Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Why Are Jews Liberals?

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.

Read the rest here.
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David N. Friedman

posted October 6, 2009 at 2:35 pm

Norman P is correct in his fundamental assertion and we should all quickly agree with it since this assertion represents almost 90% of the problem. Jews are liberals because they have abandoned Torah–if they reconnected to the Jewish tradition, they would quickly see the failings of liberalism. Any rule has exceptions but this rule is pretty solid. The fact that some guy with a kippah has an Obama sticker on his care ignores the fact that 1) he may soon remove that sticker and 2) he may prefer Obama over McCain for reasons having little to do with basic ideology or fundamental values.
But I support David K in his attempt to sort out the rest of the reasons why Jews are liberals–it is a great subject.
As of the compassionate tolerant liberal–this myth is quickly running its course.
Similarly, the intellectual power of liberalism is also running out of steam and for all the chit chat about the lack of intellectual firepower in the conservative world–this strength surely dwarfs all that exists in the liberal “think tanks”– such as they are. Liberals debate in the realm of emotion and not in the intellect, they rule by personal attacks and not by principle. The view of the liberal as a rude, crude, uninformed insult monger is proven on this blog alone.

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posted October 6, 2009 at 3:09 pm

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.”
Amazing, Norman finally gets it! Progressives and liberals can be found among every confession, tradition, and group. It’s not too hard to be a liberal when the opposition is bereft of ideas and marches to the beat of reactionaries. It’s never been easier to be a liberal in America, as now when the contrast is so stark.
Brooklyn to Manhattan? What a laugh! I guess that is why Manhattaners like Buchanan and an affirmative action beneficiary like Bill Kristol railed against a Brooklyn prodigy like Sotomayor. But we know it don’t we? Reactionaries are there only to preserve their privilege

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Jon R

posted October 6, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Conservatives are usually Republicans. The Republican Party is the Xian Party. That’s why we aren’t conservatives.

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posted October 6, 2009 at 7:14 pm

Jon R,
The republican Party isn’t conservative, it is reactionary. It seeks to preserve privilege, rank, and power, and co-opts the masses when required. And now the GOP has sunk even lower by openly backing religion baiters at places such as the service academies. wonder why David is silent about that one.

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David N. Friedman

posted October 6, 2009 at 9:41 pm

It is all too easy to defeat these comments. JonR associates Republicans with Christians and then asserts–ipso facto–Jews MUST be anti-Christian. This is a strongly emotional, dumb reflex. If one wants to simply be reflexive–why not argue where it makes sense–“secularists are liberals, liberals are Dems, Jews oppose secularists.” That fits fine and makes sense. Whereas secularists are very likely Dems, Christians can be either Dems or Republicans. As I type, Michael Moore is proclaiming his Christian bone fides–and yet–there is a clear difference. It is the Christian leftists who have a moral spin on the Bible which is opposed to Judaism; liberal Christians oppose Israel while conservative Christians support Israel.
The notion that conservatism is “reactionary” while the Dems are “progressive” is way off key and has nothing to do with the facts. From Obama, we have Ayers and Allinsky whose methodology and morality come straight from Karl Marx–the antique, defeated, corrupt, backwards philosophy which crushes people and their lives. By contrast, conservatives are inspired by the Jewish Bible–venerate the Founders who took their ideas from Locke and the Jewish Bible–the ideas which Jews have as their mission to change the world and PROGRESS humanity. The Dems despise these ideals so Jews need to respond by despising the Democrats.

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posted October 7, 2009 at 4:48 am

