Norman Podhoretz's recent book Why Are Jews Liberals? argues that Jews are overwhelmingly liberal because they have become secular and have turned to political liberalism as a substitute for religion. This Wall Street Journal Podhoretz op ed summarizes his argument.
Podhoretz rejects claims that Jews are liberal because this is required by Jewish religious values; as he points out, the most religious Jews are often the least liberal. He also denies (correctly in my view) that political liberalism advances the self-interest of American Jews, and also notes that in recent decades the right has generally been more supportive of Israel than the left.
While Podhoretz effectively criticizes alternative explanations for Jewish liberalism, his own theory is equally unpersuasive. A key flaw is that it lacks comparative perspective. Jews in other English-speaking democracies, including Britain, Australia, and (more recently) Canada, often either support right of center parties or at least split their vote between right and left in roughly the same proportions as the gentile population. Margaret Thatcher represented a London district with a large Jewish population, and routinely won the nationwide Jewish vote in her three electoral victories.Some of the conservative politicians supported by British and Australian Jews were more moderate than their US Republican counterparts. But that certainly wasn't true of Thatcher, among others. Australian, British, and Canadian Jews are, on average, roughly as secular as American ones. So it isn't necessarily true that secular Jews trend towards the political left as part of their search for an alternative to religion.
Right here in the United States, Podhoretz's analysis ignores the political leanings of Russian immigrant Jews, who constitute up to 12% of the total US Jewish population, are overwhelmingly secular (far more so than native-born Jews), and just as overwhelmingly Republican. The Russian Jewish case also undercuts Podhoretz's theory.
Once one recognizes that lopsided adherence to liberalism is not a universal trait of secular Jews but is largely confined to native-born American ones, Podhoretz's theory collapses. If it were true, British and Australian Jews should be just as left-wing as American ones, and Russian immigrant Jews should be even more liberal than their native-born counterparts.
What then explains the liberalism of native-born American Jews? A key factor that Podhoretz mistakenly downplays is the association between American conservatism and the Christian religious right. That is the main difference between American conservatism and right of center political movements in other English-speaking democracies, which have comparatively weaker Religious Right connections. Most secular American Jews dislike and fear the Religious Right, which they suspect of anti-Semitism and of seeking to impose Christianity as a quasi-official religion. I think such fears are overblown, but not totally off-base. It also does not help that some prominent Religious Right leaders - such as Pat Robertson - continue to flirt with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Podhoretz may be correct in claiming that the Religious Right ultimately poses only a minor threat to American Jews, and is certainly right to point out that many religious conservatives are strongly pro-Israel and have broken with their churches' anti-Semitic past. However, secular Jews' distaste for the Religious Right is a matter of clashing cultural values, not just calculations about threats to specific Jewish interests. Many secular Jews simply don't want to support a political movement that they associate with a group whose values seem alien and threatening. Ironically, Podhoretz's own book inadvertently confirms the importance of the Religious Right as a cause of American Jewish liberalism. He recounts various incidents when he tried to persuade Jewish audiences to vote for the Republicans on the basis of their economic and foreign policy stances, but was met with the response that Jews cannot possibly vote for the Republicans because they support school prayer. On Podhoretz's own account, even many of those Jews who sympathize with Republican positions on economic or foreign policy issues are repelled by the Religious Right factor.
The Religious Right explanation for the liberalism of native-born American Jews also helps explain why Russian immigrant Jews are different. While the latter tend to be highly secular, they have little experience with or knowledge of the US Religious Right and don't tend to focus on them as a crucial historic and cultural enemy. The main recent oppressor of Russian Jews was, of course, the officially atheistic Soviet government.
I am certainly not suggesting that American Jews would be overwhelmingly conservative or Republican if it were not for the Religious Right. But they would be much less overwhelmingly liberal than they are today.
UPDATE: I should note that in my view the Religious Right factor is what explains the overwhelming dominance of liberalism among American Jews today. It does not explain their support for the Democratic Party in earlier periods (e.g. - from the 1930s to the 1950s), when the political situation was very different and Jews themselves were much poorer then they became later. Many other groups were overwhelmingly Democratic at the high point of the New Deal coalition (e.g. - Catholics, "white ethnics," etc.) but became far less so as they became more affluent and the political landscape changed. Strikingly, the Jews did not change similarly, and I believe that the Religious Right factor is a crucial reason why they didn't.
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