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Why Are Jews So Liberal?


Last week, the New York Times Magazine ran an intriguing interview with the longtime editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, which was closely attuned to his new book Why Are Jews Liberals? The question is posed in a predictably negative way, and the interview helps us understand why. Podhoretz argues that America’s right is now friendlier to Israel than America’s left.

Whereas the right was once full of anti-Semites, since the Six-Day War of 1967, the right — and especially the religious right — has become more pro-Israel, and the left — as exemplified by intellectuals like Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal and a magazine like The Nation — has become more hostile.

This answer might provide a summary for Podhoretz’s book, but it raises a number of questions. Why, for instance, does Podhoretz assume that because the religious right takes political positions supporting Israel they are no longer anti-Semitic? Axiomatic support for the most aggressive posture on the territorial rights of Israel is certainly a new pillar of the religious right. But behind those views we sometimes hear explanations that suggest the old animosities–for instance, that a powerful Israel and the rebuilding of the temple are steps to the second coming, when Jews will be cast into hell. Podhoretz’s castigation of liberals is also odd, starting with his conflation of “liberal” and “left.” Why would a self-described “anarchist libertarian socialist” like Noam Chomsky be trotted out to speak for American liberals? Chomsky is clear enough–just like Podhoretz, he views America’s liberals as part of the problem.

A typical American liberal today may well like Israel’s Labor Party, read Ha’aretz, and make contributions to J Street to lobby in support of Israel. He may support a two-state solution and also be very critical of the current Likud government and many of its policies. But the Podhoretz view appears to be that unless you support Likud, read the Jerusalem Post, and make contributions to AIPAC, you don’t really love Israel. His my-way-or-the-highway attitude was accurately described in Leon Wieseltier’s thoughtful review essay on the Podhoretz book in the paper’s Book Review yesterday. “This is a dreary book,” Wieseltier writes. “Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write.”

If the book has a strong side, it is in the voice of ridicule that Podhoretz and his neoconservative cohort have patiently mastered over the last several decades. They use it to show the comic possibilities latent in a number of figures on the stage of the American left. But in Wieseltier’s view, this also falls flat:

The spectacle of all this tendentiousness is sometimes comic. In his new book, Norman Podhoretz has some fine exasperated fun with the wildness of interpretation on the Jewish left, and of course spares the Jewish right any culpability for the same sin. So it is worth recalling that a few years ago he published a book about the prophets in which they emerged as the neoconservatives of ancient Israel. Their castigations of the sacrifice of children prompted a reflection on the “pagan practice” of the entry of women into the work force.

The core of Podhoretz’s book focuses less on “liberalism” than on the historical alignment of American Jews with the Democratic Party. Podhoretz argues that Jewish immigrants went for the Democratic Party because “it represented the closest American counterpart to the forces on the left that had favored Jewish emancipation in Europe.” But I suspect Podhoretz is seeing only what he wants to see. The Democratic Party actually claimed fewer ties to the mid-century European reformists and revolutionaries than the Republicans–as witnessed by the brigade of veterans of the ’48 risings who crossed the Atlantic to take a stand along side Abraham Lincoln. What was appealing about the Democrats was not their leftist proximity to European radicals but rather their friendly attitude towards immigration—keeping the door open for the extended families of those who had already crossed.

Wieseltier offers a very eloquent response to Podhoretz’s question:

It is not a delusion, not a treason, to vote against your own economic interest. It is a recognition of the multiplicity of interests, the many purposes, that make up a citizen’s life. When, in the Torah of Judaism, Moses commands the Jews to perform acts of social welfare, he sometimes adds the admonition that they were themselves strangers and slaves. The purpose of this refreshment of their memory is plain. The fact that we are no longer strangers and slaves is not all we need to know. We may not regard the world solely from the standpoint of our own prosperity, our own safety, our own contentment.

I would have a similar answer to his question about why Jews are liberals. It might start with a reading from Isaiah: “and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry / and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, / then your light will rise in the darkness, / and your night will become like the noonday.” This text, which observant Jews read every year at Yom Kippur, is as succinct a liberal credo as ever was uttered. Jews among all peoples of history were the first to learn that real wisdom has its roots in questioning and questioning again. Wisdom is tied to learning to ask the right questions, and then being cautious about the sources one is willing to accept for answers. What comfort would the people of Maimonides and Moses Mendelssohn find in a political party dominated today by Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck?

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