Saturday, January 30, 2010

Rebutting Podhoretz: In Defense of Jewish Democrats


Norman Podhoretz, a leading voice of neo-conservative thought in America and formerly the editor of Commentary magazine, recently spoke at a lecture I attended at Congregation Beth Or, a Reform synagogue in Maple Glen, Pennsylvania. A prolific author, Podhoretz was promoting his latest book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, in which he questions why 78% of American Jews voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, a voting pattern consistent with the political leanings of American Jews since 1928. Podhoretz acknowledges that prior to 1945 it made historical sense for American Jews to associate with the Democratic Party. He claims, however, that since Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, the left has grown increasingly hostile to Jewish interests, while the right is far more hospitable to Jews in general and Israel in particular.

As Podhoretz explains in the first half of his new book, the answer to why Jews have tended to vote Democratic lies in history. Centuries of atrocities against Jews, committed mostly by the political forces on the right, caused European Jews naturally to align themselves with the left. During the Enlightenment and similarly tolerant moments in history, the European left favored Jewish emancipation, while the European right proved less hospitable. For centuries, Jews were persecuted in medieval Christendom, accused of blood libels, expelled from entire nations, forced to convert, and subjected to ghettoization. More recently -- the Dreyfus affair at the end of the 19th century, and the rise of Nazism in the 20th century -- the political forces on the right were openly hostile and antagonistic to Jewish people and Jewish concerns. Indeed, six million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, their very existence as a people threatened with total annihilation. In fleeing the persecutions of czarist Russia and Nazi-occupied Europe, Jews emigrated in large numbers to the United States, where they found a home in the Democratic Party.

Prior to the second world war, most American Jews were poor and faced discrimination in housing, the professions, universities, and many other aspects of American life, with the most virulent forms of anti-Semitism originating from political conservatives. Most Jews, including many recent immigrants, naturally affiliated with the Democratic Party led by Franklin Roosevelt, who employed many high-level Jewish aides and advisers, and whose vision of a New Deal resembled the progressive ideals of the European left. Roosevelt’s leadership during the war, combined with the isolationist sentiments of conservatives, many of whom opposed fighting Hitler, and President Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel in 1948, kept Jews faithful to Democratic politics.

It was the Six-Day War in 1967 that, to Podhoretz, was a turning point for American Jewry. When Israel’s existence was threatened by surrounding Arab armies who vowed to wipe Israel off the map, a major community of Jews faced the threat of annihilation for the second time in 25 years, while most of the world sat idly by. This time, however, the Jews were not the victims. Israel’s quick and impressive military victory forced Arab armies into retreat and led to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. No longer was Israel perceived as a weak victim, as David fighting Goliath; Israel instead became the new military power in the Middle East and transformed into Goliath almost overnight. The political left, which more readily identifies with victims, underdogs, and the downtrodden, now viewed the Palestinians as victims of a powerful and oppressive occupier. Podhoretz credibly suggests that a new, more subtle form of anti-Semitism emerged in the form of anti-Zionism.

At the same time, while the left became more critical of Israel, support for the Jewish state grew on the right. The right also became less tolerant of traditional anti-Semitism, which was no longer acceptable in polite society. The National Review, for example, which had previously contributed to the genteel anti-Semitism prevalent in mid-20th century U.S. culture, underwent a transformation led by William Buckley, Jr., who excoriated conservative writers with anti-Semitic views and published articles sympathetic to Jewish concerns. Christian attitudes towards Israel also changed course, as liberal Christians, who previously viewed Israel with protective eyes, became increasingly critical of Israel’s military might, identifying far more frequently with the Palestinian victims of oppression and occupation, while ignoring the actions of Palestinian terrorists. By contrast, the Christian right, which previously had little interest in Israel as a nation state, is today among its staunchest defenders. Similar reversals have occurred among Republicans and Democrats. In his lecture at Beth Or, Podhoretz cited a recent poll in which 69% of Republicans, compared to just 42% of Democrats, expressed greater sympathy for Israel than for Palestinians.

Podhoretz also points to the political battles and threats to Jewish interests posed by quotas and affirmative action, which liberals supported (wrongly, in Podhoretz's view) and which conservatives opposed. But Podhoretz’s perspective on why Jews should be in the conservative camp of American politics is perhaps best summarized in his recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal:

The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind – economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. . . [T]he social, political and moral systems that liberals wish to transform is the very system in and through which Jews found a home such as they had never discovered in all their forced wanderings throughout the centuries over the face of the earth. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded – and apologized for to other nations – is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.
Here, then, lies one of the many flaws in Podhoretz’s analysis. He essentially argues that, because conservatives love America more than do liberals, and since America has done more for Jews than any other country, Jews should be conservative. At Beth Or, Podhoretz added that Obama, as a “false messiah” out to radically transform American society, is a threat to the very society that has so benefited Jews (he, of course, offered no factual support for this ridiculously untrue assertion). Setting aside the offensive notion that liberals do not love America, for a man of such intellectual credentials as Podhoretz, his logic and analysis are disappointing.

Podhoretz arrogantly and simplistically dismisses the possibility that Jewish values have influenced the liberal leanings of American Jews. If that were true, he declares, the Orthodox Jewish community would be among the most liberal. Instead, Orthodox Jews, who know Jewish law and tradition better than anyone, are the most conservative of America’s Jews. He notes, for example, that Jewish law as expressed in the Torah forbids abortion except to save the life of the mother, and that it condemns homosexuality. Here, he sounds much like my fundamentalist Christian friends, selectively quoting from scripture and ignoring all else. Podhoretz contends that for many liberal and secular Jews, most of whom are pro-choice and support gay rights, political liberalism has become their religion, not Judaism.

