God Only Knows

By Jeremy Rozansky

“They are the trustees of tradition, and the conservators of the religious element. They are a living and the most striking evidence of the falsity of that pernicious doctrine of modern times, the natural equality of man… Thus it will be seen that all the tendencies of the Jewish race are conservative. Their bias is to religion, property, and natural aristocracy.” – Benjamin Disraeli, 1852


There is a common Jewish adage that if you take any two Jews you will find three opinions. What the adage fails to mention is that, if you’re asking about politics, you very easily could get the same opinion from not just two Jews but most of any congregation. Jews are, by-and-large, liberals. Democratic presidential candidates have accrued, on average, 75% of the Jewish vote since Al Smith lost to Herbert Hoover in 1928. Barack Obama enjoyed 78% with only black voters giving him a greater proportion. The Jewish propensity for liberalism is known to the student of politics, the student of American Judaism, and especially to the Jewish conservative.

            Quarrelsome for the sake of survival, Norman Podhoretz is all three. An original neoconservative[1], Podhoretz edited Commentary Magazine under the auspices of the American Jewish Committee for decades. Podhoretz, as he tells us, dealt often with the tension between Commentary’s heterodox neoconservatism and the default liberalism of a mainstream Jewish organization. For him, the question “Why are Jews liberals?” calls up autobiography and history, political science and theology, dumbfoundedness and perspicuity. Why Are Jew Liberals? has each in spurts: a Jewish-political history, a contemporary political survey, narratives of times on the frontlines, arguments and explanations fill the gaps. Podhoretz provides sharp remarks that scratch at the heart of the matter, bringing the question to new depths. He asks a big question so, for his answer to be comprehensive, he will need to cover all fronts, including why the other theories are wrong. As an introduction to the question, the book succeeds, providing several vistas for further inquiry. Read as a comprehensive answer, Why Are Jews Liberals? is incomplete and often finds itself distracted by a related question, “Why should Jews not be liberals?”

            Podhoretz first provides a short survey of Jewish political history. History offers Podhoretz the basic answer to why Jews are liberals—since they are not liberals by theology (as Podhoretz will later address) they are liberals by virtue of historical circumstance. The story of Jewish liberalism begins with the formation of the Europe they would come to live (and become liberals) under, namely, the rise of Christianity. As Podhoretz tells it, by the end of the Middle Ages Jews knew the worst enemy they had was Christianity which, Protestant, Orthodox, and Catholic, had often wedded itself to anti-Semitism.

            From this we reach the first “puzzle.” Where, previously, the “kindest” monarchs to the Jews had been those who needed their economic contribution, with the Enlightenment and the invention of religious tolerance, new, enlightened monarchs like Joseph II were kinder than any previous. It makes sense then that the forces of Enlightenment and their seeming heirs in the 19th Century, the liberals, would draw the political support of European Jews. Yet, and Podhoretz emphasizes this, men like Voltaire and other opponents of Christianity during the Enlightenment were often Anti-Semites themselves. Voltaire called Jews, “the most detestable [nation] ever to have sullied the earth” and saw Judaism as a more backward Christianity. And still Voltaire and men like him set off the trend that improved the condition of European Jews. The first puzzle of how Jews became liberals is how they needed to reconcile the fact that those who protected them did not admire or support the essence of traditional Jewish life.

Podhoretz goes on to point out that during the Age of Faith Jews could sometimes escape persecution by conversion to Christianity, in the Age of Reason Jews could escape persecution by converting to the Religion of Reason. The latter being a more straightforward transformation. This transitions him into a discussion of the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment and Emancipation, the seed of Jewish assimilationism and the beginning of liberal Jewish theology. He, however, does not enumerate its causes other than to draw a questionable line of “Jewish rationalism” from Maimonides to the inspiration of the Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn had two primary concerns: obtaining greater recognition and rights for the German Jew and modernizing Judaism through a cultural and philosophical synthesis of Judaism and the liberal Enlightenment. He does this by making Judaism essentially voluntary, a choice among religions in a liberal society. His motivation was both practical and theoretical: to elevate the position of the Jew in the era in which Jewish entry into any city was taxed like cattle and to transfer persuasive secular ideas to a Jewish audience. Podhoretz partially accounts for the former and ignores the latter. More problematic, he never mentions Baruch Spinoza, who may be considered the first Jewish liberal.

