Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberals

Norman Podhoretz new book Why Are Jews Liberals? tries to explain why American Jews continue to vote liberal Democratic when it is the Republican Party that best serves our economic interests and is most in line with our concerns for the safety and survival of Israel. This month’s issue of Commentary Magazine invites a number of writers to comment on the book in an attempt to broaden the conversation. Both the book and the commentaries are worth reading, and what follows is my reaction to both.

Here is the gist of Mr. Podhoretz’ argument: Since the loss of our political independence thousands of years ago Jews have lived at the mercy of others, taking refuge in our religion and those political leaders and states that allowed us to live with a minimal amount of abuse. We did best in those societies moving toward universal values and personal freedom. Consequently we have sided with liberalism as that philosophy that best defended us from tyranny. Today, the argument goes, Judaism as a religion is mostly abandoned by Jews, and conservatives are far more likely than liberals to have the best interests of Jews in mind, especially when it comes to our economic standing and the survival of the State of Israel, yet most Jews continue to vote liberal Democratic. In short, we Jews are the only American interest group that votes against its own self–interest. Why?

Rabbi David Wolpe, one of the writers in Commentary, answers this question succinctly: Jews vote their self–conception rather than their self–interest. In other words, we still identify with the poor, the powerless, and the disenfranchised despite the fact that we are by and large wealthy, powerful, and claim a nuclear–armed homeland.

As Rabbi Wolpe says, “I suspect that until conservatism convinces most Jews that they have sympathy and a practical program for those who are real or putative outsiders, it will remain, among Jews at least, distinctly the minority movement.”

Michael Medved adds another element to the discussion I found valuable. According to Mr. Medved the reason why Jews don’t vote Republican is that at the core of American Jewish identity is a rejection of Christianity, especially the type of Christianity most readily associated with today’s Republican Party.

According to Medved, 75% of American Jews have never visited Israel, and most shun synagogue affiliation, let alone attendance. The only thing Jews have in common is that they aren’t Christian. And this is reflected in our voting patterns: We don’t vote for pro–Israel candidates, we vote against pro–Christian ones.

This is certainly understandable. While it is true that conservative Christian positions on abortion, homosexuality, and same–sex marriage are far closer to Torah-values than those positions held by liberals, it is also true that many of these same conservative Christians look forward to the day when all but 144,000 Jews are slaughtered in preparation for the return of the Prince of Peace. And even these few remaining Jews become Christians. So if we Jews have to choose between two evils, we choose the one that seems to most leave us and our Jewish identity alone.

Conservative columnist William Kristol comes to the following conclusion in his essay, “I’m going to stop worrying about American Jews. They’re not worth the headache. Either they’ll come to their sense or they won’t, and there’s not much I (or anyone else, I suspect) can do about it. So instead of focusing on the mishegas [craziness] of the American Jewish community, why not focus on the glories of Judaism?”

Mr. Kristol urges us to focus on Jewish education, Hebrew literacy, religious practice, examples of Jewish greatness, and the centrality of Israel.

Amen to that Reb William! But how is that different from what local synagogues and national Jewish organizations have been pushing for decades to no effect? Most American Jews don’t care about their history, their heroes, their religion, their homeland, or Hebrew. Yes we like to talk about our genius, but when we do we are more apt to speak about Woody Allen and Jon Stewart than Micah, Maimonides, or Martin Buber. So if we are going to give up on Jewish politics, we might as well give up on the rest of the agenda as well.

So where does this leave us? Honestly, I have no idea. There are lots of experiments in Jewish renewal going on in this country, and maybe some of them will catch on. And the fact that Jews aren’t lining up with what appears to me to be an ever more rightist and Christian Apocalyptic brand of Republicanism is not a sign of concern for me. But is there hope for something more creative than a change of sides? Your guess is as good as mine.

What I got from reading Podhoretz and Company is this: most American Jews are self-professed outsiders whose religion is justice as understood by the most liberal elements of western society, and we are willing to risk anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism if it means we can help bring true justice to the world. There may be something self-defeating in all of this, but also something heroic as well.

Bottom line for me is this: It seems that the conservatives Jews focus on the first half of Hillel’s famous teaching, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” While liberal Jews focus on the second half, “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”

What we need is a political stance that unites both sides of Hillel’s equation. And if not now, when?


Jim Wells said...

It is my opinion that for me and most of my fellow Jews there is sufficient material and career success that supporting the right is not necessary from the standpoint of self interest, while lining up with the side supporting justice for all appeals to our highest ideals. Current-day Republicans, as I see them, are not just business-friendly but are the same crowd that were opposed to civil rights just a few years ago if not still. If that crowd got enough power, I could see a rise in antisemitism which would reject even their own most fervent Jewish supporters, especially if a scapegoat for economic hardship seemed needed by the power elite.

Barry said...

I disagree that conservative Christians are closer to Torah values on abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage than liberals. Abortion is allowed in Judaism. We don't go by straight-forward readings of Torah anyway- no one stones their disobedient child, for instance. Most Jews today don't follow even the top 10: keeping Sabbath, honoring parents and prohibiting adultery. And I just attended a mariachi- themed bar mitzvah with pork and shrimp. Gay-marriage is only an issue because Republicans know they can whip up the proles with it. Most Jews recognize this as a Nazi-like tactic and shun them. "Torah values" is just Republican way to attract Jews. If they really believed in Torah values they would feed the poor , demand rights for workers, and make sure everyone has health-care. That'll happen.

Rabbi Rami said...

Thanks for the quick reactions. Just a couple of comments:

Jim comments on the Republican Parties resistance to civil rights (as well as Social Security, Medicare, etc) is on target. Jews are usually in favor of such things, and we benefit from such things. This is the hole in the Commentary argument about Jews voting conservative. The authors have conveniently avoided any mention of racism, Jim Crow, and anti-Semitism among certain elements of the Conservative Movement. Take MSNBC's Pat Buchanan, for example. He was (is?) terribly anti-Israel and is now a stalwart of Conservatism.

And Barry also raises good points. While it is true that liberal Jews read Torah to reflect liberal values (I know I do), it is also true that, if we are honest, no where in the past thousands of years have Jews supported same-sex marriage or abortion except to save the life of the mother.

As for a bar mitzvah with pork and shrimp, I have to wonder what mitzvah this bar is going to uphold? But that is what some of the commentators were saying, Judaism is dying if not dead for most Jews.

But I was shocked to learn that Jews don't stone wayward sons. I hope my son doesn't read this.

Unknown said...

American Jews tend to be educated pragmatists. We seek the truth and justice for all, at all costs (one reason why the Kennedy's always had Jewish support). We have a deep (sometimes hidden) sense of identity and community, even when we are reluctant to admit it. Because of thousands of years of persecution, we have a keen sense for anti-semitism, and other forms of racism. Therefore, we tend to vote for the candidates that reflect those "core" human values. Since Richard Nixon exploited the cultural wars for his own benefit, the Republican Party no longer represents those values. The Democrats may not be perfect, but, they're all we have. Barack Obama is certainly a step in the right direction, in terms of honoring "true" Judeo-Christian ideals, as well as, what I consider to be "real" American values; ie., Truth, Honesty, and Integrity.


Unknown said...

Shalom Rami,

Thank you for this. It prompted me to share my answer to the Jews/liberal question. It is on my blog and I would welcome comments and corrections.


Shanah tovah to all!