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Chosen People, Choosing Left

In the presidential election, Barack Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote

Richard Baehr
SOURCEWall Street Journal

In a conference call with more than 1,000 rabbis before Rosh Hashanah, President Barack Obama encouraged the religious leaders to use their sermons on the Jewish New Year to promote health-care reform. It is more than ironic that liberal Jews, who call for a complete separation of church and state, saw nothing wrong with the president scripting their sermons. The reason may be that the script came from a modern sort of Jewish holy book, what Norman Podhoretz calls the “Torah of liberalism.”

“Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a fine and bracing examination of a question that has vexed Mr. Podhoretz for decades. He displays, along the way, the skill for supple reasoning and pugnacious argument that was the hallmark of his long editorship of Commentary magazine. Mr. Podhoretz grew up on the political left and remained there until the late 1960s, when he moved to the right. In “Why Are Jews Liberals?” he ponders, with a sense of deep frustration, why so few other Jews have made his journey.

Acknowledging that the allegiance of Jews to liberalism was once understandable, Mr. Podhoretz claims that the allegiance has now become irrational—and yet liberal Jews, which is to say most Jews in this country, show no sign of changing. “I cannot for the life of me give up the hope that the Jews of America will eventually break free of their political delusions,” he writes, “and that they will begin to recognize where their interests and their ideals, both as Jews and as Americans, truly lie.”

What is the Torah of liberalism? Mr. Podhoretz says that the 11th commandment for liberal Jews guarantees abortion rights, which is a major reason why Jews vote for Democrats. But their devotion to the Democratic Party long predates Roe v. Wade. As Mr. Podhoretz notes, with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1980, in presidential elections “the Democratic candidate has scored a landslide among Jewish voters . . . the overall average since 1928 is a stunning 75%.” Last year, Barack Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote.

It will be dangerous to the Jewish future, Mr. Podhoretz says, for Jews to continue down the path of reflexively supporting not just Democrats but also the party’s liberal wing. Unlike every other ethnic or religious group, he notes, Jews do not become more conservative as their income and wealth rise. The reason for such steady liberalism, it is often claimed, is that Jews care about those who are marginalized in America, as Jews themselves were once marginalized both here and in other countries.

But Mr. Podhoretz maintains that Jews are voting against their own interests. Jews advanced in America in the mid-20th century when the meritocracy took hold, individual effort and achievement were rewarded, and group quotas, which limited Jewish educational opportunity and economic advancement, were eliminated. How odd, then, to see Jews aligned with the party that embraces identity politics, affirmative action and quota-driven policies. Democrats also favor higher taxes and more government regulation, neither of which tends to produce the sort of economic expansion that benefits everyone, including the marginalized.

Another danger to the Jewish future, Mr. Podhoretz says, is the commitment of Jews to secularism and social liberalism. Jews are the least religious group in America—just 16% of Jews attend services at least monthly, and 42% of Jews attend not at all. Even those Jews who do go to synagogue often find a way to remain comfortable in their political beliefs: Mr. Podhoretz describes how liberal Jews—rabbis and worshipers alike—routinely cherry-pick passages from the Torah to buttress favored social policies. The Hebrew word for charity, tzedakah, he says, has been seized on by liberal Jews over the years to promote FDR’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and “social justice.” Mr. Podhoretz quotes a professor of modern Jewish history who said the Torah’s instruction made voting for John McCain last year impossible because he had opposed raising the minimum wage.

As Jews have traded Judaism for secularism, their birth rate has fallen well below the replacement level. As Mr. Podhoretz observes, this is only part of the new demographic reality. Fully half of Jews who marry these days choose a non-Jewish spouse, and a majority of the children in these marriages are not reared as Jewish. Not surprisingly, the Jewish population in America has begun to decline. Over the past 60 years, while the U.S. population doubled, the number of Jews has at best remained steady at about six million. Orthodox Jews, whose politics tend toward the conservative, have accepted the biblical directive to be fruitful and multiply. Their share of the American Jewish population is rising, and now stands at about 10%. But the demographic time bomb among non-Orthodox Jews, Mr. Podhoretz says, may be unstoppable.

Finally, there is Israel. Mr. Podhoretz once hoped that American Jews would move to the right when faced with the rabid anti-Zionism that has the infected the left in recent decades, but he was disappointed. While many liberal Jews insist on their support for Israel, somehow they seem far more passionate about abortion rights and government-run health care than about preventing Iran, Israel’s sworn enemy, from obtaining a nuclear weapon. That Jews rejected the adamantly pro-Israel John McCain in favor of Mr. Obama, whose views on Israel were vague at best, confirmed Mr. Podhoretz in his belief that “their commitment to liberalism, and to the Democratic Party as its principal political vehicle, was still so deep and so powerful that anything threatening to shake it would be fended off with willful blindness and rationalizations built on denial.”

During Rosh Hashanah services last weekend, I saw these words embedded in a stained-glass window at my synagogue: “God, the Torah and Israel are One.” I’m still willing to accept that most American Jews believe these are the cornerstones of their faith. What is less clear is whether for many liberal Jews their Torah is Jewish law or the Torah of liberalism that Mr. Podhoretz describes with unsettling clarity.

Mr. Baehr is the chief political correspondent for the online magazine American Thinker and a Distinguished Fellow of the Jewish Policy Center.