Many have commented on the apparent disconnect between the leftist political tilt of Jews in the USA and the apparent disdain of the left for Israel and concern about anti-Semitism worldwide. Venerable author and editor Norman Podhoretz has written a book titled Why Are Jews Liberals? In a symposium of sorts at Commentary, several notable American Jews have added their comments, and while the whole thing is well worth reading, some of the comments were simply very arresting to me. The introduction to the symposium notes 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.
There are many interesting comments at the link above, but this, from Michael Medved, really got my attention.
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.
I found this simply a stunning assertion. My first impulse was to say that it could not be so simple. But I have been unable to marshal any serious argument to it. Jews don’t like the Right because the Right is likely to be Christian, and Jews cannot agree with Christians about anything that happened after the Maccabees, and not even about everything before that. Add to that the historic persecution of Jews by Christians (though the USA has been by far the best place for Jews to live since the exile), and it may be simply a case of Jews failing to see who their true allies are.
And then there is this, from Jeff Jacoby:
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.
This is a pretty dramatic statement. It’s bound to be controversial that Jews are acting, again, like they did in the Old Testament, when they got in so much trouble from failure to obey God.
I think I might agree, though.