The Magazine

Remaking the Right (part II)


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

Continued from Part I

In Commentary's symposium on Norman Podhoretz's Why Are Jews Liberal? historian Jonathan D. Sarna calls attention to the fact that "outside the United States liberalism is nowhere near so dominant a faith among Jews. In Israel, to take an obvious example, Jewish liberals and Jewish conservatives are fairly evenly matched."

Actually, Israelis who might remotely be described as liberal are a distinct minority -- the old Labor Party founded by Zionist socialists is on its last legs, accounting for only around 10 percent of the Knesset and functioning mainly to provide a fig leaf of respectability for the dominant ethno-nationalist Right.

Identification with the left is not a general characteristic of Jews; it is, however, a definite phenomenon within countries in the Jewish Diaspora, indicating that in searching for an explanation of the attraction of American Jews to the left, one must also look to this Diaspora experience in Europe and other European-derived societies.

Thankfully, Podhoretz does not try to explain the Jewish attraction to the left as resulting from a moral imperative stemming from the very nature of Judaism itself.

Such a self-conception remains strong among many Jewish liberals, including Deborah Lipstadt who opines, "The Torah repeatedly instructs us to care for the 'widow, the orphan, poor, and the stranger.'" Jewish advocates for non-White immigration sometimes use this rationale -- Gideon Aronoff's Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, for example:

Drawing strongly on Jewish tradition, we provide services to Jewish immigrants, refugees, and others in need -- without regard for their religion, nationality, or ethnic background. We are guided by our Jewish values and texts. The Torah (Hebrew Bible) tells us 36 times in 36 different ways to help the stranger among us. This, and our core belief that we must "fix the world" (tikkun olam, in Hebrew), are the driving principles behind our work.

But the idea that the Jewish religion makes Jews into altruistic world-healers is an obvious non-starter, and not only because, as Podhoretz notes, the highly religious Orthodox are less prone to liberal attitudes than the rest of the Jewish community. More decisively, even the most out of touch among us are now becoming aware that Israel is an apartheid state dominated by the most extreme religious and ethnocentric factions of the Jewish community. The Palestinians are treated brutally and are dependent on the largesse from the rest of the world.

The morally uplifting Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and pretty much the entire organized Jewish community in the U.S., aid and abet Israel as an aggressive, racialist ethno-state, or at least they turn a blind eye to it. Whatever else one might say about it, the Jewish religion does not make Jews into moral paragons or champions of the oppressed. And it certainly doesn't make Jews into champions of religious and ethnic diversity.

Podhoretz's explanation is that liberalism has become the religion of American Jews -- an irrational set of beliefs resistant to disconfirmation. As he notes, the same was true of the long Jewish love affair with Marxism, and it was certainly true of Jews in traditional societies.

Liberalism is not a "substitute for religion": it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas ... obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.

The idea that Jewish political ideologies and behavior have religious overtones is attractive. My book Separation and Its Discontents has two chapters on rationalization, apologetics, and self-deception among Jews, beginning with a quote from a famous Talmudic scholar describing the ideology behind an example of classic Jewish religious writing: "Things never are what they seem because they cannot be." In traditional societies, Jewish scholars interpreted any and all historical events as conforming to the messianic hope of a return to political power and worldly riches in a restored Israel.

All religious thinking tends to be impossible to refute, while at the same time it promises to explain everything. The interesting thing about Jews, however, is that they have dominated several intellectual movements that masqueraded as "science" while nevertheless having strong religious overtones.

Podhoretz is quite correct that the powerful Jewish attraction to Marxism was fundamentally religious in this sense. I have made similar comments, not only about Jewish involvement in Marxism, but also in psychoanalysis and other movements of the intellectual left. These movements were centered around charismatic rabbi-like leaders, and they were constructed in a way that allowed them to explain everything and be impossible to disconfirm. As in all religions, dissenters (heretics) were simply expelled.

