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'Torah of liberalism'

Q&A | Neo-con pioneer Norman Podhoretz explains why Jews are liberal

Issue: "O Jerusalem," April 10, 2010

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.

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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.

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