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Why Are Jews Liberals?

A symposium

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(Library of Congress)

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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My mother who was half Jewish is my only connection to a religion that I have no interest in as well as any religion. I believe in the moral conviction of any religion as long as it is sincere. Like politics what is sincere? Politics have never stayed a cores as it is shallow at best. How can a people of any conviction insinuate and believe unsound policies? This living a lie four years at time. Believe you hart not so much you parents.

“The Holocaust was a Government Program” from Jim Rose on the Quinn and Rose show this mornin.

This struck me this morning, the Holocaust would not have been possible, at least not on such a scale, were it not for the machinations of a central government that instituted it and controlled it.

The articles above explain much that I didn’t know about why many Jewish people, whom I admire as a group, are so liberal. Is it kind of like “Catholic Guilt”? The feeling that “well I grew up with a religious background, but now I’m not particularly religious but I feel we must do good for them and that is my penance”. “Doing Good for them” being defined as…”taking someone else’s money and giving it to others because I’m too selfish to give my own”.

ann says:


Loren says:

ann says:
May 19, 2010 at 2:19 PM


Ann has a point. I see the jews as being used. I see it in their religion and their life. I see the literature of religions as they should be looked at, information of social value. Not religious.

What I do not really get out of this article is that it seems to only reason why someone would vote left would be for pure self interest. There are alot of people (at least in my country – holland) that vote for something that is close to their ideal world..idealism? Why would you always have to vote for something that you can benefit from yourself, yet does not make the country a better place to live in as a human? I would benefit more from voting rigth wing, since my income is pretty high, yet I always vote leftwing, because I think it does not make the country a better place if poor people get poorer and the rich people richer. That’s not humanistic..and if there was a (good) god, which i highly doubt, I think he would want people to think about eachother, and not spend their days on all kind of rituals and in the end only care about themself. That is the easy route.

victor says:

Maybe they are liberal because, like all liberals, do not really dig the ideas in which the countries they live in rest. To be liberal means; we are kind f ashamed of the US, surely we pay lip service to the founding fathers, democracy, the freedoms but we are against many things that made America great; its industrialists, large corporations, the Puritan beliefs, the Protestant work ethic. I suspect Jews are often liberal because of this “this is not us” feeling, In Israel they are not liberal, naturally so because they want to preserve their country.

I do not believe many Jews are liberal outr of any ill will, it is something “culturally automatic” for many. Of course, I believe it is a crazy option because it makes many non Jews feel many jews do not really root for America (the movies, the writers, the reporters, the professors, in which so many jews are prominent are relentless social critics of the US. Of course they are right in much their criticism but I believe often go overboard; for example Maomi Klein or Noam Chomsky, btu their hiperskilled articulate discourse has a profound effect on millions and saps their confidence in the US as a society. Many of the hipercirtics are not Jews (Ralph Nader, John Moore, etc).

The end problem the hiperarticulate liberals cause is they sap the faith of millions in their society. Eventually this leads to a crisis, social, industrial, economic. If the crisis is deep enough social order will break and the fascist demagogues will sprout like mushrooms.

I fear the US may be entering the phase of loss of sel confidence and economic crisis, what happens next I have no idea but thgings could get much worse.

My suggestion; that liberal, Jews or not, hold back their social criticism, tne satire, the questioning and discrediting of traditional values.

What family could carry on together if many of its members are hipercritical of the parents, their customs, etc. ? No family can survive that. What Synagogue or Church or socia

Pamela Sue Alexander says:

@Ann… You may think yourself a Christian, citing the bible and wayward Israel, but in every respect, you are an antisemite. Don’t kid yourself into believing otherwise.

Judith P. says:

I have so often pondered this question myself. Yes, as a conservative Christian, we have always believed the Jews are God’s chosen people.From a child, I have always followed Israel, and the Jews, including their history, and have rooted for them. I feel, that the “Liberals, or Democrats” are using them, because of their money, and talents. Here is the TRULY funny thing…CONSERVATIVES, are conservative in social matters, and morals, yet are LIBERAL when it comes to their giving to others, and helping the poor. The LIBERALS, are liberal in social matters and morals, yet are CONSERVATIVE in their giving, they want to keep their own money, yet take it away from someone else, to give away. If you look at the wealthiest people in the U.S., a majority of them are liberals. Take, our current president, Michael Moore, George Soros, they constantly talk about giving to those less fortunate, yet they are worth millions to billions. They keep certain classes of people under their “rule” because they “promise” to take money from the “evil” rich, and spread it to them. Why do their followers accept their millions and billions? If that worked, we wouldn’t have any poor. We are trillions in debt from our social programs. Yet, we STILL HAVE THE POOR. So much money has been spent, every American Citizen could be a millionaire, and the debt would’nt be so high. So, where has the money gone? When everything falls through, many of you will wake up, and see the picture truly for what it was. Ask yourselves one other question, “who was anti-black”, and which party started the KKK? It wasn’t the Republicans! Which party had the FIRST ethnic members in Washington? It wasn’t the Democrats! If anything, the social programs have hurt the growth of minorities, to excel, and work their way up the ladder by convincing them they can’t “make it”! Healthcare? My deductible went from $1500./yr to $9000./yr. Middle Class? This is destroying the middle class! Wake up, folks!!!!!

john says:

jews are going to pay for their crooked media card game. again. they have turned my gentile heart into stone towards them and i will destroy them.

