Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberal? Are They?

Norman Podhoretz has just published a book titled Why Are Jews Liberals?. No, I haven't read it - it just came out last week, and I only have 342 books ahead of it on my list, and I'm not certain I'll get to it at all.

Tablet, however, the newish American-Jewish magazine, asked a gaggle of American Jewish intellectuals to write up their thoughts on the matter, which they obligingly did, here, each according to their lights. It's an interesting discussion. (And bear in mind, all yee non-American provincials, that the term is being used in its American meaning which is the opposite of its older, British and European meaning).

I was tickled that none of the writers simply came out and said: Jews are liberals because that's what right-thinking people should be, and how could they be anything else? Had anyone asked me to write, in a short paragraph, why a majority of Jews are Zionists, I might have said Because that's what right-thinking Jews must be, and how could they be anything else?

Still, there's a serious point here, and that's that what American Jews are and what non-American Jews are is not obviously the same. A large majority of American Jews really are liberals, and it will be interesting to see what happens if and when they ever have to reconcile that with support for an Israel many liberals no-longer like; one fears some may prefer the American issue, not the Jewish one.

As usual with blogging, I can get away with taking this serious discussion no further, for lack of time or inclination. Were I writing for a respectable journal, the editor would send me scurrying back to my quill and parchment to keep on working.


Andrew said...

I have no take on the question in the title. I'm not a Jew, and I find it a bad idea to speculate on why other people are the way they are, especially when doing so involves making sweeping conclusions about an entire ethnic/religious group.

I can, however, comment on the relationship between American liberals and Israel, being an American liberal and a strong supporter of Israel. Set aside for a second questions about specific aspects of the Middle East situation where reasonable people who are strong supporters of Israel can disagree.

Support for Israel in the US is obviously a bi-partisan issue. The Democratic leadership is not notably more hostile toward Israel than the Republican leadership, and both parties are committed to her security. Again, setting aside disagreements on specific issues where reasonable people disagree on what approach best secures Israel.

But if it's an issue that largely transcends partisanship, it's not one that transcends ideology. The difference here is that pretty much all wings of the Republican party, from the shrinking ranks of Rockefeller moderates to the staunchest religious conservatives, tend to support Israel. Some of have slightly less noble rationales. And we can point out individual Republicans (Buchanan, Pat) who are hostile. But I think the general point stands.

The difference is that some of the more leftist elements of the Democratic Party aren't in the same boat.It is one of the great annoyances of my life that too many of my fellow liberals have so completely embraced the Palestinian cause as their own. I wouldn't presume to put any percentages on it. But I've seen entirely too many liberals who consider Israel an illegitimate, bastard state, an apartheid nation on par with some of the worst criminal actors in human history. This isn't about supporting a settlement dismantling or calling for a reduction in West Bank checkpoints. It is, simply, a distaste for Israel and her citizens that borders on loathing and hatred.

It's only an annoyance because those people don't get elected to anything. And they're not appointed to high level advisory positions. But there are quite a lot of them, and they're not completely influence-less. These are people who are liberals because they support the rights of women and the rights of homosexuals, and they have such hostility for the only country in the region that has even remotely laudable approaches to those issues.

Israel's critics tend to fall into three categories: the group I described above. You don't see them in The New York Times. There's a second group that has no great fondness for Israel, might consider the country itself a mistake, almost certainly thinks it's on the wrong side of history's moral ledger, but doesn't possess the sort of flagrant hostility we see from others. Your man Glenn Greenwald falls into that category. And then you have The Friends, the group of critics who say they do all they do out of love for Israel. Roger Cohen is the spokesman here.

marek said...

I think that the problem is about the definition of "liberalism".
I do not think that you will find today many "liberal" conservatives that dispute the right for abortion, sex emancipation, recreational drugs usage, race equality, etc. Most likely some restrictions apply, like late term, decriminalization of hard drugs, abuse of equal opportunity policies, etc. Consequently, I would rather rephrase the question as why Jews tend to lean/drift towards the left.
And that question is truly perplexing.

Alex Bensky said...

I think Marek has the right idea. There was, for example, a rather nasty review of Podhoretz's book in last Sunday's NY Times book section.

The problem is that "liberal" means something other than it did. When i was growing up and getting active in politics the term was applied to a broad spectrum but at least included people like Hubert Humphrey, George Meany, and Scoop Jackson. There is no room for such people in today's liberalism.

Also the principles have changed. I won't belabor JFK's "bear any burden and pay any price" regarding freedom around the world--a stereotypical neoconservative sentiment today. But liberalism used to mean supporting freedom of speech for everyone, striving for color blindness, etc.

Same word, different ideas.

This Is Hell said...

For the same reason that one core of Obama's support is white middle class people who self identify overwhelmingly as 'progressive' while Blacks and Hispanics who voted for Obama with a near totality self describe themselves as 'progressive' only 10%. In other words, Jews are liberals because it's a patronizing attitude to help people who themselves are in no way progressive.

aiwac said...

"Jews are liberals because that's what right-thinking people should be, and how could they be anything else?"

I enjoy your blog very much and have learned much from reading it. However, the above quote from your latest seems to me to be a little over-the-top.

Don't you think this statement is just a little condescending and paternalistic? Whence the overwhelming and overweening confidence that it's "obvious" that the liberal creed is the only legitamite position for right-thinking people? What about conservatives (in the Burkean, religious or other senses)? What about libertarians?

Regardless of why most Jews are liberal - a debatable point - this automatic poo-pooing of any other political and cultural doctrine as a priori wrong is not a healthy one (and the same goes for conservatives/right-wingers who hold to said idea). Is it any wonder, then, that public debate in Israel feels like a mutli-logue of the deaf and the dumb?

Frankly, I had hoped for better from you.

Yaacov said...

aiwac - I wasn't stating an opinion one way or the other. I was remarking on the fact that none of the writers said it. After all, some of them must think it?

Anonymous said...

Andrew - Excellent post.


Anonymous said...

Ron Kampeas at JTA has an excellent piece about the Podhoretz article and Greenwald's response in Salon. Greenwald even has something in the comments section. The article is quite long, but basically Kampeas says that neither Podhoretz nor Greenwall know what they are talking about. Here is the link:



This Is Hell said...

Unfortunately though Greenwald is a hard core antizionist who has a considerable track record of working for and with Pat Buchanan as well as a disturbing propensity to legally defend neo Nazis. Greenwald is at best an amoral anarchist who is the darling of the left because he hates many of the same people they hate. But more likely he's a garden variety Jew hating blogger.