Norman Podhoretz has been writing for COMMENTARY for 57 years, was its editor in chief for 35 years, and was its editor at large for 14 more. In his 12th book, COMMENTARY’s venerable lion of disputation addresses the question he says he is asked more frequently than any other by his fellow conservatives: Why Are Jews Liberals? In a dispassionate effort to answer the question honestly, Podhoretz traverses the history of the Jewish people, from the Romans through the evolving views of the Catholic Church and Christianity in general, the Enlightenment, the rise of 19th-century nationalism, and the totalitarian calamities of the 20th century. He demonstrates that throughout the past two millennia, the scattered Diaspora found its only succor and support from universalist ideas that, because of their universalism, were placed on the port side of the ideological divide. It is for this reason, he argues, that American Jews have been the only definable well-to-do cohort over the past 40 years that has not moved to the Right, even though the evolution of the American Right has been in a frankly philo-Semitic direction—and among whose ranks come the most ardent non-Jewish supporters of the state of Israel in the world. To note the publication of Why Are Jews Liberals? later this month, COMMENTARY has asked six notable American Jewish thinkers to reflect on its themes. Their contributions appear on the following pages, in reverse alphabetical order.
Norman Podhoretz has offered us an elegant, condensed political history of the Jews. He recounts how beleaguered Jews have repeatedly looked in two places for solace: to the heavens and to the government. As religiosity waned, government was viewed as the sole power capable of restraining the savagery of localized violence. Since nature abhors a spiritual vacuum, Podhoretz concludes that the religion of liberalism—that is, faith in the powers of government—has replaced Judaism in the hearts of Jews. The lesson of Rabbi Chanina in Pirkei Avot became the dominant political motif: “If not for the government, people would eat each other alive.”
Why, asks Podhoretz, do Jews cling to this belief if it no longer serves our interest? One possibility is that convictions linger as evolutionary adaptations do, past their usefulness. Evolution and history combine to upend us: Jews still eat rich foods and still vote liberal. But there is another possible understanding of why Jews cleave to their political faith: it may be a product of kinship stronger than any ideology. It may not be about whom we vote for but whom we vote with.
Politics is full of arguments, yet how many arrive at their politics through argument? While it may not quite meet British idealist F.H. Bradley’s definition of philosophy as the “finding of bad reasons for what we believe on instinct,” there remains a large residue of instinct in political alignments.
Walking into a congregation, the first question a prospective worshipper asks is not “What is the theology here?” but rather “Is there anyone here like me?” Much of politics is like religion; it, too, answers the question “Who is like me?” And those who look for Jews to identify with others in their economic class make a mistake. Jews have felt wealthy for a relatively brief time. They have felt like outsiders for three -millennia.
No matter how powerfully Jews asserted their loyalty to successive governments in various countries, there was a note of hysteria in the patriotic fervor. They were more Hungarian than Magyars, more German than the Junkers. Somewhere in the Jewish soul, there lurks a scintilla of suspicion as to our Americanness. Not because we do not love the country but because we are not used to being, and being accepted as, part of the great collective. Whether labeled Jewish Americans or American Jews, “Jewish” always pulled at the purity of the other half of the compound word.
This tension, of course, has long been an accusation of our enemies. But it is not an issue of divided loyalty; that is a canard. Rather, the sense of disquiet is a natural accompaniment to being the outsider, the marginalized one who does not feel fully at home. When the Bible speaks of the ger toshav, the resident stranger, the Hasidic preacher named the Maggid of Dubno glosses this as teaching that one should not feel too much of a resident in this world, where we are all strangers. To be estranged is a natural human condition, epitomized in the experience of the Jew.
If I may be allowed so vast a sweep of generalization, Republicans, conservatives, are the party that feels comfortably at home. We need not attach a value to this observation; you may approve of this sensibility or not. But for Jews, unease is our mother tongue.
Why are the arts so often allied to liberalism? One explanation—without claiming this as the only reason—is that artists see themselves as outsiders. Yes, this is often just a fashionable pose, but that does not diminish the alliances it suggests. Pace the few artists, like Chesterton or T.S. Eliot, who contradict the pattern, art and alienation are very left wing. Whether tailors or couturiers, Jews remained the designers of outsider chic.
