Why Are Jews Liberals?
To coincide with the release of Norman Podhoretz’s latest book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, Tablet asked a host of Jewish journalists, academics and pundits to offer their thoughts on American Jews’ historical tendency to cast their votes toward the left side of the political spectrum. Coming as it does after a presidential election, Podhoretz’s question is relevant not only to those with an obvious stake in the game, but to anyone interested in how politics and culture align in the United States.
Ruth R. Wisse: Seventeen years ago I published If I Am Not For Myself, a book on the “liberal betrayal of the Jews,” which addresses Norman Podhoretz’s question, arriving at similar conclusions by a different route. It is often assumed that Jews are “liberal” out of compassion for the poor, sympathy for the downtrodden, and other generous impulses rooted in the Jewish commitment to tikkun olam, or, repairing the world. I have never accepted this self-congratulatory idea. In my experience, when Jews interpret their Judaism as liberalism it is because, to paraphrase Sholem Aleichem, “It is harder to be a Jew.” Those who substitute “liberal” for “Jew” as the basis of self-definition often fail to protect the rights of their own people, or worse, condone the aggression of their adversaries in the name of promoting peace.
To be sure, as Podhoretz amply illustrates, there are strong liberal features within Jewish tradition that define and sustain the Jewish way of life. These include a politics of self-accountability, respect for the individual and rule of law, and toleration of other religions and cultures. Herzl’s Zionism was at once a plan to create a liberal Jewish society and to save European liberalism from anti-Semitism. But paradoxically, the liberalizing elements in Judaism have contributed to making Jews an irresistible target of anti-liberals. This often forces a choice between Jewishness, which is liberal, and liberalism, which sacrifices the Jews to its vision of universal brotherhood.
The demographer Sergio Della Pergola estimates that were it not for the destruction of European Jewry, there could now be as many as 32 million Jews in the world rather than the several million fewer than there were in 1939. A demographically stronger people would discourage aggression and make Jews a less attractive political foil. Can one count on liberals to take the lead in strengthening, defending, and celebrating the Jewish people and its homeland? I don’t think so. May they prove me wrong.
Ruth R. Wisse is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. Her latest book, Jews and Power was published by Nextbook Press.
Morris Dickstein: As immigrant groups gain success in America, as their children and grandchildren climb the economic ladder, their politics usually follows their pocketbooks. With some exceptions, Jews have not kept to this pattern, confounding the received wisdom of sociologists and the fervent hopes of neoconservatives, who have repeatedly promised to deliver the Jewish vote to an ever more conservative Republican Party. Why?
Most Jews have remained liberals because they are, well, Jews. Their social conscience dates back to the laws of Moses and the moral injunctions of the Hebrew prophets. Their word for charity, tsedakah, is virtually the same as their word justice, tsedek, and their word for a righteous man, tsadik. Their fathers and grandfathers grew up poor. Strangely, they remember where they came from, and even more strangely, they empathize with others who are still struggling. Their subliminal memories go back not only to the ghetto and the tenement but to the condition of being despised outsiders, humiliated, persecuted, even killed.
This memory of oppression is built into their DNA, like the adjuration in the Torah and the Haggadah never to forget that they were once slaves in Egypt. But there are real memories as well. As a child in the Ukraine, my mother recalled being hidden under piles of hay when local pogroms broke out, and she remembered hearing bloodcurdling stories of much larger pogroms that took place hundreds of years earlier. The Holocaust renewed such memories, if they needed renewing. They enabled American Jews, living in moderate comfort, to identify with the plight of poor blacks, as they still encourage liberal Israelis to sympathize with the condition of Palestinians, so long as they are not actively killing Jews.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Jewish nationalists have a different reading of this history of persecution. They turn inward, circling the wagons. But this same history transformed most secular Jews into ethical universalists. Imperfectly, since they are human beings, they learned to live by Kant’s categorical imperative, essentially a version of the Golden Rule. My teacher, Sidney Morgenbesser, following Hillel, once formulated this as “Do not unto others as you would not have others do unto you.”
