NEW YORK (AP) - Norman Podhoretz, the neo-conservative and the former editor of Commentary, a conservative magazine, is a stocky, confident man whose Upper East Side apartment features a bronzed wall image of Teddy Roosevelt with a bold-faced statement from the most bullish of presidents: "AGGRESSIVE FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHT IS THE NOBLEST SPORT THE WORLD AFFORDS." Like Roosevelt, Podhoretz prefers periods to question marks, with declarative books such as "Making It," "World War IV" and "The Bloody Crossroads." Since leaving liberalism in the 1970s, he has not doubted his turn right or hesitated to confront former friends, especially in defense of Israel.
He is 79, proud and satisfied, even with Democrat Barack Obama in the White House. But one issue nags him past the point of thought, a disappointment he brands by punctuation. It provides the title for his new book, "Why Are Jews Liberals?" "I've never been asked any question as often I've been asked that question - 'Why are Jews liberals?' - mostly by gentiles, and especially conservative gentiles, who are extremely puzzled by this phenomenon," Podhoretz, wearing a knit shirt and slacks, says during a recent morning interview in his living room.
"The left, in general, ... has been getting colder and colder toward Israel, while the right, including the Republican Party, is getting friendlier. This doesn't seem to have affected Jewish voter patterns at all." Podhoretz's book reads like an inverse of Thomas Frank's best-selling "What's the Matter With Kansas?" - in which the author considers why some of the poorest communities vote for Republicans. As Podhoretz writes, Jews for decades have been dependable Democrats, often supporting the party by margins of better than two-to-one, even in years of Republican landslides. They vote for Democrats far more than their wealthy peers of other faiths. They vote for Democrats even when, in his opinion, the Republican is a stronger defender of Israel.
Podhoretz has long wondered why.
He looks for answers in history. In the first half of his book, he notes how Jews were ostracized and persecuted from the Middle Ages into the 20th century. Until recently, it was sensible for Jews to be on the left since liberals were their greatest allies and conservatives their foes.
The narrative changes, he writes, after the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel defeated the combined forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria, capturing the Golan Heights, Sinai Peninsula, West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. David had become a Goliath, and, Podhoretz believes, the left preferred that Israel go back to being David.
"I saw it very early, and got myself in trouble for talking about it and I feel totally vindicated," he says.
He finds his allies on the right, believing liberals unduly sympathetic to Palestinians and unduly harsh toward Israel. He notes the backing for Israel by evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister and a Republican presidential candidate, recently said that "generally evangelicals are so much more supportive of Israel than the American Jewish community." Podhoretz acknowledges "wrinkles" in his narrative. While he thinks "Huckabee is probably right," he also believes that most American Jews "continue to care deeply about the security and survival of Israel." And the Christians who praise Israel aren't necessarily inspired by fondness for Jews or the dream of a Jewish homeland. Some see Israel as the setting for the return of Christ or value it as a strategic partner of the United States.
"Whether in their hearts, if they like Jews or not, I don't care," Podhoretz says. "The critical matter is what they have done, rather than how they feel." "Why Are Jews Liberals?" also praises President Richard Nixon, whose determination to send military supplies during the 1973 Yom Kippur War "saved Israel from a defeat that could have spelled the extinction of the state," Podhoretz writes. But Nixon also complained that "most Jews are disloyal" and even commissioned aides to draw up a list of Jews at the Bureau of Labor Statistics because he suspected a "cabal" was trying to undermine the administration.
"He was the kind of anti-Semite who thought that Jews were smarter than everybody else. That's why he had (Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger. That's why he had (Federal Reserve chairman) Arthur Burns, (economic adviser) Herb Stein," Podhoretz said.
"A lot of Nixon's anti-Semitism is talk. ... His anti-Semitism consisted of resentment of Jews for being liberals and hating him. It's not the traditional kind of anti-Semitism." Besides Israel, Podhoretz cites affirmative action, a prime source of tension between Jews and ethnic minorities in the 1960s and '70s and a major reason Podhoretz shifted right. As Podhoretz has written, and stated during the interview, affirmative action was bad for the Jews because it presumably helped less qualified minority candidates get jobs Jews otherwise would have taken.
Presumably. Asked if affirmative action had hurt the Jews, Podhoretz said no and added, with a mischievous smile, that the demands of feminists, including Jewish women, had offset those of minorities. Asked if affirmative action had set back Jewish men, Podhoretz said no, but still thinks "it's a bad idea from the Jewish point of view.
"Jews are better off, demonstrably, when they're treated as individuals," he says.
Podhoretz considers various explanations for Jews remaining liberal - the right's long history of oppression and bigotry, the tradition of liberalism passed down through generations, the possibility (as some scientists have pondered) that Jews are genetically liberal and, of greatest interest to Podhoretz, whether Judaism itself is a liberal religion.
Disputing the idea that "Jewish values" are liberal values, Podhoretz writes that Jewish law forbids sex between men and "takes a conservative view of the role of women." He points out that Orthodox Jews, the most observant of Jews, tend to be the most conservative.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal Tikkun magazine, believes that two strands run through Jewish writing, what he calls the left hand and right hand of God. Jews can see the world as a fearful place in which they must dominate or control others to protect themselves from possible oppression ("The right hand of God" world view), or, more hopefully, they can build a world based on "love, caring, kindness and generosity." (The left hand.) "One has to say that Judaism has within it both the voice of fear and the voice of hope and which one we choose often depends on who we are," says Lerner, whose magazine advocates a "Global Marshall Plan" to fight poverty and support education and health care.
"The real reason Jews have always been liberal is that they have been marginal in every society and they have thrived when societies are free," says Eric Alterman, a liberal author and columnist for The Nation. "The fact is that most Jews, in addition to being liberal politically, don't judge their politics based on who is more or less critical of Israel." Podhoretz calls Lerner's reading of Judaism "both wrong and politically tendentious," saying, "Nowhere in the Bible or in the classical Jewish texts is what we call the right equated with fear and the wish to control others, and nowhere is every virtue under the sun identified with the left." He credits Alterman with having "a point" about the Jewish history of marginality, but says that "the socio-economic position of the Jews in America is no longer marginal by any of the usual standards." "As for attitudes toward Israel, the issue is not whether a politician is more or less critical; it's whether or not he sides with Israel against its enemies and whether he grants Israel the right to defend itself against them," Podhoretz says.
Lerner and Podhoretz each worry about the future of Jewish liberalism, but for opposite reasons. Lerner can imagine Jews becoming less liberal as they drift from Jewish tradition, giving in to the "ethos of materialism and selfishness." Podhoretz thinks Jews will remain liberal because liberalism itself is now a religion.
"It will be impossible for most of my fellow Jews to discharge that obligation so long as they remain caught in the Tertullianlike grip of the Torah of liberalism," Podhoretz writes in his new book. "Nevertheless, I cannot for the life of me give up the hope that the Jews of America will eventually break free of their political delusions, and that they will begin to recognize where their interests and their ideals both as Jews and as Americans truly lie."