The Magazine

All About Israel


Under Discussion: Why Are Jews Liberals? By Norman Podhoretz. Doubleday (2009), 337 pages.

Norman Podhoretz has provided us with a remarkable case study of monomania. The question that the title of his book poses needs to be expanded if the author's meaning is to emerge, and it is only then that one can grasp the author's fixation. What Podhoretz wishes to know is why American Jews vote in overwhelming numbers for leftwing Democrats, when in his view it goes against their interests to do so.

If this is what Podhoretz means, a further question at once arises. Why does he think that it is contrary to Jewish interests to support liberal Democrats? At first, the answer appears to be that it's detrimental to the economic welfare of Jews for them to act in this way:

Anyone who pays any attention at all to American politics is sure to know that most American Jews are liberals and is also very likely to recognize that there is something anomalous about the fact that they still are. Milton Himmelfarb ... put the anomaly best in a brilliant and deservedly famous epigram: "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans."

Here, the anomaly is that Jews support measures that help the poor at the expense of the rich, although they are themselves well off. It quickly transpires, though, that Podhoretz's main interest does not lie in economic issues.

What concerns him is Israel.

Because Jews favor a strong Israel, they ought to support Republicans, and in particular one faction within that party. The so-called religious Right holds firmly to the belief that God wants the Jews to control Israel and invariably supports militant Israeli policies. Since the rise of Christianity, Jews and the Church have frequently been at odds; but, Podhoretz maintains, American Jews today must overcome their well-justified past suspicions of the Church. Today, Christians allied with the Republican Right are the Jews' best friends.

Podhoretz puts it this way:

As for the attitude of most of our fellow Jews toward the religious Right, it seems to us at least as irrational as the way they vote. Most Jews, including most Jewish liberals, care deeply about the security of Israel, and there is no group in America (not even the Jews themselves) that is more passionate in its support of Israel than the conservative Christian community. Yet instead of forging a political alliance with this community, Jewish liberals look for ways to justify their refusal to do so.

Those who do not share Podhoretz's view of Israel may deplore his advice; but what makes his opinion an instance of monomania? The answer lies in the total grip that his support for a militant Israeli policy has on him. All is judged in its light. You may endorse opinions normally counted anti-Semitic. It is of no consequence to Podhoretz, so long as you embrace Israel.

What constitutes anti-Semitism is a difficult question, and too often any opinion that criticizes Jews is damned with that epithet. It is safe to say, though, that someone who believes that the world is run by a cabal of Jewish bankers would not normally be taken as very friendly to Jews. (I pass over the case of someone who believes in such a bankers' conspiracy and approves of it.)

Pat Robertson at one time accepted the theory just mentioned. Of him Podhoretz remarks:

I did not deny that Robertson had subscribed to certain crackpot ideas originating in the eighteenth century about a conspiracy between Jews and Freemasons to take over the world. Nor did I conceal the fact that one of his books relied on several sources that were unquestionably anti-Semitic. ... Nevertheless, I went on to argue, all this was trumped by Robertson's unwavering support for Israel.

Robertson evidently agreed with Byron,

Who hold the balance of the world? ...

Who make politics run glibber all?

The shade of Buonaparte's noble daring?

Jew Rothschild, and his fellow Christian Baring.

(Don Juan, Canto the Twelfth, V)

But Robertson was sound on the Mideast, so all is well.

Again, one would not expect writers for Commentary to embrace those who believe that Jewish revolutionaries conspired to impose the Bolshevik Revolution on Holy Mother Russia. Yet Podhoretz says,

In this regard. ... he [Robertson] resembled Aleksandr  Solzhenitsyn, who had been accused of anti-Semitism because  of the bitterness he expressed in some of his writings over the contribution made by revolutionaries of Jewish origin to bringing Communism to Russia. But almost everything Solzhenitsyn might believe about the role of Jews in the past seemed to me academic by comparison with his consistently fervent support for Israel...

The fact that many of the early Bolsheviks were Jewish, as opposed to the interpretation placed on this, admits of no doubt; but Podhoretz is in error when he says that Jewish radicals "do seem to have formed a disproportionately large percentage of the various factions on the left working to overthrow the Czarist regime, particularly the Bolsheviks..." Actually, Jewish dominance was even greater among the Mensheviks.

