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Sons and Daughters of the Revolution

June 3, 2012

Why Jews Lean Left — and Should Stay That Way

by Lawrence Bush

“We Jews are, as it were, the sons of the revolution, the daughters of the revolution. We should be aware of it.” —Leo Baeck, Judaism, 1949.

Last December, as the Republican nomination debates were sounding more and more like a conference of the John Birch Society, every candidate except Ron Paul appeared before the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) in Washington, D.C. Jon Stewart described the event on The Daily Show as a miraculous Khanike display, with “incredibly religious Christian presidential candidates fighting over who loves Jews more.”

Each vied to be the most militant on matters of Israel’s security. Rick Perry, who had previously promised to eliminate all foreign aid if elected to the White House, reversed himself to declare that “strategic defensive aid in all forms will increase to Israel.” Newt Gingrich said he would appoint the rambunctious John Bolton as Secretary of State. Everybody threatened military action against Iran, with Michelle Bachman likening Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler, and everybody attacked Obama for his outreach to the Muslim world early in his tenure. All of them insisted that the President was, in Perry’s words, “systematically undermin[ing]” America’s relationship with Israel, “specifically on the question of a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian people.” As for the absent Ron Paul, the RJC considered his bluntly critical views of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to be too “extreme” to be given a platform. (Paul was subsequently revealed to have a long history of expressing or tolerating anti-Semitic and racist views in print.)

The event was sure to feed the common yet erroneous impression that American Jews are interested almost exclusively in the “protection” of Israel through militarism and the political bashing of the Palestinians. Such distorted image-making is really all the RJC is good for, since no serious political analyst truly expects less than two-thirds of American Jewish voters to vote again for Barack Obama (who gained 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, even as a “secret Muslim”), and since the majority of American Jews still support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fact is that despite right-wing fawning over Jewish voters and funders for nearly four decades, the Jewish vote for a Republican presidential candidate peaked at 39 percent with Ronald Reagan in 1980 and has come nowhere near that since. As conservative writer Don Feder remarked before the Heritage Foundation some years ago, it seems that “shrimp will learn to whistle ‘Hava Nagila’” before American Jews “escape . . . the liberal ghetto.”

“Liberal” and “conservative” are difficult terms to define today amid the global stew of religious fundamentalism, ethnic animosity, neo-liberal corporatism, anti-corporate populism, dynastic communism, and so on. In simpler times, however — back during the 1964 Goldwater-Johnson presidential race — my junior high school social studies teacher, an enthusiast named Patricia O’Rourke, offered a part-philosophical, part-psychological definition that has had staying power for me. A liberal, she said, believes that human beings are essentially good, while a conservative believes human beings are essentially bad. Liberals therefore endorse policies of encouragement and support — the carrot — and emphasize social responsibility. Conservatives support policies of dissuasion and punishment — the stick — and emphasize individual responsibility.

Perhaps Miss O’Rourke (as she was known in those pre-Ms. years) can justly be accused of injecting a liberal bias into her classroom, for I can’t imagine that any of us seventh-graders were hard-bitten or world-weary enough to hear her formulation, emit a loud sigh about the twisted reality of human nature, and run off to preserve civilization by campaigning for Goldwater. Biased or not, however, “O’Rourke’s Law” was an insight I’ve been testing ever since, as I’ve tried to understand the roots of people’s world views.

Obviously, it was a simplistic generalization, meant to prompt adolescents to think about the very idea of a “world view” — and obviously, too, one could cite many, many historical exceptions to it. Nevertheless, I think she was onto something, for in my experience, folks who identify as liberal do tend to believe, optimistically, that human beings simply need fair treatment and expanded opportunity to achieve wonderful things, and that evil-doing is a perversion that can be healed through social and economic justice — while folks who identify as conservative tend to believe, pessimistically, that evil-doing is par for the course, given the human capacity for violence, sloth, and greed, and that institutions that dissuade misbehavior and promote stability are more important than social and economic justice. (Interestingly, recent psychology research at the University of Nebraska indicates that conservatives are more physiologically aroused by negative images — pictures of car wrecks or scary insects — than by positive ones — babies or cute animals — while liberals respond the other way around.)

