Why Are Jews Liberals?, by Norman PodhoretzDoubleday, 337 pages, $27
"Why Are Jews Liberals?" is really two books in one, something that author Norman Podhoretz acknowledges in his introduction. What he doesn't say, however, is that in each of these two "different" books, the question posed in the title has a different meaning. In the first 17 of the book's 34 chapters, Podhoretz, the former long-time editor of Commentary magazine, looks at 2,000 years of relations between Western Jews and their host countries. The portrait he offers is of a persecuted people in exile who tended to identify with political movements that offered them the potential to attain civil or even social equality, or at least physical security. In this first half, Podhoretz is writing as an amateur historian who has surveyed all the relevant secondary sources to provide a concise synthesis of his topic. In the second half, the author, who has himself been a provocative and influential political thinker in the United States over the past half century, gets more personal. Here he attempts to explain not so much why American Jews are "liberals," something he realizes has multiple meanings, but rather why they tend to consistently vote Democratic even when it should be clear to them -- as it has long been to him -- that this is not in their best interests.
For aficionados of Web sites like politico.com and fivethirtyeight.com, reading a carefully parsed breakdown of voting patterns in each presidential election since the 1950s may sound like a good read. From its title, however, I was expecting Podhoretz's book to be a thoughtful examination of what "Jewish" values are, and how they might be translated into action in the public and political realms. Short of that, I imagined that Podhoretz might offer an argument as to why support for Israel -- with "support" being defined more or less along lines set by AIPAC -- should be uppermost in the voter's mind when considering whom to support for president. On both of those levels, Podhoretz's narrow interpretation of his mission is a disappointment.
There are those who wouldn't be interested in what Norman Podhoretz has to say in any event -- many of them, I imagine, the liberals that he perceives most American Jews as being. Podhoretz is part of a small but influential group of onetime socialists and other assorted left-wingers who saw the light sometime in the late 1960s or the 1970s, and with the passion of the convert, moved far to the right. He even wrote a 1979 memoir about his change of heart and mind, "Breaking Ranks." (He tells us that he hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Hubert Humphrey, in 1968, and that George H.W. Bush is the only Republican candidate he didn't support, when the latter ran for re-election in 1992 -- saying he could not "forgive Bush for his animus against Israel and ?the Jews,' and so I sat this election out." )
I disagree with Podhoretz on many issues, but I appreciate the author's intelligence and consistency (at least since he changed sides ). He has drawn a lot of flack over the years for his views, and no doubt his journey has been lonely at times, and for that reason too, attention must be paid. He's also a fine writer, and although he can play hardball with his opponents, he generally summarizes their arguments with fairness, so that one doesn't feel he's stacking the deck in order to win the argument.
All of that being said, Podhoretz, who turns 80 next year, might have produced a far more challenging and stimulating book if, as he looked back at his decades of engagement with the big political questions of his day, he had made a more earnest attempt to consolidate a theory of what Judaism has to say about those questions. And as a fierce advocate for Israel, who has family living here, doesn't Podhoretz ever have second thoughts about his unflagging support for the settlement movement, and in general for the way Israel has comported itself vis-a-vis its Palestinian neighbors? Have you really said all there is to say when you've characterized the Palestinians as terrorists? Or done the Jewish state a favor by counseling it to be prepared to live by the sword indefinitely? But, if Podhoretz has any reservations about Israeli actions, it's that it had such weak-kneed leaders as Yitzhak Rabin who, in 1993, "impelled by various considerations that he felt gave him no choice, [...] decided to acquiesce in the Oslo Accords," and Ehud Olmert, who, 13 years later, "botched the chance to take advantage" of a golden opportunity to "drive Hizbollah out of southern Lebanon and thus put [Israel's] northern towns out of the range of its rockets." But more about Israel later.
Podhoretz's historical survey sticks with the standard lachrymose view of Jewish history, which not unreasonably sees the Jews as eternal victims, at least in the nearly two millennia since Christianity emerged from being a Jewish sect to being a religion of its own. "Because the Jews refused to disappear, what started as ambivalence" on the Church's part, writes Podhoretz, "developed into outright hostility." As long as the Jews were still around, though, it was important to keep them down, so that they could serve as "witnesses" -- that is, as a negative example of the truth of Christianity, which had superseded their own faith. To guarantee their wretchedness, in Medieval Europe their economic options were severely limited, and they were forced to live apart from the rest of society.
There were monarchs and even popes who occasionally came to the aid and protection of the Jews -- for example, Pope Innocent IV, in the 12th century, who disavowed the blood libel of Norwich, which accused the Jews of using the heart of a murdered Christian child in a religious ritual; or, two centuries later, Pope Clement IV, who declared that the charge that the Jews were behind the Black Plague was "without plausibility," if only because the epidemic afflicted them as well as everyone else. But the occasional kindness of one ruler or another only served to demonstrate the Jews' vulnerability. On through the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Jews usually paid a price for Europe's progress, and Podhoretz runs through the list of countries from which they were expelled over the centuries.
We finally begin to see where the author is going with all of this history when he arrives at the Enlightenment, which wasn't simply anti-Christian, but was against all religion. The most influential philosopher of the Enlightenment was Voltaire, whose expressions of hatred for the Jews ("this nation is, in many ways, the most detestable ever to have sullied the earth" ) continue to shock no matter how often they are repeated. The Jews' embrace of the Enlightenment and the emancipation that derived from it is described by Podhoretz as "pathological," because the equality and rights it offered to them demanded that they give up their religious beliefs and accept the "Religion of Reason," and also that they cease behaving as a "nation within a nation."
