Why Are Jews Liberals?

magazinesA retired physician in our congregation just got me a subscription to Commentary, a Jewish magazine about conservative politics. I think he is worried that I am drinking the liberal Manischewitz of American Jewish life (it is true that I have softened in some areas).

I only recently came to understand that Commentary is a Jewish magazine. My friend gives me photocopied articles at times, but I thought the interest in Israel in the magazine came simply as a matter of course for conservative politics. In case anyone is unaware: the current liberal crowd is anti-Israel and would just as soon see Israel disappear and Israel’s greatest friends in the world are conservatives. This point is really a fact and not debatable, but I’ll be interested to see if anyone wishes to oppose me on that statement. Of course, it is possible to be liberal and pro-Israel, but I think those who try to hold that line should really ask why they feel so alone in their liberal circles.

I just received my first issue of Commentary and it is refreshing to hear Jewish voices speaking for conservative values I share: tolerance and respect for religion in the public sphere, opposing tyranny and dictatorships, opposing Islamic radicalism, opposing the legalization of abortion on demand, and supporting economic policies of the more Maimonidean sort (Maimonides believed that charity is helping people help themselves).

The founding editor of Commentary, Norman Podhoretz, has a new book out, Why Are Jews Liberals?, and in the September issue of the magazine, six Jewish writers comment on the book. I read their ideas with great interest and I am saving the most surprising for last (and I promise, it has to do with Messianic Judaism specifically).

David Wolpe, Rabbi and Author of Why Faith Matters
I love David Wolpe. Of course, I don’t know him, but when Monique Brumbach recommended his book, I ordered it that day on amazon and I am glad I did.

I’m not sure of Wolpe’s political views, but of the six commentators, he sounds the least conservative politically. His answer: Jews are outsiders, marginalized, and identify with the marginalized. Since the marginalized communities vote Democratic, most American Jews have an instinct to follow suit. Wolpe admits that liberalism tends to be anti-Israel and anti-religion in the public sphere. He also, accurately in my view, admits that liberalism is “faith in the power of government.”

Still, his challenge to conservatism in this brief response to Podhoretz rings true:

I suspect that until conservatism convinces most Jews that they have a sympathy and a practical program for those who are real or putative outsiders, it will remain, among Jews at least, distinctly the minority movement.

Jonathan Sarna, Brandeis Professor and Author of American Judaism: A History
Sarna argues that the true Jewish heritage, as expressed by British Chief Rabbi J.H. Hertz in a previous generation, is conservative. He says that Reform Judaism is largely the reason American Jews vote liberal. The political views of the shtetl and of Orthodox communities today is decidedly conservative, he says.

Sarna thinks that as liberal Jewish communities decline (low birthrate, high assimilation) and Orthodox communities increase (high birthrate, low assimilation), American Jews will increasingly become conservative politically.

William Kristol, Editor of the Weekly Standard
In a beautiful response, Kristol says:

I’m going to stop worrying about American Jews. They’re not worth the headache. Either they’ll come to their senses or they won’t, and there’s not much I (or anyone else, I suspect) can do about it.

Kristol recommends we stop Jewish navel-gazing and encourage a different kind of conversation in Jewish communities: about the “glories of Judaism” and not demographics. He proposes that Jews support with their money and their time Jewish education and not Jewish communal affairs. There should be more focus on the well-being of Israel and an acknowledgement that Christians are Israel’s greatest friends and more likely to support israel than most Jews in America.

Jeff Jacoby, Op-Ed Columnist for the Boston Globe
Jacoby, interestingly, says that Jews have been making self-destructive political choices since the days of the appointment of Saul as king of Israel.

The primary motive, he thinks, in Jewish liberalism, is a desire to fit in with society. And while liberalism in the past served Jewish issues, such as FDR’s strong leadership in opposing Judaism’s greatest enemy on earth, the opposite is true now. Liberals want to help and legitimate Judaism’s enemies and Jewish conservatives (a la Lieberman) who support the good of Israel and the demise of Israel’s enemies find themselves scorned.

