Norman Podhoretz, Why Are Jews Liberals?
[Introduction: this comment dates from 2009, with a revised last paragraph to consider current political realities.]
At several points in Why Are Jews Liberals, Norman Podhoretz quotes an adage that American Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” i.e. despite affluent life-styles and dwindling anti-Semitism in the United States, most Jews remain comfortable supporting relatively progressive political positions and Democratic candidates. In every presidential election since 1928, with the single exception of 1980, when Ronald Reagan bested incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Jewish vote:
the Democratic candidate has scored a landslide among Jewish voters even when defeated by a landslide among the electorate as a whole (George McGovern in 1972). No Democratic candidate in all those elections (again, except Carter) has attracted less than 60 perceont of the Jewish vote, and the overall average since 1928 is a stunning 75 percent (p.258-59).
Podhoretz devotes this volume to trying to figure out why American Jews retain their affinity for what he considers an apostate Democratic Party – or, closer to the mark, expressing his frustration that he has not been able to figure out why. Look at the way you live, he seems to be shouting at his fellow Jews: why the hell are you not voting for lower taxes for job-creating gazillionaires and an end to all that stifling government regulation? Why all this social justice nonsense and misguided concern for the downtrodden? As discussed in my August post on neo-conservatism, Podhoretz, started to the left of the Democratic party as a 1940s New York radical. In his left wing phase as a young man, Podhoretz surely was imbued with the broad notions of economic determinism that underlie Marxist thought. In this volume, Podhoretz appears to have reverted to that same determinism as an aging righty.
Podhoretz admits that the Democratic Party was the natural place for Jews in the New Deal era, and may have remained so until about 1967. While anti-Semitism was found in all political circles, it was clearly stronger on the conservative and Republican side in the 1930s to 1950s, not to mention what the conservative alliance with the Nazis brought to Germany and Europe. But Israel’s victory in the six-day War in June 1967 changed all that, at least for Podhoretz. Gradually, anti-Semitism became more visible on the political left, in the African-American community in the United States, and throughout the Islamic world. From roughly 1967 onward, support for Israel became the prism through which Podhoretz saw politics and the world.
Indeed, Podhoretz comes close to being a single-issue commentator, with Israel being his issue. Such commentators are almost by definition impatient and often contemptuous of those who do not elevate the issue to the same priority level. It is not surprising, then, that Podhoretz spends a good portion of the latter portion of this book heaping scorn on those who seek an “evenhanded” approach to the Palestinian imbroglio and Middle East politics generally (and Podhoretz uses “quotation marks” throughout this book as a vehicle to heap scorn).
Podhoretz grades American presidents and candidates on the extent of their support for Israel, beginning with Kennedy and Johnson. Not all Democrats receive failing grades – he praises Al Gore in particular – and not all Republicans get top marks. George H.W. Bush, for example, does not score high. But on the whole, in Podhoretz’ view, Republicans have been firmer friends and more solid allies than Democrats. Attitudes toward Israel among Republicans range from “solid to fervent” while, Podhoretz claims, on the Democratic side they range from “unsympathetic to overtly hostile” (p.294). Still, Jews continue to vote Democratic in astounding numbers.
Podhoretz feels an affinity for Evangelical Christians and the so-called religious right that, he readily admits, escapes most fellow Jews. These Christians are among the most fervent of Israeli supporters in the United States today. Some Evangelical Christians’ support for Israel can have an apocalyptic tinge, he acknowledges, based on the belief that a strong and independent Israel must be in place at the time of Christ’s second coming, when Jews will be converted to Christianity. But Jews should worry about this later, Podhoretz counsels. He quotes the advice to a Jewish friend of Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel:
When we’re in Jerusalem and the messiah is coming down the street, one of us is going to have a very major theological adjustment to make. But until that time, let’s walk together in support of Israel and in defense of the Jewish people, because Israel needs our help (p.187).
Nor should Jews be concerned that Evangelical Christians and the religious right seek to Christianize America or institute Christian prayers in public schools. These concerns are exaggerated, Podhoretz advises, vestiges of Jews’ “ancestral fear of Christianity” (p.186).
Podhoretz dismisses the theory that Jewish liberalism is grounded in “Jewish values” or the “spirit” of the Jewish “religious tradition” (p.274-75—the quotation marks are Podhoretz’, indicating his scorn for these notions). He seizes upon the views of Rabbi Sidney Schwartz of the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, who in 2008 found it obvious that “social justice is the primary mandate of Judaism.” To Schwartz, it was equally obvious that there is “no attitude or behavior as universally shared by American Jews as their commitment to the ideals of tolerance, peace, and justice for all people” (p.276). To Podhoretz , such views are no more than “moral self-gratulation” (although my computer doesn’t recognize the word “gratulation,” giving me the big red underline, fortunately Merriam-Webster’s dictionary does and tells me that it is an archaic form of “congratulation”).
At the end of his book, Podhoretz provides a stark view of the liberal-conservative divide in the United States. With a few exceptions, Podhoretz asserts that:
What the Left mainly sees when it looks at America is injustice and oppression of every kind – economic, social, and political. By sharp contrast, the Right sees a complex of traditions, principles, and institutions that have made it possible for more freedom and – even factoring in periodic economic downturns – more prosperity to be enjoyed by more of its citizens than in any other society known to humans. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating, and defending against attack (p.294).
This Manichean passage might be written off as a rhetorical flourish. In 2009, however, I found it to be a breathtaking appeal to fellow conservatives to dig in and resist “precisely” any and all suggestions from Rabbi Schwartz and other whiny, carping liberals that public policy might dare to seek “tolerance, peace, and justice for all people.”
Three years later, I find the passage less breathtaking and fully in keeping with the general Republican game plan in effect since President Obama took office earlier in 2009: oppose everything that the President and his party favor, even when they adopt ideas that Republicans once favored (e.g. individual mandate to support health care); or just might be good for the country (e.g. some increases in taxes as part of deficit reduction). Podhoretz is plainly more than comfortable marching in lockstep with today’s Republican Party. I for one am grateful that the majority of his fellow American Jews do not feel bound by his smug economic determinism and do not appear ready to march with him.
Thomas H. Peebles
September 5, 2012