There are several reasons why non-Orthodox American Jews tend to affiliate with the Democratic party. Most of these reasons are historical (esp. the popularity of socialism among secular Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and have little relevance to current political issues. Nevertheless, these factors have engendered a cultural mindset that makes it very difficult for these Jews to look at the different political parties objectively. Knee-jerk reactions (“Republicans are reactionary!”, “Conservativism is Christian!”, “Liberals are compassionate!”) are common and are reinforced by the social circle (as well as by non-Orthodox religious leadership).
The Orthodox world, which has had to actively struggle against the rising tide of secularism for about two centuries, has a very different perspective on these issues. The Democratic party, which is unambiguously the party of American secularism, engenders the opposite reaction from the Orthodox world. Even issues that would seem to be religiously neutral (e.g. health care reform, environmentalism) elicit an instinctive rejection from much of the American Orthodox community. (Not universal, of course. I know some very Orthodox fellows – raised and educated in the Orthodox yeshiva world – who are Democratic voters. However, such fellows are very unusual and, in the cases that I am personally familiar with, I suspect their main motivation is simple contrarianism.)
Newcomers to Orthodoxy often remain with their old political attitudes for quite some time. The cultural mindset – “Republicans are EVIL, even when they make sense it is just deception, even when they appear to be doing the right thing, it is only a cover for their evil plans. Democrats are GOOD, even when they say foolish and wrong things, it is just political necessity; even when they do bad things, it is with the best of intentions.” – is too strong to simply shrug off. Thus, for example, when a Republican supports Israel, it can only be because of his plans for war-profiteering, to take over Arab oil, and because he wants to bring about the end-of-days and forcibly convert everyone to Christianity. It is NEVER because the Republican cares about the Jewish people and values Israel as an ally and a fellow democracy – even if he says it is. But when a Democrat acts against Israel, it is because he genuinely wants peace and loves all mankind. When a Democrat says, despite the apparent thrust of his actions and policies, that he is “deeply concerned” for Israel’s security, that statement can be taken at at its full face value, and there is no need to be concerned further.
It is only after some time, as they don’t constantly hear their political views being echoed back to them, and as their general way of thinking and ideological attitudes change, that the newly Orthodox begin to move away from liberalism (and some never do). In the case of most newly Orthodox Jews, their liberalism was not that deep to begin with (or they probably would not have become Orthodox in the first place) and is rooted almost entirely in their cultural mindset rather than conscious ideology. So, change the culture, and you eventually change the mindset.
(All of this is asides from the much deeper issue of why, generally speaking, secularists are attracted to certain kinds of political ideologies and religious believers are generally not attracted to those ideologies. Being that the bulk of non-Orthodox Jews are effectively secularists, even if they affiliate with a Jewish religious denomination, it is not surprising that they tend to be attracted to the same political ideologies that attract secularists generally.)

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David N. Friedman

posted October 7, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Lazar simply agrees with Norman P and the general line that Orthodox Jews are conservatives and non-Orthodox generally liberal–and the extent to which they are secular defines their liberalism. Great.
But merely forsaking Judaism is not enough of a reason to lead one to liberalism and surely we all know Jews who have stopped being observant and at least some are conservative politically. The problem that I see is goes beyond the problem of Jews off the derech (I mean to say Jews never on the derech!!!)–it is the natural but not inevitable path to push “other gods” that underlie the liberal template. Drop the shul, the davening, take off the tefillin, stop practicing–one problem. Embracing the “messianic” styles of Lenin, Marx, Obama, Che, etc–that is quite another.
Therefore, it is a two-step solution to fix the problem–1) stop the practice of running after false idols–“environmentalism”–statism, etc and then 2) find yourself back home in the Jewish tradition. If we could only remove Jews from the Dem Party hierarchy and made a 50-50 split between the two parties, the DemParty and liberalism would be wounded severely and perhaps permanently. The Jews give the Dems vitality. To break that would be a major breakthrough towards something truly progressive for the world.

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Jon R.

posted October 7, 2009 at 10:12 pm

David Friedman,
The more conservative Xians are in their faith, the more likely they are to hate Jews, i.e. Mel Gibson and other drek. Xians have been the natural enemies of the Jewish people for the past 1500 years. It is only in the past 100 years that liberal Xians have become friendly to the Jewish people – and mostly in the United States.
Lest you think I’m prejudiced – though I did lose almost my entire family in the Shoah – I married a woman who was raised Xian. Fortunately, she never took it very seriously, and had no problem with us raising our son Jewish. Her atheist mother has Jewish friends. Her devout father hated us with a passion.

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David N. Friedman

posted October 8, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Jon R–it is troubling that so few Jews seek to defend their commitment to liberalism in positive terms. Instead–they are liberals because someone else they dislike is not liberal. Does that make any sense?
If liberalism cannot be defended straight up as a positive ideology, why follow it? To say, we must because of the other guy….nope..bad thoughts.
Anecdotes are anecdotes. To be fair, conservative Christians are MUCH more likely to be philo-semitic than liberal ones. The Christians who know and study their Bibi see Jews much more positively than those in the liberal branches and this is why the liberal sects set up boycotts against Israel, etc. while Pat Robertson’s crowd visit and support Israel and like Jews.

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