Under Discussion: Why Are Jews Liberals? By Norman Podhoretz. Doubleday (2009), 337 pages.
Norman Podhoretz is something of an anomaly. His entire life has been centered around his Jewishness, but he sees himself as an outsider in the mainstream Jewish community. He shares a great many of the attitudes typical of that community, but draws different conclusions about how to navigate the contemporary American political landscape in a way that's "good for the Jews."
One area where Podhoretz is absolutely mainstream among American Jews is his sense of history. The first half of his recent book, Why Are Jews Liberal? lays out his version of the "lachrymose" theory of Jewish history in Europe and America in which the Diaspora has been one long vale of tears since the beginnings of Christianity. Whether or not this view of history is correct, the important point is that this is how the great majority of Diaspora Jews see themselves and their history. (My view is that many outbreaks of anti-Jewish feelings result from our evolved ingroup/outgroup psychology.)
This lachrymose view has major implications for understanding contemporary Jewish political behavior in the Diaspora. It proposes that, beginning with an unfortunate theological belief (that Jews killed God), Jews have been passive, innocent victims of marauding non-Jews.
The lesson that Jews learned from the Middle Ages carries down to today:
[The Jews] emerged from the Middle Ages knowing for a certainty that -- individual exceptions duly noted -- the worst enemy they had in the world was Christianity: the churches in which it was embodied -- whether Roman Catholic or Russian Orthodox or Protestant -- and the people who prayed in and were shaped by them. It was a knowledge that Jewish experience in the ages to come would do very little, if indeed anything at all, to help future generations to forget.
Jews were thus wary and mistrustful (at the very least) of all manifestations of Christianity. But the demise of Christianity as the central intellectual paradigm of Europe didn't improve things for Jews. During the Enlightenment, anti-Jewish ideologies smoothly morphed into non-theological views in which Judaism was a superstitious relic that prevented Jews from shedding their attachment to their people -- in Podhoretz's words, "giving up their sense of themselves as a people whose members were bound together across national boundaries wherever they might live."
The Enlightenment implied that Jews should accept the atomized individualism implied by the modern nation state. As Count Clermont-Tonnere expressed it in addressing the French National Assembly in 1789, "The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals. ... The existence of a nation within a nation is unacceptable to our country."
In the 19th century, Jews began to be seen by their enemies as an economically successful alien race intent on subverting national cultures wherever they lived. Podhoretz is squarely within the Jewish intellectual mainstream in his attack on the idea that Jews and non-Jews are biologically different and in competition -- "the new racist rationale [that] manifested itself in the portrayal of a war between Aryans and Semites as the central drama of history." For example, Ivan Aksakov, a leader of Slavophiles in Russia, viewed Jews as a competitive threat intent on destroying Christianity:
The Western European Christian world will be faced in the future, in one form or another, with a life-and-death struggle with Jewry, which is striving to replace the universal Christian ideal by another, Semitic ideal, also universal, but negative and anti-Christian.
Even in the United States -- the "golden land" as seen by Jewish immigrants -- there was exclusion and antipathy from "the upper echelons of the WASP patriciate." In America, Jews were excluded by WASP elites, and Christian forms of anti-Semitism (e.g., Father Coughlin) remained strong through the 1930s. Isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh also tended to see Jews as an interest group aiming at getting America involved in war with Germany. (Podhoretz refers to Lindbergh's famous speech as "notorious.")
Jews concluded, as they had ever since the political Left and Right came to be defined, that their enemies were on the right. But the main lesson Podhoretz draws is that over the centuries, Western intellectuals produced a variety of Christian and non-Christian anti-Jewish ideologies, each with the same result: Irrational hatred toward Jews. So it's not just Christianity, but European civilization itself that is the problem for Jews.
And, although Podhoretz doesn't explicitly make this move, it's a very short jump from blaming the culture created and sustained by Europeans to the idea that Europeans as a people or group of peoples are the problem. Ultimately, this implicit sense that Europeans themselves are the problem is the crux of the issue.
Podhoretz generally underplays the reality that Jews tended to make alliances with elites wherever they lived. The main exception to this is an important one: The situation of Jews in Russia from around 1880 to the Bolshevik Revolution. But even here, Podhoretz fails to note that most Jews were better off than most Russians, and he fails to acknowledge legitimate, often- stated concerns by the authorities to protect the Russian farmers from Jewish domination of the rural economy and to protect the nascent Russian middle classes from Jewish competition. Most importantly, he fails to discuss the very large rate of natural increase among fundamentalist Jews in Eastern Europe in a situation where they had overshot their traditional economic niches. The result was widespread poverty among Jews and attraction to messianic ideologies of Zionism and, most importantly for the history of the West, Marxism.
