Why Are Jews Liberals?


Benjamin Kerstein slams Norman Podhoretz’s new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?  Here are some excerpts of his review:  

When a book’s title is a question, one generally expects the book to answer that question, or at least to properly ask it. The fact that Norman Podhoretz’s newest polemic, Why Are Jews Liberals? does neither is especially surprising, given that Podhoretz has spent the better part of the last sixty years as one of the foremost Jewish intellectuals in the United States, loved and despised in equal measure, sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating, but certainly never boring. His journey from left to right, and his role as one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism, has become paradigmatic, and there can be no questioning his significance and the measure of his accomplishments. That a thinker of his stature could produce a book on such a weighty subject - and one so near to his heart - so strikingly empty and unenlightening certainly says something depressing about the state of Jewish political thought in America.....

....Perhaps....Podhoretz’s book was written in order to express “what I believe really explains why American Jews are still committed to liberalism and why this is bad for them both as Americans and as Jews.” He proposes, in short, to solve the puzzle, and to answer the unanswerable question that has vexed him and many others for decades.
Why Are Jews Liberals? is divided into two parts. According to its author, the first is meant to be a brief history of Jewish/non-Jewish relations, which he believes plays a fundamental role in Jewish attachment to modern liberalism. The second part is an overview of recent American Jewish political history, up to and including the presidency of George W. Bush, through which Podhoretz outlines the relationship between American Jews and modern liberalism, and why the two have remained so inseparable.

...As Podhoretz puts it, “To most American Jews… liberalism is not, as has often been said, merely a necessary component of Judaism: it is the very essence of being a Jew.” To him, this is not merely puzzling, but frankly irrational, and in his conclusion, he attempts to answer the question of why and how American Jews have, in his opinion, gone politically insane.

Podhoretz’s answer is not entirely original, although he does manage to add an interesting twist to it. Put simply, he claims that, for American Jews, liberalism has become a religion; more precisely, it has become Judaism itself. 

.....Why Are Jews Liberals? is unquestionably a grandiose failure written by a brilliant mind, and reading it is something like watching Einstein do jumping jacks in order to prove the Unified Field Theory. Nonetheless, it does tackle an important and fascinating question. Indeed, one of the first things about American Jewry that strikes the outside observer is the monolithic quality of its politics. In Israel, Jews come in every political stripe, from communists to free-market liberals to social democrats to fundamentalist theocrats, and it has been so since before the founding of the state. In America, on the other hand, the Jews are overwhelmingly on the left; so much so that they have become one of the cornerstones of the Democratic party.....

Unfortunately, one must begin by pointing out that Why Are Jews Liberals? is not a very good book. It is shockingly disorganized, often tendentious to the point of absurdity, and a great deal of it completely irrelevant. This is most notable in the first part of the book, which is an excellent example of what in Israel is called historia bachyanit, “lachrymose history” or, less generously, “whiny history.” In short, it is a historical viewpoint that emphasizes Jewish suffering, persecution, and trauma. While there has been plenty of all three over the last two thousand years, many students of Jewish history (and I include myself among them), tend to find this kind of historiography deeply problematic, emphasizing as it does the negative aspects of Jewish history at the expense of what was often a profoundly creative and vibrant minority civilization. It is, in other words, a history that tells only half the story, if that.

.....the entire first half of the book has almost nothing to do with the question Podhoretz is trying to answer.....The second half, while more interesting, at least for its behind-the-scenes details, is not much more enlightening.

It is only in the conclusion that Podhoretz actually tackles the question his entire book is ostensibly about, and it must be admitted that his attempt to provide an answer is a dismal failure.
Kerstein then goes on to try to answer the question himself, and doesn't appear to do that much of a better job.  Read the full book review here

Meanwhile, you can listen to Podhoretz on the Omri Ceren Show show today at 2pm PST.  For more details, go to Mere Rhetoric



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