Why Jews are liberals

Subtitle: Why Norman Podhoretz is wrong as usual.

Podhoretz began his political life on the Trotskyite left but swung sharply to the right and edited the conservative magazine Commentary for more than three decades. His latest book is called "Why Are Jews Liberals?", and he published a few thoughts on the subject in the Wall Street Journal this week.

All the other ethno-religious groups that, like the Jews, formed part of the coalition forged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s have followed the rule that increasing prosperity generally leads to an increasing identification with the Republican Party. But not the Jews. As the late Jewish scholar Milton Himmelfarb said in the 1950s: "Jews earn like Episcopalians"--then the most prosperous minority group in America--"and vote like Puerto Ricans," who were then the poorest.

Jews also remain far more heavily committed to the liberal agenda than any of their old ethno-religious New Deal partners. As the eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer has put it, "whatever the promptings of their economic interests," Jews have consistently supported "increased government spending, expanded benefits to the poor and lower classes, greater regulations on business, and the power of organized labor."

As with these old political and economic questions, so with the newer issues being fought out in the culture wars today. On abortion, gay rights, school prayer, gun control and assisted suicide, the survey data show that Jews are by far the most liberal of any group in America.

After the jump I'll offer my thoughts about why many Jews are liberals and, equally important, why many Jews who are not liberals vote for Democrats anyway. Podhoretz is convinced that more American Jews should identify with political conservatives, but today's Republican Party makes that unlikely.

Podhoretz depicts Jewish liberals as misguided but fails to take into account a few basic facts.

1. American Jews live mostly in large metropolitan areas. Big city residents tend to vote Democratic, and urban dwellers tend to be more tolerant of diversity. The largest cities have always had large Jewish populations, and during the past half-century or so, Jewish communities in small towns and cities have declined.

A few generations ago, many small Iowa cities had functioning Jewish communities. Synagogues in places like Marshalltown, Fort Dodge, Oskaloosa, Muscatine, and Mason City have closed as the Jewish population in Iowa has become more concentrated in the largest cities and college towns. There were a few thousand Jews in Sioux City during the 1930s and 1940s, but only a few hundred live there today.

2. On average, a higher proportion of Jews have college or post-graduate degrees, and the Republican Party has steadily lost ground among the most highly-educated Americans.

3. Jewish religious traditions support "welcoming the stranger", providing for the poor, treating workers fairly, and other tenets of liberalism.

Podhoretz denies any connection between Jewish religious values and liberalism, on the grounds that Orthodox Jews tend to be more conservative politically and oppose abortion rights as well as equality for gays and lesbians. But one of the most influential Jewish scholars of all time famously said, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?" That's a call to help the less fortunate if I ever heard one.

4. Jewish Republicans have traditionally been social moderates (pro-choice, pro-environment), and the GOP has become hostile to those views since the Reagan Revolution. When my father became a college Republican in the late 1940s, the Republican Party was the party of civil rights, but that hasn't been true for at least 45 years.

It's been a long time since a pro-choice Republican was on a national ticket, and in most parts of the country Republican candidates for statewide office also stick closely to conservative Christian opinions.

Arlen Specter's party switch left the Senate without any Jewish Republicans for the first time in many decades. Only one Jewish Republican remains in the U.S. House (Eric Cantor), and he's no moderate.

5. On a related note, the religious right's takeover of the Republican Party scares Jews. Prominent Republicans support Christian prayers in public schools, reject the theory of evolution and deny the impact of human activity on climate change. Sure, conservative Christians support Israel, but that's mainly because they think it will hasten the Rapture.

Is it any surprise that as a religious minority group, Jews oppose letting conservative Christian dogma dictate laws over women's reproductive rights or gays' and lesbians' access to the benefits of civil marriage?

As long as the base of the Republican Party embraces people like Sarah Palin, Jews will run screaming in the other direction. I know lifelong Jewish Republicans in their 60s and 70s who voted for Barack Obama solely because they were terrified by the prospect of Palin becoming president. One of those Jewish Republican Obama voters liked McCain enough to caucus for him in January 2008, but he didn't want to roll the dice on Palin.