Jacoby’s assessment of the religious appeal to liberalism to a secular American Jewry is priceless:

It is reassuring for liberal Jews to believe that all people are fundamentally decent and reasonable . . . in a world in which nothing is ever solved by war . . . that America is a secular nation, that God and religion have no place in the public square, and that no debt of gratitude is owed to the Christians who created this extraordinary society in which American Jews have thrived . . . that crime is caused by guns . . . that humanity’s biggest problem is global warming . . . that big government can create prosperity . . . that the biblical prescription for tikkun olam–healing the world–is a synonym for the liberal agenda . . . that Jews are no different from anyone else, that they are not called to a unique role in human events, and that the best way to be a good Jew is to be a conscientious citizen of the world.

David Gelernter, Yale Professor and Author of Judaism: A Way of Being
Gelernter’s unique contribution to this discussion is to suggest looking at Europe as a way of seeing where liberalism is heading. His warnings are a terrifying call to put down the Manischewitz.

European liberalism has made people into mere animals, philosophically speaking. Sex is now akin to “an ATM transaction.” Marriage is for the “lower orders” and partnership, loose and open, is preferred. Attitudes about religion ironically have made liberals into the raving fundamentalist low-church preachers of the day. Europeans are watching their own death, with declining population realistically depleting them nearly out of existence in a few generations. The dead are disposed of with no ceremony much as people dispose of animals. Gelernter concludes:

. . . man should be as happy as an animal among animals, should aspire to nothing higher, and should be inspired to worship the earth and himself if he must worship anything.

There is hope, nonetheless, as Jewish religious genius is capable of rising up and changing the direction of history.

Michael Medved, Syndicated Radio Host and Author of The Five Big Lies About American Business
The most surprising I saved until last. Michael Medved says that the primary motive in Jewish liberalism in America is the drive to oppose Christianity because opposing Christianity is the only meaningful way most American Jews can feel Jewish. Having abandoned Israel (75% of American Jews have never visited!) and Jewish religious life (only 16% attend worship weekly), American Jews are insecure in their Jewishness. The only way to feel part of the tribe without joining a synagogue and becoming devote to Judaism is to vote and talk liberal.

Liberalism is the new bagels and lox.

Medved speaks of both Jews for Jesus and Messianic Jews in a positive light, which surprised the heck out of me. He notes that a liberal rabbi can have a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel speaker and will be applauded for it. But if the same rabbi were to bring in a Messianic Jewish or Jews for Jesus speaker, they would be looking for work immediately. Any opinion is preferable to the idea of Christianity or of Jews believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior (his words, not mine).

Medved’s solution would be for the American Jewish community to pursue Judaism instead of settling for being merely anti-Christian and for American Jews to embrace their Christian friends and find common ground. It’s a shocking proposal because it makes so much sense and yet seems so unlikely.

A Lesson for Us
Christians would do well not only to support Israel, but also to support Judaism. If more Jews read the Torah, let me suggest that more Jews would be open to Yeshua as Messiah. Rather than being anti-Judaism, I wish more of my Christian friends would follow the converse of Medved’s advice and pursue common ground with Judaism.

As Messianic Jews, I think a lesson for us is to embrace Christianity and Judaism. As intermarried couples are our mainstay, we have both Jews and Christians in our synagogues. We can serve both and we can be a bridge between both worlds and we don’t have to turn our backs on Jewish identity to do so.

We are the Jewish branch of the community of Yeshua and Christianity is the non-Jewish branch. We are one olive tree and that tree is Jewish.

With larger Judaism, our relation is different. We are part of Judaism, a part calling for reform within based on the teachings and redemptive actions of Messiah Yeshua. Our voice will not always be welcomed, far from it, but we can’t stop raising our voice from within.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Christian, Judaism, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Why Are Jews Liberals?

