Why are Jews so obstinate? Voting behavior of other ethnic groups trends rightward over time. Not for Jews. Their liberal persuasion is undiminished despite their extraordinary success in America. The paradox riles noted neoconservative Norman Podhoretz. It doesn’t add up and he’s downright faklempt.
Jews’ liberalism is well established. Since 1928, three-quarters of Jews typically vote Democratic in presidential elections. They cast 78 percent of their ballots for Obama, or 35 percentage points higher than that from non-Jewish whites. Views on abortion, gun control, school prayer, and other hot-button issues bear out that Jews are the most liberal group in the country. “Jews earn like Episcopalians,“ scholar Milton Himmelfarb said in the 1950s, “and vote like Puerto Ricans.” It holds true today.
Might such peculiar behavior be attributed to intrinsically liberal “Jewish values?” Not at all, says Podhoretz. Those most familiar with such values, the Orthodox, are the one group of Jews who are reliably conservative. The answer therefore must lie elsewhere. But Podheretz, writing in the Wall Street Journal, provides no insight. He only laments that liberalism has superseded Judaism for most American Jews to such a degree that a conservative conversion is seen as tantamount to a Christian one.
The circumstance is particularly objectionable given that liberals, in Podhoretz’s telling, are hopelessly consumed with the country’s shortcomings while more decorous conservatives celebrate its attributes and defend its virtues. Why, then, should Jews, who have reaped a bountiful harvest from their adopted North American homeland, be such ungrateful whiners? Perhaps he’s answered his question, as Jews, according to the stereotype, are nothing if not complainers!
The true answer is as obvious as it is lost on Podhoretz. Understanding the present, as ever, requires looking to the past. A collective memory of persecution animates Jews’ worldview. In this light, Jewish steadfast commitment to social justice, i.e., what’s wrong with the country, in Podhoretz’s reductionist view, is not a pathological fixation, but rather the result of its cruel absence for much of Semitic history. America has welcomed Jews but memories cast long shadows. And it’s not just shadows. Podhoretz’s ideological brethren keep the specter of a dark past alive.
Arguably the most influential conservative constituency, the evangelical right, speaks a language that evokes atavistic fears. Protestations of America’s true Christian identity and efforts to inject sectarianism in the body politic are deeply worrying to a people well acquainted with the perils of religious authoritarianism. Developing a thicker skin is not easy when code decrying the “liberal media” or “Hollywood elite” echo millennia of accusations of Jewish conspiracy and perfidy. Given the power and heft of the evangelical mullahs it is Jewish conservatives, not liberals, who have much to explain.
The politics of Jews living in the Diaspora cannot be addressed without mention of Israel. And it is this matter that truly exercises Podhoretz. That liberal Jews are insufficiently supportive of their ancestral homeland is unpardonable. Podhoretz grouses about Obama pursuing policies “dangerous” to Israel’s security, yet American Jews back him anyway. He doesn’t elaborate how the president threatens the Jewish state but his record is clear. For decades Podhoretz has accused those less hawkish than he—which is most—of being “appeasers” who have not learned the lesson of Munich.
Podhoretz, like many neoconservatives, sees weak-kneed capitulation at every turn. Most American Jews do not make the same mistake. They understand that unconditional love is no love at all. As a result, they appreciate that what Israel does is not always good for Israel (or for the US). That lesson is sinking in. As former American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk observes, “In the Bush years, when Israel enjoyed a blank check, increasingly numbers of people in the Jewish and pro-Israel community began to wonder, if this was the best president Israel ever had, how come Israel’s circumstances seemed to be deteriorating so rapidly?”
Ironically, it is precisely the carte blanche policies towards Israel advocated by Podhoretz and his like who help alienate American Jews from the Jewish state. Syndicated columnist Harold Meyerson makes this very point. “American Jews,” he writes, “remain intensely committed to liberalism and to universal values and minority rights. As a democratic state rising on the ashes of the Holocaust, Israel once embodied those values to its supporters, but 42 years of occupation have rendered Israel a state that test those values more than affirms them.”
That’s appeaser claptrap to Podhoretz, the sort that led to Jews being marched into ovens. Instead, Jews should check their bleeding hearts at the door, stand firm, and start voting, not just earning, like Episcopalians. For the sake of the US and for the sake of Israel, let’s hope that American Jews remain Puerto Ricans at heart.