In his new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, Norman Podhoretz says liberalism has replaced Torah as the religion of non-Orthodox Jews.
“The attachment of let’s say 75 percent of American Jews to liberalism has the force of a religious commitment, not just a political commitment, or a set of opinions that are up for examination,” the founding father of American neoconservatism told NJJN. “It’s a commitment to Torah, the Torah of liberalism.
“They are as committed to that as their grandparents and great-grandparents were to the real Torah, and they regard moving to the right or to conservatism with the same horror as their grandparents and great-grandparents regarded conversion to Christianity. It’s got that kind of power.”
It’s almost 50 years since Podhoretz took over as editor of Commentary magazine, a post he would hold for 35 years, until his retirement in 1995, and the majority of American Jews are no closer to the conservatism he has espoused all these years. His disappointment with and explanation of the Jews’ stiff-necked liberalism is the subject of his new book, his 12th, which he will discuss at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair on Thursday evening, Nov. 12.
He doesn’t believe that liberalism stems from Jewish tradition, he said, a point he emphasizes in his book.
One argument against that notion, he told NJJN, is that “the one group most fully influenced by Jewish tradition, the Orthodox, are the least liberal of American Jews. If this undeniable phenomenon means what I think it means, then Jews can be as liberal as they like, but they can’t — not without being criticized — claim this is derived from the Jewish religion.”
Podhoretz, 79, said he decided to write the book because he “got sick” of trying to answer a question he’s been asked “a million times” — why do Jews persist in embracing liberalism?
“It’s a puzzle,” he said. “People genuinely do not understand why Jews are so passionately on that side. It makes no sense….”
The first half of the book reviews centuries of history and acknowledges that Jews learned that oppression and danger tend to come from the political right. The second half focuses on the shift Podhoretz believes has occurred, particularly since 1967, with the Right becoming more supportive of Israel and of Jewish interests, while the Jews refuse to follow their own self-interest, financial or otherwise.
And it’s not just that Jews are not voting with their pocketbooks, he said, as other immigrant groups tended to do after they “made it” — Jews are also not voting for their own security, particularly with respect to Israel.
“After ’67,” Podhoretz said, “the Left became more and more hospitable to ideas hostile to Jews, particularly on the issue of Israel. It grew more and more anti-Zionist and as time went on, the anti-Zionism became less and less possible to distinguish from old fashioned anti-Semitism.
“But American Jews refused to recognize this great change,” he said.
‘Discussable and respectable’
He does not shy away from blaming the Republican Party for failing to capture a Jewish majority. In several chapters, he reviews the missteps of the GOP, from the anti-Israel policies of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker, to the prominent position given to the Religious Right, to Pat Buchanan’s place of honor at the 1992 Republican National Convention.
But asked to discuss this further on the telephone, Podhoretz shifted the focus.
“The fact that the Republican Party has made mistakes and has elements in it that are unsavory is true, and I take pains to point [that] out,” he said. “But it is also true…that self-identified Republicans, on the whole, are much more sympathetic to Jewish interests but especially, and I focus on Israel, than self-identified Democrats. This is true on issue after issue, most recently on how they split on whether Israel was justified in going into Gaza and whether Israel used excessive force.”
He also insisted that while few presidents, Republican or Democrat, have been openly hostile to Israel, Republicans tend to be better allies. “A lot of people thought Nixon would be more reliable in defense of Israel in a crunch than [George] McGovern, and that turned out to be true,” he said. “Nixon basically saved Israel’s life in the ’73 war. It’s hard to say McGovern would have done the same.”
During the interview, he offered some dire early warnings about President Barack Obama.
Podhoretz described Obama as “colder” and “less friendly” toward Israel than his predecessors. He pointed to his links with the “virulently anti-Semitic” Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the Palestinian-American historian and activist Rashid Khalidi, to whom Obama has “closer ties…than he has let on.”
He thinks Obama, he said, is “going to turn out to be much closer to the [anti-Israel] attitude that Carter had when he was in office; of course Carter has become even worse than when he was in office,” said Podhoretz. “I think the signs are not good, but I’m not ready to make a definitive judgment” on Obama.
And he points to Israelis themselves.
Israelis think Obama is “the least friendly president ever,” Podhoretz said. “He has only a 4 percent approval rating there. That includes Israelis on the left. They know what they’re dealing with.”
Although he has not been able to convince a majority of Jews to join him on the Right, Podhoretz said, he is content with his legacy.
“I never did what I did at Commentary in an evangelical spirit; I never had it in mind to convert people,” he said. “What I had in mind was to tell the truth as I saw it, and tell it as forcefully, consistently, coherently as possible.
“I have been credited by George Nash, a historian of conservative intellectual thought, with having made conservative ideas discussable and respectable within the Jewish world, and I think that’s true to a certain extent,” he added. “I’m very proud of what I did at Commentary, and I think its value will ultimately be seen more objectively than it has been.”