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fedupandmad says:

“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.”

Wow. What a lie. It’s like calling the sky green, and reversing black and white. Liberals have no respect for the individual and they expect no self-accountability. If they did, they wouldn’t advocate stealing money from people that amass wealth through their own labor and giving it to people who refuse to work. Liberals wouldn’t advocate for big government that gives faceless bureaucrats the power to tell people how to live their lives.

fedupandmad says:

I forgot one more thing. Liberals encourage dependency on the masses because they believe they are smarter than everyone else and they know better what is good for everyone.

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rhoneyman says:

Morris Dickstein is closest to understanding the predominant liberal bent of American Jews. Liberalism in this country in this era (in my mind, at least) is an expression of the need to ensure fair, equitable and compassionate treatment of all members of the society. This translates into driving the political engine to create safety nets that help people who are in dire need. It means providing programs designed to prevent children from going to bed hungry. It means establishing programs designed to help the economically deprived navigate the path from poverty to self sufficience.

For millennia, the talmud has trained Jews to give when needed and to give without attribution and without necessarily knowing who directly benefits. To the extent that giving is an element of the Jewish DNA, it is due to dozens of generations learning and teaching this as a fundamental requirement of a righteous Jew. Jewish law requires that Jewish communities establish quasi-formal means of providing assistance primarily within the Jewish community. But there is also a requirement to not ignore the needs of the surrounding non-Jewish community.

Religious Jews today continue to practise tzedakah, well, religiously, as they’ve been taught from childhood. Secular Jews, however, descend from this system of giving but without the talmud, the understanding of the form of giving has been modified. But the definition of community has changed. For the secular Jew, community means the town, the state, and the nation. Jewish law specifies that institutions be established to assist members of the Jewish community. But with a stronger identification with the larger community, this gene in the secular Jew’s DNA is expressed through pushing for state programs and safety nets.

As a liberal member of the Orthodox community who was raised an atheist, I am able to see both sides and to understand why my religious friends tend towards Republican policies that I find heartless and distasteful.

Julian Tepper says:

Here is a different take.

Jews want (need) to be liked more than do most other Americans. Why? Because they are historically more apt to be killed or devastated while alive if conditions in this country, especially financial and economic conditions, reach points low enough to drive Jew-Haters to act on their predilections. And, there are plenty of Jew-Haters.

Jews view liberals as being in the majority. This view is incorrect. But, because of the people/institutions with which Jews have most of their contact (e.g., universities, movies and the elite media, not to mention other similarly-situated professionals) give that impression. To be Left is to be normal, centered. To be Right is to be weird, evil and abnormal, marginalized and stupid.

So Jews, ultimately fearful about their future welfare, establish a kinship with the group they regard as the mainstream, to wit: liberals.

More’s the pity.

Julian Tepper
Placitas, NM/Bethesda, MD

As a very republican jew let me give you my theory…it is always easier in life to be unhappy than happy..jews have an easy out to being unhappy.. they were persecuted adn therefore they deserve to be unhappy and fight the boogey man no matter how succesful they are…Life is more fulfilling if you are a  victim that has to struggle. somehow we are fight the “man”. To be a liberal is to never be happy.

I once went to a party and a family member tried to make fun of me because i was politically converative to all her unhappy liberal jewish friends. I simply said “Well iknow you are all democrats where do you get the best deal on your depression medication.”
The whole place was silent. it is very sad all these people who can not get happiness out of life.

The problem that jews do not understanding is this is a self destrictive path. i see so many jews who are so lost… especially the women …i know it sounds cold but so many jews are non married , have no chance to have kids… they were so busy fulfiling this dream of being mother theresa they walk up no husband, no kids, probably had an abortion. sorry truth hurts.  go look in a synagogue, they are empty ..

Listen to Dennis Prager a great Republican jew.

    Amen, as a proud member of the JPFO, NRA and NJ Second Amendment society I couldn’t say it better myself. I am the only child of a Jewish mother and father who is conservative / libertarian by nature, my siblings and all my relatives are ALL hopelessly liberal. I was the only one who learned martial arts (how to defend ones self) and the absolute only owner of a firearm in probably 3 levels up and down the family tree. It’s sad but true that the majority of Jews are still playing the victim – a condition which can be directly attributed to 5,000 years of oppression.

Lilac De Tremelay says:

I think it’s a Stockholm Syndrome reaction, the abused sucks up to the abuser. “It is better to be at the right hand of the devil than in his path”.

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Why Are Jews Liberals?

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