A Free Account of Liberal Jewish History

Norman Podhoretz Tells the Political Story of a People

Conservative Jew?: Norman Podhoretz scrutinizes thousands of years of history in his account.
Conservative Jew?: Norman Podhoretz scrutinizes thousands of years of history in his account.

By Jacob Heilbrunn

Published September 23, 2009, issue of October 02, 2009.
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Why Are Jews Liberals?
By Norman Podhoretz
Doubleday, 352 pages, $27.00.

Norman Podhoretz, who was the editor of Commentary magazine for four decades, has caused a stir regularly with his essays and books. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is no exception. Part historical lesson, part autobiography (the latter a genre that Podhoretz first explored in his riveting confessional, “Making It,” published in 1967 by Random House, which chronicled his lust to enter the New York intellectual establishment and resulted in his expulsion from it), Podhoretz’s latest sally takes direct aim at his brethren, expressing perplexity at, and castigating them for, their complacent attachment to liberalism and, by extension, the Democratic Party.

Podhoretz’s preoccupation with the loyalty of Jews to liberalism — as he notes with great consternation, 78% voted for Barack Obama, and Jewish support for Democratic presidents has long been overwhelming — is coterminous with his own transformation into a neoconservative in the late 1960s. In its original incarnation, neoconservatism was based on a repudiation of affirmative action, opposition to Soviet tyranny and, above all, support for Israel. The movement consisted mostly of disgruntled Democrats who believed that the party had moved too far left under the influence of George McGovern and needed to come home to the Cold War traditions of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy.

By the 1980s, however, neoconservatives such as Podhoretz and Irving Kristol had become card-carrying members of the GOP. They maintained that, among other things, the Jewish community would do well to reach out to Christian evangelicals who opposed the moral decay that was sapping America internally, and who fervently admired Israel. Today, Podhoretz writes, there is no group “more passionate in its support of Israel than the conservative Christian community.” Rather than forge a political alliance with it, however, “Jewish liberals look for ways to justify their refusal to do so.” They remain entranced by a radical left that is not only implacably hostile to Israel’s existence, but also anti-American.

To help explain the old story of the attachment of Jews to liberalism, Podhoretz examines the past. Some of his most interesting characterizations of Ashkenazic Jewishness come from this portion. He pays tribute to the devotion of the Ashkenazim to learning, but reminds us that it was accomplished in the teeth of widespread oppression: “The worst enemy they had in the world was Christianity….” Podhoretz goes on to limn the repressive measures that repeatedly came from the right, culminating in the extermination policy of the Nazi regime.

But Podhoretz also lays a good measure of blame at the feet of the Jews themselves for repeatedly deluding themselves about the promise of emancipation and for being too eager to surrender their own faith in exchange. He suggests that Jews failed to “understand the significance of the hatred of the Jewish people that was built into the worldview of Voltaire and other major thinkers of the eighteenth century enlightenment.” He also condemns Karl Marx, who hailed from a long line of rabbis, and other socialists for propagating anti semitism, thereby indicating that the most dangerous foes of Judaism can also come from within its very midst. The message is clear: American Jews are in danger of repeating the folly of their predecessors.

But are they? The problems begin with Podhoretz’s dash through the past, which is more than a little one-sided. The left hardly merits the pasting that Podhoretz administers to it. Conspicuously absent from his account is that socialists were among the leading opponents of antisemitism as well as Nazism. It was the great 19th-century socialist August Bebel who made the remark “Anti-Semitism is the socialism of fools.” The very first political opponents that Hitler locked up in concentration camps in January 1933 were socialists, and it was the Socialist Party alone that refused to vote for the Enabling Act that allowed Hitler to create a totalitarian state after the Reichstag Fire in February 1933.

Nor is it all that surprising that Jews would have supported Obama. John McCain’s running mate, after all, was Sarah Palin, who barely managed to burble out ritual expressions of support for Israel during the campaign. The blunt truth is that Jews have had good reason to be wary of the extreme elements of the Republican Party; as Sam Tanenhaus details in his new book, “The Death of Conservatism” (Random House), the most retrograde elements of the GOP have resurfaced — complete, by the way, with the reckless use of Nazi imagery.

Then there is the matter of Israel and the Democratic Party. Just as Podhoretz adhered to a simplistic us vs. them in his 2007 book, “World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofacism” (Doubleday), he seems to think that voting Democratic is, by definition, an act hostile to Israel. For all his opposition to the infiltration of what he condemns as liberal dogma — what he derisively refers to as “the Torah of liberalisms” — into Judaism, he himself is guilty of the same approach in suggesting that it is, in fact, conservative tenets that are most compatible with historical Jewish traditions. Throughout, he asserts but never actually proves that liberals are congenitally unfriendly to the Jewish state.

What’s more, he is unwilling to acknowledge that the record of Israel may not be entirely unblemished. Instead, he subscribes to a fairy tale version of history that precludes Israel, undoubtedly beset by enemies, from accepting even a smidgen of culpability for its current predicament. Finally, Podhoretz comes disconcertingly close to depicting liberal Jews not simply as credulous fools, but as, at a minimum, allying themselves with traitors to America. In this regard, it’s curious that Podhoretz regards Obama with such hostility because, in many ways, his self-reliance, studiousness and adherence to family values (among other traits), exemplify exactly what neoconservatives have always demanded from African Americans.

What’s lurking underneath Podhoretz’s account, I think, is a new version of the New York uptown vs. the downtown Jews, the prosperous, snooty German Jews vs. the shabby Eastern European immigrants. Podhoretz himself was always the striver from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, the son of a milkman, at Columbia University. Now, Podhoretz is once more exacting his revenge, taunting the pusillanimous Jews who refuse to toughen up and recognize the gathering storms at home and abroad.

In short, Podhoretz remains at war with the liberal intellectual establishment — most notably, The New York Review of Books — that he first inadvertently scandalized in the 1960s with his precocious memoir. Podhoretz has scored some notable successes during that conflict, partly in boosting the careers of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Along the way, he has incurred numerous battle scars, as well some honors. George W. Bush awarded him the Medal of Freedom in 2004 for his improbable and unflinching efforts on behalf of the conservative movement. Converting his co-religionists en masse to the hawkish doctrines of neoconservatism, however, is one conquest that Podhoretz has never been able to make. This philippic is not likely to accomplish it, either.

Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest and the author of “They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons,” published last year by Doubleday and recently reissued in paperback by Anchor Books.

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