THE BLOG
11/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A "Liberal Jew" Responds to Norman Podhoretz

I have often wondered how it is that Jews can be conservative Republicans, so I found it interesting to read Norman Podhoretz' flipping of that question in his "Why are Jews Liberals?" He bemoans Jews' tenacious support of Democratic political candidates and the Democratic platform. He decries those Jews who so "sincerely believe that their liberalism, together with their commitment to the Democratic party as its main political vehicle, stems from the teachings of Judaism and reflects the heritage of Jewish values."

Essentially, he can't comprehend why Jews do not vote in their own race and class interests. "Why are Jews Liberals?" Mr. Podhoretz asks. Let me tell you why....

Every Jew grows up learning that we must "never forget" the past: never forget the six million killed in the Holocaust; never forget the experience of slavery; never forget the pogroms; never forget the experience of institutionalized discrimination and inequality; never forget the continued sporadic anti-Semitic hate crimes; never forget the experience of facing the ever-present threat of violence and death simply because of our identity as Jews.

Like many other immigrant groups, Jews came to the US because of its democratic ideals and promise of freedom and opportunity. I continue to cherish those ideals. The problem, however, is that the American system has not made good on the promise of those ideals to all Americans. The American system did eventually make good on these promises for Jews; that has not been the case for the many people of color whose ancestors did not willingly immigrate to the US (Native-Americans whose land America stole; African-Americans brought here in chains and treated as property; and many Hispanics and Latinos whose land was confiscated in the Mexican-American war -- known in Mexico as the War of the US Invasion).

This is why so many Jews refuse to support the conservative politics of exclusion and fear. Podhoretz would have us chop down the ladder behind us.

"If anything bears eloquent testimony to the infinitely precious virtues of the traditional American system," he proclaims, "it is the Jewish experience in this country. Surely, then, we Jews ought to be joining with its defenders against those who are blind or indifferent or antagonistic to the philosophical principles, the moral values, and the socioeconomic institutions on whose health and vitality the traditional American system depends."

What is essential here is that we distinguish between American ideals and the "American system." The Democratic party is not antagonistic to the ideals of this nation. But it recognizes, if only minimally, that the system often keeps those ideals out of reach for many.

As so many historians, sociologists and other researchers have painstakingly documented (see a sampling of the peer-reviewed research in the references below) the category of "whiteness" was created to unite disparate Euro-Americans and to set them apart from African-Americans and Native Americans. Tim Wise summarizes this vast literature, noting that during slavery, "the term 'white' to describe Europeans en masse was born as an umbrella term to capture the new pan-Euro unity needed to defend the system of African slavery and Indian genocide going on in the Americas. And the trick worked marvelously, dampening down the push for rebellion by poor whites on the basis of class interest and encouraging them to cast their lot with the elite."

These tactics continued, and the category of white expanded, eventually opening up membership to Jews. For example, in her excellent study How Jews Became White Folks Karen Brodkin examines how massive affirmative action programs such as the GI bill, including FHA loans, college loans, and concurrent suburbanization opened up opportunities for white euro-ethnics, but denied these same benefits to African-American vets. As she highlights, "Those racially skewed gains have been passed across the generations, so that racial inequality seems to maintain itself 'naturally,' even after legal segregation ended ... For example, having parents who own their own homes or who have decent retirement benefits can make a real difference in young people's ability" to succeed.

Including Jews in the expanding category of "whites" provided Jewish families with access to a wealth of opportunities denied people of color. As a Jew, I cannot forget both the oppression that Jews have experienced throughout so much of our history, on the one hand, and the privileges we have received since being embraced as white, on the other hand.

Podhoretz would have us forget our history and embrace an identity and set of interests based on our current race and class position, in order to protect and preserve these privileges. This is to say, essentially, that inequality and oppression is okay as long as it is not aimed at us. But the majority of Jews that continue to identify as liberals feel some empathy, born of oppression, for other oppressed groups.

When I learned the meaning of the phrase "never again," I learned that it not only referred to Jews -- but to all humanity. Furthermore, I know that as long as we are able to treat any group of humans as unequal and undeserving of the same rights and opportunities, Jews will not be safe.

Podhoretz' views are not good for Jews, and they are certainly not good for America. It is time we align our system with our ideals.

Examine the historical research for yourself:

*Brodkin, K. How Jews Became White Folks: And What That Says About Race in America. Rutgers, 1998.
*Feagin, Joe R. Racist America: Roots, current realities, and future reparations. 2001. NY: Routledge.
*Ignatiev, N. How the Irish Became White. Routledge, 2008.
*Jacobson, M. F. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Harvard University Press. 1999.
*Johnson, A. G. (2006). Privilege, Power and Difference, 2nd edition. Mayfield.
*Katznelson, I. When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America, W.W. Norton, 2006.
*Kimmel, M. and A. Ferber, Privielge: A Reader. Westview, second edition forthcoming, 2010.
*Oliver, M. and T. Shapiro. Black Wealth / White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality second edition. Routledge, 2006.
*Roediger, D. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class, Verso, 2007.
*Roediger, D. Working Toward Whiteness: How America's Immigrants Became White: The Strange Journey from Ellis Island to the Suburbs. Basic Books, 2006.
*Shapiro, T. The Hidden Cost of Being African-American. Oxford University Press. 2004.
*Wise, T. Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male. Soft Skull Press, 2008.