Which leads me to conclude that Podhoretz is asking the wrong question. Though many Jews are liberals, the bigger problem for the GOP is that most Jewish moderates and even some conservatives vote Democratic. One of my brothers supported the war in Iraq, is conservative on economic issues and not particularly concerned with social issues. However, he hasn't voted for a Republican for president since the liberal John Anderson ran as an independent in 1980. He's never voted for a Republican for Congress or governor. The religious right wing of the GOP repels him.

If I were Podhoretz, before trying to make Jews into Republican voters, I'd try to make the Republican Party less beholden to social conservatives, less hostile to minority rights and less willing to ignore scientific research. But Podhoretz will become a Trotskyite again before any of that happens.

Update [2009-9-13 8:1:16 by desmoinesdem]: This diary generated a lot of discussion at Daily Kos. Several readers pointed me to Glenn Greenwald's rebuttal of Podhoretz's central claim: Jews should vote Republican because of Israel. Leon Wieseltier's review of Podhoretz's book for The New York Times is also worth reading.

Tags: Democratic Party, jews, Norman Podhoretz, religion, Republican Party, voting behavior (all tags)



Re: Why Jews are liberals

Thanks. I read your Diary, then clicked over and read the Podhoretz piece. I then slogged through the comments to the Podhoretz piece. The few liberal comments are remarkable in their reasonableness. The vast majority of the comments sound like they came right out of RedState or Free Republic.

I'm not Jewish, but I strive to be a Liberal in the Jewish tradition. Thanks again for bringing this.

by QTG 2009-09-12 05:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

I would dispute that assertion that most Jews are liberals.....most of my family is Jewish (aside from mixed marriages, conversions etc). Most that I am close with and in contact with are more conservative leaning. Many stopped voting democratic after Jimmy Carter's disastrous Presidency (the peace accord excluded). All but one actually voted for McCain (???). They tend to be conservative financially and socially. They have very hard lien views on immigration and defense.

It may have been true that years ago Jews leaned liberal, but coming from a Jewish family, I would dispute that is still the case.

by BuckeyeBlogger 2009-09-12 05:43AM | 0 recs
it's an 80-20 community

For the last few decades, Democratic presidential candidates have consistently received about 80 percent of the Jewish vote. It's not 100 percent, but that still makes Jews one of the most reliably Democratic groups.

by desmoinesdem 2009-09-12 08:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

If 78% of Jews voted for Obama, and all but one of the Jews you know voted for McCain... wouldn't it make a lot more sense to conclude that your family and friends represent an atypical sample?

In 2008, over 80% of Jews voted for a Democrat for Congress.  In 2006 the number was over 90%.

And the idea of a Jew with hard-line views on immigration is just sad on so many levels.

by Steve M 2009-09-12 08:09AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

I'm with you.  I can't dispute the statistics without seeing the undigested data.  Most of the Jews I've known in my life have been politically libertarian.  They just don't fit the description of New Deal Liberals or modern Progressives.

I also can't speak particularly well to the theology.  Judaism looks like Christianity to me (being gladly on the outside of both)--there's 8 million different flavors, doctrines, nobody agrees on anything....Calling oneself Jewish tells me very little about his or her actual religious, spiritual, historical, scientific beliefs; he or she might even be an atheist who identifies with Jewish social constructs.

Getting back to it, I've actually had two Jewish friends who explained to me (at separate times and unknown to each other) that their belief is that the ensoulment of an individual occurs sometime after birth, possibly not even before the 8th day after one is born.  So when an abortion is performed, it's akin to stomping a mosquito.  Tells me this may be the only group on the planet with a genuine religious reason for being pro-choice.

