Ron Rosenbaum

Why Are Jews Liberals?

I came upon an interesting post by Robert Stacy McCain which discusses, in a civilized way, the topic why Jews are liberal taking off from a symposium in Commentary on Norman Podhoretz’ new book of that title.

I can only answer by explaining why this Jew is liberal (but no longer left).

First of all, I should disqualify myself to some extent. I’m not an observant Jew, I don’t regard the Bible as the word of God, I’m an agnostic about the existence of God. So some may say I don’t have a place in this conversation.

But Isaac Bashevis Singer was an agnostic, you gonna say he’s not a Jew? I’m a Jew like he’s a Jew, forever arguing about what it means to be a Jew, forever arguing with a God you’re not sure exists.

I feel Jewish, I certainly am identifiably Jewish, and I have expressed myself on the subject of Jews changing their names. I feel an unshakeable identity with Jews and Jewish culture, have explored the source of the Holocaust in one book (Explaining Hitler) and have edited an anthology about the current threat of anti-Semitism (Those Who Forget the Past).

In addition I support the existence and persistence of the state of Israel, although I was never a strong Zionist and feel more of an affinity for the Jews of the diaspora, the brilliant culture of the Jews of exile.

So I consider myself both a Jew and a liberal and if I had to name one factor that would make it so, it was the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. For my parents it was FDR and Harry Truman (and I recommend my colleague Ron Radosh’s book (co-written with Allis Radosh) about Truman and the founding of Israel, A Safe Haven — an important work, on the back cover of which I’m proud to be quoted.

So it was kind of a family tradition to associate being Jewish with being liberal (although my mother’s side of the family were mainly Republicans). But to me as a young kid idealist of the Bob Dylan, Joan Baez folkie leftist persuasion, what I saw were Jews and liberals, and liberal Jews and observant Jews and secular Jews and Jewish secularists all supporting the great American movement for social justice that was the Civil Rights movement.

For we were slaves in Egypt once, right? How could we not be at the forefront of protests against racist former slave-state sponsored segregation in the South and racism in the North?

I saw conservatives and Republicans staunchly opposed to anti-segregation legislation and anti-racist movements. I still see conservatives and Republicans still unashamedly profiting electorally from the racism-lite “Southern strategy.” I was glad to read of William F. Buckley Jr. expressing regret for the anti-civil rights stance of the early National Review, but I don’t hear of many other conservatives expressing regret that their movement stood in solidarity with racists and continues to profit from Southern strategy racism.

And so it’s the Jewish tradition of social justice that made me a liberal. Here’s where things get difficult.

I understand the impulse to reach out to suffering people, as many of the Palestinians are. But they are suffering largely because they have demonstrated a consistent racist, anti-semitic, hate-filled desire to eliminate the state of Israel, and have joyously backed the suicide bomb slaughter of Jews.

And then they complain about the security checkposts they suffer so much from. Stop trying to kill children and the checkposts may not be as onerous.

I don’t understand those Jewish liberals and Leftists — supposedly anti-fascist — who through knee-jerk assumption that all Third World movements must be just, lend their support directly or indirectly to parties with Nazi-like exterminationist platforms such as Hamas. It’s suicidal stupidity.

Not Holocaust denial, but what I’ve called “Holocaust inconsequentialism” — the awareness that it happened but the refusal to draw any historical lessons from it. The attempt to make it ahistorical is akin to denying its existence.

So I won’t say that it isn’t difficult, that there aren’t contradictions with being Jewish and liberal, but I’d rather associate my political orientation with those who supported the Civil Rights movement than with those who have yet to repudiate the racism behind the Southern strategy. Some have. Talk to me about conservatism when more do.

That alone would be enough. But also there is the sense that Jews were at the forefront of the struggle, that they had learned from their own oppression the need to fight on behalf of other racially or ethnically oppressed peoples.

The sad thing, I admit, has been the way Leftists and all-too many liberals have decided that murderers and genocide promoters such as Hamas are oppressed rather than despicable. It’s a struggle to remain a liberal and see fellow Jewish liberals fall for this suicidal fallacy, but nothing in life, certainly not in political life is simple.

But if you want a simple answer to why Jews are liberal, ask where were conservatives during the civil rights movement of the 60s, the social justice movements of the 40s. Aligned with Father Coughlin and Charles Lindberg, not so secret fascist sympathizers.

I’d say : the civil rights movement. Jews who find the most important part of the religion (I’m not observant so this may not apply to all) the injunction to care about social justice, to care for the oppressed because we wee were oppressed, slaves in Egypt, etc.

Ad then came the civil rights movement, the most important social movement in America since the Civil War (if you consider that a social movement).

And while the Democratic Party was, yes, made up of a bizarre alliance of Southern racists and northern liberals, the support of Northern liberal democrats for the civil right movement earned liberalism, for me, a lifelong allegiance.