Why Are Jews Liberal?

Liberals believe that social engineering can bring about universal success; conservatives want to foster individual responsibility and initiative. For liberals, the failure of an individual is a failure of society; for conservatives, individuals should be allowed to succeed or fail on their own merits. There are degrees, of course; most conservatives eschew Social Darwinism or Ayn Rand’s egotism, and most liberals do not believe in the strict application of the Communist maxim, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” But that is the bright line that divides us conservatives from the liberals.


Why are (most) Jews liberals? That is a trickier question than it might seem. The usual explanation is that Napoleon freed the Jews from the ghetto, and Jews ever since have looked to the secular enlightenment as the source of their welfare rather than the often oppressive attitudes of traditional society. The European Socialists in general advanced Jewish interests while European conservatives in general impaired them. Without the French socialists (during the brief postwar premiership of Leon Blum), Britain almost certainly would have arranged for a successful Arab invasion of Palestine to crush the State of Israel in the cradle. There is something to that, but not enough.

Judaism, as historian Paul Johnson once observed, balances individual and collective. Christians who observe an Orthodox Jewish service will be struck by apparent lack of cohesion. During the preliminary reading of Psalms, worshipers proceed at their own pace, sometimes singing lines out loud. When the congregation stands, individuals will rise and sit down at their own pace rather than as a group. The recitation of the Eighteen Benedictions, the prayer at the center of each Jewish service, is an individual audience with the Lord, and some congregants will remains standing even after the leader begins the public repetition; latecomers will stand and recite after the service has moved on. A derogatory German expression cites “Geschrei wie in einer Judenschule,” or screaming as in a synagogue, referring to the occasional cacophony. There are to be sure moments when the congregation speaks as one. When the congregation declares the Shmah (“Hear!”), it does so in two parts: the first (Deut. 6:4-9) is written in first person singular, and the second (Deut. 11:13-21) restates the same themes in first person plural.


In that respect Judaism is in inherently conservative. Christians enter the Church together as Gentiles to be inducted into Israel, and although they are adopted as individuals, they worship as a body; Jews are already members of God’s people and go to synagogue for a private audience with Almighty as well as collective functions. Jewish law provides for the poor, but the prophets want every man to sit under his own vine and fig  tree — not the vine and fig tree of a collective farm. And the 10th Commandment specifically forbids a Jew to covet anything of his neighbors (as the rabbis observed, it reads “do not covet, covet,” the only one of the Decalogue to use the emphasis of repetition).

That’s the problem: The vulnerability of the conservative model, as de Tocqueville observed in 1835, is that the losers will use their political power to expropriate the winners and vote themselves rich. It is a proud and self-confident people indeed that is composed of individuals willing to accept failure, pick themselves up, and try again, rather than coveting the success of the winners. If popular jealousy erupts against the success of one’s own countrymen, all the more so will it be directed against a minority.

It is a high-class problem, but the Jews must deal with the fact that they are the most successful people in the history of mankind by any measure: longevity, contributions to arts and sciences, Nobel Prizes, business and philanthropy (Olympic medals being the great exception). Their neighbors have envied their success (and attributed it to a global banking conspiracy or other nefarious enterprise). The aspect of Jewish success that other peoples most envy, though, is Jewish longevity, at a moment when most of the peoples of the world feel the cold breath of mortality on the backs of their necks. Antisemitism is the rancor the dying have for the living. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of Iran, a formerly great nation now facing demographic death. The exception that proves the rule is China, among whose 1.5 billion people there is not a single Jew-hater. China is confident of its own longevity, and the principle that has held China together since the founding of its imperial system is a merciless meritocracy which rewards success and disdains failure.


Jews are liberals because they hope that if everyone succeeds, no-one will envy the Jews’ success. It is a Utopian premise, and wrong, but not quite as crazy as it sounds given the alternative: to assert Jewish success and Jewish particularly in a world full of failures is a dangerous thing. One finds some great nations with a natural affinity to the Jews, such as China and India, and many with an inherent antipathy — not just Iran, but most of Western Europe. In my view, there really is no choice, since it is impossible to engineer the success of peoples who are determined to destroy themselves. But the prosperity, strength and happiness of the Eternal People are unbearable insults in the eyes of peoples who have passed their best-used-by-date. For 3,500 years, we have watched other nations ruin themselves, and become dust on the scales and a drop of the bucket. Alone among all the peoples who lived between the Indus River and the Pillars of Hercules, we speak and write a language that was spoken and written more than 3,000 years ago. How could the fragile, extinction-prone peoples of the world in their existential anguish not covet Jewish longevity?

That is true not only globally but among American constituencies. Now that the Democratic Party has become the party of rancorous losers, its traditional support for Israel has diminished. 83% of Republicans support Israel against the Palestinians, but only 48% of Democrats do:



Americans have become “a nation of takers,” in Nicholas Eberstadt’s phrase. We elected Barack Obama twice, and now have an administration that is unabashedly hostile to the State of Israel and its existential interests. There may or may not be a natural majority for the conservative position in the United States, which means that Israel might be abandoned by its principal ally. The impulse to submerge Jewish success in the liberal project for universal success is misguided but entirely understandable. The alternative is no bed of roses, as we are learning at the moment.


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