The January Commentary promises to explain “why Jews hate Palin” by staff contributor Jennifer Rubin.
Rubin passes lightly over the question whether Jews in fact do hate Palin more than other people do. The sole evidence she cites on behalf of her assertion is a September 2008 poll in which Jews disapproved of Palin by a 54-37 margin. That does not look like foaming hatred to me, and anyway those numbers are now 15 months out of date.
Besides: Lots of people dislike Sarah Palin. Palin excites intense support among a core group of conservative Republicans. Beyond that base, she is one of the most unpopular figures in modern American life. She polls poorly among the young, among women, among independents. A plurality even of Republican women regard her as unqualified for the presidency.
So if Jews do “hate” Palin, this may be just another manifestation of the old rule about Jews being like other people, only more so.
Still, if the question is to be put anywhere, Commentary is the right place to do it. It’s a magazine with a special mission to explain the Jewish community to itself. So – Jew to Jew, Commentary contributor to Commentary contributor – I’ll join Rubin’s thinking exercise.
Rubin offers four general grounds of explanation for Jewish anti-Palin feeling.
First, says Rubin, Jews greatly value (and possibly over-value) formal credentials.
Jews, who have excelled at intellectual pursuits, understandably are swayed by the notion that the presidency is a knowledge-based position requiring a background in the examination of detailed data and sophisticated analysis. They assume that such knowledge is the special preserve of a certain type of credentialed thinker (the better the university, the more unquestioned the credential) and that possessing this knowledge is the key to a successful presidency.
Second, Rubin continues, Jews under-value traditional American folkways: hunting, fishing, the frontier, military enlistment.
Her personal life made her even more alien to American Jews. She comes from the wilderness, brags about hunting and eating native animals, and is a proud gun owner. … Palin’s oldest, Track, has joined the military, while many Jews lack a family military tradition.
Third, Jews disdain working class occupations like those in which Palin labored.
Palin and her husband had labored at jobs most professional and upper-middle-class Jews would never dream of holding—waitressing, picking “strawberries in the mud and mosquitoes . . . for five cents flat,” sweeping parking lots, and many “messy, obscure seafood jobs, including long shifts on a stinky shore-based crab-processing vessel.” Her populist appeal and identification with working-class voters are rooted in a life experience that is removed by one or two generations from the lives of most American Jews. Her life is what they were expected to rise above.
Fourth and last, Jews hate Palin because Jews disapprove of large families – and especially because Jews quietly favor the abortion of disabled children.
Pro-life Americans saw Palin’s son Trig, born with Down syndrome in April 2008, as an affirmation of Palin’s deeply held beliefs, a rare instance in which a politician did more than mouth platitudes about a “culture of life.” But in affluent communities with large Jewish populations, Down-syndrome children are now largely absent due to the widespread use of diagnostic testing and “genetics counseling.” Trig was not a selling point with many Jewish women who couldn’t imagine making a similar choice—indeed, many have, in fact, made the opposite one.
These reasons are not all wrong, exactly. (Although they contain much that is wrong. Jews despise large families? How then did Bobby Kennedy’s popularity among Jews manage to survive?)
It’s more that Rubin’s reasons in their wrongness inadvertently reveal many of the real reasons for Jewish disquiet about Sarah Palin.
Let’s start with the cagily phrased claim that Palin “identifies with” working class voters. Obviously nobody can know what goes on inside Palin’s head. But if it’s meant to suggest that Palin actually originates in the working class, well that’s flat-out wrong by almost any definition.
Palin’s father was a high school teacher, her mother a public school administrator. Her mother’s brother was a lawyer, an official of the Texas state bar, and later a judge. In a state where many workers had to fear seasonal unemployment, her family enjoyed the security of a public-sector white-collar salary, benefits, and pension. The Heaths were not rich, but they were comfortable and respectable – much more so than, say, the family of young Bill Clinton, who if I remember right, did quite OK among Jews.
To itemize Palin’s summer jobs as proof of her blue-collar authenticity reminds me of that Saturday Night Live sketch in which Al Franken’s Pat Robertson insists he is much more than a TV preacher. “I worked as a caddy, I’ve watched people’s houses ….”
Yes, Todd belonged to a union. So did Ronald Reagan. However: Even before Sarah Palin’s book deal, the Palins ranked among the richest people in their hometown of Wasilla – and were capable of expressing intense disdain toward their perceived social inferiors, like the Johnston clan. If anything, the Palin family’s status grievances look less like Richard Nixon style resentment of poverty and humiliation – and much more like John Adams’ fury on encountering in London those English snobs who didn’t realize what big deals the Adamses were, back home in Braintree.
But in endorsing the fiction about Palin’s hard-scrabble origins, Rubin also endorses some not so innocent fiction about Jews as hostile aliens within America. If Jews dislike Palin, it is because they feel themselves “above” regular Americans – because disdain to work with their hands – because they do not bear their fair share of military service – because they abort Down’s syndrome babies – because they confuse mere verbal fluency with practical wisdom. (I remember that Russell Kirk once flung this accusation against American Jews – and how passionately and rightly the editors of Commentary resented it as a “bloody outrage.”)
And this I think brings us to some of the true reasons for the Jewish disquiet with Palin.
Rubin’s first point has merit to it: Jews do think that knowledge is important to a president. They do think a president should be able to think clearly and to distinguish between true information and wishful delusions. I feel sure most Americans of all faiths would agree. Does Jennifer Rubin seriously suggest that this opinion is mistaken?
If American Jews have a problem with Palin, Rubin is right that problem 1 is that they – we – doubt her intellectual capacity for the job. But that’s only the start of the list of problems.
Ignorance is bad. But we all start ignorant. Jews – again like other people, only more so – expect their leaders to start early and to work hard to remedy their ignorance, by learning things. People who don’t, won’t or can’t learn – whose followers disparage the value or need to learn – are going to forfeit Jewish support, and not only Jewish support.
But even this is not the worst of it. Just guessing, but I think the real and most fundamental problem Jews have with Palin is not her gleeful ignorance, but her willful divisiveness. More than any politician in memory, Palin seems to divide her fellow-Americans into first class and second class citizens, real Americans and not-so-real Americans. To do her justice, she has never said anything to suggest that Jews as Jews fall into the second, less-real, class. But Jews do tend to have an intuition that when this sort of line-drawing is done, we are likely to find ourselves on the wrong side.