            The story continues with the oft nationalist anti-Semitism of the European Right in the 19th Century. Just as the secularists were more pleasant than the Church during the Enlightenment, the liberals were more pleasant than the rightists for the 18th and 19th Century Jew. Suddenly, however, the left became less hospitable. Men like Fourier, Proudhon, and Marx were not just prone to vicious anti-Semitism but, for Marx, it was the center of his argument about liberal society—liberal society was too Jewish, i.e. too self-interested. But the rising number of Jewish socialists ignored, were indifferent to, or diminished the importance of Marx’s anti-Semitism.

            It is worthwhile to reflect upon at the two transitions so described. In the first, Jews join the liberal fray because continental liberals offered them greater political status and new opportunities that the old regime did not. The attraction of many Jews to radical liberalism and socialism, however, is not easily explained. Considering how Jews make up a disproportionate portion of the modern radical Left, this is a vital turn to understand. Podhoretz, unfortunately, does not give a theory for the attraction of Jews to Marxism.

            The narrative moves from Europe to America for most of the final three quarters of the book. Jews found opportunities unlike any others in America, but also assimilated a greater whole than in liberalizing Europe. Reform Judaism, an especially American phenomenon, as Podhoretz summarizes, “decreed [in 1885’s Pittsburgh Platform] that all traditionally binding beliefs and practices that separated or distinguished Jews from the surrounding society were to be abandoned.” In more fair terms, Reform Judaism followed Mendelssohn and conceived of Judaism as a religion with universalistic reach and not a particular peoplehood. In this way, Jews adapted the norms of secular society while enunciating an ethical message rooted in traditional views insofar as traditional views remained in the zeitgeist. Podhoretz seems to think that the reason for the Jewish attachment to assimilation was defense against anti-Semitism. But why didn’t Jews fully secularize? Why did they remain Jews, albeit Reform Jews? Would the gentiles’ anti-Semitism not let them? Reform Judaism sprouted from a reasonable desire to culturally assimilate (motivated, in part, by anti-Semitism) and from the legacy of Haskalah rationalism, among other things. Had Podhoretz carried these strains through to their eventual conclusion (the modern, liberal Jew) he would better trace the role of ideology in making Jews liberals.

            In America, Podhoretz tells us, recent immigrant Jews often found themselves as unskilled, garment workers. Thus, a Jewish labor movement with radical European roots gained relevance. Podhoretz goes on to chart a process by which the language of class warfare was slowly undermined by the necessity of collective bargaining. As Jewish political action became more and more practically-minded, the Marxism dissolved into progressivism which dissolved into contemporary liberalism. The Jewish median moved away from socialism and embraced a sort of progressivism whose banner would be taken by the 20th Century’s Democratic Party and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

            The greatest predictor of voting behavior of any individual is the voting behavior of his or her parents. Just as blacks became Democrats with Kennedy, Jews became Democrats with FDR (and Al Smith) and have been ever since. While Jewish radicalism is left unexplained, the position of the Jew during the Depression as marginalized, urban, and working class made him ripe for the New Deal Coalition, not to mention that the Republican Party at the time had its share of isolationists, German sympathizers, and opponents of labor. The question is now: why have Jews stayed liberals?