My only contribution on this subject.

by SuperCameron 2009-09-12 10:45AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

The large majority of American Jews are either non-orthodox religious (reform, conservative, reconstructionist etc...) or non-affiliated.  The orthodox vote pretty heavily republican.  But they are significantly outnumbered by the non-orthodox who vote Democratic.  There is an interesting divide between the orthodox and the majority of the American Jewish community.

by oakparker1 2009-09-12 06:02AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

Polling data shows Jews voting 70 to 80 percent Democratic. I would be very interested to see how much of this can be explained by demographic factors (geography and education) versus other factors.

I come from a Jewish Republican family. We did not live in an urban area. My father became a Democrat in the mid 1980's as the Christian right became more prominent in the Republican party. My father voted for Obama this year, his first vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. Like many Jewish Republicans, he is a social liberal and economic conservative. Obama welcomed Republican supporters and, as you argue, Palin scared him.

I'm less convinced of the theological explanation. Orthodox Jews are more conservative, as are fundamentalist Christians. If anything, the New Testament lends itself to a much more liberal view of the world than the Old Testament. I suspect it has much more to do with Jews experience in the diaspora, where building tolerance was necessary for survival. Jews outsider status encouraged a culture of independent thought. This experience shaped Jewish religious practices and beliefs in Europe, Latin America and the United States. Alternatively, it helps to account for why Jews in Israel have trended to the right.

Your final point is spot on. The decline of antisemitism in the US, the movement to the right in Israel and the increased prosperity of the Jewish community may have led greater numbers of Jews into the Republican Party, if it had not become so intolerant and heavily identified with the Christian right.

by thinman 2009-09-12 06:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

Podhoretz is guilty of an insidious bigotry when he assumes that fundamentalist denominations somehow have greater legitimacy than others.  I don't hear that hierarchy used to describe the legitimacy of Christian denominations.  

Reform Judaism is the largest denomination among American Jews.  Its members are no "less Jewish" than the Chassidim.  Reform Judaism allows gay clergy and celebrates gay marriage.  Its members strongly support Israel, but struggle profoundly with its moral and political challenges.  

It should be no surprise that so many are repelled by today's conservative movement.

by TG in NY 2009-09-12 06:25AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

P.S. By "conservative movement" I mean the Republican party.

by TG in NY 2009-09-12 06:28AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals
Leon Wieseltier has a good piece on this in the NY Times Book Review http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/13/books/ review/Wieseltier-t.html?_r=1&ref=re view
by thinman 2009-09-12 06:45AM | 0 recs
The comment about education is very key

and, I agree strongly, that the movement of many of the most orthodox Jews to the Republican party post Carter has been an Israeli firster mentality.

My experience is limited, but that has been it.

My most in depth experience was dating a wonderful Jewish Chicago girl, and that was the story in her family.

They were until Carter all staunch Democrats, then with Reagan, the most business oriented types who also happened to be the most hawkish on Israel went to the GOP.

The other truisms hold fast. They don't give a rats ass about the social agenda, this is about taxes and Israel.

It was a pretty brutal rift in the family, to the point where complete lines were astranged over politics.

by WashStateBlue 2009-09-12 07:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

Anyone who knows the old parable, "First they came for the ...." knows exactly why Jews are liberals.  In virtually every other country in the world, throughout history, the Jewish people were first on that list, enduring pogroms and expulsions and everything else imaginable, culminating in the worst of them all, the Holocaust.

Here in America, there are other groups that are "first on the list," notable African Americans historically.  So Jews took it upon themselves to stick up for the ones "ahead of them on the list," knowing full well that if they didn't, their turn would come.

It's as simple as that.  Stop the "list" in its tracks.

by nelcon324 2009-09-12 08:06AM | 0 recs
Welcoming the stranger

Well, nominally, Christian denominations believe this as well.  But it clearly has not prevented them from supporting a political party that would let the poor become sick and starve but for private charity to which they themselves would not contribute.

Of course, Podhoretz is wrong to say that there is no connection between those values and liberalism, and his evidence is laughable: conservative Jews are "more Jewish" than other Jews - oh, really? - and thus Judaism is conservative.  Conservative Christians are similarly wrong when they make the same argument.

