Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Why Are Jews Liberal? -Part III

Shorter versions of the essays mentioned in Part I. My own observations on these thoughts will come later, likely influenced by whatever brilliant things you folks write in the comments.

Norman Podhoretz, who wrote the book that got this particular round of the discussion underway, believes that over their long history, the Jews have looked to two places for their safety: the heavens and the government. Government has not always been their protector, certainly, but on balance, it has done much to restrain the mob and grant Jews rights. Now that many Jews are secular, the government remains their default choice.

Podhoretz further notes that liberalism is itself a religion, providing a substitute for secular Jews in America. In Canada, Britain, and Australia, liberal governments succeeded in pushing many Jews away by being strenuously anti-Israel. This has not happened in America, though Podhoretz believes it is happening increasingly now. The reasons that Jews became liberals are no longer in force, but that political identification persists beyond its usefulness, like a vestigial tail in evolution.

In the Commentary symposium, David Wolpe stresses that Jews have been outsiders and felt like outsiders for much of their history, and so identify with other outsiders. They vote their self-conception, not their self-interest. The comfort and at-homeness other Americans seem to feel, even if they are not wealthy or high status, or whose families have not been here many generations, is off-putting to Jews.

Jonathan Sarna believes that Jews are naturally conservative, but in the US, Reform Judaism is stronger than elsewhere, overriding that. The decreasing identification with liberalism among Jews in other countries, triggered by anti-Israel stances, will assert itself here as well as the left becomes openly antisemitic, Orthodox Judaism grows, and Reform Judaism weakens. (More from Sarna later)

Michael Medved is the bluntest of the group, stating that rejection of Christianity is the only remaining unifier among Jews. Even identification with Israel has waned as its policies have offended against liberalism. It is hard for any group to throw away that last scrap of cultural identity. Jews believe that antisemitism has its center in Christian culture, especially Evangelical or Religious Right culture, and so reject those most of all.
Today, however, the echoes of that poisonous hatred, complete with seething contempt for the allegedly disloyal and manipulative -“Israel lobby” in American politics, turn up far more frequently in the newsrooms of prestige newspapers or the faculty lounges of Ivy League universities than they do in Baptist churches in Georgia or Alabama.

Jeff Jacoby traces back to the time of the kings in Jewish history to remind that wanting to be like other nations doesn’t always work out so well. The desire to fit in, to not be distinctive has backfired repeatedly. In this generation, Jews have tried to be the same by being like other urban, educated, well-to-do Americans, adopting the reassuring religion of liberalism.
It is reassuring for liberal Jews to believe that all people are fundamentally decent and reasonable, and that all disputes can be settled through compromise and conciliation. It is reassuring to believe in a world in which nothing is ever solved by war, so that military force is unnecessary and expensive weapons systems are wasteful. It is reassuring to believe that America is a secular nation, that God and religion have no place in the public square, and that no debt of gratitude is owed to the Christians who created the extraordinary society in which American Jews have thrived. It is reassuring to believe that crime is caused by guns, that academia is the seat of wisdom, and that humanity’s biggest problem is global warming. It is reassuring to believe that compassion can be achieved by passing the right laws and that big government can create prosperity. It is reassuring to believe that tikkun olam—healing the world—is a synonym for the liberal agenda and that the liberal agenda flows directly from the teachings of Judaism.

David Gelernter provides an intriguing explanation: Jewish secularism and liberalism are but a part of the larger secularising forces of Western thought, including a shift toward liberalism among vestigial Christian institutions. At a deeper level, he sees this as a death wish of the West. Low birthrates, a willingness to have national culture subsumed under EU culture, increasing enthusiasm for assisted suicide, and death with no cultural rites or comment are marks of nations and individuals who have given up the struggle against barbarism, wanting only to be peacefully left alone, preserving an attractive physical environment and comfortable standard of living, regardless of the cost to later humans. Money quote:
mulling German history in particular, one wonders whether the Germans ever were more than half-Christianized, whether paganism hasn’t always appealed to the lofty German Geist. It’s not surprising that Germany should be a leader not only in the new liberalism but also the new paganism.