            Within two decades of the New Deal Coalition’s formation, Jews had predominantly left the working class. Moreover, there was a new issue of American politics of particular Jewish importance: the nascent state of Israel. The remainder of Podhoretz’s narrative (half-of-it) is told in the first person. He is the radical Jew who split from his co-religionists publicly and dramatically, but this second half of the book is not full of score-settling. Rather, Podhoretz does a commendable job in describing the mutual bewilderment of the Jewish conservative and the Jewish liberal. In one instance, Podhoretz mentions a speech he gave to the American Jewish Committee (whose umbrella Podhoretz’s magazine fell under) in which he defended his conservatism. The AJC reaction to anything remotely right-wing was visceral and it was combined with paranoia about right-wing anti-Semitism.

            Podhoretz quickly returns to his earlier pattern of describing why Jews should not be liberals. He shows the Democratic Party’s shift from the party of Truman and Kennedy to the party of McGovern and Carter. The expansion of Jewish wealth, the proliferation of anti-Semitism on the left (especially among black radicals) and the mainstream left’s blindness to it, affirmative action, and the liberal penchant for moral equivalence in the Israeli-Arab conflict all would seem to move the self-interested Jewish voter to the right. On social issues especially, Jews are entrenchedly left-wing. Abortion-rights are heavily favored by Jews, with some polls showing nearly 90% support. Similarly, school prayer, censorship of pornography, and public displays of religion are opposed by dramatic majorities of Jews. Jews support gay rights at an 85% rate while Non-Jewish whites indicate 57% of support. Indeed, the only issue on which Jews are more conservative than Non-Jewish whites is affirmative action.

The Republican Party also hurt itself in any attempt to get a greater section of the Jewish vote by repeating some of Carter’s mistakes on Israel in the Reagan and Bush Sr. years. In fact, Reagan’s 1980 victory over Carter is the only time Jews have ever split for a Republican. Podhoretz believes Carter’s policy toward Israel is the reason for the ephemeral moment of Jewish conservatism. Yet, less than 35% of American Jews have visited Israel and American Jews’ interest in Israel appears to be diminishing. Moreover, Evangelical Christians are more likely to cite Israel as a voting concern than Jews are. Carter’s ineptitude in the Near East, policy toward Israel, and cultivation of domestic malaise certainly hurt him with Jews, as with all voters. What should not go unnoticed, however, is that Carter was never the liberal-of-choice for the Jews. He was an evangelical and wore his faith on his sleeve. Jews did not give up on liberalism in 1980; the just gave up on Carter. In an opposite circumstance, Rudy Giuliani received a substantial chunk of the Jewish vote in his mayoral elections. Giuliani, largely secular and socially permissive, distinctly New York in tone and approach, was the type of Republican Jews could find themselves supporting. Jews are liberals for whom social issues are paramount and cultural perceptions are critical. Podhoretz places too much emphasis on Israel as a political motivator when both study and anecdote show Jewish voting centrally concerned with social issues.

As the chapter titles state, Podhoretz leads the reader from “How did the Jews become liberals?” to “Why are the Jews still liberals?” to answer “Why are Jews liberals?” They became liberals at some point and for some reason and they stay liberals for some reason. This is, first of all, assumes that Jews became liberals at some point; that to be a Jew is not necessarily to be a liberal. Podhoretz deflects the suggestion that Jewish liberalism emanates from Jewish traditions and texts by saying, first, it would be absurd to think the Torah endorses specific policies when it commands individuals to care for the downtrodden and, second, if Jewish traditions and texts were the source of Jewish liberalism then one would expect the Orthodox to be the most liberal, which they are not. I will deal with the latter first. Yes, the Orthodox are more politically conservative than any other segment of American Jews. However, given how steeped in traditionalism their practice of Judaism is, one would expect more than the estimated 51% of Orthodox who voted for Bush in 2004 to vote Republican. The fact that the Orthodox have such a proportion of liberals demonstrates how down-the-line Jewish liberalism is.

Podhoretz makes a good, albeit general case that Jewish liberalism is not the result of Jewish ethical traditions. However, it is an argument too often used and too often relied on to justify the quick treatment he gives it. While he is right to say the Torah is silent on many specific policies, the Torah and other texts touch on both political principles and specifics that can be interpreted and applied. He needed to address specific points to make his case more compelling. I took three contemporary issues and saw how Reform Judaism’s lobbying organization (the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism) formulates an opinion from Jewish sources: abortion, affirmative action, and “economic justice.” I found that the Religious Action Center (RAC) often reads in liberal prerogatives to subtle and complex texts.

