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.