Podhoretz’s book is meant to explain why Jews do not vote their self-interest. I would say it is because they vote their self-conception, which is a very different thing. Jews identify with those who see themselves as on the margins: African Americans, immigrants, various minority interest groups. The blue-collar poor may feel angry, but they also feel that America is in some deep sense “theirs.” They don’t need to claim it, although they may wish to reclaim it. But for all those who suspect deep down that no matter how patriotic they may be, no matter how much they may contribute, the Daughters of the American Revolution will always see them as arrivistes, it will remain attractive to make common cause with those on the margins.
As Podhoretz writes, the Right has, of late, been more supportive of Israel. And conservatism, with its emphasis on a “complex of traditions, principles and institutions,” is the inheritor of a Burkean vision that accords well with religious traditionalism. Those observations might lead one to expect a political realignment. But I suspect that until conservatism convinces most Jews that they have a sympathy and practical program for those who are real or putative outsiders, it will remain, among Jews at least, distinctly the minority movement.
JONATHAN D. SARNA
England’s famous American-trained chief rabbi Joseph H. Hertz would have been astonished by the title and central assumption of Norman Podhoretz’s Why Are Jews Liberals? “Jews are by nature conservative,” he wrote in his commentary to the Authorised Daily Prayer Book, which he completed during World War II. He explained that “loyalty to the State is ingrained in the Jewish character” and that “in all those countries in which persecution has not embittered their life,” Jews “are no more radical than the non-Jewish members of the social class to which they belong.”
Hertz was something of an apologist, but his analysis of Jewish political behavior has much to recommend it. The late Jewish historian Ben Halpern—himself a secularist, political liberal, and Zionist—reached the same conclusion. Jews learned from the Diaspora experience “that their safety always depended on political and social stability,” he wrote in an issue of American Jewish Historical Quarterly devoted to the exploration of Jewish liberalism. “They depended for their lives on the authorities, on the persons and groups who exercised legitimate power.”
Halpern concluded, in another work, that “the natural Jewish political attitude, the attitude that truly expresses a continuous tradition up to and including the shtetl,is one of conservatism.”
The majority of American Jews, of course, failed to uphold this “natural Jewish political attitude” over the past century. COMMENTARY, under Podhoretz’s distinguished editorship, sought to change that, and when Ronald Reagan captured almost 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, Milton Himmelfarb, writing in these pages, declared it “a watershed for Jews.” But that election proved to be an aberration. A generation later, in 2008, the Jewish love affair with liberal politics and the Democratic party seems as ardent and passionate as ever, with more than three-quarters of all Jews voting for Barack Obama.
In response, a chastened Podhoretz is now throwing in the towel. Jews, he declares in this book, “remain caught in the Tertullian-like grip of the Torah of liberalism?.?.?.?there is no sign that this will change in the foreseeable future.”
The question, of course, is why. Many, before Podhoretz, have offered ingenious hypotheses. For example: Liberalism reflects prophetic Jewish values; it is Judaism secularized. Liberal proclivities form part of Jews’ genetic inheritance; they are biologically predetermined. Conservatism has long historic ties to anti-Semitism; Jews reflexively recoil from it. A “radical subculture” from Eastern Europe created and sustained the Jewish love affair with the Left; these immigrants socialized their descendants into liberalism, and they their descendants. And so forth.
Wisely, Podhoretz steers clear of such explanations. They are either completely unsound (if Jewish values are so liberal, why aren’t fervently Orthodox Jews the most liberal sector of Jewry?) or far too limited to account for the near 30-point spread between Republicans like Ronald Reagan, who won significant support from Jews, and those like George Bush in 1992, who did not.
Instead, Podhoretz points to history and religion as key explanatory factors. He begins with a quick chronological survey of “How the Jews Became Liberals”—a 17-chapter romp through Jewish history beginning with the birth of Christianity and ending with the 1968 defeat of Hubert Humphrey. “It is the historical experience of the Jewish people that turned them into liberals,” he concludes. Liberals, he shows, tended to favor Jewish emancipation and equality, while conservatives, by and large, preferred the old status quo that kept Jews restricted and confined.