As Podhoretz notes, Jews, even when wealthy and powerful, had always been attracted to the Left much more than their non-Jewish counterparts. But the result of this Jewish population explosion and widespread Jewish poverty in Eastern Europe was that the tradition of Jewish opposition to national cultures -- well known and commented on at least by the latter part of the 19th century -- was now embedded in an ideology of Marxist revolution -- often combined with Zionism. Podhoretz's background places him firmly within these two most important strands of 20th-century Jewish intellectual life.
These Marxist radicals emigrated in droves to the United States and other Western countries. In a few short decades, this politically radical Jewish sub-culture became not only the dominant political culture among American Jews, it became a major force on the intellectual and political left generally. In this Jewish subculture, being merely a socialist was considered "right wing." The very strong Jewish identity of these Jewish leftists -- Podhoretz among them -- reminds us once again that a strong Jewish identity is and was entirely compatible with an ideology of Marxist universalism.
Podhoretz grew up in this mindset and, by his account, he remained a radical until the late 1960s. His central intellectual question is why Jews remained on the left despite what he sees as changes in what's good for the Jews.
Podhoretz sees being on the left as good for the Jews for most of their history in America. In the early 20th century, the enemies of Jews were the "conservative upholders of the old order" -- WASPs who prattled on about the importance of retaining ethnic homogeneity during the era of WASP ethnic defense that culminated in the 1924 immigration law. F. Prescott Hall, founder of the Immigration Restriction League, wrote, "It must be remembered ... that ... our institutions were established by a homogeneous community, consisting of the best elements of population selected under the circumstances under which they came to the New World." And some of the enemies of the Jews were concerned with Jewish competition -- "the Hebrew conquest of New York," as Henry James phrased it.
Is the Left good for the Jews?
In presenting the case that circumstances have changed so that it is now irrational for Jews to be liberals, Podhoretz has one or two paragraphs on the idea that affirmative action is bad for Jews (not likely), the role of the Left in quelling debate on IQ other issues related to diversity on college campuses, and on alleged anti-Semitism by radical Blacks during the 1960s. Then he devotes 160 pages on the relative failure of the Democratic Party, and the Left generally, to protect the interests of Israel. It's not hard to fathom what his real concerns are.
But despite his labors, the case is unconvincing.
Podhoretz certainly doesn't have any difficulty finding anti-Israel attitudes on the left. For example, he devotes an entire chapter to Gore Vidal's "The Empire Lovers Strike Back" article that appeared in The Nation in 1986 -- "The most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II." Vidal's article included this quote discussing Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter: "Although there is nothing wrong with being a lobbyist for a foreign power, one is supposed to register with the Justice Department."
But whereas there was "complete silence from the left" regarding Vidal's indiscretion, William F. Buckley is praised for not only condemning Vidal but also for expelling Joe Sobran from National Review.
The problem for Podhoretz is that there are also anti-Israel views on the right. Indeed, Podhoretz goes to great lengths to show that Buckley and National Review didn't do enough to condemn Pat Buchanan for his "Amen Corner" column and his culture war speech at the 1992 Republican Convention. And because of failure to condemn Buchanan, there was "great damage to the prospect of a significant move by Jewish voters in a more conservative direction."
So how are Jews to choose between the anti-Israel voices on the left and those on the right? One consideration is that, although there are anti-Israel voices on the left (Podhoretz would label them 'anti-Semitic'), with the exception of Jimmy Carter's activities after his presidency, he doesn't provide any examples from within the Democratic Party (which, after all, is by far the most important institutional embodiment of the Left in the U.S.) Does the fact that Carter allowed certain anti-Israel resolutions to go un-vetoed at the UN and that since his presidency, Podhoretz sees him as "openly and virulently hostile to Israel" constitute reasons why Jews should not support the Democrats today? Indeed, Carter was prevented from speaking at the 2008 Democratic convention by Jewish activists, notably Alan Dershowitz.
What about Bill Clinton? Podhoretz notes that Clinton helped himself by tapping the "strongly pro-Israel" Al Gore (also a Democrat!) as vice-president, but then showed his true colors by appointing Warren Christopher as Secretary of State and Anthony Lake as National Security Advisor. (Both committed the sin of favoring withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza.) Podhoretz doesn't seem to think it relevant that in fact Israel was never under serious pressure to withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza during the Clinton years.
Although tough talk on settlement expansion characterized the early Obama administration, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has "dramatically changed her tone," praising an offer of Israeli "restraint" on settlement expansion, whatever that means. Now we learn that Mahmoud Abbas has withdrawn his candidacy for president of the Palestinian Authority because he feels betrayed by the Obama administration.