The process that took place within European Jewry that was the internal parallel to the Enlightenment was the Haskalah (Hebrew for enlightenment ), and its father was Moses Mendelssohn, who, Podhoretz laments, may well have been the only successful practitioner of his own call to "adopt the mores and constitution of the country in which you find yourself, but be steadfast in upholding the religion of your fathers, too." Mendelssohn, that is, wasn't interested in accepting the benefits of Emancipation if it meant giving up observance of Jewish law, a compunction that even his own children didn't share: Both of them converted to Christianity.
For Podhoretz, Emancipation and the various revolutions of the mid-19th century, followed by Socialism and Communism, are the historical equivalents of today's "liberalism" for American Jews, which is to say, having been a Communist in Russia a century ago is like voting Democratic in the United States today. Although each of these ideologies tempted Jews with the promise of freedom and equality, invariably they all turned on their Jewish supporters, and so, argues the author, have the Democrats.
Democratic presidents have tried to force Israel, over and over, into compromising its security in the name of a chimerical "peace." They were soft on Soviet Communism, and have consistently backed down in the face of totalitarian threats to world security, while voluntarily going to war, for example in Serbia in 1999, over human rights issues. Jews are irrationally liberal over "social" issues like abortion, assisted suicide, gay rights and opposition to school prayer -- the latter of which especially seems to drive Jews into a tizzy that Podhoretz finds unreasonable (he marvels disapprovingly at a society where it is "forbidden to post the Ten Commandments on a classroom wall but permissible to teach girls how to unroll a condom over a cucumber or some other representation of an erect penis" ). They are uncomfortable with the support Evangelical Christians give to Israel, even though that support, he suggests, is unconditional and genuine, and they persist in their liberalism, long after it has served to give them freedom and has been replaced, as he quotes writer Gertrude Himmelfarb, "by a new liberalism that is inhospitable to us both as individuals and as Jews." "Contemporary liberalism," claims Podhoretz, "demands that, unlike any other people, Jews justify the space they take up on earth."
In fact, suggests Podhoretz, the real religion of American Jews is no longer Judaism -- it is liberalism, and he has the statistics to prove it, with regard to declining synagogue attendance and other points of observance. Hence, as sociologist Steven M. Cohen has written, for most American Jews, being a "liberal on political and economic issues" is equivalent to being "a good Jew." Only among one group of American Jews, the Orthodox, does one find a stubborn attachment to traditional Jewish observance and, not surprisingly, they also happen to be the only group who, for the most part, are not slavishly attached to the Democratic Party. In fact, "on every one of the other issues involved in the culture war [e.g., gay rights, school prayer], the Orthodox opposed the politically correct liberal positions taken by most other American Jews -- and precisely because these positions conflict with Jewish law."
This is basically where "Why Are Jews Liberals?" finishes its argument, and in his summation, Podhoretz can only offer the hope -- though he admits that there is currently "no sign" this will happen "in the foreseeable future" -- that "the Jews of America will eventually break free of their political delusions, and that they will ... begin to recognize where their interests and their ideals both as Jews and as Americans truly lie."
Where is the vision?
Podhoretz's Judaism is a reactionary one, which means its ethical and legal choices are made on the basis of self-interest alone. He quotes Scripture to prove that "real" Judaism preaches, as they liked to say in the early years of post-Maoist China, that "it is good to be rich," and that if Judaism is interested in justice and equality, it is only with regard to relations between Jews. Therefore, he finds it incomprehensible that Jews could support affirmative action, or as he calls it, "quotas," now that they have broken down the barriers that used to keep them out of the Ivy League. What possible reason, after all, could Jews have for wanting to help other, underprivileged groups in American society to leapfrog their way out of poverty and ignorance? Of course, there are others, no less learned than Podhoretz or the scholars he quotes, who will argue that the Judaism of the Bible does has a vision of social justice and concern for the stranger, and even an agenda of -- and these are truly dirty words for Podhoretz -- tikkun olam.
So, is Podhoretz proposing that Jewish readers return to the Orthodoxy of their forefathers, since the modern Orthodox seem to be the only ones who really get what Judaism is about? Certainly not explicitly, nor does he give any indication that he himself has embraced Jewish observance. At the same time, he does not offer any alternate vision of what sort of society he would like America to be, nor where he expects, or hopes, Israel will be in another 50 years if it continues in its current path. His discussion of Israel, in any case, doesn't extend beyond security issues, so we don't know if he is concerned about the country's decaying educational system, the growing gap between rich and poor, the threat of insurrection among Israel's Arab citizens, or the influence of ultra-Orthodox parties on national politics.
He's certainly not worried about the environment: Al Gore is a "wild global-warming doomsayer." Nuclear proliferation does concern him, but mainly because he is sure that Iran is determined to carry out a second Holocaust -- and if I read between the lines properly, he believes the proper way to contend with that threat is to launch a preemptive attack on its nuclear facilities. Most Jewish women in America, he says, seem to think "that the absolute right to an abortion had been inscribed on the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai," which is to say it's the hysterical pro-choice camp, not the pro-life one, that has given this issue a disproportionate place on the public agenda.
As I said, I enjoyed "Why Are Jews Liberals?" especially when the author was looking at history, or even reviewing some of the battles he has waged or remarked on in Commentary against anti-Semitic writers Gore Vidal and Joseph Sobran -- the latter from the left, the other from the right. But if the book was meant to sum up the lessons of a long and active life in the fray and present a vision for the future, I have to conclude that its author suffers from nearsightedness.
David B. Green is editor of the Books supplement of Haaretz English Edition.
Haaretz Books Supplement, November 2009
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