His section on America’s history overlooks the fact that Jews in this country were politically divided into the early 20th century and that leading American Jews, including the great leader of the American Jewish Committee, Louis Marshall, were stalwart conservatives. Still, his basic interpretation rings true: many Jews voted for liberals for the same reason that many blacks voted for the party of Abraham Lincoln. They learned lessons from their past.
The more interesting question, for Podhoretz, is “why the Jews are still liberals.” He shows, in his book’s second part, how he personally shifted his politics in the face of new political realities, and he wonders why the majority of his fellow Jews failed to follow his lead. Blacks, after all, now vote overwhelmingly Democratic, having long since abandoned the politics of their (Republican) past. Jews, meanwhile, still largely vote the way their grandparents did.
The answer, for Podhoretz, lies in religion. Liberalism, he argues, “is not, as has often been said, merely a necessary component of Jewishness: it is the very essence of being a Jew. Nor is it a ‘substitute for religion,’ it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas and?.?.?.?obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.”
Jewish liberalism endures, Podhoretz concludes, because turning conservative, in liberal eyes, is nothing short of heresy—or worse, apostasy. One wonders, however, why outside the United States liberalism is nowhere near so dominant a faith among Jews. In -Israel, to take an obvious example, Jewish liberals and Jewish conservatives are fairly evenly matched.
English Jewry has likewise shifted rightward recently. For three decades following World War II, British Jews overwhelmingly supported the Labour party. As Labour adopted a pro-Arab position in the 1970s, however, Jews abandoned the party in droves, many of them becoming strong supporters of the Conservative Margaret Thatcher. Today British Jews are about evenly split between the two parties: neither can take the Jewish vote for granted. And the same is true in Australia and Canada. While Jews in both communities once reliably voted for liberal candidates, today many have transferred their allegiance to the conservative camp. In both countries, the Jewish vote is divided.
Why then should Jews in the United States uphold what Podhoretz calls “the ‘Torah’ of liberalism” so much more zealously than Jews elsewhere in the world? I would point to two factors that distinguish the American situation from what obtains elsewhere. First, Reform Judaism is much stronger in the United States than in any other country, and adherence to Reform Judaism strongly correlates with liberal voting behavior. Reform today is the largest of America’s Jewish religious movements, and all surveys agree that Reform Jews vote Democratic more reliably than any other large body of Jews. There is no need to seek out the “Torah of liberalism,” for Reform Judaism is the engine that drives the liberal train in the United States; additional explanations are unnecessary.
Second, the rightward move in all Diaspora countries outside the United States was propelled primarily by repulsion. Jews became disaffected with liberal politicians, usually because of their anti-Israel animus, and shifted to the opposition. So it was in England, Australia, and Canada. In the United States, however, pro-Israel sentiment has always been much more powerful than elsewhere, thanks largely to evangelical support for Israel, and prudent liberals have therefore been as supportive of Israel as have their conservative opponents.
The single exception, Jimmy Carter, proves the rule. Tens of thousands of Jewish liberals abandoned Carter in the election of 1980 (which is why Himmelfarb described that election as a watershed), and the president was driven from office, the first Democrat in 60 years not to win a majority of the Jewish vote. Liberal candidates since then have been sedulously careful not to make the same mistake.
Podhoretz, after so many years of waiting, no longer anticipates with a perfect faith the coming of a conservative Jewish majority. American Jews, it seems, have tarried too long and embraced Barack Obama too tightly to be redeemed in his eyes. He consigns them, “for the foreseeable future,” to a liberal fate.
But then one looks at the growing number of -Orthodox Jews in America, who do not bow down before the “Torah of liberalism”; and at the growing political maturity of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, the most politically conservative voting bloc within the American Jewish community; and at the Democrats, who, with their powerful majority, are recklessly challenging and criticizing the state of Israel, potentially alienating American Jewish voters; and at all the other major Jewish communities in the world that vote for conservative candidates in significant numbers—and then one wonders at Podhoretz’s pessimism.
“The natural Jewish political attitude” may reassert itself sooner than he imagines.
For most American Jews, the core of their Jewish identity isn’t solidarity with Israel; it’s rejection of Christianity. This observation may help to explain the otherwise puzzling political preferences of the Jewish community explored in Norman Podhoretz’s book. Jewish voters don’t embrace candidates based on their support for the state of Israel as much as they passionately oppose candidates based on their identification with Christianity—especially the fervent evangelicalism of the dreaded “Christian Right.”
