The Jewish Agenda is Jewish, Not Liberal


The publication of Norman Podhoretz’s “Why Are Jews Liberals?” (Doubleday) has been greeted more by yawns than by expressions of gratification or of outrage. Podhoretz, for many years the editor of the erstwhile liberal and more recently neocon Commentary magazine, walks the reader through Jewish history and comes up with an entirely non-startling conclusion: Jews are “liberal” because throughout the millennia we received our only support from universalist ideas, wherever they could be found.

Podhoretz looks as well at religion: “Liberalism . . . is the very essence of being a Jew.” When he talks about “the ‘Torah’ of liberalism,” he is not talking about a substitute for religion, a “civil Judaism,” as thinker Jonathan Woocher has it. To Podhoretz it’s the real thing, sociologically
as well as religiously: “The worst enemy they had in the world was Christianity.” Liberalism was, to Jews, the best response to modernity because it was based on twin pillars of universalism and religion.

Am I missing something here? Historically, there were many responses to modernity. There was Haskalah, there was chasidism, there was Bundism, there was the neo-Orthodox response in Germany and the Yeshiva Orthodox in Eastern Europe, there was socialism, there was Reform — and there was Zionism. Why Podhoretz has not a word about Zionism is indeed a head-scratcher, especially since Zionism (as were the other responses) derived from the same dilemmas as did liberalism.

As an unreconstructed liberal I have no great problem with Podhoretz’s “liberalism-in-religion” thesis (although Podhoretz’s reading of history is a bit, shall we say, casual). But as an unreconstructed liberal working in an increasingly conservative context, I have found that the traditional formulas of democratic pluralism that often translated into “liberalism” have not, for years, been on the radar screens of many in our organizational leadership.

We need to distinguish between where the grass-roots “amcha” is on public affairs and where many in the leadership want to pull the grass-roots. The old-time religion of the “liberal agenda” is once again under attack — and the contours of the attack are different from what they were two decades ago. Deeply, at the level of angst, a specter haunts the Jewish community — shrinking organizations, weakened national agencies, collapsing funding, agendas seemingly irrelevant — all of this at a time when international security concerns are regnant and when the creative continuity of the community continues to be called into question, innovations such as Birthright Israel notwithstanding. How is a case to be made during these times for an agenda rooted in social and economic justice and constitutional protections as legitimate, indeed central, vehicles for Jewish expression and continuity? Is that agenda “good for the Jews?”

So where are American Jews? Are we yet “liberal?” Or, as the recently departed Irving Kristol put it, have we been “mugged by reality” and become “conservative?”

First, there are the numbers. The most recent American Jewish Committee Annual Surveys of American Jewish Opinion, released last week, answers the question of whether Jews have become more conservative with a forthright “Maybe”: on U.S.-Israel relations, on the Netanyahu government, on the Arab-Israel conflict, there has been a shift rightward. But on political and domestic issues, Jews are yet liberal; we still identify ourselves Democrat rather than Republican (53 percent to 16 percent). Seventy-eight percent of Jews voted for Barack Obama (although much of this vote was an anti-Dubya expression as much as it was pro-Obama).

In order to parse these numbers we need to take a step back. Jewish involvement in the public-affairs arena is an innovation, indeed a revolution, in the history of how Jews relate to the external world. In earlier times, when it was not within the power of the Jewish community to alter its condition, the norm was “quietism.” The shift from quietism to activism marked Jewish activity from the last years of the 19th century, and characterizes our activity to the present day. I should note that the “activism” of the late-19th century was manifest in the wide-scale immigration from Eastern Europe during those years.

But the shift was not painless. Some of the great debates during the 1930s and ’40s were over whether the use of law and social action — the technique pioneered by the American Jewish Congress and, in the difficult climate of those years, abominated by everyone else (“We Jews need to take a low profile; we cannot be out front on issues.”) — was legitimate activity for Jewish organizations to achieve its goals.

Today’s numbers are instructive, and we can understand them if we look at a timeline of American Jewish involvement in public affairs. If we track the Jewish communal agenda during the last century in terms its priorities — anti-Semitism and discrimination during the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s; civil rights during the 1950s and early ’60s; Israel and Soviet Jewry from the mid-1960s; a return to the domestic agenda during the Reagan years; transitions in many issues over the past quarter-century — a question emerges: As the agenda expands, even during a period of Jewish organizational consolidation and shrinkage, “Why is this issue a priority for Jewish advocacy?” Issues are priorities for Jews when they implicate Jewish security. Civil rights, not on its face a “Jewish issue,” is a dramatic example of this principle. We Jews were leaders in civil rights not because we were liberals — which we were; not because it was the “right thing to do” — which it was; not because we were nice guys. Civil rights were at the top of our agenda because of Jewish self-interest.

Jewish “interest” in fact transcends political labels. “Liberalism” may be Norman Podhoretz’s problem; it ain’t mine. The Jewish advocacy agenda ought not to be refracted through the prism of the “liberal agenda” — as it never was in any case. Conventional wisdom has it that the “old-time religion” of 1950s and ’60’s liberalism has driven the Jewish agenda is only partly right — partly right, therefore mostly wrong. It was not then the case, and it is not the case today. Jewish social and political tradition is neither liberal nor conservative; it is Jewish. American Jews have long understood that this tradition is the enabler of all of the agendas of the community, and is the vehicle by which a contemporary realization of the traditional imperatives of kehilla (community) and tzedakah (justice and charity) is expressed. As one contemporary Jewish scholar succinctly put it, we are proven by the “other,” not by the “same.” Both the same and the other are of interest to Jews, and are therefore Jewish interests.

It ain’t liberalism.