I might have gotten extra credit had I the wherewithal back then to challenge Miss O’Rourke with the question, What about the Jews? If liberals believe that human beings are basically good, how can Jews so consistently be liberals? For two millennia, after all, Jews have been persecuted from above and below and subjected almost continually to the very worst that human beings can dish out. “A person who has never been persecuted is not a Jew,” declared the Talmud (Hagiga 5a), in a statement recorded more than fifteen hundred years ago! One would expect a self-aware people with such a history to equate idealism with naiveté, community with the mob, and therefore encase themselves in a hard shell of conservatism.

Instead, the most transformative, progressive, and democratizing social movements in the United States have had an outsized proportion of Jews among their leaders, funders, and rank-and-file. Jews have also flocked like no other people to “helping” professions such as psychology, medicine, and education, which explore human potential and seek to ameliorate the human condition. Even Jews in less idealistic professions have tended to have a democratizing touch, or at least a P.T. Barnum sensibility about the economic potential of mass-marketing entertainment, clothing, toys, literature, music, suburban housing, sex, and even Wall Street investments — innovations that tended to blur rather than widen the class gulf — and several notables among these American Jewish capitalists enhanced their achievements with significant progressive activism and philanthropy.

So what is it about Jewish culture that has produced this “democratizing touch” in spite of frequent, devastating encounters with human cruelty? What combination of self-interest, ethical values, and historical experience has shaped and preserved American Jewish liberalism across four or more post-immigrant generations?

Sigmund Freud hinted at an historical explanation in his often-quoted letter to his B’nai B’rith lodge in Vienna on the occasion of his seventieth birthday in 1926. Between 1897 and 1917, the founder of psychoanalysis had delivered twenty-seven lectures to this lodge because no other organization in the city would give a platform to the highly controversial doctor. (Mayor Karl Lueger, notoriously anti-Semitic, led Vienna for the first thirteen of those twenty years, and the city was rife with anti-Jewish discrimination.) “[T]o my Jewish nature,” Freud wrote, being too ill to attend his party, “. . . I owed two characteristics . . . Because I was a Jew I found myself free from many prejudices that restricted others in the use of their intellect; and as a Jew I was prepared to join the Opposition and do without agreement from the ‘compact majority’” (emphasis added).

Freud didn’t say as much, but the “compact majority” that he was defying had been shaped for centuries by the ideologies and power structures of Christianity, most powerfully by the Catholic Church and its Orthodox sibling. While the Church’s impact varied from country to country and papacy to papacy, it was, overall, an enforcer of the traditional and the reactionary: embracing rigidly hierarchical societies; opposing science and free-thinking; suppressing women’s autonomy, leadership, spirituality, and sexuality; encouraging and sanctifying crusades and conquests in non-Christian and non-white lands; emphasizing otherworldly escapism and superstition in intellectual and cultural life; frowning upon earthly pleasure, at least for other than the ruling classes — and pouring hatred upon the Jews, for whom exclusion from the “compact majority” had been an overarching reality since the Roman Empire embraced Christianity in the 4th century and imposed second-class citizenship on Jews.

This centuries-long oppression by the Church and the populations under its sway has been ingrained into Jewish cultural memory. The Inquisition, which forced conversion and then murdered “new Christians” for their insincerity; the anti-Semitism of the Protestant innovator Martin Luther (a “base, whoring people,” he wrote of the Jews in On the Jews and Their Lies [1543], “. . . and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth”); the pogroms of Eastern Europe, which so affected the lives of the Jewish immigrant generations; the cross-burnings of the Ku Klux Klan, which resurrected itself to lynch Leo Frank in 1915; the rise of fascism in Italy, Spain, Hungary, Romania, Austria, Argentina, Chile, and, of course, Germany — all of this has driven Jews towards the left, towards political movements that identify Christianity as a significant part of the oppressive power structure, and towards political ideologies that shift the grounds for being “saved” and “damned” from religious or racial affiliation to class or national affiliation.

Norman Podhoretz, one of the Jewish grandfathers of neoconservatism, has detailed this antagonistic history between the Christian “compact majority” and the Jews in Why Are Jews Liberal?, which was published shortly after Barack Obama’s election to the White House. The first half of Podhoretz’s book is essentially an historical review of centuries of religious anti-Semitism, and of the movements of emancipation that delivered the Jews to modernity — as well as to the predations of “race”-based Jew-hating.