This political pattern reflects the fact that opposition to Christianity—not love for Judaism, Jews, or Israel—remains the sole unifying element in an increasingly fractious and secularized community. The old (and never fully realized) dream that Zionist fervor could weave together all the various ideological and cultural strands of American Jewry looks increasingly irrelevant and simplistic. In an era of budget plane flights and elegantly organized tours, more than 75 percent of American Jews have never bothered to visit Israel. The majority give nothing to Israel-related charities and shun synagogue or temple membership. The contrasting components of the American Jewish population connect only through a point of common denial, not through any acts of affirmation.
Imagine a dialogue between Woody Allen and a youthful, idealistic emissary of the Hasidic Chabad movement—who might well be the proud father of nine religiously devout children. Both the movie director and the Lubavitcher may be publicly identified as Jews, but they share nothing in terms of religious belief, political outlook, family values, or, for that matter, taste in movies. The one area where they find common ground—and differ (together) from the majority of their fellow citizens—is their dismissal of New Testament theology, with its messianic claims for Jesus.
Anyone who doubts that rejection of Jesus has replaced acceptance of Torah (or commitment to Israel) as the eekur sach—the essential element—of American Jewish identity should pause to consider an uncomfortable question. What is the one political or religious position that makes a Jew utterly unwelcome in the organized community? We accept atheist Jews, Buddhist Jews, pro-Palestinian Jews, Communist Jews, homosexual Jews, and even sanction Hindu-Jewish meditation societies. “Jews for Jesus,” however, or “Messianic Jews” face resistance and exclusion everywhere. In Left-leaning congregations, many rabbis welcome stridently anti-Israel speakers and even Palestinian apologists for Islamo-Nazi terror. But if they invited a “Messianic Jewish” missionary, they’d face indignant denunciation from their boards and, very probably, condemnation by their national denominational leadership. It is far more acceptable in the Jewish community today to denounce Israel (or the United States), to deny the existence of God, or to deride the validity of Torah than it is to affirm Jesus as Lord and Savior.
For many Americans, the last remaining scrap of Jewish distinctiveness involves our denial of New Testament claims, so any support for those claims becomes a threat to the very essence of our Jewish identity. Many Jews therefore view enthusiastic Christian believers—no matter how reliably they support Israel and American Jews—as enemies by definition. Rather than acknowledge the key role played by Christian Zionists (prominently including Harry Truman) in establishing and sustaining the U.S.-Israel alliance, liberal partisans love to invoke 2,000 years of bloody Christian anti-Semitism. Today, however, the echoes of that poisonous hatred, complete with seething contempt for the allegedly disloyal and manipulative -“Israel lobby” in American politics, turn up far more frequently in the newsrooms of prestige newspapers or the faculty lounges of Ivy League universities than they do in Baptist churches in Georgia or Alabama.
Nevertheless, the association of members of such churches with the Republican party has served to limit GOP progress with Jewish voters. President Reagan appealed powerfully to the Jewish community (as Podhoretz documents in his book), but one of the chief factors that prevented a significant, long-term partisan shift involved the increasing association of Christian conservatives with the Republican party. In 1992, Jewish voters deserted the Republicans in part because of the troubling record of the first President Bush on Israel but also in response to the prominent, passionate “culture war” speech at the Houston convention by “Pitchfork Pat” Buchanan—a rare conservative who combined support for Christian Right domestic issues with bitter hostility to the state of Israel.
The anti-Christian obsessions of American Jews lead not only to skewed perceptions of our true friends and enemies but also to anomalous definitions of “Jewish issues.” Much of the communal establishment insists, for instance, that their support of same-sex marriage and “abortion rights” expresses timeless Jewish values. Why and how? In 3,000 years of well-documented tradition prior to, say, 1970, there was not the slightest hint of any sort of endorsement of homosexual coupling. Moreover, Jewish law has always frowned upon abortion, authorizing the procedure only in extreme cases where the welfare of the mother is profoundly threatened.
