Why Are Jews Liberals?
In recent years, political polling has recorded undeniable gains for the pro-life movement. What used to be a 2 to 1 advantage for the term “pro-choice” over “pro-life,” has now shrunk to basically 50-50. But even in the early years of polling on the abortion, when intensity as a voting issue was gauged, the pro-life side generally enjoyed a 3-5 to 1 edge.
By Norman Podhoretz
Doubleday, $27.00, 337pp.
The exceptions to this rule have always been A: major cities and college towns which tend to have more young and single people, and B: areas with large Jewish populations.
In 20 years of working with candidates, I have only had one candidate who regularly took major flak for having a spotless pro-life voting record—a Jewish State Representative whose district included townships with Michigan’s largest Jewish communities.
After one public meeting I attended, he was harangued by two women who got in his face for his pro-life stand. Their arguments included more than a touch of Margaret Sanger-esque rhetoric about filling the welfare roles with “unwanted children.” As we left my client muttered, “You’d think Jews would be done with eugenics by now.”
Struck by the incongruity myself, I asked him why he thought this was such a firm point with so many Jewish voters. “Two reasons,” he answered. “First, Jewish girls are told from about the time they learn to talk, `the first thing Hitler did was outlaw abortion.’ Second, they are afraid that the Christian Right is going to use the issue to take over the country and then, I don’t know. We would have Israel’s most loyal supporters in charge?”
However, at the time in 2003, my client was fairly optimistic that the foreign policy of George W. Bush would lead to at least some realignment with Jewish voters. The local Chaldean community was celebrating the liberation of Iraq, and post-9/11 pro-War on Terror sentiment was still running pretty high in the Jewish community making for remarkable political unity. Thinking that the relentlessly pro-Israel statements of conservative Evangelical voices, combined with Bush’s unabashed faith would break down those barriers, he saw light at the end of the tunnel.
But it was not to be; the feelings of goodwill and partisan bridge building were short lived, and in the last election, the district my long-since term-limited client was once easily elected and re-elected as a Republican in, voted Democrat by double digits.
In his provocative and passionately argued-- but remarkably nonjudgmental-- new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, one of our great thinkers, Norman Podhoretz, author and former editor in chief of Commentary, attempts to answer a question that, among political types, has been considered as unknowable and eternal as Freud’s “What do women want?”
Or why, in the famous witticism of Milton Himmelfarb “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” His answer, in short, is that liberal ideology-- particularly the values of so-called tolerance and equality—trump all other considerations, from self-interest to religion.
But, as Podhoretz argues, voting against what would seem to be narrow self-interest—things like taxes on the upper class or affirmative action—is a part of the point, and a source of pride.
In Podhoretz’s words there is a new “Torah of liberalism.”
“To most American Jews, then, liberalism is not, as has often been said, merely a necessary component of Jewishness: it is the very essence of being a Jew. Nor is it a ‘substitute for religion’: it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas and, Tertullian- like, obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.” [Tertullian was an early Christian philosopher who said he believed what he believed because he believed it.]
The first half of Why Are Jews Liberals? is a Thomas Sowell-like social history of anti-Semitism and the forces that pushed Jews—particularly European Jewry—leftward, from medieval wars among Christendom to the establishment of the State of Israel.
The second half is more of a memoir, chronicling Podhoretz’s own political journey and his prominent political battles with an increasingly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Left.
After chronicling the various ebbs and flows of Jewish persecution in Europe, Podhoretz summarizes: “The reason Jews had been attracted to the Democratic Party in the first place, was that it represented the closest American counterpart to the forces on the left that had favored Jewish emancipation in Europe.”
The Enlightenment—and even the French Revolution—were forces of emancipation for Europe’s Jews and on the Left and even radical side of the spectrum. In the early part of the 20th century, and late 19th century, masses of Jews were emigrating to the U.S. with that influence.
Jews from Russia were particularly radicalized, as under the Czars they were kept the poorest of the poor and downtrodden, making them ripe for Communist recruitment.
(This cultural background also meant that postwar anti-communism on the Right was poorly received by many in the Jewish community, despite the evidence that Jews faired badly under Soviet rule. Later Ronald Reagan would fight for the rights of Jewish dissidents in the USSR, which were largely ignored by American liberals. A brief blip of support for Reagan was the only noticeable political result.)
