Why Jews are liberals and Norman Podhoretz asks the wrong question

UPDATE: This diary generated a lot of discussion at Daily Kos. Several readers pointed me to Glenn Greenwald’s rebuttal of Podhoretz’s central claim: Jews should vote Republican because of Israel. Leon Wieseltier’s review of Podhoretz’s book for The New York Times is also worth reading.

Norman Podhoretz began his political life on the Trotskyite left but swung sharply to the right and edited the conservative magazine Commentary for more than three decades. His latest book is called “Why Are Jews Liberals?”, and he published a few thoughts on the subject in the Wall Street Journal this week.

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.

Jews also remain far more heavily committed to the liberal agenda than any of their old ethno-religious New Deal partners. As the eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer has put it, “whatever the promptings of their economic interests,” Jews have consistently supported “increased government spending, expanded benefits to the poor and lower classes, greater regulations on business, and the power of organized labor.”

As with these old political and economic questions, so with the newer issues being fought out in the culture wars today. On abortion, gay rights, school prayer, gun control and assisted suicide, the survey data show that Jews are by far the most liberal of any group in America.

After the jump I’ll offer my thoughts about why many Jews are liberals and, equally important, why many Jews who are not liberals vote for Democrats anyway. Podhoretz is convinced that more American Jews should identify with political conservatives, but today’s Republican Party makes that unlikely.  

Podhoretz depicts Jewish liberals as misguided but fails to take into account a few basic facts.

1. American Jews live mostly in large metropolitan areas. Big city residents tend to vote Democratic, and urban dwellers tend to be more tolerant of diversity. The largest cities have always had large Jewish populations, and during the past half-century or so, Jewish communities in small towns and cities have declined.

A few generations ago, many small Iowa cities had functioning Jewish communities. Synagogues in places like Marshalltown, Fort Dodge, Oskaloosa, Muscatine, and Mason City have closed as the Jewish population in Iowa has become more concentrated in the largest cities and college towns. There were a few thousand Jews in Sioux City during the 1930s and 1940s, but only a few hundred live there today.

2. On average, a higher proportion of Jews have college or post-graduate degrees, and the Republican Party has steadily lost ground among the most highly-educated Americans.

3. Jewish religious traditions support “welcoming the stranger”, providing for the poor, treating workers fairly, and other tenets of liberalism.

Podhoretz denies any connection between Jewish religious values and liberalism, on the grounds that Orthodox Jews tend to be more conservative politically and oppose abortion rights as well as equality for gays and lesbians. But one of the most influential Jewish scholars of all time famously said, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?” That’s a call to help the less fortunate if I ever heard one.

4. Jewish Republicans have traditionally been social moderates (pro-choice, pro-environment), and the GOP has become hostile to those views since the Reagan Revolution. When my father became a college Republican in the late 1940s, the Republican Party was the party of civil rights, but that hasn’t been true for at least 45 years.

It’s been a long time since a pro-choice Republican was on a national ticket, and in most parts of the country Republican candidates for statewide office also stick closely to conservative Christian opinions.

Arlen Specter’s party switch left the Senate without any Jewish Republicans for the first time in many decades. Only one Jewish Republican remains in the U.S. House (Eric Cantor), and he’s no moderate.

5. On a related note, the religious right’s takeover of the Republican Party scares Jews. Prominent Republicans support Christian prayers in public schools, reject the theory of evolution and deny the impact of human activity on climate change. Sure, conservative Christians support Israel, but that’s mainly because they think it will hasten the Rapture.

Is it any surprise that as a religious minority group, Jews oppose letting conservative Christian dogma dictate laws over women’s reproductive rights or gays’ and lesbians’ access to the benefits of civil marriage?

As long as the base of the Republican Party embraces people like Sarah Palin, Jews will run screaming in the other direction. I know lifelong Jewish Republicans in their 60s and 70s who voted for Barack Obama solely because they were terrified by the prospect of Palin becoming president. One of those Jewish Republican Obama voters liked McCain enough to caucus for him in January 2008, but he didn’t want to roll the dice on Palin.

Which leads me to conclude that Podhoretz is asking the wrong question. Though many Jews are liberals, the bigger problem for the GOP is that most Jewish moderates and even some conservatives vote Democratic. One of my brothers supported the war in Iraq, is conservative on economic issues and not particularly concerned with social issues. However, he hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since the liberal John Anderson ran as an independent in 1980. He’s never voted for a Republican for Congress or governor. The religious right wing of the GOP repels him.

If I were Podhoretz, before trying to make Jews into Republican voters, I’d try to make the Republican Party less beholden to social conservatives, less hostile to minority rights and less willing to ignore scientific research. But Podhoretz will become a Trotskyite again before any of that happens.  

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