most pro-choice demographic. Jewish women were among the earliest supporters of Planned Parenthood or like-minded organizations in Iowa and many other states. The 2012 Jewish Values Survey data bore out my hunch:

While Jews varied considerably in their views of a wide range of topics, on one - abortion - they were not only reasonably cohesive in their attitude, but strikingly different from other groups. [...]

Essentially regardless of denominational affiliation or demographics, American Jews think abortion should be legal in all (49%) or almost all (44%) cases. That is, fully 93% of all American Jews support legalized abortion in some fashion. Even political leanings, while influential, are not determinative. Among Jewish Democrats support is 95%, but 77% of Jewish Republicans also favor legalized abortion in all or most cases, far exceeding the rate of other groups studied.

The comparable numbers for other faith groups is quite different not only in their overall support or opposition to legalized abortion, but in the internal differences within each group. Jews are the only group surveyed in which a plurality support abortion in all cases. While about half of all Jews support abortion in all cases, in no other faith group does such support exceed 25% of the population.

All of the Jewish Republicans I knew growing up were pro-choice.

Marriage equality

After the Iowa Supreme Court struck down this state's Defense of Marriage Act in 2009, King warned that Iowa could "become the gay marriage Mecca due to the Supreme Court's latest experiment in social engineering." He recorded robocalls seeking political and financial support for the National Organization for Marriage. He called for Iowa lawmakers to pass a state constitutional amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman. He actively campaigned against the Iowa Supreme Court justices who were up for retention in 2010.

In contrast, Jews were among the early advocates of marriage equality, and multiple polls have shown that roughly 80 percent of American Jews support same-sex marriage rights. The figure is probably higher now. I suspect that consensus is correlated with the fact that most American Jews live in large and relatively diverse metropolitan areas.

Civic expressions of Christianity

King has slammed "leftists" who "are trying to scrub religion out of our schools, out of our workplace" and file lawsuits to remove any "public display of baby Jesus." A group advocating the separation of church and state found King opposed to their positions on every issue evaluated.

Jews vary widely in how upset they are by public expressions of Christianity, but as a general rule, members of a minority religious group find it alienating when politicians equate American values with Christian values. In the 2012 Jewish Values Survey, 66 percent of respondents said "being a religious minority in America has a somewhat or very important influence on their political beliefs and activity."

Generations of Jews grew up learning Christmas carols in public schools. Some of my father's elementary school teachers required students to recite the Lord's Prayer daily. No one filed lawsuits in those days, but that doesn't mean Jews were happy about their children feeling pressure to participate in Christian rituals. School prayer is no longer as hot a topic as it was during the 1980s and 1990s, but whenever a conservative calls for more government affirmations of Christianity, he is inadvertently repelling Jews from the Republican Party.


King is famous nationwide for his hard-line stance against any policy that establishes legal status or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Although he has sometimes emphasized his support for legal immigration, his public statements have tended to focus on ways to keep "illegals" out. For instance, he has tried to deny birthright citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants, and he favors building a concrete wall along the southern U.S. border to "function as both a human and vehicle barrier, inspired by the success of the concrete wall in Israel [around Palestinian-controlled territory]."

Immigration policy does not appear to be a particularly salient issue for the Jewish community, and I'm not aware of any recent polling on Jewish views about immigration reform. But the 2012 Jewish Values Survey found that 72 percent of respondents said "welcoming the stranger" was a somewhat important or very important value, and 70 percent said "the immigrant experience in America" was either "somewhat or very important for informing their political beliefs and activity."

Those findings are not surprising, since a majority of American Jews of voting age are at most two or three generations removed from the old country. All four of my grandparents were born in Europe, which is not unusual. In fact, one of my grandfathers came to the U.S. with two siblings as unaccompanied minors; their parents came later with the younger children of the family. So when King fights to keep "DREAMers" in the shadows and talks about drug mules with "cantaloupe calves," his rhetoric doesn't sit well with many Jews.  

I could go on. King has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, whereas Jews are largely supportive of some gun control. King refuses to accept the "settled science" on climate change, which he has characterized as a "religion" for environmentalists. But according to a 2014 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the American Academy of Religion, "Nearly 8-in-10 Jewish Americans say climate change is a crisis (31%) or a major problem (47%)."  

I'm hard-pressed to think of any contentious political issue where Steve King's stance aligns with the majority of American Jews. Perhaps we are destined to keep not understanding each other.

Some Republicans believe that developments in Israel will deliver a higher percentage of the Jewish vote to the GOP presidential candidate in 2016, but my guess is that Republicans like King will help keep the overwhelming majority of Jews (including many who don't identify as liberals) voting Democratic yet again.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S.- Speaking of Republicans who drive Jews away, some of my friends fondly remember a candidate forum at Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines during the 1998 campaign for Iowa governor. At the time, Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot was the heavy favorite over Tom Vilsack. Inexplicably, addressing a roomful of Jews, Lightfoot advocated school prayer reflecting the local majority denomination: a Lutheran prayer in a mostly Danish town, or a Catholic prayer in a mostly Irish and German community. I wasn't living in Iowa that year, but from what I hear, Lightfoot was slow to realize he needed to stop digging once he got into that hole.

  • King is a boor

    He ably represents the rube quadrant of our state as I perceive the citizenry there, and sadly I am not optimistic about those folk turning against him in any election soon.

  • Atta girl!

    That's letting him have it with both barrels, a metaphor he should understand.  Well done, too.

    Sign me a King constituent who wants to remind Iowa that this area was once represented by Berkeley Bedell, so give us a break, y'all.  

    • Did use a broad brush there, didn't I

      At least I'm astute enough I used the word "perception".

      That said tho, I still am unable to imagine him being voted out for at least the duration of the present districting and that comes right back to my perception of the collective population up/out there.

    • Berkeley Bedell!

      Great man.

      How strange does it seem now that from 1974-1984, Bedell represented NW Iowa and Tom Harkin SW Iowa in the US House?

  • religion

    I think y'all should reread your history books.

    This country was heavily influenced on religion, both when people came here because of religious persecution, and many founders rallied religious sentiment in creation of the declaration of independence.

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