  1. rebyosh says:

    Derek,

    Athough I would describe myself as a “moderate” and agree with many of the positions of your post, I also would take position against much of your broad-brushing.

    As one who is technically registered as a Republican (please don’t stone me!), I am also very disenfranchised by the party (as many, many of us are). In observation, and discussions with others, over the last presidential election, the biggest issue is the same position you are arguing against – basically a call for the break down of society and a sense of being “anti-everything.”

    The problem for conservatives in the last election was polarization. The Republican party is perceived as being exactly what you are decrying – as “anti-everything”.

    As a young, educated, and critically thinking minority, I was completely turned off by the Republican National Convention and the majority of the speeches.

    As a rabbi and thinker, I have just as many critiques of the conservative camp as I do the “liberal” camp. Critiques of the last election have continually demonstrated that most Americans fall “somewhere in the middle” rather than on either extreme. As such, polls showed that so many of us were on the fence even on election day. And many of us were still waiting to be swayed.

    My response to many of the topics raised in your post, and to the conservative camp is simply in the form of questions. And until the conservative camp actually answers and intelligently responds to many of these issues – many of us will continue to remain unswayed by any one party. Although I realize extremes on many of these issues are what turn many of us off, we still must look at these issues.

    1) Why is concern for the environment considered “liberal,” and the good conservative position is to brush it aside? As Jews, Torah is clear that we are to be stewards of the land.

    2) If the conservative position is “pro-life” – shouldn’t we at least be consistent on all areas of life? As such, pro-life should also indicate anti-torture, anti-genocide, and anti-death penalty.

    3) Why is involvement in the wider global community apart from war considered “too liberal”? Shouldn’t conservatives (especially Chrsitians) be standing up for Darfur, against the killing of Christians by Muslim extremists, standing up for educating minorities, and clean water for parts of the world where people die daily because of disease?

    All too often the only people speaking about such issues would most often be labeled as “liberal.”

    It’s time for the conservative camp to also think crtitically and present something compelling to a young, educated generation. Otherwise many of us will continue to be left hanging.

  2. tnnonline says:

    As a political science undergrad, it takes a lot of guts to discuss religion and politics–together! Kudos. I appreciate that you have just even tried to splice this all together, especially given the complex dynamics.

    I always say: Vote for the Whig party! Fillmore was our last president, and so I think it is time that we get a whirl at it once again.

  3. Jews remain liberal, until they’ve actually lived in a liberal’s utopia (e.g. USSR). That’s why the ex-Soviet Jews are not liberal (a great majority of them). American Jews have not learned that valuable lesson YET.

    “1) Why is concern for the environment considered “liberal,” and the good conservative position is to brush it aside? As Jews, Torah is clear that we are to be stewards of the land.”

    Yes, I’m all for clean earth. But once you start insisting that people are pests to be rid off or start conjuring up fake pseudo-scientific theories so that you can raise my taxes and enact more legislation over my life – while being a hypocrite, you lose my vote.

    “2) If the conservative position is “pro-life” – shouldn’t we at least be consistent on all areas of life? As such, pro-life should also indicate anti-torture, anti-genocide, and anti-death penalty.”

    Liberal position is to pick a latest fad cause celeb, run a few telemarathons, throw up a few websites, start a few lawsuits, send millions to a few dictators, but take little actual action to physically stop the evil at hand.

    Also, since when is a death penalty against G-d’s law?

    “3) Why is involvement in the wider global community apart from war considered “too liberal”? Shouldn’t conservatives (especially Chrsitians) be standing up for Darfur, against the killing of Christians by Muslim extremists, standing up for educating minorities, and clean water for parts of the world where people die daily because of disease?”

    I know of many conservative believers PERSONALLY who are doing just that. Except they are not Bono, so the world doesn’t care to notice.

  4. judahgabriel says:

    Wow, Derek, this is a moving and memorable post. Thank you for compiling all this. WOW. I’m going to spread the word around about this post.

