Because They Believe

By Norman Podhoretz
337 pp. Doubleday. $27

“There are four types of people,” teaches an ancient rabbinical text. “The one who says: What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours — this is the common type, but there are some who say that this is the type of Sodom. What is mine is yours and what is yours is mine — this is a boor. What is mine is yours — a saint. What is yours is mine — a villain.”

Brothers and sisters, is this liberal or conservative? The legitimacy of private property is certainly championed, but that is both a liberal conviction and a conservative one; and the tradition sees fit to record also the remarkable opinion that this elementary and uncontroversial norm — a scholar many years ago called it “possessive individualism” — was the custom of the most wicked city on earth. Moreover, legitimacy does not confer sanctity: the rabbis entertain the prospect of different distributions of wealth, and prudently contemplate the extremes of selflessness and selfishness.

So liberals and conservatives, and socialists too, and even the Club for Growth, will all find a use for this text, which is to say that the text is useless, I mean, for establishing the liberalism or the conservatism of the Jewish tradition.

It is only what it is: a terse rabbinical discussion that, historically but also conceptually, exists antecedently, and in sovereign indifference, to modern politics. Judaism is not liberal and it is not conservative; it is Jewish. But this is the beginning of the matter, not the end. For Judaism is immense and various: it holds within itself an oceanic plenitude of opinions and tendencies, developed over 2,000 years of philosophical and legal deliberation, and they do not all go together. To say that a view is Jewish is to claim a provenance more than an essence.

It is precisely a provenance that many American Jewish intellectuals seek. Deceived by the contemporary ideology of identity into the simplifying aspiration that all their parts may be unified into a seamless and shining whole, they rummage through the Jewish tradition to find prooftexts for social and economic and political views that they have already established on other grounds. It is not enough that their views be true; they must also be authentic.

The spectacle of all this tendentiousness is sometimes comic. 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.

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.

“Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a potted history followed by a re-potted memoir. The first half of the book, which tells the story of “how the Jews became liberals,” is narrated in “the impersonal voice of a historian — an amateur, to be sure, but one who has relied on a variety of professional authorities for help and guidance.” These chapters are mainly anthologies of congenial quotations. There is something a little risible about the solemnity with which Podhoretz presents encyclopedia articles as evidence of his erudition (“I relied most heavily on one of the great works of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, the Encyclopaedia Judaica”); there is even a reference, slightly embarrassed, to Wikipedia. From his footnotes you would think that the most significant Jewish historian of our time is Paul Johnson. And there is a decidedly insular reliance upon the pages of Commentary, the magazine he edited for 35 years. His parochialism can be startling: Samuel ha-Nagid, the astounding poet, warrior, statesman and scholar in Granada in the 11th century, reminds him of Henry Kissinger! Podhoretz seems to be living the Vilna Gaon’s adage — maybe he can find it in some encyclopedia — that the best way for a man to preserve his purity is never to leave his house.

Podhoretz’s historical narrative is a trite but more or less accurate rehearsal of the inhospitability of Europe, in its religious centuries and its secular ones, to the Jews. He understands that there was no home for the Jews of modern Europe on the European right, and he is correct to assert that there was little or no home for them on the European left; but he is oddly lacking in historical imagination, he is mean, when he reduces all of Jewish enlightenment and assimilationism and socialism to a dishonorable loathing of origins. Is alienation from tradition really so hard to comprehend? Is a life lived entirely within “the four cubits of the law” really all that a Jew may dream of? (Podhoretz’s book is punctuated with a voyeuristic admiration for the Orthodox.)

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.

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. In America, of course, their destinies were hugely bettered, as individuals and as a group, by the dispensations of 20th-century liberalism. 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. “In every presidential election since 1928 — with the single exception of Jimmy Carter in 1980 — the Democratic candidate has scored a landslide among Jewish voters even when defeated by a landslide among the electorate as a whole (George McGovern in 1972). No Democratic candidate in all those elections . . . has attracted less than 60 percent of the vote, and the overall average since 1928 is a stunning 75 percent.” 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.

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.

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. 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.

In the absence of arguments, Podhoretz offers memories. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is yet another one of his autobiographies; his life is a gift that keeps on giving. It is a delight to read again of the anti-Jewish depravities of Gore Vidal and Pat Buchanan, though it should be noted that only Buchanan currently finds work as a commentator on American politics. And when he comes to the end of the chronicle of his own opinions, Podhoretz at last turns to “the question of why.” 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.

Instead he decides that American Jews believe in liberalism because they believe in liberalism. Really, this is his finding. “To most American Jews, then, liberalism is not, as has often been said, merely a necessary component of Jewishness: it is the very essence of being a Jew. Nor is it a ‘substitute for religion’: it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas and, Tertullian-­like, obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises.” Tertullian was the Christian apologist of the early third century who notoriously remarked that he believed what he believed precisely because it was senseless or impossible. 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.”

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.

Podhoretz’s book was conceived as the solution to the puzzle that Milton Himmel­farb wittily formulated many years ago: “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” I have never understood the reputation of this joke. Why should Jews vote like Episcopalians? We are not Episcopalians. The implication of the joke is that political affiliation should be determined by social position, by levels of affluence. In living rich but voting poor, the Jews of America have failed to demonstrate class solidarity. Never mind that parties of the right in many Western countries have always counted on the poor to make the same betrayal, and support causes and candidates that will do nothing to relieve their economic hardship but will exhilarate them culturally or religiously or nationally.

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. When, in the Torah of Judaism, Moses commands the Jews to perform acts of social welfare, he sometimes adds the admonition that they were themselves strangers and slaves. The purpose of this refreshment of their memory is plain. The fact that we are no longer stran­gers and slaves is not all we need to know. We may not regard the world solely from the standpoint of our own prosperity, our own safety, our own contentment. 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.

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic.
(Tags: Anti-Semitism, Book, Politics)