Some people may have been surprised by a recent American Jewish Committee poll which found that Russian Jews favored President George W. Bush over John Kerry by 54 percent to 14 percent, although overall the city’s Jewish community supports Mr. Kerry by 64 percent to 24 percent over Mr. Bush.
This development is actually a return to what it used to mean to be a Russian immigrant. Having personally experienced, and escaped, the extreme yet logical conclusion of leftist policies, we Soviet émigrés were instinctively suspicious of American so-called liberals. We were natural Republicans—the only exceptions among us being college professors and welfare recipients.
Our American-Jewish benefactors, meanwhile, were faced with the contradiction of their efforts: This wasn’t exactly the breed of Jew they were used to, nor the dinner guest they imagined would fill the empty chair at Passover Seder, placed there symbolically year after year, waiting for a newly freed Soviet Jew. But here we were. Oy.
Surely once the émigrés got integrated into American society, the thinking went, they’d become part of the democratic process (which really meant the Democratic process). There was a certainty that we would “mature” politically into the right views, that is to say the left views.
Their patience was rewarded, though not in the way they expected. Because along came the second wave of immigrants and, as we all soon learned, there were fundamental differences between the smaller wave that began in the 1970’s and the tidal wave that began arriving in 1988.
Those who came earlier were mostly dissidents, who left out of conviction and took a huge risk and leap of faith from the secure predictability of Mother Russia into the unknown. There was also the risk of not knowing which visa solicitors the K.G.B. might decide to make an example of. It was an immigration that wasn’t about the material benefits of America so much as the opportunity for ideological freedom and a professional advancement that Jews didn’t enjoy in Russia. We came with nothing and didn’t know what to expect. Upon arriving, many took jobs as housecleaners and such until they could find more suitable work. They had a love affair with America.
Among those who stayed behind and who weren’t refuseniks, some feared uprooting themselves and some found the Soviet system worked well enough to live on. Only when that system fell out from under them, when Russia became unlivable and when they had assurances from relatives in America about what awaited them here, did they take a chance.
Here, economics was the key motivating factor. Had conditions in the former Eastern bloc improved, many of them might never have left. There was a measure of opportunism among this bunch and, once here, a lack of humility, an impatience for the good life and a wider and longer reliance on social-welfare agencies, often fed by a resentment at having to take work that was beneath them. In 1991, Moscow began allowing people to retain their citizenship, and many still hold valid Russian passports. Comparatively speaking, these émigrés have a more cynical view of America than did their predecessors.
Little surprise, then, that most Russian Jews today are registered Democrats, and that in New York they picked Al Gore over George Bush in 2000 by a margin of 77-20, according to the A.J.C. poll. The much larger, newer and less ideologically grounded wave (to whom the name Ronald Reagan didn’t have the same resonance) sided with Democrats when the Clinton administration was fighting a Republican Congress that wanted to reduce welfare benefits to non-citizens—convinced by local Democrats that this was anti-immigrant stuff and that cutting benefits to senior citizens was next.
The immigrants’ left leanings may not exactly come from the high-minded places that those of American Jews do, but they are nonetheless a fulfillment of the hope the latter had for the poor brothers and sisters they had sponsored. If quintessential Russian immigrant Ayn Rand advocated an enlightened self-interest, one might characterize the recent wave’s pursuit as unenlightened self-interest: It’s a matter of “which party will give me more”—as many immigrants readily explain the Soviet-American mentality.
Even among my contemporaries, I’ve been observing a heartbreaking trend for several years now. Today there are more among my wave who dismiss the differences between the parties—those ideological distinctions that make for real-life consequences—as trivial. It’s a cynicism worthy of the newer wave and prevalent particularly among the business-class pragmatists who adored Bill Clinton. Under Mr. Clinton, business was good, and that’s all that mattered. This kind of thinking is an indication that my fellow émigrés have forgotten where we came from, why we left and what we came for.
So what accounts for this year’s return to Russian-American Republicanism? The answer is the War on Terror, not least of all terror against Israel. At least my people are able to put more selfish self-interest aside in favor of more selfless self-interest. (After all, there are rumors again of impending Section 8 housing cuts by the Bush administration, and the oldies are up in arms.)
Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant, was quoted in Jewish Week expressing worry about the implications for Democratic Jewry of a large Russian community: “There is a question as to whether they share the communal agenda,” he said.
I would remind him and others that a good part of that communal agenda is what built the Soviet Union, and what American Jews helped us escape.