Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberal?

Earlier this month, Norman Podhoretz of Commentator published a book entitled "Why Are Jews Liberal?" I did not read it. I did, however, read Leon Wieseltier's review of the same name in the New York Times Book Review. And then re-read it this past weekend.

The book, reportedly, attempts to critically examine the history of the American Jewish community's support of liberalism and the Democratic party with a goal of figuring out why this purported calamity continues. He tries figure out what he is missing and why Jews continue to support Democrats and believe in liberal ideals, when, in his opinion, doing so is not in their best interests.

If I had been asked to review this book, I would have had much to say on the matter. The crux of what that would have been has already been attended to by good 'ol Leon. As Wieseltier points out, "Judaism is not liberal and it is not conservative; it is Jewish." Surely, any rational, intelligent person with basic abilities to craft an argument can point to parts of the Bible that espouse liberal values and others that have conservative ideals. Indeed, one can probably find libertarian, communist, fascist, totalitarian, and anarchist undertones in various biblical stories and commandments.

One of my elementary school teachers once commented that the Torah is not merely a book of stories or a book of laws but rather a "guide to life." While my more cynical side would be prone to shrug off this observation, there is a part of me that understands what he meant. With one caveat: the Torah is a guide to life, but not necessarily a fixed, rigid guide to life; you can make of it what you want, figure out what makes sense and is meaningful to you. The Torah is a guide to life in the sense that it provides a framework and a system of values, some of which you might agree with and others you might find abhorrent. To me, living a "Torah life," to use a term from my youth, means incorporating values of the Torah into your life and living your life in a manner that is consistent with those values.

In that regard, "Judaism is not liberal and it is not conservative; it is Jewish." The premise that Judaism is liberal alone or conservative alone is preposterous. Judaism is different to every person who accepts it, observes it, and practices it -- or at least it should be. Jews are liberals and Jews are conservatives. If most people have a goal and a desire to reconcile their political views with their religious beliefs and/or affiliations (and the very premise of Podhoretz's book seems to be that they do), then I can only assume that those Jews who are conservative find that there are a greater number of Jewish values (or at least important ones that appeal to them) that overlap and are consistent with conservatism than liberalism and that those Jews who are liberal, vice versa.

As a liberal American Jew (and one who is proud of all 3 of those modifiers) I can say that, for me, this is certainly the case. To me, the most important and beautiful parts of the Torah are those that not only are not at odds with my liberalism but rather are consistent with and complementary to my liberalism. The Torah teaches us to be sympathetic when it commands us not to oppress the widow or orphan (and by extension all those that are downtrodden) and teaches us to be empathetic when we are commanded to love the stranger/convert for we "were strangers in the land of Egypt." (As I have written elsewhere, I believe this verse more than any other in the Bible captures and defines the depth and breadth of the American experience.) Correspondingly, my views on issues such as tax policy and health care are more in line with Democrats than Republicans (in contrast to certain outspoken Republican rabbis who believe universal health care is a goal that is only slightly more desirable than everyone having equal access to "a health club, a high-priced French restaurant and a Lexus.") My understanding of Jewish history and Antisemitism appeals to my sense of empathy to those groups who have also suffered the horrors of discrimination and prejudice and thus my beliefs on treatment of minorities and equal rights for homosexuals once again align with the Democratic party. Further, that history has taught me to be exceedingly wary of policies that attempt to infuse religion into government and thus abrogate the separation of church and state; see here, my views on abortion, capital punishment, stem cell research, etc. I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say that my liberal politics and my Jewishness are caused by one another, but they certainly overlap and intersect.

"But what about Israel," Podhoretz might ask. He would point out that most of Israel's critics lie in the liberal wing of the Democratic party and that conservatives are, by and large, more sympathetic towards Israel than liberals. Republicans are better for Israel than Democrats, he would argue, so how can American Jews continue to overwhelmingly support the Democratic party? Once again, Podhoretz's conclusion rests on faulty premises because, of course, your opinion on which party is better for Israel will rest largely on your politics. If you believe that pro-Israel means pro-settlements, that there is no possibility of a political solution to the conflict, and that all criticism of the Israeli government is proof of anti-Israel tendencies (unless, of course, it is the disengagement from Gaza you are protesting), then you will likely believe that Republicans are better for Israel than Democrats. If, however, you believe that settlement expansion is not in Israel's long-term interest, that the status quo is unsustainable, and that a two-state solution is the only practical, realistic end to the conflict, then odds are you vote Democrat. This is not groundbreaking, of course. It is a simple political calculus that Podhoretz reportedly opts to ignore, much like many conservatives who cling to the arrogant and absurd belief that right wing Jews love Israel more dearly than left wing Jews.

In the end, however, this issue is not just about aligning political affiliations with interests on a particular issue, a point Wieseltier so eloquently captures. "In living rich but voting poor, the Jews of America have failed to demonstrate class solidarity...It is not a delusion, not a treason, to vote against your own economic interest. It is a recognition of the multiplicity of interests, the many purposes, that make up a citizen’s life." No one issue, even one as important and close to home as Israel's security, should carry enough weight to shape a person's entire worldview. And while an intelligent American Jew can rationally and legitimately vote liberally or conservatively in conjunction with or as an expression of his religion, it appears that more of us think like me than like Norman Podhoretz, and overwhelmingly so.

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