Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberals?

One of the most extraordinary features of Barack Obama's victory over John McCain was his capture of 78% of the Jewish vote. To be sure, there was nothing extraordinary about the number itself. Since 1928, the average Jewish vote for the Democrat in presidential elections has been an amazing 75%—far higher than that of any other ethno-religious group.

Yet there were reasons to think that it would be different in 2008. The main one was Israel. Despite some slippage in concern for Israel among American Jews, most of them were still telling pollsters that their votes would be strongly influenced by the positions of the two candidates on the Jewish state. This being the case, Mr. McCain's long history of sympathy with Israel should have given him a distinct advantage over Mr. Obama, whose own history consisted of associating with outright enemies of the Jewish state like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the historian Rashid Khalidi.

Guilt by association isn't terribly convincing. More a smear than anything else, its dogmatism is insulting, really.

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.

Increasing prosperity leads to conservatism: it is true, but also not true: not all liberals are poor.

Most American Jews 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." But if this theory were valid, the Orthodox would be the most liberal sector of the Jewish community. After all, it is they who are most familiar with the Jewish religious tradition and who shape their lives around its commandments.

The theory he propounds isn't an academic construct but personal beliefs: not so much Jewish values as grounded in the Torah, but middle-class values.

Yet the Orthodox enclaves are the only Jewish neighborhoods where Republican candidates get any votes to speak of. Even more telling is that on every single cultural issue, the Orthodox oppose the politically correct liberal positions taken by most other American Jews precisely because these positions conflict with Jewish law. To cite just a few examples: Jewish law permits abortion only to protect the life of the mother; it forbids sex between men; and it prohibits suicide (except when the only alternatives are forced conversion or incest).

Not being much of a Jewish scholar, I can only wonder why Masada isn't condemned by the Orthodox who are otherwise so politically incorrect, and by this conservative who clearly prides himself in being politically incorrect.

The upshot is 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.

My Lord (pardon the pun), this man is amazing.

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.

Who defines what it is to be Jewish? And what does this man mean by "ethnic"? Culturally? Certainly not based on national origin, the way Italians or Chinese are ethnic.

As a Jew who moved from left to right more than four decades ago, I have been hoping for many years that my fellow Jews would come to see that in contrast to what was the case in the past, our true friends are now located not among liberals, but among conservatives.

Our true friends?

Of course in speaking of the difference between left and right, or between liberals and conservatives, I have in mind a divide wider than the conflict between Democrats and Republicans and deeper than electoral politics. The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind—economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded—and apologized for to other nations—is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.

This is the rub: liberals only want to apologize for how bad the country is, only see the bad, while conservatives see the good, want to preserve it, and extol the great country the US is, the best ever. These are stereotypes, and are inaccurate.

Never mind what people think: not all liberals are critics, and not all conservatives are patriots. Considering the historical record is quite imortant; I'll select civil rights as a starting point.

Despite the Civil War being won by the Union, with its declared intent to end slavery and make citizens of freed Negroes, racial discrimination prevailed for decades, both in social custom and in the law. Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the constitutionality of segregation, further embedding racism into the social fabric.

Negroes petitioned for their rights, but society wasn't interested in granting them. Keeping things as they were, resisting change, was the conservative position. Yet Negroes were not interested in remaining second-class citizens, and over time their demands grew stronger: bus boycott, marches, sit-ins were tactics used to insist on their equality before the law. Some whites sympathized with their plight, considered that it was morally wrong for society to be segregated, morally wrong for black people to be discriminated against, and joined the protests. Those were liberals. Yes, they saw something wrong with society, and considered change important. Racism was unjust. Blacks were oppressed. And liberals worked for change. In doing so, liberals wanted their black brethren to be treated equally, and considered that by changing society the United States would become a better country.

Conservatives opposed change. They saw society as being undermined by the agitation of Negroes and of those liberals who foolishly joined them. They wanted the status quo to prevail. They saw communists in the civil rights movement, and charged that reds were agitating, were riling up Negroes, all to carry out their wicked scheme of destroying American society.

One example, but a telling one. And, not the only example of conservatives opposing change. Women's rights, beginning with the right for to vote, were also opposed by conservatives. It is not that conservatives want to preserve the greatness of American society, to protect it against the dangerous designs of liberals. In opposing change, conservatives oppose

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