Not only does support for Israel outweigh all else, but Podhoretz cannot understand how anyone could question this position. Podhoretz presents himself as an American conservative, yet he urges unconditional support for another country as the criterion for political virtue. One can easily imagine how someone with this position might respond. He would claim that support for Israel best advances America's interests; were that identity in interest to end, he would no longer support Israel. Whether Podhoretz could successfully make this defense is, of course, another matter.

Podhoretz sees no need to make such a defense. To the contrary, even to raise the issue counts as anti-Semitism. Thus, because Pat Buchanan dared to wonder whether the Gulf War served Israel better than America, he counts as someone who hates Jews:

[T]he first such [anti-Semitic] statement he [Buchanan] had made was on the McLaughlin Group television show during the buildup for Desert Storm: "There are only two groups that are beating the drums. ... for war in Middle East -- the Israeli Defense Ministry and its amen corner in the United States."

In sum, if you ask why aiding Israel helps the United States, you count as anti-Semitic; if you believe that Jews run the world, but back Israel, you do not.

Yet another aspect of Podhoretz's obsession emerges from his remarks about Buchanan. He suggests that because the Republicans invited Buchanan to speak at their 1992 Convention, they alienated Jewish conservatives who might otherwise have found attractive the pro-Israeli stance of that party. Paul Gottfried has earlier dealt ably with the substance of that claim: it is hardly likely that the presence of Buchanan influenced many Jewish votes.

It is something else, though, on which I wish to focus. Podhoretz's brain so short-circuits when the thoughts "Jews, Israel" come to his attention, that an obvious question escapes him. Suppose that inviting Buchanan would, indeed, be likely to lose Jewish votes. Would not Republican strategists have to weigh against this the large number of votes that would be forfeited if Buchanan had not spoken? Buchanan, after all, had a considerable following within the party -- perhaps even slightly larger than the masses of rightwing Jews eager to enlist in a Buchanan-free Republican party.

We are unfortunately not yet done with Podhoretz's monomania. The Israeli government itself is insufficiently hawkish for him. In 2006, Israel launched an attack against Lebanon, in order to cope with rocket attacks launched by Hizbollah. The invasion did not go altogether successfully, and an inconclusive cease-fire resulted. Podhoretz attacks Israeli Prime Minister Olmert for not using the time before the cease-fire to launch yet more attacks: "In the end, the government of Ehud Olmert ... botched the chance to take advantage of that additional margin, and thereby left Israel with, at first, a demoralizing standoff."

It never occurs to Podhoretz to question his own standing to prescribe proper military strategy. He is trained as a literary critic -- the best thing in the book, to my mind, is a note on the possible Jewish background of Dostoevsky's Father Zossima -- and a thorough knowledge of the novels of Norman Mailer and similar matters hardly equips one to advise either the Israeli or American Defense Department. Of course, there is no reason that a literary intellectual could not undertake a rigorous course of training in international relations and military strategy. But there is no evidence, so far as I am aware, that Podhoretz has done so. But he sees no incongruity in telling us that in the 2008 Presidential campaign, he "served as a senior foreign-policy adviser" to Rudy Giuliani. Once more, when Israel occupies his field of vision, all else is occluded.

Even if I am right that Podhoretz is monomaniacal, the central question of his book remains to be considered: should American Jews, given their support for Israel, ally with the religious Right and the neoconservatives?

His argument that they should do so fails on several grounds. For one thing, what if pro-Israeli Jews disagree with Podhoretz on the merits of an extreme hawkish policy? And what if the interests of Israel are but one among several considerations that motivate them?

Two further questions arise: Even if support for Israel, in the manner favored by Podhoretz, did best advance Jewish interests, does it automatically follow that individuals who are Jews should act as Podhoretz suggests? Why must they put their interests as Jews above all else? Are not people members of many different interest groups? Further, why need they match their political views to their interests? Suppose that they vote according to what seems morally best to them, regardless of their interests?

Podhoretz seems aware that many Jews do just this, and he raises -- for once -- an appropriate concern about it. On what basis do liberal Jews believe that morality mandates their political views? Podhoretz suggests that many Jews, unable to believe their ancestral faith, have adopted a new religion.

To most American Jews, then, liberalism is not ... merely a necessary component of Jewishness; it is the very essence of being a Jew ... it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas, Tertullian-like, obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.

(The fact that Podhoretz misunderstands Tertullian is no more relevant to us here than his misattribution to the New Testament the assertion that money is the root of all evil). But if Podhoretz is right that the moral claims of liberalism ought not to be assumed without argument as if they were the dictates of revelation, he fails to see that exactly the same point applies to his own variety of Jewish nationalism.