But I think that what is revealed by Podhoretz's argument and others is that the tenants of one's religion more often serve the views of the adherent than inform them.  Podhoretz is conservative and thus Judaism is conservative and non-conservative Jews are "less Jewish" than he; someone else is liberal and thus their religion is liberal and non-liberal co-religionists are "less religious" than them.

So if there is any reason that a particular group is more liberal or more conservative than another, I think it has less to do with the religion they share than with the broader culture of which that religion is part.

by Drew 2009-09-12 09:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Welcoming the stranger

I went to church by invitation about 3 years ago.  It was the first time I'd seen the inside of a church in about 13 years, and I hope it will be at least another 13 before I see one again.  A pretty conservative congregation, too.

They did a collection for the church and another for an orphanage.  Just about everyone donated two or three bucks to each.

The real problem these people have is that they really think two or three bucks a week plus a prayer can provide for the poor, sick, and disabled in this country.  When they see their massive tax bill, they really think it's going to buy cadillacs for inner-city negros.  Shit, if you thought 2 bucks and a prayer could solve poverty you'd be in the same mental boat.

by SuperCameron 2009-09-12 10:53AM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

Jews being politically left predates the New Deal by centuries.  The Russian and German Communist parties were chock-full of Jews.  Jewish philophers (Spinoza, Rabbi Hillel) all had humanistic leanings.

Why?  Easy - it's because we're urban, and we've been that way for so long that the general cultural leftism that comes from being an immigrant laborer on the outside looking in is almost a part of our DNA at this point.

No ethnicity that has the geographic, cultural, and economic history of the Jews could be anything but left-wing.  And no other ethnicity has had that history for as long as Jews have had it by an order of magnitude.

by Jess81 2009-09-12 12:25PM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

As a Reform Jew, the largest denomination of Jews in North America, I find the Podhoretz writing insulting and totally off base.  Many of desmoinesdem corrections have merit but the most poignant point is that the Reform Responsa, the Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah,reads like the Democratic Party Platform.  It is Pro-Choice, Pro-Gay, Commanding against Xenophobia. The Torah commands us to honor the differences of others faiths and nationalities.  It commands charity to those in need.  In short it conflicts with Republican World view in its entirety! This explains more than anything else why some 80% of American Jews like me support the Democratic Party!

by politics64 2009-09-12 03:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals
It sound Podhertz has the same problem Republcians and pundits who want the party to draw more African-AMerican support have--they canvass areas with a strong Jewish population and disappear without a clue.
Seriously, though, one has to wonder if the bills are starting to come due for the GOP's full-throttle embrace of extreme conservatism how long it will be before they get hit hard politically.
by spirowasright 2009-09-12 04:15PM | 0 recs
Re: Why Jews are liberals

Being Jewish myself, here are my 2 cents on the subject: We are, historically, a sacrificial lamb for all that ails the world. This is especially true in a totalitarian system  Sometimes explicitly, but mostly implicitly each an every one of us has experienced antisemitism. We had suffered but persevered. We had learned through these years that our education is of utmost importance because that's the only thing that we can control and the only thing we can always rely in an unfortunate event we lose material things. Even the wealthiest of Jews are sensitive to the fact that everything they have now can be taken away from them at any moment. Because of these values and continuous feelings of insecurity, we are mostly liberal. Liberals are progressive and we believe would have our interests at heart. The Republicans and especially Conservatives are viewed more as dictators and oppressors.

by oreally 2009-09-12 04:17PM | 0 recs

There's a very interesting case of Jewish vote in Brooklyn...especially in the area of Borough Park, Midwood and down toward Coney Island. McCain won 60%-70% of the vote in these areas, but they voted for Clinton and Gore. They send Democrats to the state Assembly and state Senate and city council, but have been voting Republican for mayor since the 1980's and Republican for Governor since the 1986 with the exception of Spitzer.

by DTOzone 2009-09-12 04:48PM | 0 recs


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