Therefore, I have no problem agreeing with Podhoretz that there is a strong streak of religious thinking among Jews -- even among the "secular." In my view, religious thinking has been highly adaptive throughout Jewish history because it resulted in a powerful ideology of the ingroup. No matter what happened, the fundamental rationale for group cohesion would not be threatened. Whether in synagogues during the Middle Ages, in Marxist cells in the 20th century, or at conventions of psychoanalytic societies, true believers make good group members. Nothing can cause them to waver in their allegiance to the group.

But the fact that Jewish identification has always had religious overtones -- even among secular Jews in the 20th century -- does not explain why Jews in the Western Diaspora are liberal -- only that their belief systems are immune from conflict with empirical reality.

Moreover, contra Podhoretz, liberalism seems awfully compatible with Jewish self-interest. In America, both the Democratic and Republican parties are Israeli occupied territory. So it's hard to see that Jews are being "irrational," as Podhoretz claims, in not voting for Republicans. For rational Jews concerned only about Israel, it's pretty much a toss-up.

The clincher is that, as Podhoretz himself notes, citing an academic study, Jews "back Republicans only so long as they adopted the liberal position on 'such bellwether issues ... as immigration, abortion, gay rights and the separation of church and state."

In other words, Jews have been opposed to the traditional culture of America and the West and are strong advocates for the displacement of Whites via immigration.

In attempting to understand this, a good place to start is John Murray Cuddihy's classic, The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Marx, Levi-Strauss and the Jewish Struggle With Modernity:

With the advent of Jewish Emancipation, when ghetto walls crumble and the shtetlach begin to dissolve, Jewry -- like some wide-eyed anthropologist -- enters upon a strange world, to explore a strange people observing a strange halakah. They examine this world in dismay, with wonder, anger, and punitive objectivity. This wonder, this anger, and the vindictive objectivity of the marginal nonmember are recidivist; they continue unabated into our own time because Jewish Emancipation continues into our own time.

In psychological terms, Jewish identity in the Diaspora is based on psychological mechanisms of between-group competition. A strong sense of Jewish identity has always been accompanied by negative attitudes toward non-Jews -- ranging from the laws of cleanness in traditional Judaism (according to which anything associated with non-Jews was unclean) to the revolutionary hatred of the non-Jewish power structure by Jewish Marxists, to the adoption of values in opposition to the traditional culture of America and the West. These negative perceptions are exacerbated by the lachrymose theory of Jewish history accepted by Podhoretz and the mainstream Jewish community: It is not simply that Christianity is evil, but that Western culture itself is poisonous to Jews.

The implication therefore is that Jews will be much more likely than non-Jews to have negative attitudes toward the traditional culture of America and the West. Importantly, Jewish voters are liberal on all issues, from government power to welfare. But as Podhoretz notes, it is especially on social issues where Jewish liberalism becomes "unmistakable and undeniable." A 1996 poll of Jewish attitudes indicated that

Jews are firmly committed to permissive social codes, sexual codes in particular. The gap between Jews and others in polls regarding non-marital sexual behavior, marijuana, and divorce laws is quite substantial: 58 percent of Jews had liberal responses on these items as opposed to just 31 percent of non-Jews. In like fashion, huge gaps separate Jews from others on abortion (86 percent vs. 44 percent) and control of pornography (71 percent vs. 45 percent).

There are similar differences even when controlling for socio-economic class. Not surprisingly, support for gay marriage and for Roman Polanski are good career moves in Hollywood. 

Moreover, Jews are dead last among all American groups in "confidence in the military," but they favor gun control laws more than any other American group. And Jewish antipathy to the culture of America and other Western Diaspora societies extends to hostility against the formerly dominant White Protestant elite. Podhoretz quotes sociologists Mark Lipsett and Earl Raab, noting that Jews "are more at ease with the kinds of people they find in the Democratic Party -- their fellow ethnics with whom they grew up in America -- than with the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants still predominant in the Republican Party."

So it's not just Christianity that keeps Jews away from social conservatism. Latino Catholics, Black Southern Baptists, and Asian Christians are much preferred to the formerly dominant WASPs, who represent the traditional American culture and erstwhile ruling class. It's not really about religion but ethnicity and race.