    I blogged about some of the vitriol from leftist Jews recently, you all might be interested to see the video where a pro-Israel speaker gets shouted down by liberal Jews in the audience: http://judahgabriel.blogspot.com/2009/07/growing-liberal-opposition-to-israel.html

  5. DysfunctionalParrot says:

    I take great comfort in seeing how many high ranking Jewish authorities are at least having the decency to acknowledge the Christian support they receive…because it is massive.

    Although it used to be in vogue to falsely accuse the Christians as solely responsible for every atrocity in the past ( ex. Hitler was a Christian baloney ), many are all to quickly realizing that the only friends Israel truly has in this increasingly violent and backstabbing world, are the followers of Yeshua. This is an excellent witnessing tool if ever there was one.

    Your conclusion is also bang on…if more Jews actually read the Torah, more would believe in Yeshua.

  6. For several years I held a subscription to Commentary magazine and enjoyed the lively debates in its pages. In 2004, it turned into the salon for Jewish apologists for torture. I’ve since realized that Commentary is much more deeply informed by Jewish hang-ups than it is by Jewish law.

    What ever happened to the Jewish prophetic voice that calls out leaders that trample on the rights and well-being of those who are marginalized? It’s a fact, not just a matter of perception, that conservative politicians tend to reinforce the interests of those who are already powerful, to the continued detriment of the disempowered.

    I’m not saying that Yeshua would be a Democrat, but he certainly wouldn’t be a Republican either. I have a feeling he’d be holding rallies on the National Mall calling us all to repentance.

    Finally, what’s with the “we’re going to turn into Europe” fear mongering? The United States is not Europe. Neither is it the former USSR (G-d bless them). The political distinctions that operate here are hardly comparable.

    I’m sorry, but I’m not persuaded by the doom and gloom. I AM persuaded that we’re all just a little too busy shouting at each other to be about the business of making peace between people and being a light to the nations.

    P.S.: Yes, Gene, G-d does have an opinion on the death penalty. In Parashat Shoftim, G-d says that the sentence of death may not be applied on the basis of a single eyewitness, and that the two independently credible eyewitnesses who provide testimony in support of the death penalty are required to carry out the sentence themselves. These two requirements, when honored, tend to make carrying out the death penalty nearly impossible. I’d like to see just how many people would actually be executed in Texas if this were the operative norm.

  7. Josh and Monique:

    I like the idea of a third way (not sure who started that terminology, but I find it on the blog of Scot McKnight applied to a lot of political and theological conundrums).

    The danger in saying anything about liberalism or conservatism is people assume that the one saying something belongs in a certain camp and must therefore affirm things they despise. I tried to write carefully and not affirm any idea broadly labeled conservative which I did not agree with. Nonetheless, I am guilty by association?

    Don’t worry, Messianic Jewish Musings is not going to become a political blog :-)

    I just make a rare foray into this topic.

    One last parting shot: what would Israel’s prophets say about Jews hosting anti-Israel speakers or about liberal leaders who appease murderous leaders? My point is that appealing to the prophets or to Messiah can work for either side.

    Derek

  8. Of course the word “prophetic” is a flexible metaphor, ripe for misuse. That doesn’t mean I’ll shy away from using it. :)

    Where are these “anti-Israel” speakers or “murderous leader appeasers” getting invited to synagogues? I’ve certainly never witnessed this in the many cities I’ve called home. What I have seen is a healthy handful of African-American pastors, Darfur activists, immigrants rights advocates, along with the standard-issue AIPAC types. Every once in a rare while I hear a Palestinian speaker talk about reconciliation (often with a view toward a “two-state solution”) or a Muslim speaker talk about inter-faith dialogue. That’s hardly “anti-Israel,” though, as their perspectives speak to the gamut of opinions held or entertained by Israeli citizenry.

