Whey are Jews Liberals?
LIKE NORMAN PODHORETZ, I am often asked by non-Jewish conservatives why American Jews cling so tenaciously to the left and vote so consistently for Democrats, and like him I believe the answer to that question is theological: Liberalism has superseded Judaism as the religion of most American Jews.
Unlike Podhoretz, however, I cannot personally remember a time when this ardent liberalism seemed a sensible response to American Jewish life. Nor did I take it in with my mother's milk. One of my earliest political memories is of accompanying my father to the polls early on Election Day in November 1968. It was the first time I had seen the inside of a voting booth, and my father let me pull the lever for Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential candidate.
When I described this adventure to my mother after returning home, she told me that she would be going later that day to cast her own vote -- for Richard Nixon. At a young age, therefore, I absorbed the lesson that Jews need not vote in lockstep, and that voting for a Republican was as normal as voting for a Democrat.
Most American Jews, on the other hand, seem to have learned from an early age that to be Jewish is to be a liberal Democrat, no matter what. No matter that anti-Semitism today makes its home primarily on the Left, while in most quarters of the Right, hostility toward Jews has been anathematized. No matter that Israel's worst enemies congregate with leftists, while its staunchest defenders tend to be resolute conservatives. No matter that Republicans support the Jewish state by far larger margins than Democrats do. No matter that on a host of issues -- homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, racial preferences, public prayer -- the "Torah" of contemporary liberalism, as Podhoretz calls it, diverges sharply from the Torah of Judaism. As Why Are Jews Liberals? convincingly and depressingly demonstrates, the loyalty of American Jews to the left has been unaffected by the failure of the left to reciprocate that loyalty.
The Jewish predilection for ill-advised political choices isn't new. The Bible describes the yearning of the ancient Israelites for a king, and God's warning that monarchy would bring them despotism and misery. Appoint a king, God has the prophet Samuel tell the people, and he will seize your sons and daughters, your fields and vineyards. "He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his servants. Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day."
His warning fell on deaf ears. "Nevertheless, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, and they said, 'No, but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations.'" (1 Samuel 8:17-20)
The longing to "be like all the nations" is a recurring motif in Jewish history. Baal-worshipers in the time of the prophets, Judean Hellenists in the Chanukah story, 19th-century assimilationist maskilim, Jewish socialists enthralled by Marx's classless utopia, modern post-Zionists in quest of a non-Jewish Israel -- down through the ages, in one way or another, innumerable Jews have fought or fled from Jewish "otherness" and embraced lifestyles or beliefs that promised to make them less distinctive. Given the cruelty and violence to which Jews were so often subjected, it is not surprising that many would seek to shed or neutralize their Jewishness.
Even in America, a haven of security and prosperity without parallel in the long Jewish Diaspora, many Jews wanted nothing to do with the old Jewish identity. There are stories, perhaps apocryphal, of Jewish men throwing their tefillin into the ocean as the ship bringing them to America came within sight of New York Harbor. "Because tefillin were something for the Old World," explains a character in Dara Horn's acclaimed 2002 novel, In the Image, "and here in the New World, they didn't need them any more."
Apocryphal or not, there is no disputing that countless European Jewish immigrants to the goldene medina -- the "golden land" -- took advantage of their new circumstances to cast off the old faith. Or their children did. Or their grandchildren. As a result, Jews today are the least religious community in the United States. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 16 percent attend religious services at least once a week, compared with 39 percent of Americans generally. Just 31 percent say religion is "very important" in their lives (vs. 56 percent of Americans).
Such data lead Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi, to quote a comment made by the late hasidic troubadour Shlomo Carlebach after a lifetime of visiting American campuses: "I ask students what they are. If someone gets up and says, I'm a Catholic, I know that's a Catholic. If someone says, I'm a Protestant, I know that's a Protestant. If someone gets up and says, I'm just a human being, I know that's a Jew."
"Just-a-human-being" liberalism, secular and universalist -- there is the dead end into which the flight from Jewish separateness has led so many American Jews. To call it a dead end is not to deny its allure. Much of liberalism's appeal lay in making Jews feel good about themselves, secure in the conviction that they were part of a broad and enlightened mainstream. Liberalism freed them from the charge of parochial self-interest that had so often been leveled against Jews. It replaced the ancient, sometimes-difficult burden of chosenness -- the Jewish mission to live by God's law and bring the world to ethical monotheism -- with a more palatable and popular commitment to equality, tolerance, and "social justice."
To be sure, loyalty to the Democratic Party came naturally to Jews, with their inherited memories of a Europe in which emancipation had been a project of the left, and where reactionary anti-Semites had (usually) attacked from the right. As Norman Podhoretz writes, that loyalty understandably intensified during World War II, when the most lethal enemy in Jewish history was ultimately destroyed by an alliance led by a liberal Democrat named Franklin Roosevelt.
But liberal Democrats no longer lead such alliances, and they heatedly oppose those who do. The Soviet Union was defeated not by Jimmy Carter, who urged his countrymen to shed their "inordinate fear of communism," but by Ronald Reagan, who labeled the USSR an "Evil Empire" and was denounced by the left as a warmonger. Bill Clinton signed the Iraq Liberation Act, but it was George W. Bush who carried out that liberation in the face of scathing liberal hostility. Republicans are the party that sees the current conflict against global jihadists as the decisive struggle of our time, while the few Democrats who express that view -- as Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman can testify -- are scorned by their party's liberal base.
FDR and Harry Truman are long gone, and so too is the muscular Democratic liberalism that defeated Adolf Hitler and brought the Holocaust to an end. To deal with the would-be Hitlers of our era -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Jew-hating mullahs in Iran -- today's Democrats counsel pacifism and appeasement and endless negotiation. These days it is the right that calls for strong and decisive action against the enemies of the free world. Today the beleaguered Jewish state's most unshakable American allies are Republican and conservative. Yet American Jews remain what they have been for so long: unshakably Democratic and liberal.
This liberalism isn't rational. It isn't sensible. It certainly isn't good for the Jews.
But it is, as religions often are, deeply reassuring.
It is reassuring for liberal Jews to believe that all people are fundamentally decent and reasonable, and that all disputes can be settled through compromise and conciliation. It is reassuring to believe in a world in which nothing is ever solved by war, so that military force is unnecessary and expensive weapons systems are wasteful. It is reassuring to believe that America is a secular nation, that God and religion have no place in the public square, and that no debt of gratitude is owed to the Christians who created the extraordinary society in which American Jews have thrived. It is reassuring to believe that crime is caused by guns, that academia is the seat of wisdom, and that humanity's biggest problem is global warming. It is reassuring to believe that compassion can be achieved by passing the right laws and that big government can create prosperity. It is reassuring to believe that tikkun olam is a synonym for the liberal agenda, and that the liberal agenda flows directly from the teachings of Judaism.
Above all it is reassuring to believe that Jews are no different from anyone else, that they are not called to a unique role in human events, and that the best way to be a good Jew is to be a conscientious citizen of the world. To be liberal, in short, is to be "like all the nations." It is a seductive and comforting belief, and American Jews are far from the first to embrace it.
Jeff Jacoby is an op-ed columnist for The Boston Globe.