The liberal belief that Jews should be pro-choice and pro–gay marriage has nothing to do with connecting to Jewish tradition and everything to do with disassociating from Christian conservatives. According to this argument, Catholic and evangelical attempts to “impose” their values on social issues represent a theocratic threat to American pluralism that has allowed Judaism to thrive. The one segment of the contemporary community least concerned with this purported menace is the Orthodox—the less than 10 percent of the Jewish population that gives nearly as disproportionate support to Republicans as their Reform, Conservative, and secular Jewish neighbors give to Democrats. The reason for this contrasting response goes beyond the Orthodox tendency to agree with conservative Christians on most social issues and relates to their much greater comfort with religiosity in general. The Orthodox feel no instinctive horror at political alliances with others who make faith the center of their lives.
Those who seek to liberate the bulk of American Jews from their reflexive and self-defeating liberalism must do more than show the logic of conservative thinking. They should recognize that Jews, like all Americans, vote not so much in favor of politicians they admire as they vote against causes and factions they loathe and fear. Jews fear the GOP as the “Christian party,” and as the sole basis of Jewish identity involves rejection of Christianity, Jews will continue to reject -Republicans and conservatism. Podhoretz poignantly describes the way many Jewish Americans have adopted liberalism as a substitute religion. A more positive, engaged attitude with our real religious tradition would lessen the resentment toward religious Christians and, in an era when even Albania, Moldova, and Iraq have built functioning multiparty democracies, introduce for the first time in nearly a century a true two-party system to the Jewish -community.
Why do Jews remain liberals?
God only knows.
Why has He chosen to allow Jews to stay mindlessly attached to a liberalism that is no longer beneficial or sympathetic to them? Why has He chosen to harden Jewish hearts against a conservatism increasingly welcoming to Jews and supportive of the Jewish state?
Perhaps there are some questions that simply can’t be answered by unassisted human reason. Norman Podhoretz has made a valiant attempt to answer these questions. But at the end of the day, and at the end of his fascinating and illuminating book, one is left still shaking one’s head. Indeed, Norman is left shaking his head, first at the fact that “liberalism has become the religion of American Jews” and then at the further fact that “they can remain loyal to it even though it conflicts in substance with the Torah of Judaism at so many points, and even though it is also at variance with the most basic of all Jewish interests—the survival of the Jewish people.”
Norman is doubtful that this pious—not to say credulous—loyalty to liberalism will soon change. And after reading his account of the several false dawns of Jews turning toward conservatism only to fall right back into the comfortable lap of the Left, one is hard pressed to disagree. Still, I’m a bit more optimistic that the Jew will change his political spots.
Consider one datum from the 2008 election returns. It’s true, of course, that this was a year in which almost 80 percent of Jews shrugged off all the information about Obama’s coolness toward Israel and -McCain’s strong support for the Jewish state, and voted for Obama. Nonetheless, younger Jews seem to have been a little less likely to have voted for Obama than were older Jews—the opposite pattern from the American public as a whole. Indeed, if one extrapolates from the data I’ve seen, Obama seems to have had among Jewish men under 30 no greater a margin than he had among non-Jewish men under 30; this may even hold for men under 40. So young Jewish men may finally be behaving politically more like other Americans. (Jewish women are another story.)
One also wonders whether the Obama administration won’t present some “teachable moments” to those Jews who are willing to learn about which political party, and which political persuasion, is friendlier to Jewish interests. So I don’t rule out a partial, slow-motion political realignment among American Jews.
But my own tentative personal resolution, reached after reading Why Are Jews Liberals?, is this: I’m going to stop worrying about American Jews. They’re not worth the headache. Either they’ll come to their senses or they won’t, and there’s not much I (or anyone else, I suspect) can do about it.
So instead of focusing on the mishegas of the American Jewish community, why not focus on the glories of Judaism? Instead of focusing on the attitude of American Jews toward Israel, why not focus on the attitude of all Americans toward Israel? The important things are for the practice and study of Judaism to become more vital, in America and elsewhere, and for the state of Israel to remain strong and secure.
What this implies is perhaps something like the following:
• Focus on Jewish education more than Jewish communal affairs—especially Jewish communal -navel-gazing. Fund Jewish day schools, improve Jewish supplementary schools, and teach more young Jews (and some Christians) the Hebrew language—and cancel all the conferences on “Whither American Jewry?”
