I review Norman Podhoretz provocative and engaging new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, in the current issue of National Review. (By subscription only for the moment but you can read the review on the Discovery Institute website.) In a nutshell, my answer to the question posed by the book is this:
Podhoretz too quickly dismisses the most popular explanation, favored by Jewish liberals themselves, that there is an essential Jewish quality — compassion — to which liberalism, or least liberal rhetoric, speaks in a way conservatism doesn’t. This isn’t necessarily to say Jews are more compassionate, but rather that we think of ourselves that way. The Talmud goes so far as to say if you meet someone claiming to be a Jew who shows no mercy to the needy, you should consider his lineage suspect: “Be certain he is not a descendant of our forefather Abraham” (Beitzah 32b). Maimonides codifies the observation as a matter of Jewish law.? ?
But the contributing factor that Podhoretz leaves out entirely, and I find this surprising from the author of a book with the title Making It, is the social prestige conferred by one political stance as compared to the other. “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan — or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan,” goes the memorable and very Jewish opening sentence in Podhoretz’s memoir.
You would have a hard time finding a people more finely attuned to degrees of prestige. Once, religious scholarship was the highest merit among us. Now, it’s a certain melding of academic and material accomplishment that really impresses. And boy, does it impress. ? ?
On just these terms, there can be no question that of the two poles in American politics, one is a prestige accoutrement. Call it the McGovern Factor. In the circles in which Jews overwhelmingly travel, liberalism is a sign of having made it intellectually and socially, where conservatism smells of everything backward and retrograde. I speak of perception, of course, not reality. ??
An Obama bumper sticker, whether in Hebrew or in English, says “I’m smart. I’m enlightened.” A McCain-Palin bumper sticker, like the one I’ve still got on my car, says, “I’m not.” For many Jews, I regret having to report, that makes all the difference.