“There’s a notion out there that the Tea Party is racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim,” says David Spielman, the Campaign Coordinator for the Tea Party organization FreedomWorks. “And nothing can be further from the truth.”
FreedomWorks is one of the groups actively recruiting Jews to its ranks, hoping to diversify its membership. The initiative, called KosherTea (part of the larger DiverseTea program), uses media, advertisements in Jewish publications, and personal outreach through its membership base to entice Jews to “Drink the Tea.”
They face an uphill battle. American Jews tend to be overwhelmingly liberal and identify as Democrats. According to an August Gallup report, 61% of Jews still approve of the job Obama’s doing, significantly higher than the national average of 48%, although notably lower than their 77% approval rating when he was first elected. According to a New York Times/CBS poll, only one percent of Tea Partiers identify as Jewish (but that doesn’t say much given that the number is probably rounded, and Jews make up only 2 percent of the general U.S. population).
Benyamin Korn, the director of the Philadelphia-based Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, believes the Tea Party appeals to three types of Jews: fiscal conservatives, Democrats disaffected with Obama, and Orthodox Jews. Polls showed a whopping 78 percent of Orthodox Jews supporting Senator John McCain in 2008. “The Orthodox very much tend to be social conservatives,” says Korn. “The elite media see Palin and say ‘she’s a hick,’ but the Orthodox Jews say ‘she’s one of us!’” In fact, during the 2008 election an online seller of sheitels, wigs worn by Orthodox Jewish women for modesty, debuted a Sarah Palin style sheitel.
One of the major hurdles Kosher Tea faces is convincing people that they are not, in fact, an organization of bigots, a perception many activists attribute to media bias. Korn laments that the moment Palin entered the national spotlight, “a tsunami of schmutz descended upon her from the mainstream media.” For Korn, the sense of misunderstanding and victimization is one of the reasons that the Tea Party, and Palin in particular, are appealing. “I feel that the kind of vilification she suffers is a very Jewish phenomenon.”
Ryan Hecker, a 30-year-old lawyer from Houston who organizes the Tea Party group Contract From America, has seldom encountered racism in the movement, and says that at one of their earliest events, “a guy showed up with a racist sign, and we threw him out.” In his view, people holding signs comparing President Obama to Hitler represent the fringe of the movement and would be offensive in any context. “I see that as stupid. I saw the Left do that repeatedly with Bush, calling him Hitler.”
Tea Party leaders’ denunciation of extremist elements within the party have allayed some Jewish concerns, says Deborah Lauter, who monitors extremist groups for the Anti-Defamation League. “To the extent that they denounce any kind of racist, anti-Semitic participation in the movement, that’s what we like to see.” Tea Party leaders must walk a fine line between accepting support from and alienating extremists who hope to capitalize on the party’s momentum by joining them, and even throwing their own Tea Parties.
Competing centers of power and an amorphous structure, however, blur the distinction between party leader, active participant, and fringe member. This fluidity allows for differing and even contradictory narratives to coexist within the movement, which may explain why its members don’t always recognize the Tea Party they know when they read about it in the media. For example, when asked about the origins of the movement, Hecker cites “the failure of Republicans” in the last decade, Spielman agrees that “the government forgot its way” before Obama came into power, while Korn insists that the “main reason the tea party emerged is against Obama and against the democrats.”
For all the Tea Party’s efforts to unite and include Jews through KosherTea, Hecker doesn’t believe the outreach will prove beneficial. “Jews overwhelmingly love debate. We love to argue and it’s hard to convince us of anything,” he says. Fortunately, the Jewish spirit of debate hasn’t caused him too much trouble with his Democrat-leaning family. No matter how different his politics are from his mother’s, “she always tells me she disagrees with me and she’s proud of me.”
Portraits of Jewish Tea Partiers
Although all the Jewish Tea Partiers Moment spoke to have unique backgrounds, they also had several characteristics in common. All were raised as liberals, and “came out” as fiscal conservatives in their early adulthood. All feel that the media portrays conservatives unfairly. And all told us -without our prompting- what their families think of their involvement in the Tea Party. These are portraits of Jews that have “Drunk the Tea,” and share their views on being in the Tea Party.
