Are Jews Really Liberal?

In time for the High Holidays, Daphne Merkin examines the hot air rhetoric in Norman Podhoretz’s new polemic, Why Are Jews Liberal?, and comes away unconvinced.

Odelia Cohen

The first magazine I ever wrote for, straight out of Barnard, was Commentary, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee and edited by Norman Podhoretz from 1960 through 1995. (Podhoretz, of course, was crucial to the repositioning of the magazine in the early 1970s from a mouthpiece of the New Left to one of the New Right, otherwise known as neoconservatism.) Although the magazine and I went our separate ways more quickly than not—on my novice assignment as a movie-critic, I failed to view Looking for Mr. Goodbear as a cautionary tale about the counterculture—a quote from a New Yorker review I did of Podhoretz adorns the back of Ex-Friends. And although I am a registered Democrat, I can’t abide the self-satisfied liberal pieties of the sort endorsed by the insufferably smug Keith Olbermann. Suffice it to say that I at some time or other have subscribed to every magazine on Earth (except The Nation) and I am an ardent Zionist.

Other than his chums, I can’t see who will be persuaded by a book that deals in ham-fisted assertions about the Christian right and sweeping observations about liberals (a term that is always used in the pejorative sense), many of them backed up by little other than a bunch of straggling statistics and a manhandled fact or two.

So by all indications I should be the perfect reader for Podhoretz’s latest book, Why Are Jews Liberals? As someone who keeps her politics limber and does not believe that living on the Upper West Side with a fair amount of money means that you’re more morally accountable than someone who lives on the Upper East Side with the same amount of money, I ought to be ripe for conversion—or at least a shift starboard. Yet after reading Podhoretz’s stoutly argued polemic, it seems clear to me that the conversations on both the left and the right are sealed-off affairs, lacking the charge that would come from a cross-pollination of ideas.

I suppose it is inevitable that wars of words enjoy immunity from flesh-and-blood clashes; neocons sup with neocons, liberals dine with liberals, and never the twain shall share so much as an haricot vert. Still, it seems to me a pity that Podhoretz has here opted to preach to the choir rather than make an effort to win over the wayward. Other than his chums, I can’t see who will be persuaded by a book that deals in ham-fisted assertions about the Christian right and sweeping observations about liberals (a term that is always used in the pejorative sense), many of them backed up by little other than a bunch of straggling statistics and a manhandled fact or two.

Why Are Jews Liberals? sets itself up as a sweeping inquiry into what are presumed to be the bewilderingly wrong-headed voting patterns of American Jewry. The book consists of two parts—a cobbled-together history of “How The Jews Became Liberals” followed by a memoir-esque exploration of “Why the Jews Are Still Liberals,” which is written in a boastful first-person voice—and begins with a quip by Milton Himmelfarb: “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” (Podhoretz, who praises with the same mysteriously adduced and ringing authority with which he attacks, describes this crass quote as “a brilliant and deservedly famous epigram.”) It goes on to examine the “ideal of tolerance” that came to mean so much to Jews and that was associated with a liberal ethos (“what would soon be characterized as the left”) by offering a quick overview of traditional sources of anti-Semitism, starting with “the birth of Christianity out of the womb of Judaism.”

We read of the anti-Semitic massacres that blighted the early years of the church during the First and Second Crusades and the creation of Jewish ghettos in Poland during the Middle Ages. From there, Podhoretz takes on the Enlightenment, with its anti-Christian and purportedly pro-Jewish bias, bringing to our attention the frequent lapses in fraternal affection of the great philosophes, ranging from Diderot to Voltaire. While Diderot declared that the Jews were “an ignorant and superstitious nation,” the supposedly level-headed Voltaire went further and dismissed them as “the most detestable [nation] ever to have sullied the earth.” Although the Jewish espousal of Enlightenment principles is generally understood to come out of benign self-interest, Podhoretz assesses it as “partaking of the pathological”—the reason being that, as he sees it, the Age of Enlightenment was not willing to accept Jews as Jews any more than was the medieval world. The one wanted them to convert to the “Religion of Reason”; the other to Christianity.

Podhoretz quickly moves along in history, always keeping his eye on the all-important issue of left vs. right. He takes us through the rise of Bolshevism, the Dreyfus Affair, the creation of the völkish (nationalist) movement in Germany that reached its nadir in the Holocaust, and the ratification of a Jewish homeland. Eventually we land in a post-New Deal America, where divergent interest groups—blacks, women and gays—have an increasingly vocal say, some of it inimical to Jewish concerns. (To his credit, Podhoretz, whose disregard for political correctness has its occasional winning side, is willing to address the thorny issue of black anti-Semitism as it first emerged in the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 as well as the implicit question of quotas that is raised by affirmative action.)

In his effort to drive home his argument—which is, essentially, that Jews are moral masochists who fail to realize on which side their bread is buttered and in doing so fail to look out for the security of Israel—Podhoretz makes common cause with Orthodox Jews, of whom he approves for voting along more conservative patterns. (Never mind that, in all the years I hovered on the outer rim of the Commentary crowd, Podhoretz never struck me as particularly interested in Jewish learning or Jewish observance.) He makes the obvious point that Orthodox Jews are uncomfortable with some of the issues—ranging from abortion to gay marriage—that are idées accomplis on the liberal agenda but in the process conveniently confuses Jewish religious concerns, which tend toward the traditional, with Jewish social concerns, which have always tended toward the progressive. (Marxism may have become “a new kind of Torah” for secular Jews but it’s a long way from there to suggesting that Republicanism should become the new Torah for secular and committed Jews alike.) Another assumption that Podhoretz takes for granted is that American Jews who are Zionists should vote for a president almost entirely on the basis of that person’s attitude to Israel—an argument that at the very least is up for debate. A part of me has always felt that if one were a truly committed Zionist, one would live in Israel, but neither Podhoretz nor I do. Short of that, there’s a kind of hypocrisy in living as a physical citizen of one country and a spiritual citizen of another.

Allen Ginsberg, whom Podhoretz dismissed as a “know-nothing Bohemian,” once described him as being in possession of “a great ridiculous fat-bellied mind which he pats too often.” Like everything Ginsberg said, there is something to it, although it must also be noted that Podhoretz has always had a way of upending the prevailing Zeitgeist by suggesting that we fail to take in certain pieces of Realpolitik that are staring us squarely in the face—such as the fact that anti-Semitism on the left, disguised as conscience-plagued anti-Zionism, has been given an ever-stronger voice since the late 1960s, which Podhoretz was early to call out. He has, admittedly, the courage of his convictions, even when they seem unpersuasive on the face of it, and clearly likes nothing better than a good fight. But in the end, Why Are Jews Liberals? is not so much a clarion call for rigorous discussion pro and con as a huffing and puffing piece of rhetoric—a case of intellectual shadow-boxing.

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Daphne Merkin was a staff writer for The New Yorker and is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and Elle. She is the author of a novel, Enchantment, and a collection of essays, Dreaming of Hitler.