Norman Podhoretz, born in 1930, is the grand old man of neo-conservatism. Born into a Jewish leftist family and raised in Brooklyn, he was editor in chief of Commentary from 1960 to 1995 and moved that influential public-affairs journal from left to right. Podhoretz became a supporter of Ronald Reagan and other conservatives and has frequently expressed irritation that most American Jews continue to back liberal politicians who advance policies antithetical to Jewish interests. As Passover (first evening this year: March 29) approached, I asked him to explain such behavior.
Q: Your most recent book is called Why Are Jews Liberal? Why not? Because every other socioeconomic group in the country moved rightward as their socioeconomic position improved. Not the Jews: As a famous quip by the late Milton Himmelfarb put it, "Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." This was a puzzling anomaly. Why were they voting the way they were voting? It was certainly against their economic interests. But not only in economic interests-it was puzzling to people that on a lot of issues not in harmony with the Jewish religious tradition, Jews tended to be even more heavily committed to the liberal position than anyone else, including non-Jewish liberals.
Q: Abortion is an example. Dramatic: Jewish law prohibits abortion except where the life of the mother is at stake. That's Jewish law, and it's unambiguous. But Jewish women are off the charts in support for the pro-choice position. Why should Jewish women be so much more heavily committed to abortion than non-Jewish women? Milton Himmelfarb made another crack: At a time when other women are having too many children, Jewish women who aren't having too many children respond by wanting to have even fewer.
Q: And the rest of the liberal agenda? Jews remain heavily committed, whether it's the old liberal agenda of government spending, welfare programs, and support for organized labor, or the newer issues that make up the liberal agenda, like abortion, gay rights, gun control, assisted suicide. Many Jewish liberals will praise themselves for this. They say: "We vote against our economic interests because we are noble idealists, and the liberal agenda is something that we're committed to because it stems basically from the Jewish religious tradition, especially the prophetic books." Most of these people haven't read the prophetic books, but they know verses plucked from here and there.
Q: The election results are clear. . . Since 1928 the average Jewish vote for Democratic presidential candidates has been 75 percent. That's astronomical compared with any other group. The only Democratic candidate who failed to get a majority of the Jewish vote was Jimmy Carter, when he ran for his second term against Reagan. Except for Carter, Democratic candidates have gotten around the mid-70s of the Jewish vote. Some are lower, some are higher: Roosevelt was 90 percent, Johnson was 90 percent, Barack Obama was 78 percent-and that's in spite of the fact that Jews had very good reason to be worried about him.
Q: So, why are Jews liberal? My explanation, to put it briefly: I started with the birth of Christianity in year 1. The first half of the book is a history of the Jewish experience in Europe and then the United States in relation to the Christian churches-first the Catholics and the Orthodox, and after the Reformation the branches of Protestantism. I point out what is no big secret, that Jews did not exactly have a very good time throughout those centuries under Christian dominance. But what was fascinating to me when doing the research was how bad it was. Some of the quotes, especially from bishops and cardinals and popes during the Middle Ages, are really hair-raising.
Q: Were conservatives the enemies of Jews? In Europe, most of the time, the enemy of civil rights and liberties for Jews tended to be somewhere on the right (what they called the alliance of altar and throne, the monarchies and the churches). Those who favored according Jews rights as citizens tended to be on the left. There were exceptions, of course: Voltaire, the great Enlightenment hero, was a vicious anti-Semite. Nevertheless he was the leader of a movement that eventuated in granting civil rights and liberties to Jews. So it made sense. Up to a certain point nobody would have asked the question, "Why are Jews liberal?" because it would have seemed self-evident. Once Jews got involved in secular politics, which didn't really happen until 1848, there was nowhere for them to go but one of the parties of the left. And even if they had wanted to join one of the parties of the right, they would have been unwelcome.
Q: And in the United States? This carried over into the United States, where the closest counterparts of the hostile forces of Europe seemed to be the Republicans, and the friendly counterparts seemed to be Democrats or to the left of the Democrats, the Socialists and at one point even the Communists. Nobody, up to a certain point, would have wondered why Jews were liberals. What else would they be?
Q: But in the 1960s everything changed. . . The real problem arose, as I date it, after 1967. For various reasons related to the culture of the '60s, there was a very dramatic reversal of roles between right and left, not just in the United States but everywhere in the world. This had to do with the State of Israel but spilled over into Jews in general. Whereas the right had always been unfriendly, enemy territory, it was suddenly becoming friendly. Whereas the left had been friendly territory, it was suddenly becoming hostile. This reversal has developed further and further, until today you could say without any equivocation that the most passionate supporters of the State of Israel in the United States are the evangelical Protestants, probably even more than the Jewish community itself by now.
Q: Who are Jews' worst enemies? The worst enemy of the Jewish state, and of Jews generally, is anti-Zionism, which is what anti-Semitism used to be. The canards, libels, and hatreds that were developed against the Jewish people in the past have been translated into the language of foreign affairs and directed against the Jewish state. The worst enemies of the Jewish state, and of Jews generally, are now to be found on the left, both here and around the world.
Q: Why do so many Jews refuse to recognize, acknowledge, and act upon this huge change in political culture that is now almost 50 years old? In the third part of my book I try to analyze the various theories that have been propounded to explain this puzzling phenomenon. I try to show that there are sociological, historical, and religious theories, and while they all have an element of truth, most are inadequate or just plain wrong. What I try to explain is that liberalism has become much more than a set of political opinions for political Jews: It has become a religion in its own right, with its own Torah of liberalism and its own set of commandments.
Q: Does this new Torah supersede the old? To the point where whenever they conflict, the new Torah will always trump the old. The devotion of three-quarters of my fellow Jews in America to liberalism and the Democratic Party is as passionate and scrupulous and faithful as the devotion their great-grandparents had toward the Torah of Judaism. They are very loyal to it, and they regard any move from left to right, or from liberalism to conservatism, with the same horror that their grandparents and great-grandparents felt about conversion to Christianity. There was a time when Orthodox Jews would actually go into mourning if a child converted. Many of my friends on the left went into their form of mourning when I became an apostate as a neo-conservative. They didn't know that they were aping their grandparents, but that's what they were doing.
To hear Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Norman Podhoretz, click here.