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Posted by on Aug 31, 2009 in Politics, Religion, Society | 21 comments

Why are Jews liberals?

That is the title of Norman Podhoretz’s new book. It won’t be out until September 8th, but the current issue of Commentary presents a symposium on the book, with contributions from prominent Jewish authors, mostly conservatives.

Best I can tell from the symposium, the main thrust of Podhoretz’s argument is that American Jews have confused the Torah of Judaism with “the Torah of liberalism”. Authentic Jewish values have been displaced by liberal ideology, masquerading as a viable substitute for religion. If that is Podhoretz’s argument, then I completely disagree. Either way, I’d like to offer some of my own thoughts on why American Jews are so liberal, based on my twenty-plus years as a liberal American Jew and my shorter years as a part of the Republican Jewish minority.

If you knit together the arguments made by the participants in Commentary’s symposium, you get a very robust picture of why American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal. Rabbi David Wolpe observes that Jews

Have felt like outsiders for three millenia…somewhere in the Jewish soul, there lurks a scintilla of suspicion as to our Americanness.

Or to put it slighly differently, there lurks considerable suspicion as to whether “real” Americans sincere truly accept American Jews as part of America, or merely tolerate them because America demands a certain tolerance.

I grew up Jewish in New York. My family belonged to a liberal Conservative congregation, while my brothers and I attended a much more conservative Orthodox day school. On both sides of the divide, there was always considerable doubt as to what the goyim truly believed. We insisted that we were 100% American, but we insisted so forcefully because we were never sure.

Liberalism is the discourse of the outsider, of the victim and of diversity. Is it any surprise that a people of outsiders, with a long history of victimization, now subscribe to a political philosophy that demands respect for all forms of diversity?

To appreciate more fully the way in which American Jews think of themselves as outsiders, it is essential to consider their relationship with Christianity. As Michael Medved points out, there is no question which party identifies itself more closely with Christian values and which with secular ones. I think Medved pushes his argument way too far when he writes that in America today, “the sole basis of Jewish identity involves rejection of Christianity.”

But American Jews’ deep and abiding fear of Christianity — especially evangelicals — should not be underestimated. Growing up in Jewish New York, I shared the conviction that somewhere out in Middle America, there were tens of millions of Christian conservatives who wanted to write the Bible into law. Their Bible, the one that had served so often as a pretext for pervasive anti-Semitism. The only way to protect our Bible and ourselves was to fight aggressively for a secular America with an iron wall separating church and state.

Medved notes that the only Jews who reliably vote Republican are the Orthodox, who have considerable reservations about a full-on commitment to secular values. I think that’s right. In my experience, Orthodox Jews share a deep fear of Christianity, but also sense that liberalism does not respect their way of life. They are outsiders among the outsiders. With no outlet for their values, they are more inclined to vote their interests, which are better represented by Republicans.

Jonathan Sarna, the Brandeis historian, adds another critical piece to the puzzle of Jewish politics. In order to understand why American Jews are so liberal, one cannot remain narrowly focused on politics in America. In Britain, Canada and Australia, Jews are evenly divided between center-right and center-left. The critical difference between those countries and our own is that only the United States has a left-of-center party that is so vocally pro-Israel. The hard left may not have much nice to say about Israel, but Democratic politicians are almost as enthusiastic as their Republican counterparts.

All I would add to Sarna’s observation is that the relentless efforts of American Jews are one of the principal reasons that the Democratic Party is so pro-Israel. Thus, American Jews have reinforced their own commitment to liberal politics by ensuring that liberal politics reflected their commitment to Israel.

The liberalism of American Jews should not be a mystery. The essential concerns of the American Jewish community are also essential concerns of the Democratic Party: respect for diversity, the firm separation of religion and politics, and an enduring commitment to Israel.

Republicans will never be able to talk about diversity in the same way Democrats — nor should they. Barack Obama may be antagonizing many supporters of Israel at the moment, but I suspect he will not change the nature of his party.

Only when it comes to church and state is there potential for a change of heart among American Jews. I believe that Jewish fears of evangelical Christianity are so powerful because American Jews don’t know much about evangelicals and don’t have much occasion to interact. There is no reason to expect that will change any time soon, even if change would be for the good.

Until then, Jewish Republicans will have to enjoy being outsiders.

