Chanah Shapira on Why Are Jews Liberals?, by Norman Podhoretz

, October 31, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review 22:3-4 (Fall 2010)

This book is Norman Podhoretz’s cri de coeur alerting American Jews to the fact that their traditional home base, the Democratic Party, has shifted ideologically and has now become generally hostile and unmindful of Jewish concerns. Podhoretz, chagrined at the fact that no less than 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama – despite his ties to characters such as Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his affiliations with the likes of Rashid Khalidi and Zbigniew Brzezinski – is hoping Jews now understand that Obama is not “good for the Jews” and nor is the Democratic Party, despite traditionally having American Jews’ staunch support.

Podhoretz tackles his topic in three sections: a history of the Jewish people from the inception of Christianity through the early twentieth century, his personal observations about twentieth-century American presidents, and several concluding chapters that offer his general insights. His approach is to use the long lens of history to identify current, recurring trends. In this way, an overly large portion of the book is taken up with historical details that often seem to have little bearing on the present. For most readers it is superfluous to take a long perambulation from the dawn of Christianity through the ghettoes of medieval Europe, the Inquisition, pogroms, and so on, simply to make the point that hundreds of years of history punctuated by anti-Semitic persecutions provide a basis for a Jewish aversion to Christianity, and hence to the Religious Right. Seemingly one could easily dispense with the views of the early Church when the topic at hand is current political attitudes.

Podhoretz takes the same approach to modern history as he traces the roots of the modern Left from the Enlightenment through emerging Marxism and socialism. His salient points: “modern” Jews tried to downplay their Jewishness so as to gain acceptance, and they abandoned specific Jewish concerns in favor of universal social justice so as to identify with general society. These chapters are instructive, especially for those unfamiliar with the anti-Semitic invective that flows through the works of these precursors of the political Left – and how Jews who were modernists managed to ignore and excuse this bigotry.

Jewish political support for the Democrats is chronicled at length from Franklin Roosevelt through the current administration, and underscores the deep Jewish loyalty to the party of liberal ideologies. Podhoretz notes the landslide percentages that Democratic presidential candidates have garnered from Jewish voters, generally far outstripping the general vote. Indeed, the Obama victory was only a few percentage points higher than average Jewish turnouts for most Democratic presidential candidates.

Scanting the Key Issues

After recounting recent history at length and his own political conversion from liberalism to neoconservatism at the end of the 1960s, and having trudged down the long road of Jewish and European intellectual history, Podhoretz only begins to makes his points in his final chapters. Here he turns to factors influencing Jewish Democratic loyalty and finally gets to the core of the issue, which is: why do American Jews support causes and candidates that today clearly oppose Jewish values and interests, including Israel?

Podhoretz explains why Jews who were initially sweatshop workers allied with the Democrats, but why they remained union supporters after becoming a predominantly white-collar group is an issue he fails to explore analytically. This is the main problem with the book. The most crucial analysis of current Jewish political behavior is done only in the last two chapters and the conclusion. Podhoretz describes the denial that often extends to full-blown delusion regarding clear hostility on the Left, the conflation of liberalism with Torah values in the face of obvious conflicts, and, in passing, an “our club” familiarity with the Democratic Party.  It is not clear, however, why he devotes little attention to these issues, given that he chooses a historical approach.

Why did Podhoretz include much arcane detail about the distant past yet fail to give sufficient attention to the Jewish Reform movement in the United States? This is certainly a very relevant and influential ideology. Reform has now become the largest Jewish denomination in America.  More than any other group, the Reform movement actively worked to reshape Judaism into liberalism’s image. Despite having returned to the outer trappings of kippa and tallit (prayer shawl) – for everyone, male as well as female – the Reform movement, up through most of the twentieth century, eschewed even the distinctive appearance of Jewish identification, and some temples even held services on Sundays. Surely the universalist impulse must have received an important boost here.

Another area Podhoretz could have explored in greater depth is that of current black-Jewish relations; he covers it only superficially in connection with Obama’s relationship with Wright, and briefly in relation to other issues. It was very clear from Obama’s affiliations in Chicago that his home base of political support is deeply allied with the most extreme anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli sectors in the black community. Yet many Jewish Democrats felt a sense of liberal triumph and Jewish accomplishment when they voted for Obama and had few qualms about his potential Israel policy. This subject deserved a chapter of its own, especially as it typifies the universalist attitude of American Jewish liberalism that Podhoretz frequently points out – for instance, quotas for Jews and minorities are bad, but when they are instituted for blacks as “affirmative action,” Jews modify their opinions to go along with this policy. Furthermore, Podhoretz could have expanded on the topic of Christian Zionist organizations that are often vilified on the Left, giving more prominence to this community’s efforts in aiding and supporting Israel.

Podhoretz also notes that Jews have found an ethnic comfort zone in the Democratic Party, presenting this from the perspective of the voters. It is also pertinent, however, that of the thirty-one Jewish members of the House of Representatives, there is only one Republican, Eric Cantor of Virginia, and of the thirteen Jewish members of the Senate, there are no Republicans; both independents, Joe Lieberman and Bernie Sanders, a socialist, caucus with the Democrats. Not only have Jews aligned themselves ideologically with the liberal views of the Democrats, they have built upon the Democratic Party in pursuing their political careers. This tendency is reinforced when politicians speechify and are feted at synagogue and Federation dinners. This is a major reason for Jews to remain within the Democratic Party; why would Democrats shift over and start from the beginning in the Republican Party? Such power demographics provide another strong motivation for Jewish career liberals to stay put.

Podhoretz characterizes the Jewish suspicion of the Religious Right as a continuation of the Jews’ historical fear of repressive and persecuting Christianity. While this may be partially true, a large factor is also cultural, given the urban and coastal (East and West) orientation of the bulk of American Jews. Certainly the Religious Right has more adherents in the areas wholly overlooked in the New Yorker map (showing human life vanishing just west of the Hudson River and reappearing in Los Angeles), in “fly-over country,” rather than in areas where a substantial number of Jews reside.

Can American Jews Change?

Podhoretz also misses the opportunity to point out that, as opposed to Europe, the emphatically Christian and democratic tradition of America has been to support Jewish rights. As George Washington wrote in 1790 to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, “May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” When did this patriotic and firmly religious sentiment slip out of American Jewish consciousness?

Will Podhoretz win converts to the tolerant and sincere faith of the Right and the Republicans? Podhoretz appears right in suspecting that the best one can hope for is to Obama to shoot himself in the foot, as did Jimmy Carter. The question of whether the particular good of the Jewish people and Israel is of sufficient concern to the liberal majority of American Jews to cause a shift in political loyalties remains to be tested by time.

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CHANAH SHAPIRA is a research intern at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Chanah Shapira

Chanah Shapira has been a research intern at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.