• Focus on the Jewish religion more than Jewish sociology. Demography isn’t destiny. Perhaps it’s davening that is destiny. Strengthening Jews’ practice and deepening Jews’ understanding of Judaism is key to the Jewish future.
• Focus on examples of Jewish greatness, wherever demonstrated around the world and whenever demonstrated in human history, rather than examples of Jewish celebrity or topics in American-Jewish culture.
• Focus on ensuring the well-being of Israel—and acknowledge that Christians United for Israel may be more important for the Jewish future than the Jewish Community Relations Councils.
But first, read Why Are Jews Liberals? Norman Podhoretz has explained with great insight and elegance how it came about that, in the words of my late uncle Milton Himmelfarb, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” The challenge now is for Jews to live like?.?.?.?Jews.
Like Norman Podhoretz, I am often asked by non-Jewish conservatives why American Jews cling so tenaciously to the Left and vote so consistently for Democrats, and like him I believe the answer to that question is theological: liberalism has superseded Judaism as the religion of most American Jews.
Unlike Podhoretz, however, I cannot personally remember a time when this ardent liberalism seemed a sensible response to American Jewish life. Nor did I take it in with my mother’s milk. One of my earliest political memories is of accompanying my father to the polls early on Election Day in November 1968. It was the first time I had seen the inside of a voting booth, and my father let me pull the lever for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential candidate.
When I described this adventure to my mother after returning home, she told me that she would be going later that day to cast her own vote—for Richard Nixon. At a young age, therefore, I absorbed the lesson that Jews need not vote in lockstep and that voting for a Republican was as normal as voting for a Democrat.
Most American Jews, on the other hand, seem to have learned from an early age that to be Jewish is to be a liberal Democrat, no matter what. No matter that anti-Semitism today makes its home primarily on the Left, while in most quarters of the Right, hostility toward Jews has been anathematized. No matter that Israel’s worst enemies congregate with leftists, while its staunchest defenders tend to be resolute conservatives. No matter that Republicans support the Jewish state by far larger margins than Democrats do. No matter that on a host of issues—homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, racial preferences, public prayer —the “Torah” of contemporary liberalism, as Podhoretz calls it, diverges sharply from the Torah of Judaism. As Why Are Jews Liberals? convincingly and depressingly demonstrates, the loyalty of American Jews to the Left has been unaffected by the failure of the Left to reciprocate that loyalty.
The Jewish predilection for ill-advised political choices isn’t new. The Bible describes the yearning of the ancient Israelites for a king and God’s warning that monarchy would bring them despotism and misery. Appoint a king, God has the prophet Samuel tell the people, and he will seize your sons and daughters, your fields and vineyards: “He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
His warning fell on deaf ears: “Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, ‘No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations.’”
The longing to “be like all the nations” is a recurring motif in Jewish history. Baal worshipers in the time of the prophets, Judean Hellenists in the Chanukah story, 19th-century assimilationist maskilim, Jewish socialists enthralled by Marx’s classless Utopia, modern post-Zionists in quest of a non-Jewish Israel—down through the ages, in one way or another, innumerable Jews have fought or fled from Jewish “otherness” and embraced ways of life or beliefs that promised to make them less distinctive. Given the cruelty and violence to which Jews were so often subjected, it is not surprising that many would seek to shed or neutralize their Jewishness.
Even in America, a haven of security and prosperity without parallel in the long Jewish Diaspora, many Jews wanted nothing to do with the old Jewish identity. There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, of Jewish men throwing their tefillin into the ocean as the ship bringing them to America came within sight of New York Harbor. “Because tefillin were something for the Old World,” explains a character in Dara Horn’s acclaimed 2002 novel, In the Image, “and here in the New World, they didn’t need them anymore.”
Apocryphal or not, there is no disputing that countless European Jewish immigrants to the goldene medina—the “golden land”—took advantage of their new circumstances to cast off the old faith. Or their children did. Or their grandchildren. As a result, Jews today are the least religious community in the United States. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 16 percent of Jews attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 39 percent of Americans generally. Just 31 percent say religion is “very important” in their lives (vs. 56 percent of Americans).
Such data led Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, to quote a comment made by the late hasidic troubadour Shlomo Carlebach after a lifetime of visiting American campuses: “I ask students what they are. If someone gets up and says, I’m a Catholic, I know that’s a Catholic. If someone says, I’m a Protestant, I know that’s a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I’m just a human being, I know that’s a Jew.”