Interestingly, Podhoretz applauds the Jewish passion for emancipation, even though it pushed the Jews leftwards. His own conservative agenda is based not on revisionist history but on a truly “neo” sensibility about how what is “good for the Jews” has changed since the late 1960s. In particular, Podhoretz argues that Israel’s security and American Jewish prosperity are now better served by Republican conservatism than by Democratic liberalism, while anti-Semitism of the left far outweighs anti-Semitism of the right as a threat to Jewish interests. In light of this analysis, he is befuddled by “the paranoia aroused by the Christian Right among liberals. . . . [for whom] the specter of fascism [has] been replaced by the conviction . . . that if the Christian Right ever got into power behind a Republican candidate fronting for it, we would face a contemporary version of the Salem witch trials.”

What Podhoretz deplores is precisely what we applaud: the fact that a well-earned distrust of the Christian Right has been a key inoculant against any conservative “infection” among American Jews. As long as the Republican Party is answerable to Christian true-believers — with their determination to destroy church-state separation and impose their version of morality on the nation, and with their ties to the cross-burning racism and fascist sensibility of the recent past — a large majority of Jews will vote Democratic and lean left. Wall Street Republicanism might be acceptable to more and more Jews as they stray from their working-class roots, and Israel’s entanglement with American conservatism will continue to be a seducing influence, but “crazy” Republicanism, which has become far more influential within the GOP during the past generation, echoes the anti-Semitic past just too loudly to persuade even a large plurality of Jews to switch their allegiance.

Over the centuries, Christian oppression did more to Jews than shape their political sensibilities. It also shaped the fundamentals of Jewish life, including Jewish migrations, languages, communal governance, and economic activity. Most tellingly, Church ideology prompted Jews to join the ranks of the early pioneers of capitalism — a force that would prove disruptive to both clerical and monarchical power. This is a key thesis of Jerry Z. Muller’s Capitalism and the Jews, a tidy book about the Jewish role in the development of both capitalism and communism.

Muller notes that Christianity’s disdain for lending money at interest was key: Of “all forms of commerce,” he writes, “none was so suspect and so reviled [by the Church] as finance, the making of money from money,” so that “the condemnation of usury would come to occupy a central place in the economic writings of Christian theologians and canon lawyers.” It was therefore left to the despised Jews to help manage, disproportionately, the nascent systems of banking and commerce in Catholic Europe during the Middle Ages. (In Turkey, the Armenians played a similar role; in India, the Parsees.) In later centuries, although the Protestant Reformation is thought by some analysts to have fueled the growth of capitalism, Martin Luther, for one, was no less “hostile to commerce in general,” Muller writes, “and . . . stricter than the canonists in [his] condemnation of moneylending.”

Jews were well-suited for the commercial role to which they were consigned, thanks to their religiously-rooted literacy, which helped equip them for record-keeping and the abstract thinking needed to develop a money-based commercial culture “outside the feudal order of serfs, landowning gentry, and merchants and artisans organized into exclusive guilds.” Jews therefore largely became

middlemen between producers and consumers: a commercial ladder ranging from peddling and hawking (selling from a horse and cart), through pawnbroking and moneylending, through interregional and international trade. . . .Worldly survival meant the ability to cultivate a rational economic ethos, based on maximizing profitability, assessing risk, exploring new markets, and minimizing consumption to maximize the accumulation of capital.

None of this automatically translated into a conscious form of “liberalism,” of course; working as pawnbrokers and money-lenders, or as importer-exporters of rum, slaves, silks, and other merchandise, or as peddlers of fruits and vegetables, is a far cry from leading labor unions or social justice campaigns. In fact, as Bennett Muraskin has noted in this magazine (“Jews and the Left: A Natural Alliance?”, September-October, 2008), Jews in the centuries before the Enlightenment largely withheld their solidarity from oppressed people, particularly during periods of unrest, as violence from below had stalked Jews and alienated them from “the mob” for centuries.

It would not be not until 19th-century nationalism made social integration seem possible for Jews that they would begin to look beyond their communal self-interest and envision a world of social equality. Before then, Jews were generally self-isolating as well as ostracized and ghettoized, and sought protection from above, from rulers who valued their financial services but regularly used them as scapegoats to deflect lower-class anger.

