Why Jews are liberals

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Bringing the hammer down on Norman Podhoretz’s new book, “Why Are Jews Liberals? (“a potted history followed by a re-potted memoir”) in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review, Leon Wieseltier ventures his own answer to the question. Podhoretz’s answer boils down to an old story: Just as the leftists of the past made Communism their God, so the liberals of today do the same with Liberalism. And as the former God failed, so should the latter have long since, in Podhoretz’s view. So why hasn’t it?

For Wieseltier, the point is that Judaism is not about left or right: Liberals as well as conservatives can seize on this or that part of the tradition to justify their politics–contra Podhoretz, liberalism does not make for bad Jews. But there’s more to it than that. The politics of left and right have shifted markedly since the days of Jimmy Carter (for whom Jews had relatively little use). Nothing has done more to keep Jews within the liberal fold than the Republican alliance with conservative evangelicals and their distinctive concerns. Enthusiastic about Israel the latter may be, but their rejection of strong church-state separation, their injection of their religious beliefs into domestic politics and policy debates, and their alien cultural style have all been profoundly disturbing to American Jews. Over the centuries, Jews have learned to run the other way when Christians are on the march, and these Christians have been on the march.

My counter-factual hypothesis is that absent a religious right, Jewish liberalism would be, if not a shadow of its former self, a good deal less pronounced than it is today. The God who failed to bring American Jewry to Podhoretzian enlightenment was, I’m afraid, the evangelical Christian God.