“Just-a-human-being” liberalism, secular and universalist—there is the dead end into which the flight from Jewish separateness has led so many American Jews. To call it a dead end is not to deny its allure. Much of liberalism’s appeal lay in making Jews feel good about themselves, secure in the conviction that they were part of a broad and enlightened mainstream. Liberalism freed them from the charge of parochial self-interest that had so often been leveled against Jews. It replaced the ancient, sometimes difficult burden of chosenness—the Jewish mission to live by God’s law and bring the world to ethical monotheism—with a more palatable and popular commitment to equality, tolerance, and “social justice.”
To be sure, loyalty to the Democratic party came naturally to Jews, with their inherited memories of a Europe in which emancipation had been a project of the Left and where reactionary anti-Semites had (usually) attacked from the Right. As Norman Podhoretz writes, that loyalty understandably intensified during World War II, when the most lethal enemy in Jewish history was ultimately destroyed by an alliance led by a liberal Democrat named Franklin Roosevelt.
But liberal Democrats no longer lead such alliances, and they heatedly oppose those who do. The Soviet Union was defeated not by Jimmy Carter, who urged his countrymen to shed their “inordinate fear of Communism,” but by Ronald Reagan, who labeled the USSR an “evil empire” and was denounced by the Left as a warmonger. Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, but it was George W. Bush who carried out that liberation in the face of scathing liberal hostility. Republicans constitute the party that sees the current conflict against global jihadists as the decisive struggle of our time, while the few Democrats who express that view—as Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman can testify—are scorned by their party’s liberal base.
FDR and Harry Truman are long gone, and so too is the muscular Democratic liberalism that defeated Adolf Hitler and brought the Holocaust to an end. To deal with the would-be Hitlers of our era—Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Jew-hating mullahs in Iran—-today’s Democrats counsel pacifism and appeasement and endless negotiation. These days it is the Right that calls for strong and decisive action against the enemies of the free world. Today the beleaguered Jewish state’s most unshakable American allies are Republican and conservative. Yet American Jews remain what they have been for so long: unshakably Democratic and liberal.
This liberalism isn’t rational. It isn’t sensible. It certainly isn’t good for the Jews.
But it is, as religions often are, deeply reassuring.
It is reassuring for liberal Jews to believe that all people are fundamentally decent and reasonable, and that all disputes can be settled through compromise and conciliation. It is reassuring to believe in a world in which nothing is ever solved by war, so that military force is unnecessary and expensive weapons systems are wasteful. It is reassuring to believe that America is a secular nation, that God and religion have no place in the public square, and that no debt of gratitude is owed to the Christians who created the extraordinary society in which American Jews have thrived. It is reassuring to believe that crime is caused by guns, that academia is the seat of wisdom, and that humanity’s biggest problem is global warming. It is reassuring to believe that compassion can be achieved by passing the right laws and that big government can create prosperity. It is reassuring to believe that tikkun olam—healing the world—is a synonym for the liberal agenda and that the liberal agenda flows directly from the teachings of Judaism.
Above all, it is reassuring to believe that Jews are no different from anyone else, that they are not called to a unique role in human events, and that the best way to be a good Jew is to be a conscientious citizen of the world. To be liberal, in short, is to be “like all the nations.” It is a seductive and comforting belief, and American Jews are far from the first to embrace it.
The title of Norman Podhoretz’s book asks an important question, and the text answers it: Jews are religious by nature, and having mostly abandoned Judaism, they have taken up the “Torah of liberalism” instead—as an ex–wine connoisseur who has lost all sense of taste but is still thirsty might switch to cheap gin. Of course, this switch must be understood in historical context, which Podhoretz also sets out clearly. What makes the book important is not its novelty (as the author makes plain) but its authority. He writes not only as a maker of modern history but as a seer who cannot keep himself from seeing and saying the truth.