In short, Jews bought into the historical forces that liberated them: the Enlightenment, with its faith in universal human rights, and the French Revolution, with its insistence on equality, a career open to talents. Without these developments, Western Jews would still be locked in ghettos, deprived of all economic and political rights. The United States, with its unparalleled freedoms, would simply never have happened. Many Jews also invested their hopes in socialism, as a fulfillment of this egalitarian vision, and especially in labor unions as its concrete realization. The New Deal was their charter of economic freedom, their coming of age. In remarkable numbers they sought higher education for their children, which liberalized them further by enlarging their sense of history.
Even when this romance with the left disappointed them, when the movement seemed to betray its original ideals, those values themselves have kept their hold on ordinary Jews, including those living privileged lives in circumstances freer than any that Jews have ever enjoyed. This is a minor miracle, one still to be celebrated.
Morris Dickstein’s new book, Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression, has just been published by W. W. Norton.
Jonah Goldberg: Why are Jews liberal? In all its various forms, there is probably no question I get asked more. I have not yet had the pleasure of being edified by Norman Podhoretz’s take, which I’m told is a great read, so let me offer a sliver of my own answer to the question.
The liberalism of American Jews is, I believe, what social scientists would call an over-determined phenomenon. Some of it has to do with broader social trends that Jews are not immune to. The over-educated often drift toward liberalism out of the arrogance that they’re smart enough to have all the answers. The wealthy, contrary to much liberal propaganda, are trending more liberal every day, particularly among “idea worker” types. Secularism is one of the most reliable indices of liberalism and many Jews seem to think that secularism is a religious imperative.
Then there are the various and sundry factors derived from the unique history of the Jews. In Old Europe, Jews were often a special class who looked to the throne for protection from the anti-Semitic rabble and the pogroms (“If only the Czar knew!”). This gives Jews a long heritage of viewing statism as a survival strategy. The big wave of Jews who came to the United States at the beginning of the 20th century brought the thriving fad of socialism with them and they saw an America that seemed to confirm the need for leftwing reform.
Anti-Semitism was long associated with institutions that seemed more Republican and conservative (the reverse is closer to the truth today). Harry Truman was a midwife to Israel’s birth.
And that introduces the Holocaust. The impact of the Holocaust cuts deep and long. But one result has been a tendency among American Jews to think that fighting for a progressive, statist, vision of “social justice” is a moral, even definitional, imperative for Jews today.
There’s also the simple fact that people tend to share the views of their parents. Contrary to the cultural mythology of children rebelling from their parents, the vast majority of people inherit their politics, just like their eye color, from their Mom and Dad. Perhaps, because Jews mix politics and religion so thoroughly, this tendency is even stronger among members of the tribe.
The knot of Jewish liberalism is large, old and has many strands. It will take a long time to untie it.
Jonah Goldberg is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.
Todd Gitlin: Among all ethnicities, Jews voted for Barack Obama in proportions second only to African-Americans. A population who do not strictly vote their pocketbooks! This sounds like some kind of scandal, if not an act of unaccountable blindness or even self-hatred. But if there is a scandal, it is one with a lineage. The liberalism of American Jews is not a new story.
Or could it be that Jews are not violating their self-interest at all? That they’re actually so smart as to realize that it’s in their class interest to elect Democrats because, whatever their rhetoric of equal rights, Democrats are in practice kinder to citizens who make their money the way Jews make their money—from the professions, disproportionately? I suppose someone could crunch the numbers and confirm or deny that Jews are secret, or unconscious, self-seekers after all. But I suspect that, in the end, it would turn out that Jews benefited materially from Ronald Reagan’s and George Bush’s picnics-for-the-prosperous more than they have under Democratic presidents. The anomaly of the Jews’ political counterintuitive allegiance would remain.
It might be supposed, then, that Judaism itself—something about its doctrines and observances—accounts for the violation of material self-interest. After all, while its doctrinal history is tangled and frequently self-contradictory, Judaism speaks of justice. It doesn’t speak only of justice, but it speaks of moral obligations both to members and strangers.
