Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s controversial comments at the J Street conference–a gathering seemingly formed for the purpose of disparaging the rest of the Jewish community–deftly illustrated a couple of uncomfortable truths about modern liberalism’s increasingly rocky relationship with religious belief. Liberalism itself has become a religion, and so the left generally seeks to either coopt or delegitimize competing religious practice. At J Street, Schakowsky engaged in the latter.
As JTA reported:
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois apologized for referring to a one-time political rival as an “Orthodox Jew” in casting him as a threat to liberal interests. …
“In 2010, I had an election within our community. That is, I ran against a Jewish Orthodox Tea Party Republican who made it very clear that actually, Jan Schakowsky was anti-Israel because of the positions that she took,” Schakowsky said. She thanked J Street because it “came to the rescue” with money and moral support.
Schakowsky in 2010 faced Joel Pollak, a conservative activist, in her suburban Chicago district.
After JTA tweeted a reference to Schakowsky’s comments, the Orthodox Union asked her for a clarification.
“In the context of her remarks and speaking to such an audience, the Congresswoman’s use of the term ‘Orthodox’ was a negative term – as negative for that audience as Tea Party and Republican,” the O.U.’s Washington director, Nathan Diament, said in a statement.
To her credit, Schakowsky offered a sincere apology, though she did deny the obvious intent of her comment. But it was important and revelatory. The lede of the JTA story gets it exactly right: Schakowsky saw her opponent’s Orthodox faith as a threat to her view of proper politics and governance.
There are a few points to unpack here. The first is that this is further confirmation of what Norman Podhoretz called the “Torah of Liberalism.” Many left-leaning Jews have elevated their political ideals to the level of scripture.
A related point is what follows from that: they have demoted scripture to the level of politics. That’s why Schakowsky–who is Jewish–thought it relevant to add “Orthodox” to the list of political modifiers that included “Tea Party” and “Republican.” To Schakowsky, and no doubt to many liberal Jews, Pollak was a political opponent because of his level of private religious observance.
It’s entirely appropriate that her comments were made at a J Street event. Back in 2010 the Washington Jewish Week noted that J Street had launched a website dedicated to personally attacking Bill Kristol and Gary Bauer. The site “highlights the pair’s stances on gay marriage, a woman’s right to choose, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement and the separation of church and state,” and left even liberal Jews confused. But they shouldn’t have been confused: J Street has always been a Democratic pressure group, of which Israel is only one excuse to smear political opponents and settle scores. It’s why they saw fit to launch a campaign to promote abortion while selling themselves to donors as a “pro-Israel” lobby.
The liberal positions on these issues have nothing to do with Israel, but they do conflict with strict adherence to Jewish law and tradition. And so they were targeted.
The only strange part of Schakowsky giving this speech to J Street, in fact, was that she certainly didn’t need them and they certainly didn’t ride to the rescue. In 2010 she won about 66 percent of the vote in a district Roll Call rates as “safe.” She was never in danger of losing, notwithstanding the nefarious Orthodox Jews lurking about her district.
One of the prevailing myths of the liberal view of history is that religious conservatives–especially evangelical Christians–greatly increased their activity in the public square in order to attempt to force religious doctrine into legislative governance, rather than as a reaction to what they saw as a bureaucratic intrusion into private religious practice. Jewish participation seems destined to follow a similar trend, but the real numbers of Orthodox Jews in the U.S. mean they won’t have a tangible impact on national political contests in the immediate future, even if they continue wading more into the public sphere.
That would be true, at least, as a standalone bloc. But Orthodox interests align with many conservative Christian interests as well, which align with certain libertarian interests, for example with regard to the debate over religious freedom and forced compliance with regulations that violate religious liberty. Seen in that light, then, the raw numbers of politically aware (and right-of-center) Orthodox Jews aren’t nearly as significant as what they represent: the expansion of a broad conservative alliance pushing back on encroachments on constitutional freedoms.
Israel is only part of this story, because it has long been a bipartisan cause. But it’s poised to become a larger part if Democrats continue distancing themselves from support for Israel and casting Israel as a litmus test of partisan loyalty, as President Obama has done.
And that’s a more likely justification for Schakowsky’s professed gratitude toward J Street for her reelection campaign. She didn’t need them for votes, or really anything tangible. She needed cover from an ostensibly “pro-Israel” group because her party’s traditional support for Israel is waning, and J Street is dedicated to improving the political viability of declining support for Israel.