Monday, September 14, 2009

Because They Believe

In his new book, Norman Podhoretz has some fine exasperated fun with the wildness of interpretation on the Jewish left, and of course spares the Jewish right any culpability for the same sin. So it is worth recalling that a few years ago he published a book about the prophets in which they emerged as the neoconservatives of ancient Israel. Their castigations of the sacrifice of children prompted a reflection on the “pagan practice” of the entry of women into the work force.

Another fine conservative tenet, this paganism.

Norman Podhoretz loves his people and loves his country, and I salute him for it, since I love the same people and the same country. But this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it. Instead there is only bewilderment that others do not see it, too. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a document of his bewilderment; and there is a Henry Higgins-­like poignancy to his discovery that his brethren are not more like himself. But the refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing. Jews are liberals, he concludes, as a consequence of “willful blindness and denial.” He has a philosophy. They have a psychology.

Such was what I saw in Podhoretz's article in the Wall Street Journal last week, either an excerpt from, or a distillation of, his primary argument: liberal Jews aren't really Jewish; their liberalism is their religion.
Podhoretz, Norman. (2009). Why are Jews liberals? New York: Doubleday.

There was a time, though it was not a long time, when there was a basis in reality for the Jewish hope in a liberalizing society and a secularizing culture. What else should the Jews of modernity have done — ­chanted the Psalms and waited for Reagan? It is curious that Podhoretz neglects to discuss Zionism in his account of the emergence of Jewish liberalism, since it was born of the same repudiation of inherited circumstances and the same recovery of historical agency, and it proceeded to create a Jewish society in the Middle East that was designed to fulfill the progressive ideals of Europe. Podhoretz grasps the European tragedy, but without a tragic sense. All that matters to him is who was wrong.

So it seems, and Podhoretz leaves, and clearly has, no doubt that it is liberals who are wrong.

When they lost their hopes for equality and decency in Europe and Russia, many of the Jews who kindled to the mobility of history responded with mobility of their own — some of them to the land of Israel, most of them to America.

And in America Jews found deliverance from European anti-Semitism and progroms, and found a better life. And so they became Democrats.

“The reason Jews had been attracted to the Democratic Party in the first place,” Podhoretz writes, “was that it represented the closest American counterpart to the forces on the left that had favored Jewish emancipation in Europe.” What baffles him, what pains him, is that their attraction to the Democratic Party has never waned. This steadfast allegiance to the Democratic Party, Podhoretz insists, now flies in the face of Jewish interests.

It is more in the name of Jewish interests than of Jewish ideas that Podhoretz makes his complaint about the Jewish rejection of the Republicans. But nowhere in his book does he explain precisely how the interests of Jews are served by the Republican positions on government, health care, tax policy, gun control, abortion, gay rights, the environment, and so on. Affirmative action is a genuinely excruciating question, and the ideal of color-blindness has been treated too harshly and too sloppily in recent decades; but surely this is a matter about which good people may disagree. It is, in any event, a matter about which liberals differ not only with conservatives, but also among themselves. Like conservatives, like Jews, liberals squabble. I share Podhoretz’s concern that the American Jewish attitude toward Christian conservatives too often looks like contempt, but not his view, which seems to me preposterous, that the American public square has been stripped of religious expressions. I run into Jesus all the time. And I pity the religion that requires politics and politicians for its validation.

Not contempt, really, but a distaste for the likes of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Often it seems as the evangelicals are using Jews as an entry way into Jerusalem and as a cover for their dislike, or more, of Arabs.

The Jewish interest that makes Podhoretz most desperate for a Jewish defection to the Republicans is Israel. While the abandonment of Israel by an American government seems to me unimaginable, and not only for reasons of politics, Podhoretz is not mistaken when he declares that the enthusiasm for Israel among conservatives is real and new and deep. He is also correct that what sympathy there is for the Palestinians in American politics is to be found largely among Democrats. The problem is that he cannot suppose that sympathy for the Palestinians may coexist with sympathy, and even love, for Israel.

He is an exclusivist: if you do not support Israel the way I do, then you oppose it. I can not agree with either on the conservative support for Israel.

If you think that the survival of Israel requires the establishment of Palestine, because the absorption of millions of Palestinians into Israel, in an annexation or an occupation, will destroy the Jewish character or the democratic character of the state, then Podhoretz’s scorn for the peace process will not suffice as an account of Israel’s situation. If you think that the establishment of Palestine threatens the survival of Israel, because the Palestinians desire only the abolition of the Jewish state and will never be satisfied with a territorial compromise, then Podhoretz’s suspicion of any American president who does not merely comply with the demands of the Israeli government will strike you as the apotheosis of fidelity.

Democratic character?

What counts is your analysis of the problem — of security and morality, of Israelis and Palestinians. Podhoretz does not provide an analysis; he assumes one, doctrinally. He is justified in his view that the left, or a lot of it, now regards Israel coldly. Indeed, it is in many quarters cruelly engaged in the revival of the “one-state solution,” which for demographic reasons is nothing other than Greater Palestine. But the intellectual confrontation with these poisons has frequently been the work of liberals. After all, you cannot denounce a one-state solution unless you believe in a two-state solution.


What explains the stubborn affinity of American Jews for liberalism and the Democratic Party? Not “Jewish values,” he instructs. I concur: There are many values in Judaism and not all of them are Democratic, or even democratic. Podhoretz also considers the influence, “even unto the fourth generation,” of Menshevik Jews who fled to America, and the gradual attenuation of Marxism into social democracy and of social democracy into liberalism; but even he cannot persuade himself that the blame for Barack Obama’s success among American Jews belongs to Martov.

Yet, who defines what is Jewish? Just the rabbis and the sages?

In this vein of anti-intellectual spite, Podhoretz invents “the Torah of liberalism”: if it were not absurd, then they would not believe it. And if he does not believe it, then it is absurd. As if from the pulpit, he scolds that “where the Torah of contemporary liberalism conflicts with the Torah of Judaism, it is the Torah of liberalism that prevails and the Torah of Judaism that must give way.”

Oy vay.

So American Jewish liberals are not only bad Americans, they are also bad Jews. And their stubbornness is owed to their stubbornness. They are stiff-necked. The explanatory power of this notion is obviously very limited. It is, in fact, another kind of sputtering. The alternative, of course, would be to consider the possibility that liberalism is not just an undifferentiated darkness, and that there may be some substance to what some liberals believe about some principles and some policies. But those would be heretical thoughts, which are unlikely in a heresy hunter. He knows exactly what “the Torah of Judaism” is, and what it is not. For the Torah of contemporary conservatism never conflicts with the Torah of Judaism, and conservatism is never thoughtlessly or dogmatically held.

He's right, and he knows it; he also knows liberals are wrong. Ole Norm is quite the sage, he thinks of himself.

We are proven by the other, not by the same. The question of whether liberalism or conservatism does more for the helpless and the downtrodden, for the ones who are not like us, will be endlessly debated, and it is not a Jewish debate; but if the answer is liberalism, then the political history of American Jewry is neither a mystery nor a scandal.

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