I do agree with Podhoretz in one respect: there is a distinct segment on the left, in the United States and particularly in Europe, who now regards Israel coldly. This is a shame and something I have attempted to counter whenever the topic presents itself. The left indeed is far too quick to criticize Israel while ignoring the constant threats to Israel’s survival, and ignoring or justifying the daily missile attacks, acts of terrorism, and the corruption of Palestinian governance. But I think Podhoretz, in the interest of making his point, overstates his point, and ignores many inconvenient truths.

First, Podhoretz assumes that uncritical support for Israel is required to demonstrate support for Israel. Republicans are better for the Jews solely because, in his mind, Republicans are more uncritically supportive of Israel. It is true that enthusiasm for Israel among conservatives is sincere, and that sympathy for the Palestinians is mostly on the left. “The problem,” according to Leon Wieseltier, literary editor for the New Republic who critiqued Why Are Jews Liberals? in the New York Times, “is that he cannot suppose that sympathy for the Palestinians may coexist with sympathy, and even love, for Israel.” There are many pro-Israel supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who believe that the survival of Israel depends on the establishment of a Palestinian state; and that the absorption of millions of Palestinians into Israel, by annexation or occupation, will destroy the Jewish character or the democratic character, or both, of Israel. Podhoretz simply assumes that any sympathy expressed for the Palestinians is doctrinally incorrect and that any American President that does not automatically comply with the demands of the Israeli government is insufficiently supportive. He mistakenly assumes that all Jews think monolithically about Israel, and that Jewish interests equate with unabashed, uncritical support for the actions of the Israeli government – something that even Israelis do not agree with. And he is wrong to suggest that the Democratic Party is no longer pro-Israel – it is and always has been pro-Israel and, historically, has been a far more reliable supporter of Israel than has the Republican Party.

Second, Podhoretz overlooks the progressive strains of Zionism in his historical account of the emergence of Jewish liberalism. For the same reasons Jews fled Europe for America, they came to Israel, where at the beginning of the 20th century they proceeded to create a Jewish society in the Middle East that reflected and put into practice their progressive ideals. They formed kibbutzim, emphasized the value of community, and formed models of national health care and other forms of social democratic governance. The Israeli National Health System, for example, is one of the most advanced health care systems in the world, which rivals the United States on everything from quality to cost to coverage. It is extremely popular, well managed, and provides compulsory coverage for all Israeli citizens. Maybe Podhoretz believes that conservative principles need benefit only American Jews.

Third, Podhoretz fails to explain how Jewish values and interests are served by the Republican positions on the many other issues of governance and politics. He fails to explain why Jews should support Republican policies concerning the allocation of government resources, health care reform, abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, environmental protections, gun control, school prayer, military expenditures, and U.S. foreign policy in areas like Latin America, Africa, and Asia. He contends that affirmative action has hurt Jews disproportionately, despite very little evidence of this, and fails to acknowledge that affirmative action is a complex issue for which many reasonable people disagree. “It is . . . a matter about which liberals differ not only with conservatives, but also among themselves,” as Wieseltier explained.

Fourth, Podhoretz argues that American Jews, as the most economically successful ethnic group in American life, should be more accepting of Republican economic policies, which favor the affluent. Yet he ignores that Jewish religious traditions and the Torah support such concepts as “welcoming the stranger,” providing for the poor, treating workers fairly, and other liberal tenets of American politics. It perplexes Podhoretz that anyone would vote against their economic self-interest, citing Milton Himmelfarb's once humorous observation, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” Wieseltier eloquently counters this conception:

It is not a delusion, not a treason, to vote against your own economic interest. It is a recognition of the multiplicity of interests, the many purposes, that make up a citizen’s life. When, in the Torah of Judaism, Moses commands the Jews to perform acts of social welfare, he sometimes adds the admonition that they were themselves strangers and slaves. . . . The fact that we are no longer strangers and slaves is not all we need to know. We may not regard the world solely from the standpoint of our own prosperity, our own safety, our own contentment. . . . The question of whether liberalism or conservatism does more for the helpless and the downtrodden, for the ones who are not like us, will be endlessly debated, and it is not a Jewish debate; but if the answer is liberalism, then the political history of American Jewry is neither a mystery nor a scandal.
Indeed, what seems so difficult for Podhoretz to fathom is that many American Jews vote liberal, or at least vote Democratic, for the reasons many Americans vote Democratic – because they believe it is better for America.

Even Jewish Republicans over the years (Jacob Javits, Rudy Boschwitz, Arlen Specter) have traditionally been moderate to liberal on social issues, supporting abortion rights, environmental protections, the separation of church and state, issues that have become less welcome in the Republican Party since the Reagan Revolution in the 1980’s. The dominance of the religious right in the Republican Party scares a lot of American Jews. Many of the same Christian conservatives who so adamantly support Israel also support prayer in schools, believe in proselytizing among Jews (even in Israel), reject the theory of evolution and deny the impact of human activity of climate change despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary (a topic for another day). Is it really any surprise that, as a minority religious group, most Jews are opposed to letting conservative Christian dogma dictate the laws over a woman’s reproductive rights, or prayer in schools, or the civil rights of gays and lesbians?

Finally, while it may be true that Christian conservatives support Israel, for many it is tied to the belief that it will hasten the Rapture. I believe that Podhoretz is asking the wrong question. It is not, “Why are Jews liberal?” Rather, it should be, “Where else are Jews to go?” Many centrist and moderately conservative Jews continue to vote for Democrats simply because the right wing of the Republican Party makes them uncomfortable. Perhaps, rather than trying to convince Jews to vote for Republicans, Podhoretz should attempt to make the GOP less beholden to social and religious conservatives, less hostile to minority rights, more open to scientific knowledge and research, and more reflective of Jewish values of justice as reflected in the Torah.

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