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Book Review: Why Are Jews So Liberal?

Why Are Jews Liberals?

By Norman Podhoretz

Doubleday, 337 pages, $27

Some of you may be surprised to know that shortly before Rosh Hashanah, President Obama made a conference call with more than 1000 rabbis, encouraging them to speak about the health-care reform in their sermons this year. Because of my belief in the separation of Church and State issues, I will respectfully decline. I enjoy writing my own sermons and do not require political assistance from Washington to help craft my holiday message.

The social critic and essayist Norman Podhoretz believes that the appeal to the rabbinic community may be due to the Jewish people’s penchant toward liberal causes, or what he refers to as, “the Torah of liberalism.”

In his most recent and thought provoking book, “Why Are Jews Liberal?”, Podhoretz examines why Jews have been in love with the political left. Podhoretz, you see, was originally a leftist before he moved more toward the right.

The Jewish love affair with the left can be seen in most American elections. With the exception of Jimmy Carter (which was no great surprise given his anti-Jewish and Israel attitude), the Democratic Party has received an amazing 75% of the Jewish vote. Obviously, one reason why the Jews lean toward the left has a lot to do with the fact that Jews have traditionally seen themselves as underdogs in American culture. Our memories of the past still linger with us . . .

Some of our members will certainly remember when Jews were excluded from many of the country’s finest academic schools, or were limited in terms how they could climb up the corporate ladder.  The experience of being socially marginalized has obviously contributed toward the mindset that liberal politics best serves the needs of all of Americans who feel socially or economically earthbound.

There is sadly, a dark side to this kind of devotion. For example, the commitment to the liberal establishment has often supplanted the commitment to Jewish causes and the synagogue. Jews seem to be opting for what  the  sociologist Robert Bellah describes, as an “American social religion.” Statistics seem to support Podhoretz’s premise as well. In the United States, Jews are the least religious group in America—just 16% of Jews attend services at least monthly, and 42% of Jews attend once or not at all.

Demographic challenges are also very daunting for the American Jewish community; while intermarriage is a fact of life with over 50 % of American Jews, unfortunately, the majority of the children being born in these families are growing up with no Jewish education. This is obviously problematical; creative solutions need to be explored that will bring our lost brethren back to the fold. Unlike Podhoretz, I would rather think of intermarriage as a challenge rather than as a “problem.”

In terms of Israel’s survival, Podhoretz  also stresses that while many liberal Jews feel strongly about Israel, the issue of Israel’s survival is not as important as the abortion or minimum wage issue. Little pressure is being made on our local politicians; Israelis are coming to the conclusion that the American Jewish community may not care one way or the other whether they continue to exist as a modern nation.

A visit to Israel might open our eyes to the drama that is unfolding. Yes, each of us has a voice and we can make a difference.

Frankly, I agree with many of Podhoretz’s comments. I would just add that the ultimate test of liberalism today is whether it will defend the Jews. As Iran  gets closer to realizing its dream of being a nuclear state, American Jews will sooner or later have to take a stand—even if it means going against some of its liberal ideals, for as Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” There is nothing wrong with a little bit of old-fashioned self-interest for a change—especially when it pertains to our spiritual and physical survival as a people.

“Why Jews Are Liberal?” is a thought provoking book.



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