Recently Congress approved by a lopsided margin a resolution calling on the Obama administration to "oppose unequivocally any endorsement or further consideration of the 'Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict' [i.e., the Goldstone Report, a scathing indictment of Israeli actions during the Gaza invasion of 2008-2009] in multilateral fora." Democrats voted for it by a margin of 179 yea to 33 nay, while Republicans voted for it by a margin of 165 yea to 3 nay votes.
Podhoretz is correct that Republicans in Congress are more likely to be slaves to the Israel Lobby -- for reasons to be discussed below. But in any case, there are certainly no signs of a groundswell of anti-Israel sentiment among the Democrats.
On the other hand, examples of anti-Jewish or anti-Israel attitudes on the right are quite close to the Republican Party. Exhibit A is Buchanan himself. And then there's George H. W. Bush and his "I'm just one lonely little guy" up against "something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill" -- said in the context of attempting to get Israel to freeze settlement activity by delaying a housing loan guarantee to Israel. And then there's Bush's Secretary of State George Schultz who is widely reported to have said, "Fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway."
Podhoretz bends over backwards trying to reassure Jews about anti-Jewish and anti-Israel attitudes on the right. For example, he gets into his legal-brief mode when trying to exonerate Pat Robertson on charges of anti-Semitism because of "certain crackpot ideas originating in the eighteenth century about a conspiracy between Jewish bankers and Freemasons to take over the world." One would think that such ideas would make Robertson completely anathema to Jews. But for Podhoretz, Robertson is okay because of his "unwavering support of Israel."
Indeed, Podhoretz is willing to forgive pretty much anything if its accompanied by pro-Israel attitudes. In the same passage, he forgives Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn his views on the role of Jewish revolutionaries in bringing communism to Russia for the same reason. (To Podhoretz's credit, he even acknowledges, "Solzhenitsyn's ideas about Jewish revolutionaries were based on an uncomfortable historical reality.")
Oddly, Podhoretz fails to mention Robertson's claim,
[T]he part that Jewish intellectuals and media activists have played in the assault on Christianity may very possibly prove to be a grave mistake. ... For centuries, Christians have supported Jews in their dream of a national homeland. But American Jews invested great energy in attacking these very allies. That investment may pay a terrible dividend.
In a 1995 Commentary article, Podhoretz defended Robertson even on this, noting that in fact Jewish intellectuals, Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Congress, and Jewish-dominated organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union have ridiculed Christian religious beliefs, attempted to undermine the public strength of Christianity, or have led the fight for unrestricted pornography. I couldn't agree more.
Oddly, Podhoretz makes no mention of his defense of Robertson on these issues in the book under review -- perhaps because he realizes that this is a bridge too far for the vast majority of Jews. However, he does note, "If you scratch a liberal organization like the American Civil Liberties Union or the United Nations Association, you will find Jewish members and Jewish money sustaining it, and if you scratch a Jewish organization, you will find a liberal agenda." Jews also contribute 50-60 percent of the funding for the Democratic Party.
Without question, Jews fund the left in America.
One wonders if Podhoretz would take such a principled stand on other conservative issues like affirmative action, immigration, or big government -- not caring about ideas deemed by some to be anti-Jewish (e.g., "the Jews control Hollywood") as long as one opposes affirmative action or massive non-White immigration.
The answer would be no.
The good news is that someone like me could be rehabilitated within the Jewish community even though I do believe in the uncomfortable historical reality that Jews control Hollywood and that this influences the content of movies by, among other things, denigrating Christianity. All I would have to do is come out as rabidly pro-Israel.
Ummm, sorry, but I can't go there. Different countries have different interests -- a simple fact that escapes an unregistered lobbyist of a foreign government such as Podhoretz.
Grand New Party
I conclude that Jews reading Podhoretz are unlikely to be convinced that they are better off with the Republicans or by becoming conservatives. Podhoretz is correct that the Republicans are a tad more likely to be slavishly pro-Israel. But he completely ignores another uncomfortable historical reality -- that neoconservative Jews have been very active in purging true conservatives like Buchanan from mainstream Republican politics and that the neocons have remade the Republican Party in their own image. Indeed, as he phrases it (without evaluating the evidence one way or the other), paleocons believe that neocons like Podhoretz are "liberals in disguise who ... succeeded in kidnapping and corrupting the conservative movement."
This brings us to the heart of the issue. Podhoretz's enterprise is fundamentally a fraud.