    Again, I’m not persuaded by the doom and gloom. I don’t see political diversity within the Jewish community as a problem. The vehement disagreement between Jews on all things political pretty much defines the status quo in Israel. I DO see the oppression of marginalized people (painted over with a religious veneer) as especially insidious, though … and will continue to call it out where and when I see it.

  9. peterygwendyta says:

    I must admit I have never understood the Jewish tendecy in the the US and here in the UK to be quite liberal and even left leaning. A man I have read and listened to recently has been Walid Shoebat. He is a palistinian born in Bethlehem and a former PLO terrorist. While in the US he became a Christian. He now speaks out against Islamic terrorism and is a firm supporter of Israel. But for some reason his worst critics (apart from death threats from Muslims) has been from the Jewish community in the US. I don’t understand this. I would have thought that if Israel found someone who was formerly their enemy they would welcome him with open arms.

    Also (as someone who lives outaside of the US in Northern ireland) I don’t understand why the vast majority of Jews would vote for Obama when they had a candidate in John Mccain who supported Israel. Israel has few enough friends in this world so why would they shun those who support them.

    If the Israelie election was voted on by all Jews in the world and not just those who lived in Israel, Netanyahu would never have been elected and we would be seeing the land that God gave to the Jews handed over to the so-called Paletinians (this in itself is not even true as there was no such thing as a Palestinian before the 1960’s as they where all Jordanians – somebody should really teach history o these people).

    I pray that the Jews will put their security and well being first no matter what your royal higness Obama has to say about it. Please do not shun your friends.

    • Peter,

      It’s important to be humble and exceedingly cautious about your opinion and involvement in internal Jewish and Israeli affairs.

      Your comment about how “all the Jews in the world” would vote tends to suggest that the citizens of Israel shouldn’t ultimately control their own geopolitical destiny. Gee, isn’t that just a little bit patronizing?

      It’s not our business to tell Israelis how to vote. Just as it isn’t their business to tell U.S. voters what our national security concerns or domestic priorities should be, either.

      Consider the roughly nineteen centuries of negative Christian interaction with the Jewish people, and you’ll grow a bit more compassion for the ambivalence that you detect.

  10. judahgabriel says:

    Hi Monique, love your blog. You asked,

    “Where are these “anti-Israel” speakers or “murderous leader appeasers” getting invited”

    The San Francisco Jewish Center recently invited several anti-Israel groups and did a publicly showing of an anti-Israel film that demonizes Israel and glorifies Hamas.

    A pro-Israel speaker was given 5 minutes to speak at this Jewish Center; he was booed, jeered and mocked throughout the short time given him to him.

    • I’m sorry to hear that. The group that sponsored this event is considered extremely fringe-y in the wider Jewish community.

      Also, I asked which SYNAGOGUES were holding these events, not which JCC. I’m well acquainted with the views of self-haters. Jews who believe in G-d, however, take a very different approach to Israel, and are much more moderate in their critique (and vocal about their ultimate support!).

    • tnnonline says:

      Every group of people has its proverbial “bad eggs.” Just think about how many Scots felt when they saw Al Megrahi walking off the plane in Lybia, with the St. Andrew Saltire flying right there! Politicking meant that a terrorists got released. The man showed no remorse for what he did, and while he could have been shown a little more comfort given his condition–in prison–releasing him was entirely unacceptable.

  11. Monique:

    Note that Michael Medved made the original claim in the September Commentary magazine.

    I have been neglecting reading the Atlanta Jewish Times though I receive it every week. So I haven’t paid attention to see if any liberal synagogues in Atlanta have had such speakers. Perhaps I should dig into a stack of back issues and see what I can find.

    It would be shocking to me to see a synagogue here in Atlanta host an anti-Israel speaker, but I don’t doubt that Medved is right and could back up his claim that it is happening somewhere in the U.S.

    Derek

  12. Pingback: Michael Medved on why most US Jews are liberals « The Rosh Pina Project

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