A Generational Shift That Isn’t

By Leonard Fein

Published January 16, 2004, issue of January 16, 2004.
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‘Norman Podhoretz won, after all,” a dinner guest remarked the other evening. By which he meant that after years if not decades of being regarded with mere contempt by the Jewish intellectual establishment, which is resolutely left in orientation, Podhoretz and his extended family and their friends have become the public face of America’s Jews, this at a time when the left’s resolve has very substantially eroded. They are in the Defense Department, in the White House, in the Washington think tanks, and not only do people in power pay attention to them, they themselves are often the people in power. Podhoretz was among the founding members of Project for the New American Century, where the doctrine of preemptive attack was birthed, as was his wife, Midge Decter, his son-in-law, Elliot Abrams (now the National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and North African affairs), as were Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld. If not exactly a coup d’etat, it is at least a coup de theatre.

For many years, during Podhoretz’s editorship and after, Commentary magazine regularly published articles predicting the imminent demise of the Jewish left, some of which had the tone of nasty obituaries, others dispensing the logical inevitability of a collapse of the Jewish fascination with liberalism — libertinism, in the view of some of the writers — and a coming of Republican age by the Jews. For years, the rebuttal was in the statistics: Jews continued, by and large, to vote for Democrats, and in primary elections for the more liberal of the Democratic contenders. But now? Light-headed from the thin air at the mountaintop, infected by the “insolence of power” of which John F. Kennedy spoke, as well as by the arrogance of power, which is a hallmark of the incumbent administration, the prevailing and spreading assumption is that the predictions were a wee bit ahead of their time, but here we are, at last.

Except that “we” — America’s Jews, that is — are not “here,” not at all. Quite apart from the fact that the crusty old-timer lefties (full disclosure: count me in that group) refuse to go away, it turns out that the younger generation of Jews is cut from the same cloth. In 2002, Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life did a study of America’s Jewish freshmen. The study found that 50.9% of Jewish students entering college describe themselves as “far left” or “liberal,” another 39.5% as “middle of the road,” leaving a paltry 9.5% who say they are “conservative” or “far right.”

It’s possible, of course, that the 9.5% include the heavy-duty intellectual firepower of the rising generation, or that their elders on the right will engage in the kind of career development that will ease their way into influence and power. And it’s possible that all those currently “left” and “liberal” Jewish students, once they get to law school and are exposed to the Olin lectures and the other viruses the right has taken care to disseminate, will see the light and shift rightward, just as Irving Kristol, the senior eminence of the conservative coven, has for so long predicted.

Possible, but no more possible than that the mountain atop which they stride will soon crumble. The National Jewish Population Survey roughly supports the Hillel findings: 33% of Jewish college students identify themselves as Democrats, 22% as independents, 16% as Republican and 17% as “something else.” It appears that the word “conservative,” even if preceded by “compassionate,” is a black flag to Jewish students. “Republican” does considerably better but still fails by a two-to-one margin compared to “Democrat.”

As to why it should be so, as to why Jews in virtually every survey are 20 to 30 percentage points more liberal than the general population (and yes, as the general population moves rightward, the Jews move, too, but the margin of difference remains the same), who knows? Some studies suggest that most voters vote as their parents do or did; other studies suggest that’s no longer nearly so powerful a determinant as once it was. Jewish values? Perhaps, even if exceedingly difficult to figure out the mechanism of transmission, let alone the mechanism of translation into the immediate political realm. Over and over, the right calls the Jewish connection to liberalism a dalliance, a fad, an anomaly, a mistake that cannot and will not persist. And over and over, the Hillel and NJPS findings being only the most recent confirmation, the Jews, stubborn as always, resist the rightward tow.

It appears that something’s right with the world after all. The Jews are who the Jews were and seem reasonably determined to stay that way, this notwithstanding the demoralization that characterizes the entire left, including the Jews, notwithstanding the Democratic disarray, which is no small part of the cause of that demoralization, and notwithstanding the immense visibility of the Wolfowitzes and the Abramses and the Richard Perles. The crunch of conservatives that take up most of the oxygen these days remains an embarrassment to the aging remnant of the Jewish left, but the disposition of young Jews promises a decisively non-artificial respiration. Help is on the way. Hold the obituaries, don’t bother sending flowers (or hemlock), be of good faith and good cheer, remember “Save your Confederate money, the South will rise again!” And the truth is, we’re really not so crusty. Just worried, and impatient.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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