Why Are Jews Liberals?
By Norman Podhoretz | Doubleday | 337 pages; $27
When Norman Podhoretz, longtime editor of Commentary, one of America's great remaining men of letters and one of the first to define the neoconservative movement, asks the title question in his newest book, he is referring to that uniquely American brand of "liberalism" (leftists, social and secular progressives), a term that in other countries usually refers to free marketers. Therefore, from the start Podhoretz's book is aimed primarily at asking "why are American Jews liberals?"
By liberal, Podhoretz seems also to be exploring an accepted, long-understood and mundane fact, namely that most Jews vote for the Democratic Party. But this doesn't make most of them "liberals." Jews aren't pro-life, but neither are all neoconservatives and neither are libertarians. Podhoretz bemoans "government [that] has become so intrusive hardly anything escapes its influence."
Regulating abortion actually extends that government control, which is why those opposed to big government might actually be logically right wing and pro-choice.
What annoys Podhoretz, and prompted this polemic, is the American Jewish "attachment to the liberal community in general and the Democratic Party in particular [which] runs counter to their interest as Jews."
To explain this the author launches into 100 pages of Jewish history beginning with Paul's vision on the road to Damascus. This seems the most unwarranted part of this book, providing readers with yet another telling of the history of the Jews of Europe, from the pogroms of the Black Death to the expulsion from Spain, the Crusades, the ghetto and Karl Marx. Podhoretz introduces the reader to a wealth of material and quotes from individuals of the period. However, his discussions of the Jewish arrival in the US and the birth of communism are never developed. Nuggets of brilliance are left by the wayside in his interest to move on to the period of FDR, when the American Jewish liberal emerges.
Podhoretz presents a picture of Jews voting Democratic in 1948 for Harry Truman but provides little analysis as to why. He notes that Truman supported unions, desegregated the army, fought McCarthyism and supported the creation of Israel. But the author doesn't provide an adequate understanding of why Jews had become pro-union, anti-segregation victims of Mccarthyism in the first place.
If Podhoretz thinks that voting Left is against Jewish interests today, he doesn't provide an adequate explanation why being communist or socialist or pro-union was ever in the interest of American Jews. He seems to show that Jews voted for FDR and other Democrats because they were perceived as not being anti-Jewish the way the WASP elite and the isolationist Republican Party was: "Thus the Jews were now almost compelled to regard themselves as liberals." FDR's foreign policy also garnered Jewish votes for opposing Nazism.
The author weaves the reader through subsequent elections showing how Jews voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates. The reason was partly "fear of the Republican Party," which Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau said risked being pulled toward a "fascist position." But why the fear? No clear answers are provided. Podhoretz tells us, concluding the first half of his book, that it was in the interest of Jews throughout the 1960s to vote for Democrats. But was it? What interests of theirs were served?
The second portion of the book, devoted to examining why Jews remain liberals, is more informative and developed than the first. Podhoretz provides excellent examples of how Jewish organizations became out of touch with Jewish interests, preferring "universalism."
He sees much of the Jewish self-interest as being tied to Israel, so he condemns Jews for supporting any Democrat who has been weak on Israel. But the brilliant commentator may misunderstand his own central point - is support of Israel the most important issue for American Jews and is it in their self-interest? One would like to think so, but for some comfortable American Jews it simply may not be that simple.
It is in his conclusion that the brilliant essayist is at his best. He examines the fallacy of the mantra that Judaism "compels us to be concerned with the unfortunate."
If that were true the Orthodox would logically be giving to non-Jewish charities, but it's the opposite: Secular Jews with little knowledge of Talmud are the ones giving, not those wearing the black hats. But Jews are "as liberal as ever." Liberalism has "become the religion of American Jews."
Podhoretz admonishes us for believing in the "Torah of liberalism" and cries out, "I cannot for the life of me give up the hope that the Jews of America will eventually break free of their political delusions." Amen.
The writer is a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.