Director of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin and JewsforSarah.com, Philadelphia, PA
When Benyamin Korn became a conservative, it was somewhat of a shock to his family and community alike. The son of the accomplished Reform Rabbi Bertram W. Korn, Benyamin had attended a Quaker school and was active in leftist groups in college. His transformation into a political conservative came about while studying for the Foreign Service exam in the 1980’s,which he says forced him to take a more realistic view of the world. Soon thereafter, he registered as an independent and began practicing Orthodox Judaism. Even before Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican convention in 2008 inspired him to found “American Jews for Sarah Palin,” Korn has served as the Executive Director of the Zionist Organization for America and editor of Jewish newspapers in Miami and Philadelphia. He is married and has four children between the ages of 16 and 21, Manny, Avi, Nechama and Eliyahu.
Benyamin says about…
- “Palin has a solid education in communication skills. She’s not a university trained intellectual. And that’s the issue. But I spent my entire life around highly educated Jews, and I never heard them speak as much sense as this woman.”
- “I think that the biggest problem people have with her is that they haven’t heard her. They’ve heard what others have said about her. Listen to her for 10 minutes. You won’t think that she’s stupid, and you won’t think that she’s unable to run something.”
Being conservative in a community of liberals:
- “There are fully 30 percent of Jews that aren’t liberals. What about the 30 percent? Are we chopped liver?”
- “I have paid my dues in the Jewish community.”
- “My family have always been establishment people, and I’ve moved back and forth between establishment and non-establishment. But I’m not anti-establishment.”
The Tea Party:
- “The tea party represents a conservative uprising within the Republican party, but the purpose of the tea party movement is to take back the congress and to roll back the Obama economic program.”
The difficulty of getting Jewish Support:
- “Look, there are people who disagree with us. We’re not out there slugging it out in the Jewish community. We’re just working putting out our message and working with people who respond to it.”
- “Can we stop vilifying and denigrating other Jews? Can we do the difficult job of practicing the love of a fellow Jew? Rahm Emanuel is not a worse Jew than I am.”
His mother’s views of his Tea Party activism:
- “My mother and I disagree but we’ve agreed to disagree.”
Attorney, Houston, TX
Ryan Hecker, 30, has been involved in the Tea Party from the start. Originally from Manalapan, NJ, where he attended Hebrew school and was Bar Mitzvah, Hecker only discovered his conservatism in college. Outraged by massive government spending, he founded Contract from America, a website that developed a handful of actionable Tea Party policy positions that political candidates could incorporate into their platforms. Hecker lives in Houston with his wife and their two-year old.
Ryan’s says about…
The Tea Party:
- “This is a movement of ideas and a movement that appeals to a lot of Americans.”
Jewish concerns about Tea Party social issues:
- “The movement isn’t focused on social issues, but the movement unites social conservatives and libertarians…. The movement needs to remain agnostic on social issues”
The Tea Party’s appeal for Jews:
- “The movement is all about ideas. I don’t think there’s anything particularly for one religious group or another.
- “People are against Obama not because of his race, but because he promised them that he would change the culture of Washington.”
- “It’s not racist to say Obama is economically to the left.”
His mother’s view of his Tea Party activism:
- “I think my mom is proud of me. She always tells me she disagrees with me and she’s proud of me.”
Political Organizer for FreedomWorks, Washington, DC
A recent graduate of Salisbury University in Maryland, Spielman came to Washington to become more politically involved. It was during college, throughout the Bush administration, the economic crisis, and the bailouts that he feared were “bankrupting my future,” that Spielman discovered his identification with conservative and libertarian politics. He says that other Jewish Tea Partiers are often relieved when they notice a fellow activist wearing a Chai. In addition to organizing for the Tea Party group FreedomWorks, Spielman is working on a Master’s in Public Policy. He lives with his wife Kelly, who was his college girlfriend, and their dog on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. David’s says about…
His political evolution:
- “Personally, I grew up a Democrat simply because I was Jewish. As I got older and started my own philosophical journey, I realized I’m conservative, I’m libertarian.”
Jewish appeal of the Tea Party:
- “Jews are naturally conservative, especially on fiscal issues.”
- “There are a lot Jewish people out there who are fiscally conservative and believe in limited government, but they might be afraid to say it.”
- “If a politically conservative Jew says I support cap and trade but am against Obama’s healthcare, we’ll still welcome him with open arms.”
- “What unites all these people in the movement is that government is out of control, spending is out of control.”
His political philosophy:
- “America is founded on principals of limited government.”
People calling the Tea Party racist:
- “It’s a tactic of the left. They’re uncertain about what the tea party means.”