His issue is not whether American Jews could ever stop being liberal. His issue is whether they could bring themselves to vote for the Republican Party if the Republican Party was better for Israel. It has nothing to do with liberalism or conservatism, Big Government or Constitutionalism.
And the best proof of this is that Jewish neoconservatives -- by far the most important group of Jews who (at times) advocate voting for the Republicans -- are not really conservatives at all. Their one and only concern has always been to steer U.S. foreign policy in the direction of Israel. They have consistently advocated liberal positions within the Republican Party and have only adopted conservative positions as "positions of convenience" designed not to imperil their larger pro-Israel agenda. The fact that the overwhelming bulk of Podhoretz's book deals with support for Israel rather than any specifically liberal or conservative issue confirms this.
Exhibit A for this is immigration. Jewish neoconservatives have been staunch supporters of the most destructive force associated with the left since WWII -- massive non-European immigration into America and other Western countries. As neoconservative Ben Wattenberg has famously written, "The non-Europeanization of America is heartening news of an almost transcendental quality." Such attitudes typify the entire Jewish political spectrum, from the far Left to the neoconservative Right.
And when it comes to opposing illegal immigration, the neocons jumped on the bandwagon only after it became politically expedient to do so. Bill Kristol, whose comments in the Commentary symposium on Podhoretz's book indicate that he doesn't want to think too deeply about why Jews are on the left (my paraphrase: "Just keep on being Jewish and things will take care of themselves"), is a good example of a neocon who navigates Republican politics to achieve his more basic goal of supporting Israel. As John O'Sullivan noted regarding Kristol's activism on an amnesty bill,
Kristol, representing many neoconservatives disposed to favor the bill, came out against it. He did so in part because it had serious drafting defects but, more importantly, because it was creating a bitter gulf between rank-and-file Republicans and the party leadership. That in turn was imperiling Republican objectives in other areas, notably Iraq.
Peter Brimelow says it best:
Kristol will return to immigration enthusiasm once he has helped persuade Bush (or McCain) to attack Iran.
In a passage that should be required reading for all Republicans, Samuel Francis recounted,
[T]he catalog of neoconservative efforts not merely to debate, criticize, and refute the ideas of traditional conservatism but to denounce, vilify, and harm the careers of those Old Right figures and institutions they have targeted.
There are countless stories of how neoconservatives have succeeded in entering conservative institutions, forcing out or demoting traditional conservatives, and changing the positions and philosophy of such institutions in neoconservative directions.... Writers like M. E. Bradford, Joseph Sobran, Pat Buchanan, and Russell Kirk, and institutions like Chronicles, the Rockford Institute, the Philadelphia Society, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute have been among the most respected and distinguished names in American conservatism. The dedication of their neoconservative enemies to driving them out of the movement they have taken over and demonizing them as marginal and dangerous figures has no legitimate basis in reality. It is clear evidence of the ulterior aspirations of those behind neoconservatism to dominate and subvert American conservatism from its original purposes and agenda and turn it to other purposes...
What neoconservatives really dislike about their "allies" among traditional conservatives is simply the fact that the conservatives are conservatives at all -- that they support "this notion of a Christian civilization," as Midge Decter put it, that they oppose mass immigration, that they criticize Martin Luther King and reject the racial dispossession of White Western culture, that they support or approve of Joe McCarthy, that they entertain doubts or strong disagreement over American foreign policy in the Middle East, that they oppose reckless involvement in foreign wars and foreign entanglements, and that, in company with the Founding Fathers of the United States, they reject the concept of a pure democracy and the belief that the United States is or should evolve toward it.
So Podhoretz is exhorting Jews to defect from liberalism while his wife is deploring "this notion of a Christian civilization." With conservatives like this, who needs liberals?1
Continued in Part II
1 -- Indeed, it would be a good project to find out exactly what Jewish intellectuals think conservatives are. In the Commentary symposium, historian Jonathan D. Sarna labels Louis Marshall a "stalwart conservative." In fact, Marshall (1856-1929) was a Republican, but, like the neocons, he cannot be called a conservative by any stretch of the imagination. Marshall was a director of the NAACP and a champion of minority rights. He was also the point man for the Jewish thrust for unrestricted immigration during the period. At a time when the population of the United States was over 100 million, he stated at a Congressional hearing on the ethnically defensive 1924 immigration law, "[W]e have room in this country for ten times the population we have"; he advocated admission of all of the peoples of the world without quota limit, excluding only those who "were mentally, morally and physically unfit, who are enemies of organized government, and who are apt to become public charges."Obviously, Marshall, a Zionist, did not believe that the American majority had a right to defend their ethnic interests by controlling immigration policy. The neocons would be proud.