The Jewish view on abortion is highly idiosyncratic. If the mother’s life is in danger she must have the abortion preformed (Mishnah Ohaloth 7:6). Moreover, when one causes a miscarriage it is not as if they have killed another but it is also not without penalty. The fetus is in an in-between stage according to this view—it is not a full life but it is not worthless either. We also see the fetus referred to as a “human within a human” (Sanhedrin 57b) and the Medieval commentator, Rashi’s view that the child becomes a human upon birth. The RAC, however, interprets the mother’s life being in danger in the above passage as, “if the mental health, sanity, or self-esteem of the woman is at risk.” They expand the criteria to a subjective one. It is fair to say that the believing Jew should support access to abortions in some cases but to leave the decision entirely up to the mother does not have textual grounds. The text cited mandates the abortion when her life is in danger; it never leaves the decision to the mother. This is not the first self-fulfilling reading.

On affirmative action, the RAC cites the fact that all men are created in God’s image as evidence of a fundamental equality. They go on to quote the Babylonian Talmud without a trace of irony, “If one sees a great crowd, one should thank God for not having made them all of one mind. For just as each person’s face is different from another, so is each person’s mind different from any other mind.” (Berakhot 58a) Yet, this praise of diversity specifically refers to intellectual diversity, not racial diversity. It is probably better read as an argument against affirmative action as it affirms the primacy of ideas and character, not race.

With regard to a concept termed “Economic Justice,” the RAC cites biblical commandments to leave open the corners of one’s field, be generous, and champion the needy. As Podhoretz says, it would be absurd to claim that minimum wage laws are somehow spoken for here. The injunctions of individual generosity can be understood as the catalysts of mediating structures such as churches, families, and volunteer organizations that more successfully diminish poverty. It neither prohibits nor commands government anti-poverty efforts. Moreover, what we have learned about moral hazards and welfare links well with Maimonides’ description of the highest form of charity as helping an individual become self-sufficient. In line with this, in 1603, the Jewish Council of Padua mandated that anyone receiving welfare must engage in some sort of labor. It should not be lost here that Judaism’s view of wealth does not contain the moral reprobation of certain Christian doctrines (“it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”). The truly wealthy man, according to the Mishnaic period book of Jewish Ethics, Pirke Avot, is he who is happiest with his wealth. Judaism is not anti-capitalist, nor does it obviously come down on the side of entitlement expansion.

It is not unexpected that Jews would read the texts in light of what they are already disposed to think, the real question is why they are disposed this way to begin with. Podhoretz has given his summary of the history and has dismissed the argument of Jewish liberalism arising from Jewish traditions—now he must tell us why Jews are liberals. His answer is strange: attachment to Marxism became attachment to social democracy which became attachment to liberalism through constant confrontation with the need to act practically. This genealogy of the American left has some truth to it, but it leaves open the question of why Jews were attracted to Marxism in the first place and how many actually were. Reform Judaism began before Marx’s writings and generally considers itself an heir to the rationalist strain of Spinoza and Mendelssohn. Moreover, how does Marx figure into the relative liberalism of the Orthodox? Marx may have been adopted by a group of elite Jews of German descent, but not in the wide swaths that would account for the liberalism of the American Jew.