American Jews had a completely different historical experience than their European brethren, Podhoretz points out. He shows that whatever the attitudes might have been among some elites at various times, the United States was a land of opportunity for Jews, especially those willing to brave the frontier.
Podhoretz makes the same point that Michael Oren’s great history of America’s relationship with the Middle East, Power, Faith and Fantasy, illustrates in much greater detail. It has actually been the most evangelical or literal Christians who have been most likely to embrace both Jews as neighbors and of the state of Israel, beginning with the Puritans (who, Podhoretz wittily points out had a great affinity for Old Testament names) and continuing through the early 20th century.
As someone who grew up in Baptist Sunday School and never heard an anti-Semitic word before adulthood (at a union meeting) this makes sense to me. Any form of devout Christianity spends at least half of its youth ministries in the Old Testament—that’s where most of the good stories are. So from the time they can talk, fundamentalist kids are brought up with Jewish heroes.
And as Mark Tooley reports on this site on an ongoing basis, it is the Left side of American religion, like the National Council of Churches, which comes out of meetings and conventions declaring that “Zionism is racism.”
Podhoretz entertainingly—and scathingly—reports on his battles with both Gore Vidal and Pat Buchanan over their anti-Jewish and anti-Israel positions and writings. However, he concludes that while Vidal has far more prestige on the Left than Buchanan still has on the Right, Gore Vidal is dismissed as an exception, while Pat Buchanan is feared as a vanguard of the Fourth Reich just waiting to emerge from the Republican National Committee.
While Podhoretz addresses issues in which Jews seem to vote against their self-interest like affirmative action—which can take us back to the quota days of limiting the amount of Jewish students in some schools or professions—he mentions over a dozen times that abortion is very important to liberal Jewish voters, but does not try to explain why.
He does point to some indications that more religious Jews vote more conservatively, just as Catholics who attend Mass regularly are more conservative than those to whom Catholicism is more of a cultural heritage than a spiritual one—despite the fact that few media pollsters account for such differences in their reporting. That’s interesting, but not terribly encouraging, since if there is a trend that American Jews are becoming more, rather than less religious, I’ve not heard about it.
Even though he gives a solid historical basis for Jews’ political preference, Podhoretz does not buy it as a legitimate reason—not any more. Since the 1967 Six Day War, he contends, there is simply no contest as to whether its conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, who have chosen to defend Israel against the barbaric forces that seek its extermination. (Obama’s insistence in his big U.N. speech that Israel return to the 1967 borders is considered potentially suicidal by many military strategists.)
In his conclusion, Podhoretz is less than optimistic about realignment I the near future, despite the fact that anti-Semitism and coldness toward the interests of Israel’s national defense is growing on the Left.
“Let me state the… point more nakedly and more brutally: contemporary liberalism demands, unlike any other people, that Jews justify the space they take up on this earth Furthermore, they must do so not, as they are commanded in the Bible, by loving God with all their hearts and all their souls and all their might, but rather by clinging with the same intensity to certain currently fashionable conceptions of what constitutes progress and how to define justice—even if these conceptions are highly questionable, and even if, as most blatantly in the case of Israel, obedience to them could be tantamount to committing suicide.”
(As I write this, it is being reported that Zbigniew Brzezinski is advising the Obama Administration that the U.S. should shoot down any Israeli Air Force bombers that might fly over Iraq to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities; but I wonder if Glenn Beck’s misguided attempt to call for a national day of prayer and fasting on the same day as Yom Kippur will be remembered longer and with more rancor—though admittedly, Brzenzinksi was partially responsible for Jimmy Carter’s record low vote totals among Jewish voters.)
Norman Podhoretz has provided a terrific service by asking and answering a provocative question in a way that clears the way for an open, honest, and more informed conversation. Whether that leads to any change in the short run may be doubtful—and Podhoretz, himself, is pessimistic about the prospects— but this book lays a solid foundation for the discussion that must take place before any such realignment could possibly happen.
As in Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, Norman Podhoretz has given us a book in Why are Jews Liberals? that is in many ways long overdue, and which has the potential to change the way people talk about the topic—or, in this case, to get them taking about it. At every turn, smart, informative, witty and honest, it is perhaps the season’s essential book.