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Norman Podhoretz's Jewish Question

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In the Wall Street Journal this week, Norman Podhoretz, one of the grand old men of neo-conservatism, rues the fact that his (our) tribespeople remain overwhelmingly liberal and hopes against hope that they will begin to experience "buyer's remorse" about their ill-advised support for Barack Obama last fall.

Podhoretz:

Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain among Jewish voters by a staggering 57 points. Except for African Americans, who gave him 95% of their vote, Mr. Obama did far better with Jews than with any other ethnic or religious group. Thus the Jewish vote for him was 25 points higher than the 53% he scored with the electorate as a whole; 35 points higher than the 43% he scored with whites; 11 points higher than the 67% he scored with Hispanics; 33 points higher than the 45% he scored with Protestants; and 24 points higher than the 54% he scored with Catholics.

These numbers remind us of the extent to which the continued Jewish commitment to the Democratic Party has become an anomaly. All the other ethno-religious groups that, like the Jews, formed part of the coalition forged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s have followed the rule that increasing prosperity generally leads to an increasing identification with the Republican Party. But not the Jews. As the late Jewish scholar Milton Himmelfarb said in the 1950s: "Jews earn like Episcopalians"--then the most prosperous minority group in America--"and vote like Puerto Ricans," who were then the poorest.

Jews also remain far more heavily committed to the liberal agenda than any of their old ethno-religious New Deal partners. As the eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer has put it, "whatever the promptings of their economic interests," Jews have consistently supported "increased government spending, expanded benefits to the poor and lower classes, greater regulations on business, and the power of organized labor."

As with these old political and economic questions, so with the newer issues being fought out in the culture wars today. On abortion, gay rights, school prayer, gun control and assisted suicide, the survey data show that Jews are by far the most liberal of any group in America.

In particular, these cultural positions - such as on gay rights and abortion - contradict "Jewish law," according to Podhoretz and highlight the fact that:

in virtually every instance of a clash between Jewish law and contemporary liberalism, it is the liberal creed that prevails for most American Jews. Which is to say that for them, liberalism has become more than a political outlook. It has for all practical purposes superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right. And to the dogmas and commandments of this religion they give the kind of steadfast devotion their forefathers gave to the religion of the Hebrew Bible. For many, moving to the right is invested with much the same horror their forefathers felt about conversion to Christianity.

All this applies most fully to Jews who are Jewish only in an ethnic sense. Indeed, many such secular Jews, when asked how they would define "a good Jew," reply that it is equivalent to being a good liberal.

This is all, of course, a deeply lamentable state of affairs, a depressing case of false consciousness among American Jews who mistakenly believe that their "true allies" are on the political left, whereas in reality, it is the American right that is the proper home for correct-thinking Jews. This is because, according to Podhoretz, the virtues of American society, the ones that afforded this historically persecuted people the opportunity to thrive in a way that was never before imaginable in Jews' troubled wanderings, are precisely those that contemporary liberalism abhors and seeks to tear down.

Podhoretz's view of liberalism is, of course, a silly caricature (and I leave aside Podhoretz's equally silly caricature of Obama's views on Israel). The man he decries as a "false messiah," President Obama, has repeatedly venerated America's unique virtues. And his major policy proposals are, in no meaningful sense an enemy of "the moral values" and "socio-economic institutions" that Podhoretz believes are the foundations of our greatness, unless Podhoretz wants to argue that expanding health care coverage to the less well off is an affront to those values and institutions (and to Jewish ethics). Furthermore, the signature institutions and policies of liberalism, those associated with the New Deal, are precisely the foundations of contemporary American life that the right wing has declared war on.

Should Jewish seniors, secure in their retirement in substantial part because of the twin pillars of Social Security and Medicare, really lament that their co-religionists would prefer to support the party that has most faithfully supported those programs? And what, exactly, in Jewish ethics, supports the principle that the wealthy in America should be given every break, while the less well-off should better learn how to fend for themselves, all in the context of an historically unprecedented thirty year period of upward redistribution of wealth?

That Podhoretz has a skewed view of liberalism and the comforts it has afforded him in his sunset years is one thing. But it's Podhoretz larger ethical vision that is most relevant to his incapacity to understand why the vast majority of Jews don't see things the way he does.

The right-wing today has thrown in its lot with an ugly, intolerant worldview, one premised in the conviction that the browning of America is an irredeemable disaster for our country. It is amazing that Podhoretz could exalt the America that opened its arms to the tired, wretched and poor of the world and insist that Jews should now repay the favor by casting their lot with a party intent on demonizing precisely today's equivalent.

Needless to say, nativist and know-nothing groups in the 19th and into the 20th centuries saw Jews as a cancer upon our society, dirty, ugly people who were biologically incapable of honesty, leaches and parasites on America's collective resources. One can, of course, argue that today's right is only concerned about "illegal" immigrants, just as one can argue that the repeated complaints from the right that Obama should know his place and not be so arrogant have nothing to do with his skin color.

But it really should be no mystery that the overwhelming majority of an historically persecuted minority group might not embrace a party or ideology increasingly indulging in intolerance toward other historically persecuted minorities. Furthermore, it was Jesus who believed that a fundamental obligation of humanity is that God enjoins us to "love thy neighbor as thyself," making this injunction central to the Judeo-Christian world view Podhoretz venerates. The right-wing spin on that injunction these days - which seems obviously to mean to live an empathetic life - is to mock and deride that commandment. But is it really a violation of the spirit of one of the most fundamental of Jewish ethical principles - Tikkun Ha Olam - repair of the world - that Jews should place greater value and priority on treating people with decency and concern than on berating and demonizing them for their failings.

One might insist that this is an unfair characterization of the right. But listen to its leading lights these days - Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, Savage, Palin, etc. - and tell me what about the worldview they articulate is consistent with the broad ethical injunctions to repair the world, help the less fortunate and love others as if they are you yourself.

These basic principles may or may not be the reasons why Jews continue to vote overwhelmingly Democratic. But that Podhoretz cannot see the connection between these principles and a tendency to recoil in horror at the ugliness of the contemporary American right speaks volumes about his own ethically impoverished perspective. The data show that Jews are the least authoritarian group in America. This is perfectly consistent with their own history of persecution at the hands of those who would demonize difference. And it's a perfectly reasonable explanation for why it's not false consciousness or belief in a "false messiah" that would prompt Jews to reject the contemporary American right, to which Podhoretz himself is so slavishly devoted.

Jonathan Weiler's second book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in Contemporary American Politics, co-authored with Marc Hetherington, is just out from Cambridge University Press. He blogs daily about politics and sports at www.jonathanweiler.com