But there are strong justice motifs in other religions as well, and Jews who do not practice Judaism are no less liberal than those who do. Are we talking, then, about a different relation to the religion one professes? Are American Jews more devout—more sincere, in some sense—than other Americans? I do not know just what would constitute evidence for a yes.
Is it that Democratic presidents have satisfied Jews’ feelings for Israel better than Republicans? That seems implausible.
I know no better hypothesis that the following: Jews pride themselves on defying self-interest. They rejoice in the anomaly. This is in no small part because the theological foundation of Judaism is the belief that one’s people were chosen to carry out a unique relation to divine purpose. Jews may not be more devout than others, but somehow—and I do not understand quite how—we relish the opportunity to answer the question, “If I am for myself alone, what do I amount to?” with liberalism’s great appeal, which is to self-transcendence.
Todd Gitlin, a onetime president of Students for a Democratic Society who teaches at Columbia University, is the author of 12 books, including The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.
Ron Radosh: To understand why Jews in America today are overwhelmingly liberal, one has to start with their history in this country, beginning with their mass immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia from the 1880’s through the 1920’s. This group of first generation immigrants were escaping from oppressive anti-Semitism, which limited their horizons in every conceivable way, to a society that held out the promise of a life lived in freedom. And when they got here it was the Democrats, organized in the big city machines, who more or less welcomed them and who became familiar figures.
By the 1930s, many of those who were first attracted to union militancy and socialism left the ranks of these movements, and aligned with Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, whose programs gave them union recognition (through the Wagner Act) which meant an entrée into the middle class. The New Deal also gave them Social Security. Most American Jews revered F.D.R. and loyalty to the New Deal and the Democratic Party became a matter of faith.
Some Zionist leaders around the time of Israel’s founding, especially Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, argued that Jews should not be beholden to one political party and sought bi-partisan support for the creation of a Jewish State. But despite the crucial support of many Republicans, Silver’s pleas fell on deaf ears among most of his brethren who continued to be loyal Democrats.
Today’s Jews are in a far different position than their ancestors. They no longer face what was once rampant anti-Semitism. They hold leading positions in all walks of life. Their children no longer face a Jewish quota in the elite colleges and universities. Yet, despite the reality of their situation, they still hold to the liberalism that has become a sine qua non of what it means to be Jewish. They act as if God would strike them dead should they pull the lever on Election Day for a Republican candidate.
Then there is the matter of religion. As they assimilated, many Jews became secular. For a time, Israel became a substitute for organized Judaism and the synagogue. But as time moved on, the identification with Israel subsided, leaving many Jews either hyper-critical of Israel, removed from identifying with the Jewish State, or as Jeff Jacoby wrote in the Commentary forum on this question, “secular and universalist.” Their liberalism is symbolized in a most extreme form by the “Judaism” advocated by Rabbi Michael Lerner, who preaches in his “Tikkun community” and journal, Tikkun, that to be Jewish means to favor a left-wing agenda at home and an emphasis on being critical of Israel while apologizing for Palestinian intransigence. This, he argues, is what flows from the ethics of the Torah and the teachings of Judaism.
The election of Barack Obama has served to reinforce the tendency of American Jews to remain liberal. One can argue till one is blue in the face that Obama’s policies are harmful to both Jews at home and Israel abroad, that his so-called outreach to the Muslim world is dangerous, and that his decision to avoid dealing with the threat of a nuclear Iran is likely to destabilize the entire Middle East. It will be to no avail. Jews were actively involved in the first phase of the civil rights movement in the 50’s and 60’s, and as the playwright Carol Gould writes, “the ascension of Barack Obama symbolizes a dream fulfilled to a generation of Jewish Americans who were at the forefront of black liberation and to younger voters who saw him as a symbol of total change.” Were her activist parents still alive, she says, they would be “kvelling over the election of Obama.”
Ron Radosh is the co-author of A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Founding of Israel.
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