Cross-posted at Conventional Folly

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  • DLS

    “The essential concerns of the American Jewish community are also essential concerns of the Democratic Party: respect for diversity, the firm separation of religion and politics, and an enduring commitment to Israel.”

    US liberalism and the Democratic Party has wavered on when not been radically opposed to, since the late 1960s, Israel (especially after the USSR took the side of the Arabs in the conflicts there). That is why the “neo-conservative” Jews in the sense of that term that involves a definitive pro-Israel stance involves former liberal to radical Jews. They changed once liberalism became radicalized. And separating religion from politics is so very far from reality with either major US political party.

    You come close, though — for it is obvious. It’s the heritage going back decades of the Dems as the home for the “outsiders” or “outcasts” of society, frequently the objects of discrimination. (It’s a deliberate exaggeration to say “oppressed,” as radical leftists would say now.) Though time has changed so much, there is a multi-generational heritage of the Dems’ being the party not of diversity (a word and term that’s so abused nowadays), but rather of


    as well as providing a home that could also make the Dems a party (albeit as risk of exaggeration) of


    (Related to this is not only the enduring myth of the GOP as a “closed club” of older, affluent, white males, the straw men of radical politics, as well as the multi-generational nature of people tending to be politically as well as culturally like their ancestors.)

    That many Jewish Americans and others, as well, find the current GOP loathsome or merely earning disdain (if not contempt) is simply an additional contemporary superficiality.

  • DLS

    Why are so many blacks, Jews, and Hispanics, and others like gays, for example, liberals?

    (It’s not merely about preferring the Democratic Party in such an obvious way.)

    They’re not all a bunch of flaming wingy radicals, after all.

  • DLS

    No, James G. Watt doesn’t explain it all, either.

  • DLS, I think your ideology and bias again keep you from seeing the truth about Americans. Far from being “outcast” or “outsiders”, liberal values are mainstream values. The GOP is simply out of touch and out of tune with mainstream values. Consider:

    March 2007, roughly 70 percent of respondents believe that the government has a responsibility “to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves”—up from 61 percent in 2002. The number saying that the government should guarantee “every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep” has increased by a similar margin over the past five years (from 63 percent to 69 percent).

    Two-thirds of the public (66 percent)—including a majority of those who say they would prefer a smaller government (57 percent)—favor government-funded health insurance for all citizens. Most people also believe that the nation’s corporations are too powerful and fail to strike a fair balance between profits and the public interest. In addition, nearly two-thirds (65 percent) say corporate profits are too high, about the same number who say that “labor unions are necessary to protect the working person” (68 percent).

    When it comes to the environment, a large majority (83 percent) support stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment, while 69 percent agree that “we should put more emphasis on fuel conservation than on developing new oil supplies,” and fully 60 percent of people questioned say they would “be willing to pay higher prices in order to protect the environment.”

    Regarding so-called social issues, only 28 percent of respondents agree that school boards should have the right to fire teachers who are known to be homosexual, while 66 percent disagree. A 56 percent majority opposes making it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion, while 35 percent favor this position.

  • Slamfu

    They are liberals I believe because the core of the conservative ideal is for a white christian America. You can hear it every time Hannity, Rush, Coulter, talk about minorities, immigrants or folk with a different religion. Its the fear of losing what they consider to be their rightful place in the world. That their way of things must not only be considered equal it must be dominant or it is under attack and in danger. That’s why the liberals will always have the larger share of the demographics in all non white, non christian groups.

  • My brother in law is Jewish, and despite a quite conservative upbringing, he has explained his substantial mistrust of the Republican party in a different way, although it includes everything that the original poster explained. The Republican party is very heavy in pro-Israel Christian evangelicals (as we all know). These Christian Zionists send lots of money to Israel, support everything pro-Israel, but it’s rarely because they just care about the welfare of the Jews there. This is obvious by how often we hear the words of these same Christians when speaking of the Jews here in the States — Jews killed Jesus, Jewish-run Hollywood, Jewish bankers, Jewish neighbors who are cheap, Jewish doctors, Jewish noses and hair and nerdy intellect and glasses and allergies. Why, then, do the evangelicals give so much money to Israel, considering they don’t seem to even like Jewish people? Well, the Jew’s have to control the Holy Land in order for Jesus to come back, so all the believers can go to heaven and the rest of us can go to hell — including, of course, the Jews. As my BIL explains, “just another group who wants to build their kingdom on the backs of the Jewish people”.

