Challenging the Torah of Liberalism

Norman Podhoretz's extraordinary new book --"Why Are Jews Liberals?" - is a reflection on the question he says he has been asked more often than any other:  why do so many Jews cling to the Left and vote in such extraordinary percentages for the Democratic Party?  

The book offers an historical and cultural analysis, addressing in the first half how the Jews became liberals and in the second half why they still are.  Podhoretz concludes with a chapter devoted to "what I believe really explains why American Jews are still committed to liberalism" -- and it is an answer that goes far beyond the usual explanations involving the Jewish commitment to repairing the world, the historic anti-Semitism on the Right, and the heritage of FDR. 

Those explanations are relevant, but in the end insufficient.  Podhoretz is after a deeper answer, something that will explain the propensity of Jews to vote regularly against what might well be perceived as their own self-interest, and their seemingly congenital unwillingness to align themselves not simply with the Republican Party, but with conservatives at all.     

Nowhere is that conundrum more apparent than in the general Jewish reaction to the support of Israel by the religious Right.  Podhoretz writes that:  

Most Jews, including most Jewish liberals, care deeply about the security of Israel, and there is no group in America (not even the Jews themselves) that is more passionate in its support of Israel than the conservative Christian community.  Yet instead of forging a political alliance with this community, Jewish liberals look for ways to justify their refusal to do so.  At the same time, they are perfectly willing to make common cause with the "mainline" denominations, despite the fact that unfriendliness and even outright hostility to Israel have become pervasive in that sector of the Protestant world.

The answer to how Jews have ended up in this pretzel of political positions turns out to be "a very long and complicated story" -- one requiring a knowledge of history going back much further than the FDR administration, which served as the formative American political experience for a generation of Jewish immigrants and then was passed on from generation to generation.    

Podhoretz tells the story with short, fact-filled chapters, describing the evolution of Jews into liberals over nearly 2,000 years of history, through the Jewish relationship to Christian society, the secular world that appeared to welcome them in the Enlightenment, and the modern phenomenon of political anti-Semitism -- "three great and related puzzles in the story of how and why Jews became and have remained so attached to the Left."  It is in fact a complex story, involving the relationship of Jews to Christianity, to their own Jewishness, and to the outside worlds in which they found themselves. 

One of Podhoretz's trademark literary virtues is letting the story tell itself, through frequent use of primary sources that enable readers to judge the narrative for themselves without reliance solely on the author, and to experience it more directly.  Podhoretz quotes, for example, the advice given to the Jews of his time by Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th century German Jew who was the father of the Jewish "Haskalah" (Enlightenment) movement that responded to the new religion of Reason:

"Adopt the mores and constitution of the country in which you find yourself, but be steadfast in upholding the religion of your fathers, too.  Bear both burdens as well as you can.  True, on the one hand, people make it difficult for you to bear the burden of civil life because of the religion to which you remain faithful; and, on the other hand, the climate of our time makes the observance of your religious laws in some respects more burdensome than it need be. Persevere nevertheless; stand fast in the place which Providence has assigned to you."

It is advice that, with the hindsight of the subsequent Jewish experience in Europe, has a special poignancy that Mendelssohn himself could obviously never have imagined.  Within that short quotation is an abundance of issues whose history must be recounted in order to address the question that is the title of Podhoretz's book.

The second half of the book recounts, with details not fully told before, Podhoretz's own story, when he became an active participant in American intellectual history and the politics of the American Jewish community during the last half century.  It is a story valuable not simply for its intrinsic interest but for its illustration of some of his themes with the drama and specificity of personal experience. 

One of the turning points Podhoretz recounts was a speech he gave in 1971 to the American Jewish Committee, a speech he knew might well not be received kindly -- which turned out to be a large understatement.  In the key portion of the speech, he said this:

[O]nce upon a time the worst enemies of the Jews were to be found on the ideological Right, and the time may very well come when this will be true again.  But it is simply not true today.  The main source of anti-Semitic propaganda in the world today is not a fascist country like Nazi Germany but a socialist one, so-called:  the Soviet Union.  In the Middle East the most intransigent enemies of Israel are not Arab conservatives like King Hussein but Arabs of the revolutionary Left . . . . In Europe, it is the radical Left and not the Right which chants [anti-Semitic] slogans . . .

And in America -- in America we find publications of the ideological Right like the Alternative [later renamed The American Spectator] warning against and deploring the growth of anti-Semitism, while publications of the Left like the Village Voice blithely go on expressing or apologizing for anti-Semitic sentiments and ideas.

The stunned and furious reaction of the AJC audience to Podhoretz's speech illustrated the pervasive Jewish commitment to the Left -- and how much intellectual and social courage was required to challenge it.  Nearly 40 years later, the topic is still difficult to broach within a wide segment of the Jewish community. 

There is a reason for that, which Podhoretz addresses in the closing pages of his book, bringing the history and autobiography together to suggest that liberalism has become for many Jews not simply a substitute for religion, but a religion itself, with roots in the history he describes and a set of doctrines and dogmas adhered to with the force of faith.  For many modern Jews, conversion from liberalism to conservatism is roughly equivalent to what conversion to Christianity was to their ancestors in Eastern Europe.

Some will be pleased and others will be upset by Podhoretz's prediction that American Jews, for the foreseeable future, are likely to cling to what he calls the "Torah of Liberalism."  There will be a similar split-reaction to his assertion that their ideals as Jews and Americans demand that they do not.

But henceforth those who want to discuss the issue knowledgeably will need to have read this book, and those who care about Jewish values, Jewish politics, and the contribution of Jews to American public life will need to grapple with it. The book is effectively a challenge to debate the issues, which touch not simply on liberalism and conservatism, nor Judaism and Jewish politics, but Americanism as well -- and to do so through the open Talmudic dialogue that every great question demands.  The symposium in the September issue of Commentary is a good place to start.

The question in the book's title is thus an open one, and the book is the basis for a conversation long overdue.  It explains not only how Jews became liberals and why they still are, but questions whether they still should be -- and thus provides the basis for a discussion that will invigorate those willing to engage in it.  The book is yet another major contribution by Norman Podhoretz to the intellectual life of his people and country, written by one of the few people with both the erudition and experience to write it.

Rick Richman edits "Jewish Current Issues" and contributes regularly to Commentary's group blog "Contentions."  His articles in American Thinker include, most recently, "Responding to Neo-Atheism" and "The Second Coming of Jimmy Carter."  
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