Still, as early pioneers of capitalism, Jews were objectively helping to usher in what Karl Marx and Frederick Engels would identify (in The Communist Manifesto) as the most revolutionary force in history, causing “all that is solid” to melt, “all that is holy” to be profaned — “to the great chagrin of reactionaries,” they added, whose “one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness [would] become more and more impossible” to maintain. Intentionally or not, by developing financial networks and systems, by helping to translate feudal “obligations” into money-based relationships, by providing credit that would fuel the growth of business enterprises and middle classes, Jews were participating in the eventual destruction of the divine right of kings, the rigidity of the class hierarchy, and the intellectual domination of the Church over artistic and intellectual endeavor. First came the capitalist revolution; its socialist nemesis would wait another century to be envisioned.

It was not only due to their historical marginalization and their literacy that Jews became pioneers of capitalism and opponents of the “compact majority.” They were also prepped for the role by Judaism itself. It’s a religious culture that links the ideal of holiness with material well-being (think of the luxury of the Sabbath table) instead of with monastic asceticism. Andrew R. Heinze has suggested (in Adapting to Abundance, 1990) that the success of Jews as mass-marketers in modern America was, in part, linked to this religious perception of “luxuries as a type of instrument for dignifying the individual.” Jerry Z. Muller also focuses on Judaism’s “materialism” as an influence: “Talmudic law,” he writes, “which educated Jews continued to study and refine through the ages, was replete with debates about economic matters, including contracts, torts, and prices. Unlike Christianity, Judaism considered poverty as anything but ennobling.” In addition, Judaism holds dear a tradition of tsedoke and mutual aid that created advantages for Jews in the international marketplace, and an ethos of modesty and inconspicuous consumption that encouraged Jews to save and invest, rather than spend, their capital.

Carol Jochnowitz, the long-time production editor of Jewish Currents, recently made an observation to me about how Judaism’s lack of investment in the archly conservative Christian idea of “original sin” also opened doors to Jewish worldliness and, ultimately, humanism. Rather than pessimistically proclaiming the “fallen nature” of the human race, Jewish teachings recognize both the human capacity for evil (the yetser hara) and the human capacity for good (the yetser hatov), and affirm our capacity to train ourselves to achieve mentshlikhkayt, true human decency. This is a far more optimistic view of human possibility that would ultimately help feed a hopeful, pro-change attitude among secularizing Jews.

I would additionally point out that the fundamental religious texts that shaped Jewish minds, especially the books of the Talmud, are deeply skeptical towards “Rome,” the cruel temporal power of the day, and emphasize flexibility, ethical calculation, and community network-building over militarism, cruelty, or raw power as the way to live a good life and to build an enduring society. Such skepticism towards “might makes right” values was embodied in a section of the Bible itself, in Abraham’s petitioning of God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah from wholesale destruction in regard for the few righteous souls who might live there.

Jewish skepticism was surely deepened by the historical experience of being persecuted and expelled en masse so often, from so many countries, on the basis of outlandish excuses — the blood libel, the Christ-killer charge, the belief that Jews were poisoning wells during the Black Plague, and so on. The “compact majority” must have seemed quite crackpot, dangerous, and worth keeping at arm’s distance, especially to a people who were more literate than others, and fundamentally skeptical towards the religious worldview of the majority.

It is therefore both the texts of Judaism and the historical experiences of Jews that served as incubators for the seeds of modern humanism — that is, belief in the capacity of, and necessity for, human beings to shape their own world and their own lives, without need for “divine” guidance. Perhaps Judaism’s emphasis on deeds more than beliefs also fed this, leaving Jews “free to use their intellects,” in Freud’s words, and therefore progress towards the humanistic heresy. Certainly, Jewish theology is altogether less clearly defined — and Judaism’s structures of enforcement were more localized and less strangling (pace Baruch Spinoza) — than the God-made-flesh theology of the mighty Church.

For Jewish humanism to germinate and blossom into modern liberalism, however, the Jewish people would need to escape their own isolation and extend their ethical culture to the non-Jewish world. They would have to become, in the words of Chaim Weizmann, “like other people, only more so.”

Next installment: Jews and the Socialist Revolution