  • DLS

    “Far from being ‘outcast’ or ‘outsiders,” liberal values are mainstream values. ”

    Liberalism’s greatest victories in the 1960s in particular have redefined modern mainstream values — civil rights, for example (which so many always believed in). (And as I said, which you seemed to miss: “They’re not all a bunch of flaming wingy radicals, after all.”)

    The point I was making, that apparently you had misunderstood (maybe I should have specifically used the following word) with reference to the “out” words that in addition to discrimination there was a sense also of (brace yourself, for it’s another “out” word, speaking etymologically and otherwise)


    inherent in discrimination. (The association implication of inferiority from exclusion no doubt lay behind some of the thought in the Brown decision and the “inherently unequal” opinion expressed in it.)

    If you’re made to feel unwelcome, and this is associated with (indirectly or directly) Party A, and Party B seeks to change this in ways that benefit you, wouldn’t you prefer (and come after successive generations to be loyal to) Party B?

  • We agree that party A has not made them feel welcome. In fact, the GOP, both by their rhetoric and their legislation, has alienated an ever growing number of the “excluded”. Fear of “other” has driven Republican politics for a long time, and is used incessantly to manipulate the scared. As the ranks of “other” swell, the pure white party of Jesus is increasingly likely to slip away.

  • kathykattenburg

    David, I agree with much of what you write. And even the parts with which I don’t fully agree are very thoughtful and well-written. Intelligently written.I grew up in a very liberal family, and that’s part of why I’m a strong liberal myself, but it’s hard to tell how much that’s part of the fact that American Jews are so overwhelmingly liberal in the first place.The only thing I want to add to your analysis is that, in addition to the sense of identification with “the outsider,” and thus with the political party that most represents respect for the outsider, Jews are also drawn to liberalism because of what Green Dreams touched on: the particular set of values that says it is incumbent upon us (as Americans, as Jews, as a society) to provide for the essential needs of those members of society who cannot do so for themselves. Again and again, the Torah speaks of even-handed justice for rich and poor, for not cheating a man of his fair wages (it *was* only men, in the Torah). Feed the hungry, free the oppressed, care for the sick, clothe the naked, stop cheating and perverting justice — these injunctions just permeate the Torah. The Psalms are full of words of comfort for the persecuted, the imprisoned, the scorned, the reviled and hated.I don’t think either major party in our country takes these values to heart as strongly or as fundamentally as the Torah instructed the Jewish people to do, but there is NO doubt which party comes closest or holds those values dearest.

  • DLS

    Assuming all that you said was honestly intended, Green Dreams, you are overreacting and perpetuating what often since the 1960s have been myths. (They, and the exploitation of fear and such, remain highly valuable tools of liberalism and the Democratic Party. This, in addition to government growth and entitlement-bribery as main tools on the “positive” side.) In fact, the GOP has been trying, but faces a tilted playing field (including a liberal and Democratic media) in addition to being dysfunctional (such as when it apes the Dems and grows government itself), which is a much greater problemthan that hyped demon, the Religious Right, “social conservatives” more broadly, or the grossly abused term “far right.”

    Compounding the GOP’s problem is big business and corporate interests, which put it at a relative disadvantage even among non-liberal members of the public often.

  • DLS

    I’m afraid, extremist Kathy, that you’ll have to look outside the maintream to reach true satisfaction.

    I know where.

    Hillary Clinton’s radical flirting in the 1990s included mention of the guy found at the link below.

    (“Am I your mouthpiece, or what?”)

    I bought and gave a liberal (and Jewish) friend of mine in Seattle a hardcopy issue or two…

  • “[Myths], and the exploitation of fear and such, remain highly valuable tools of liberalism and the Democratic Party”

    That’s, like, really really funny, DLS. Pot/kettle/what?

  • CStanley

    I thought of the reasons that Kathy mentioned, which are similar to reasons that some Catholics are liberals- the social justice teachings of the Church. Of course, Catholics who are politically conservative also believe in the social justice teachings but we don’t agree on the political means of getting there.

    As for the concern about attitudes of Christians, from my perspective it seems that this is a response to a caricaturization, not the reality for the majority of Christian conservatives. Just as roro points out that his brother in law believes that Christians hold stereotypical views of Jews, it seems to me that he does the same toward them. In that regard, I agree with David’s statement here: I believe that Jewish fears of evangelical Christianity are so powerful because American Jews don’t know much about evangelicals and don’t have much occasion to interact. And, vice versa with Christians needing to interact more with Jews to overcome any stereotypes that they hold.

