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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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