Why Are Jews Liberals?
By Norman Podhoretz
(Doubleday, 337 pages, $27)
Some years ago the New York Sun issued an editorial called “The Podhoretz Method.” It was triggered by a jibe that had been made against the former editor of Commentary for asking — at, as it happens, a banquet I hosted honoring, among others, Robert Bartley — “What’s a Kurd, anyway?” To Mr. Podhoretz’s critic, the neoconservative sage seemed “authentically bewildered.” But to me, Podhoretz seemed to be setting up, with a seemingly simple question, a conversation that, if given time to unfold, would lead in all sorts of surprising and illuminating directions. The technique of the disarming question from which an extraordinary answer can be spun out is what the Sun called the “Podhoretz method,” and it has rarely been used, even by Podhoretz himself, to greater effect than in his latest book, Why Are Jews Liberals?
The question, Podhoretz writes, is the one he has been asked more than any other in his career, and it doesn’t surprise me, particularly as the years roll on. For on the face of it, the interests of Jews increasingly seem to be at odds with liberal policies. Whereas once it was conservatives who failed to follow the lessons of Munich, more recently it has been the liberals. Where once quota systems were used against Jews by exclusionary establishments, in more recent decades Jews have been excluded by quota systems pressed by idealistic liberals to redress wrongs against other minorities. Whereas it was once the Democrats who were inclined to give the most support to the Jewish state, more recently it has been the Republicans. Whereas once violent anti-Semitism appeared to be a feature largely of what might be called the nativist right, more lately it has emerged on the nihilistic left.
It has not been an easy adjustment for anyone. This was brought home to me during the 1980s, when I was living in Europe on assignment for the Wall Street Journal editorial page. One afternoon, I entertained a visiting friend and his wife. They were an inspiring couple. He had worked for one of Jewry’s great institutions, the Joint Distribution Committee, after World War II and had been among the first into the concentration camps. Now, two generations later, we sat at a café in a square called the Petit Sablon, just steps from Brussels’s main synagogue. I pointed out that, although cars were parked on sidewalks all over the square, none, nor even a motorbike, was near the synagogue. The reason, I explained, is that the police would whisk away anything parked there, lest someone plant a bomb at the grandest house of Jewish worship in the city.
The need for this precaution, I explained, was terrorism from training camps in countries like Libya and Jordan that were operated or funded by Warsaw Pact regimes like those in Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Nor was the main Brussels synagogue an isolated case. The tiny shul in suburban Brussels where my wife and I had marked Passover had a courtyard that was entirely covered in hand-grenade netting. Almost every Jewish institution in Europe was on guard, even in the 1980s, against the danger that had emerged from the left.* [*For a sense of what it was like, I recommend the film Die Bader Meinhof Komplex, which is currently in selected theaters; though sympathetic to the left, it captures a moment in Europe with remarkable power.] It was almost painful to watch my aging liberal visitors, wonderful individuals, as they tried to grasp what had become plain to a newspaperman following the story — that the world had changed since they had formed their political paradigm.
I mention this not to suggest that Jews failed to rise to the struggle against Soviet Communism. They did rise to it. Or to suggest that there was no longer any threat from the nativist right. There certainly was. But rather to suggest that the awakening of Jewish opinion has not been easy. Nor, as Podhoretz explains in the second half of his book, has it had much impact in terms of American politics, even today, when Jews swung behind President Obama in far greater percentages than other groups. Indeed, they have been voting for Democrats in outsized numbers even after other immigrant groups have begun to vote in a way that reflects their own improving economic interests. To explain this Podhoretz goes all the way back to the start of the Christian era. He pulls no punches with regard to Christian anti-Semitism, which has appeared at various stages of history, and the impact the phenomenon has had on the Jewish communal outlook. It will never be said of Podhoretz that he flinched from looking his Christian friends in the eye and reprising these crimes and tragedies.
But neither will it be said that Podhoretz, who himself had once been a man of the left, failed to speak honestly of the hostility that was directed at Jews from the left. This hostility has, it turns out, a long history, which is one of the mysteries Podhoretz plumbs. The question arises, he writes, “of why the Jews who joined the radical camp were not put off by the egregious anti-Semitism of Marx or that of several other major figures of the socialist movement, including Charles Fourier (to whom the Jews were the ‘the leprosy and the run of the body politic’) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (to whom the Jews were ‘the race which poisons everything [and] the enemy of the human race’).”
Marx, who was baptized and had a flirtation with Christianity before moving to materialism, was quite coarse in his derision of Jews. “What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest,” Podhoretz quotes him as saying. “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.”
I read Podhoretz’s account as I was working on a biography of the late editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Abraham Cahan, who had his own awaking to anti-Semitism on the left when, in 1891, he traveled to Brussels from New York as a delegate of the United Hebrew Trades to the Second Congress of the Socialist International. When he tried to put the question of the plight of the Jews on the agenda, he met with angry hostility from the noble comrades. It was a rude awakening that began Cahan’s own turn toward what became, years later, a leading role in the anti-Communist camp. Yet he never reached what we would call, today, a conservative shore.
Podhoretz’s strongest points are made in respect of those who seek to explain the liberalism of Jews as a function of Judaism itself, which lays down clear requirements regarding charity and help for the less fortunate. But if there is a political component to this, Podhoretz points out a problem for the liberal argument — the fact that the degree to which Jews are conservative runs in direct proportion to the degree that they are Orthodox. Or, to put it another way, the so-called ultra-Orthodox communities, which are faithful to fundamental laws of Judaism, tend to be the more conservative politically and socially of the Jewish communities as a whole and more likely to vote Republican than other Jews. What Podhoretz suggests at the end of the book is that liberalism itself has become the religion of modern liberal Jews. He calls it the “Torah of liberalism,” which is the title of the penultimate chapter in his book.
In the chapter, Podhoretz quotes a remark attributed to G. K. Chesterton: “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” This, writes Podhoretz, “was not true of the Jewish immigrants who came to American from Eastern Europe. Almost all the young intellectuals and political leaders among them had stopped believing in the God of Judaism, but it was not ‘anything’ they now believed in — it was Marxism.” At one point he quotes a passage from I. J. Singer’s novel The Brothers Ashkenazi about a rabbi’s son who becomes a disciple of “the prophet Marx” and who, as Singer puts it, “never let his copy of Das Kapital out of his sight and carried it everywhere, as his father had carried his prayer shawl and phylacteries.” Podhoretz writes of a “new religion in which Marx’s Capital became (in the words of Paul Johnson) ‘a new kind of Torah.'”
It is a conclusion calculated to generate outrage, as it has certainly done in the weeks since the book has been published. For few things are more shameful for a Jewish person than abandoning his religion. It would be hard to read Podhoretz as suggesting that any particular liberal policy prescription is the equivalent of religious apostasy. But it would not be hard to read Podhoretz as suggesting, in a typically courageous way, that logic alone fails to explain the degree to which Jews are in thrall to a liberalism that abandoned their interests long ago. My own view is that neither Jews nor Christians need worry about the fact that conservatives are, among Jews, a small minority. It is said that the great court of sages known as the Sanhedrin would not hand down a capital sentence if the verdict were unanimous, for the fear that unanimity itself could be a sign that a real adversarial process had not taken place.