  • DLS

    “That’s, like, really really funny, DLS. Pot/kettle/what?”

    “We face another Great Depression” [stimulus] “We’re cooking the planet” [climate bill] “We can’t afford not to enact the Dem health care legislation” … “crisis” [sic] “crisis” [sic] “crisis” [sic]…

    Believe the alternative to reality if you want, but don’t say you weren’t given the chance not to.

  • “Believe the alternative to reality if you want, but don’t say you weren’t given the chance not to.”

    Do you know what the phrase “the pot calling the kettle black” means? ‘Cause it doesn’t seem like you do.

  • SteveK

    Why are Jews liberals?

    Because they are smarter than most… more inquisitive than most… And they are taught from childhood to question things that don’t make sense and always work at keeping an open mind.

  • adesnik

    Then it must be only us poor, dumb Jews who vote Republican, Steve-o..

    But seriously: Kathy I appreciate your comments, especially about the role of tzedaka (tr. righteousness or charity) in Jewish thought. I would frame the question as follows: Are Jews naturally inclined to see government action as the essential vehicle for helping the poor? Many strands of Jewish thinking have evolved in that direction, although I would say pretty firmly that one should not read a preference for government action into Jewish texts or belief.

  • DLS

    I know when mirror talk is real (and identify it as such) and when it is not (a misunderstanding or lie).

  • kritt11

    Jews have a low tolerance for injustice, and are usually generous towards the less fortunate. They see the Democrats as champions of the underdog, and Republicans as maintainers of the status quo.

    I agree also, that the evangelical movement’s alignment with the GOP has scared a lot of Jews back over to the Democrats. Having major presidential candidates give speeches at Liberty U and apply for Dobson’s blessing gives the impression that the Christian right has a lot of influence over the party, and threatens the long-cherished separation of church and state.

  • elrod

    Speaking as a liberal Jew living in an area with a very large evangelical population, let me wholeheartedly agree with David’s analysis. The “outsiderness” is very much what draws me to liberalism, including the vague sense that we are not really one of the “volk”. The open discrimination is a thing of the past, thankfully, but it’s hard to feel comfortable in Gentile society when literally half of our population was murdered in my parent’s lifetime. But is the shared sense of victimhood the only thing that binds Jews together? Robet Nozick (I believe) argued that the “I could have been killed in the Holocaust” sensibility is actually the most powerful element in modern American Jewish identity. This fragile sense of safety informs both militant support for Israel and obsessive support for the separation of church and state in America.

    But David is also right that most Jews really don’t understand evangelicals. Frankly, most evangelicals don’t buy in to the rapture stuff. They don’t back Israel because of some prophecy about the return of Jesus made possible Jewish return to Israel. Some believe this, certainly, but most don’t.

    In fact, when I tell evangelicals that I’m Jewish they almost universally get a look of fascination on their faces. Sort of like a “We read the story of your people all the time. Tell me more!” Anti-Semitism that defined Christian attitudes toward Judaism from the age of Paul to the very recent past has given way to a sort of Philo-Semitism. That Israel is on the frontlines against radical Islam probably explains evangelical support for Israel better than any Rapture business.

    I’ve come to see evangelicalism in all its shades while living in East Tennessee. It has some extremist fundamentalist elements, and it has some very progressive and inclusive elements.

    All of that said, my increased comfort level with evangelicals has not translated into political conservatism. Instead, I’ve sought out progressive evangelicals who share many core beliefs with me.

    I’ll add one more thing that really separates doctrinaire evangelicals from Judaism: the nature of faith. For Jews, faith is like a question. “Israel” means “wrestles with God” – as in, we study and search and probe and seek out what exactly God demands of us, and what makes up God himself. The book is never really closed and we only gain insights by studying and searching until we die. Our intellectual inquisitiveness is probably connected to this notion of faith. For evangelicals, faith is about answers. Life before salvation is the great search. Jesus is the answer. The purpose of prayer is to access the power of Jesus, whose great deeds and love is already known the moment one becomes born again.

    Not surprisingly, as a Jew I’m deeply suspicious of faith claims made with any degree of absolute certainty.

  • adesnik

    Great to read about your interactions with evangelicals, elrod. My experience is much more limited, but has some similar elements.

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