Nevertheless, it is indeed the case that White Christians are an object of special Jewish hostility. In the Commentary symposium, Michael Medved describes Jewish atavistic phobia about Christianity as the religion of the outgroup: "Jews fear the GOP as the 'Christian party.'" And Jewish hostility towards Christianity unites the most Orthodox and conservative Jews with the most secular and liberal.

It is the hostility of the outsider against the culture of the White majority. As a result, expressions of hostility toward Christianity have a special place of pride in the contemporary culture of the West. A good recent example is Larry David pissing on a picture of Jesus in HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm -- an event which evoked yawns from the rest of the media.

The Moral Status of the Outsider

This status of being an outsider with deep historical grudges has grave moral implications. As Benjamin Ginsberg notes, the social marginality of Eastern European Jews made them useful instruments for the imposition of Soviet rule over reluctant populations, not only in the first genocidal decades after the Bolshevik Revolution when they acted as Stalin's "willing executioners," but also during the post-WWII period in the USSR's satellite states (Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, and Romania). Throughout Eastern Europe after WWII, because Jews were outsiders and dependent upon Soviet power for their positions and even personal safety, they could be trusted to remain loyal to the Soviet Union.

This has been a pattern throughout Jewish history. Jews as outsiders in traditional societies allied themselves with elites -- often oppressive alien ruling elites engaged in exploiting the people under their control. In the Commentary symposium, Sarna gives a rather tepid version of this, quoting historian Ben Halpern, "They depended for their lives on the authorities, on the persons and groups who exercised legitimate power." Quite correct. Jews were protected by the government, but their outsider status also made them more willing to engage in unpopular activities, such as collecting taxes for rapacious elites with no allegiance to the people they ruled.

The self-conceptualization of Jews as outsiders certainly should not make the European-descended population of America confident about the Jewish role in future governments when they are a minority.

However, the Jews-as-outsider theory does not adequately get at the role of Jews as a nascent elite displacing previously dominant non-Jewish elites. The Jewish identification with the left should also be seen as a strategy designed to increase Jewish power as an elite hostile to the White European majority of America. As I have argued, Jewish intellectual and political movements have been a critically necessary condition for the decline of White America during a period in which Jews have attained elite status.

All of these movements have been aligned with the political left. As Democrats, Jews are an integral part of the emerging non-White coalition while being able to retain their core ethnic commitment to Israel. Indeed, the organized Jewish community has not only been the most important force in ending the European bias of American immigration laws, it has assiduously courted alliances with non-White ethnic groups, including Blacks, Latinos, and Asians; and these groups are overwhelmingly aligned with the Democratic Party.

Whereas the Democratic Party is becoming increasingly non-White (the last Democratic president to get a majority of the White vote was Lyndon Johnson in 1964), 90 percent of the Republican vote comes from Whites. In the recent off-year elections, Democratic candidates for governor received only about a third of the White vote.

America will soon realize that it is at the edge of a racial abyss.

Because the Republican Party remains an important force in American politics, Jews are well advised to retain an influence there as well. Republican Jews retain their core liberalism on all the key issues like immigration and culture by aligning themselves with the "moderate" wing of the Party. Like Podhoretz, Republican Jews are motivated mainly to keep the Republican Party safe for Jews, in their estimation, and to promote pro-Israel forces within the party. In general, Republican Jews have acted to make the GOP as much as possible like the party they left behind and to influence it to eschew nationalistic attitudes, especially self-consciously White or Christian identities.

At the end of the day, Podhoretz's enterprise is an exercise in deception. He erects an image of irrational Jewish liberals who cling to liberalism as a set of religious beliefs completely beyond the reach of logic or empirical data. In fact Jewish liberalism is quite clearly a Diaspora strategy designed to obtain power for Jews at least partly by building coalitions with non-White ethnic groups.

Moreover, he erects an image of principled, rational Jewish conservatives as true conservatives, while in fact they are leftists who have been a prominent force in elbowing out true conservatives within the Republican Party in order to pursue their pro-Israel agenda and make the Republican Party into something they deem safe for Jews.

Welcome to the Alice in Wonderland world of Jewish political thought.