He describes today’s Reactionary Liberalism clearly. It is no political doctrine professed, as liberalism was, in rational hopes of a better future; it is a sort of religion that denies history, experience, and liberalism itself. In many cases, Podhoretz notes, left-wing politics took the place of a Judaism that felt to new American immigrants like a business suit on a beach: conspicuous, constraining, ridiculously out of place. In Eastern Europe, most Jews didn’t need to think much about Judaism per se: it was built into their homes and communities and daily routines—which made it easier to forget when those things were left behind. On this reading, emotional, facts-be-damned Jewish liberalism is a gravestone marking the death of religious faith, or a fossil where dead stone approximates the shape of a once living creature.
The obvious question is, what’s next? Having reached (at the pinnacle of the book) an understanding of this sad liberal religion and its Jewish adherents, we can see forward to the future.
The world of contemporary liberalism is wider than Jews and Judaism. Western Europe is full of reactionary liberals. And in Western Europe also, as among Jews, old-time religion is crumbling: Western European Christianity has been dying steadily since the end of World War II. (Its health was iffy before then, but in the generations since, it has grown decisively worse.) The most interesting case is England, which often stands somewhat closer to American views than do other European nations. England’s established church has tended to promote its own decline by waffling on religion while preaching perfect faith in left-wing politics. Establishment synagogues and churches in America have gone and done likewise.
The analogy between American Jews and Western Europeans is far from perfect. For one thing, the peoples of Western Europe have mostly lacked the religious intensity and genius of the Jews. But their religions were the comfortable large buildings on which they sprawled like ivy, and when the buildings collapsed, the former faithful felt the loss and sought a replacement.
In fact, we can study Western Europe not only as a related case but also as a hint and a warning about the American Jewish future—because Europe is far ahead of America in the modern-liberalism department. In America, liberal aspirations are moderated by the Gulf Stream of a basically conservative, religious citizenry. (At least this is the way it used to be; our schools are now changing all that, year by year.) It’s true that American Jews and Western Europeans are similar insofar as their intellectual leaders have been aggressively liberal, and (in many cases) hostile to religion, for a long time. But America has a tradition of despising intellectuals, while Europe worships and obeys them. For these and other reasons, European liberalism has waded much farther out than the American Jewish variety. (But here come American Jews splashing forward in Europe’s wake, getting themselves into deeper and deeper water.)
So what’s happened in Europe?
In much of Western (especially northwestern) Europe, marriage seems to be dying. (“Today?.?.?.?only the lower orders and what remains of the gentry bother to marry, and everyone else takes a partner, as if life were a dance, or a business venture.” Thus the Irish writer John Banville in his 2006 novel, The Sea.) Up-to-date Englishmen on the topic of science versus religion sound, too often, like smug low-church curates in Trollope holding forth on the British Empire versus the filthy natives. (This suffocating self-righteousness ruins the novels of—for example—the contemporary Englishman Ian McEwan.) European sex (casual or not, hetero- or homo-) seems to have developed the moral significance of an ATM transaction on a street corner. The “Green party” was a German invention, the English Conservatives have recently adopted a green tree as their emblem, and European eco-priests speaking ex cathedra are generally regarded as infallible.
The strangest aspect of modern Europe is its tentative yet progressing love affair with death. (We think of Keats listening, darkling, to his nightingale.) The death wish is plain among Europeans who shrug off birthrates so low (and immigration rates so high) that their nations will be gone within a few generations. The death wish probably plays a part in the fervor some European nations (especially Germany) feel to lose themselves in the European Union, and in the outright enthusiasm in parts of Europe for assisted suicide. Modern Germany often cremates the dead with no rites and no comment, making death as humdrum as taking out the garbage.
If we sum up these tendencies, we arrive at a belief that man should be happy as an animal among animals, should aspire to nothing higher, and should be satisfied to worship the earth and himself if he must worship anything. This is a new sort of paganism but is clearly related to older types. In fact, mulling German history in particular, one wonders whether the Germans ever were more than half-Christianized, whether paganism hasn’t always appealed to the lofty German Geist. It’s not surprising that Germany should be a leader not only in the new liberalism but also the new paganism.
Will American Jewish liberalism drift by inches into American Jewish paganism? Not necessarily. But that fate will be avoided only if American Jews form a clear picture of the direction in which they are headed before they follow Europe into the anonymous pagan abyss and disappear. Jewish religious genius is capable of rearing up at any time and changing the direction of history—but only if Jewish prophets speak up loud and clear, as Norman Podhoretz does in this book.