Podhoretz goes on to claim that this attachment to liberalism has become a religion in its own right, a “Torah of Liberalism” to which Jews attend with Tertullian faith. For a claim so bold and seemingly excessive, he is onto something. Within the liberal movements one can often find prayers like Yom Kippur’s confessional, Al-Chet customized for the transgressions du jour: carbon footprints, classism, and Israel. For many what resonates about Judaism is a notion of tikkun olam (repairing the world) which, despite its original meanings, has taken on the definition of the pursuit of “social justice.” Tikkun olam certainly is a part of the whole of a well-lived Jewish life, the problem is when it dominates and excludes all that Judaism can inspire, teach, and aid in. Worse still, tikkun olam is too often treated as a call to political activism, not helping one’s neighbor. When Leviticus says “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” it is intentionally eschewing abstract love for all mankind in favor of a practicable method for human goodness. The message is clear, activism is less than action. For some, liberalism has exceeded Judaism and, for others, Judaism has been infused with liberalism. This defining Judaism down has caused a void in the Jewish soul—we can only hope the Jewish soul continues its self-correcting ways.

While Podhoretz touches on a serious problem of contemporary Judaism, he still has not answered his question. His tendency to explain why Jews should not be liberals carries forward his feelings of dumbfoundedness. It is a perplexing thing to the Jewish conservative why his co-religionists are so attached to this ideology. The book suffers, though, without an answer to the question asked in the title.

The greatest contribution of Podhoretz in this work is the fleshing out of certain aspects of the development of Jewish liberalism. Jewish suspicion of Christianity, Haskalah rationalism, Reform Judaism, the attraction of Jews to Marxism, Jewish labor interests, the New Deal Coalition, support for Israel, and the vigor with which Jews vote liberal on social issues all play a role in this development.

My own conclusion is that Jewish liberalism is mainly the legacy of emancipation. Jews have been taught during their time in Europe to fear the Church and the 19th Century right. Those who provided them opportunities were of the early left. Marxism probably appealed to a segment of Jews who found the steady liberalization of central Europe inadequately dramatic (similar to how Marxism found its supporters among blacks in the 20th Century). By the period of immigration to America, there was a Jewish population predisposed to fear Christian authority with pockets of Marxist radicals. Labor and the New Deal Coalition soon came into play, as Jews, still acting with perceived self-interest began their longtime membership in the modern Democratic Party. It should not be forgotten that within forty years Jews moved from labor activism to mainstream politics—they became more conservative. Today Jews are largely mainstream Democrats with a few hardcore leftists who make up a disproportionate amount of Jewish intellectual life. The mainstream Democratic Party is not as counter to Jewish interests as Podhoretz might suggest. Compared to most other Diaspora nations, the American left-of-center party is pro-Israel. This fact may partially explain why Jews are more on the left in America than in any other Diaspora nation. Similarly, Jewish attitudes on social issues emanate from feelings about Christian authority rooted in life under the First Estate. It also explains why Jews supported Giuliani but opposed Carter. When Jews sense traces of Christian authority or continental conservatism, they proceed cautiously.

Yet, Jews should not be so liberal. American conservatism is not continental conservatism; it, too, is a legacy of the Enlightenment. Conservatives seek to conserve much of the Anglo-American classical liberalism against the Rousseuian and Hegelian trends that have produced modern liberals. Conservatives understand the separation of Church and State and the coexistent necessity of religious life to social stability and moral prosperity. American conservatism is not the conservation of the Christian Ancien Regime. Thus American conservatism has been the product of many Jews: Milton Friedman, Will Herberg, Frank Meyer, Ralph de Toledano, Frank Chodhorov, Harry Jaffa, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Charles Krauthammer, and others.

The data from 2008 suggests the slow movement of Jews toward conservatism is possible. Jewish men under the age of thirty voted nearly identical to Non-Jewish men under the age of thirty. For those who wind up answering “Why are Jews Liberals?” with dumbfoundedness: hope, it appears, is on the way.

[1]. The term neoconservative is, unfortunately, used mostly as an epithet today for the Jewish hawks certain fringe and not-so-fringe political paranoids believe to have orchestrated defense policy under George W. Bush. It is better used as the description and self-description of a political movement conservatives who gradually broke ranks with their fellow New York Intellectuals and Alcove-2 Trotskyites after witnessing the left’s excesses. They have been and are largely Jewish with many excellent gentile exceptions.