Under Discussion: Why Are Jews Liberals? By Norman Podhoretz. Doubleday (2009), 337 pages.
Norman Podhoretz is something of an anomaly. His entire life has been centered around his Jewishness, but he sees himself as an outsider in the mainstream Jewish community. He shares a great many of the attitudes typical of that community, but draws different conclusions about how to navigate the contemporary American political landscape in a way that's "good for the Jews."
One area where Podhoretz is absolutely mainstream among American Jews is his sense of history. The first half of his recent book, Why Are Jews Liberal? lays out his version of the "lachrymose" theory of Jewish history in Europe and America in which the Diaspora has been one long vale of tears since the beginnings of Christianity. Whether or not this view of history is correct, the important point is that this is how the great majority of Diaspora Jews see themselves and their history. (My view is that many outbreaks of anti-Jewish feelings result from our evolved ingroup/outgroup psychology.)
This lachrymose view has major implications for understanding contemporary Jewish political behavior in the Diaspora. It proposes that, beginning with an unfortunate theological belief (that Jews killed God), Jews have been passive, innocent victims of marauding non-Jews.
The lesson that Jews learned from the Middle Ages carries down to today:
[The Jews] emerged from the Middle Ages knowing for a certainty that -- individual exceptions duly noted -- the worst enemy they had in the world was Christianity: the churches in which it was embodied -- whether Roman Catholic or Russian Orthodox or Protestant -- and the people who prayed in and were shaped by them. It was a knowledge that Jewish experience in the ages to come would do very little, if indeed anything at all, to help future generations to forget.
Jews were thus wary and mistrustful (at the very least) of all manifestations of Christianity. But the demise of Christianity as the central intellectual paradigm of Europe didn't improve things for Jews. During the Enlightenment, anti-Jewish ideologies smoothly morphed into non-theological views in which Judaism was a superstitious relic that prevented Jews from shedding their attachment to their people -- in Podhoretz's words, "giving up their sense of themselves as a people whose members were bound together across national boundaries wherever they might live."
The Enlightenment implied that Jews should accept the atomized individualism implied by the modern nation state. As Count Clermont-Tonnere expressed it in addressing the French National Assembly in 1789, "The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals. ... The existence of a nation within a nation is unacceptable to our country."
In the 19th century, Jews began to be seen by their enemies as an economically successful alien race intent on subverting national cultures wherever they lived. Podhoretz is squarely within the Jewish intellectual mainstream in his attack on the idea that Jews and non-Jews are biologically different and in competition -- "the new racist rationale [that] manifested itself in the portrayal of a war between Aryans and Semites as the central drama of history." For example, Ivan Aksakov, a leader of Slavophiles in Russia, viewed Jews as a competitive threat intent on destroying Christianity:
The Western European Christian world will be faced in the future, in one form or another, with a life-and-death struggle with Jewry, which is striving to replace the universal Christian ideal by another, Semitic ideal, also universal, but negative and anti-Christian.
Even in the United States -- the "golden land" as seen by Jewish immigrants -- there was exclusion and antipathy from "the upper echelons of the WASP patriciate." In America, Jews were excluded by WASP elites, and Christian forms of anti-Semitism (e.g., Father Coughlin) remained strong through the 1930s. Isolationists such as Charles Lindbergh also tended to see Jews as an interest group aiming at getting America involved in war with Germany. (Podhoretz refers to Lindbergh's famous speech as "notorious.")
Jews concluded, as they had ever since the political Left and Right came to be defined, that their enemies were on the right. But the main lesson Podhoretz draws is that over the centuries, Western intellectuals produced a variety of Christian and non-Christian anti-Jewish ideologies, each with the same result: Irrational hatred toward Jews. So it's not just Christianity, but European civilization itself that is the problem for Jews.
And, although Podhoretz doesn't explicitly make this move, it's a very short jump from blaming the culture created and sustained by Europeans to the idea that Europeans as a people or group of peoples are the problem. Ultimately, this implicit sense that Europeans themselves are the problem is the crux of the issue.
Podhoretz generally underplays the reality that Jews tended to make alliances with elites wherever they lived. The main exception to this is an important one: The situation of Jews in Russia from around 1880 to the Bolshevik Revolution. But even here, Podhoretz fails to note that most Jews were better off than most Russians, and he fails to acknowledge legitimate, often- stated concerns by the authorities to protect the Russian farmers from Jewish domination of the rural economy and to protect the nascent Russian middle classes from Jewish competition. Most importantly, he fails to discuss the very large rate of natural increase among fundamentalist Jews in Eastern Europe in a situation where they had overshot their traditional economic niches. The result was widespread poverty among Jews and attraction to messianic ideologies of Zionism and, most importantly for the history of the West, Marxism.
As Podhoretz notes, Jews, even when wealthy and powerful, had always been attracted to the Left much more than their non-Jewish counterparts. But the result of this Jewish population explosion and widespread Jewish poverty in Eastern Europe was that the tradition of Jewish opposition to national cultures -- well known and commented on at least by the latter part of the 19th century -- was now embedded in an ideology of Marxist revolution -- often combined with Zionism. Podhoretz's background places him firmly within these two most important strands of 20th-century Jewish intellectual life.
These Marxist radicals emigrated in droves to the United States and other Western countries. In a few short decades, this politically radical Jewish sub-culture became not only the dominant political culture among American Jews, it became a major force on the intellectual and political left generally. In this Jewish subculture, being merely a socialist was considered "right wing." The very strong Jewish identity of these Jewish leftists -- Podhoretz among them -- reminds us once again that a strong Jewish identity is and was entirely compatible with an ideology of Marxist universalism.
Podhoretz grew up in this mindset and, by his account, he remained a radical until the late 1960s. His central intellectual question is why Jews remained on the left despite what he sees as changes in what's good for the Jews.
Podhoretz sees being on the left as good for the Jews for most of their history in America. In the early 20th century, the enemies of Jews were the "conservative upholders of the old order" -- WASPs who prattled on about the importance of retaining ethnic homogeneity during the era of WASP ethnic defense that culminated in the 1924 immigration law. F. Prescott Hall, founder of the Immigration Restriction League, wrote, "It must be remembered ... that ... our institutions were established by a homogeneous community, consisting of the best elements of population selected under the circumstances under which they came to the New World." And some of the enemies of the Jews were concerned with Jewish competition -- "the Hebrew conquest of New York," as Henry James phrased it.
Is the Left good for the Jews?