William Kristol Why are Jews liberal? God Only Knows. Kristol has looked at the many discussions and explanations and come away unconvinced. Better that Jews should learn again to be good Jews than try to answer that. They don’t need more sociology, more “Whither Judaism” conferences, but Jewish religion and education. “Either they’ll come to their senses or they won’t”

The Volokh Conspirators, being attorneys, put some effort into showing how Podhoretz and conventional wisdom arguments don’t cover the map. Ilya Somin notes that Soviet Jews in America are entirely secular, but conservative. The Jews of Britain, Canada, and Australia are more divided between left and right, perhaps because there is no Religious Right in those countries. Jews tend to divide like other Americans on questions of economy and social welfare, perhaps even being a touch more conservative. But on social issues Jews, especially Jewish women, are far to the left of the mainstream. They tend to fear and despise evangelicals.

David Bernstein responds that Jews fear and despise conservatives and especially evangelicals because of political ignorance. They greatly overestimate evangelical antisemitism and underestimate the prejudice of other Democratic groups. Also, they are more Democrat voters than liberal voters. Being anti-Israel is seen as a negative, a probable indicator of hidden antisemitism; but being pro-Israel is not a positive, as Jews find hidden unattractive reasons for this support. Somin agrees that political ignorance, especially how sizeable African-American and Hispanic populations are against them, is a key factor. But he thinks this won’t change much.

Other conventional wisdom explanations, provided by Podhoretz and Sarna but largely discounted by them as inadequate hypotheses, however ingenious:
Liberalism reflects prophetic Jewish values; it is Judaism secularized.
Liberal proclivities form part of Jews’ genetic inheritance; they are biologically predetermined.
Conservatism has long historic ties to anti-Semitism; Jews reflexively recoil from it.
A “radical subculture” from Eastern Europe created and sustained the Jewish love affair with the Left; these immigrants socialized their descendants into liberalism, and they their descendants. And so forth.

I have heard further suggestions, some unattractive enough that one hopes they are not true. But all should be up for discussion.


karrde said...

I know not what to say, except to say that Jews aren't the only modern clan/tribal-group with a dour view of Evangelical Christianity.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

First about Jews and Christianity: Jews have good historical reasons to be suspicious of it, because our ancestors lived with it in Europe and experienced: the Code of Justinian (many American Christians don't know what that is); the theology of Augustine that led to separations and ghettos (ditto), the Crusades which resulted in the murder of 1/3 of the Jews living in the Rhineland (ditto again!); Martin Luther, who turned on the Jews when they didn't convert to his version (ditto, ditto, ditto), pograms and finally the Holocaust (in which the centuries of Christian teaching of contempt played a large role in the choice of victims). American Christians (in general) do not have the same memory nor does American Christianity have the same venom towards Jews that European Christianity had/has (?).

But American Evangelical Christianity has sought the conversion of Jewish kids. I experienced that pressure myself, and saw it again with my kids. And Evangelicals tend to try to convert us by killing with kindness. It took me a long time to realize that this was not fake but cultural. And I am still suspicious of it.

I would argue that there is more that unites American Jews than dislike of Christianity. But I would also argue that dislike of Christianity is reasonable in the face of 2000 years of Christian contempt expressed in ghettos, pograms, forced conversions, expulsions, inquisitions, and holocaust. Remember that Jewish non-citizen status rendered Jewish communities abjectly powerless in the face of Christian triumphalism and power.

America is different. And for many Jews, America is home. But it is a new home and we aren't all that comfortable with it yet.

About liberalism: There is a problem with the essayists who equate European liberalism to American liberalism. They are using the same term to describe two different phenomena. Therfore it's hard to know, without definitions how comparable the two actually are.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Elisheva, I recommend the full essays in Commentary and at VC. I am intentionally not commenting on any of the opinions yet, so don't think I am ignoring your comment.