It is the question that sooner or later baffles every political pundit, consultant, expert, or observer. Why do American Jews persist in their adoration of the Democratic Party? Why, like an abused spouse, do they tolerate Israel-bashing, support for the Palestinians and Democratic softness on terrorism and still return for more? As the richest demographic group in our population, why do they still vote for Obama and donate money to him when he specifically proposes to raise the taxes on those making more than $200,000 per year?
Why do they let liberal politicians embrace the likes of Louis Farrakhan and Rev. Jeremiah Wright and still support them on Election Day?
I don´t have an answer and have never heard a satisfactory one from any leader of an American Jewish or pro-Israeli organization.
But Norman Podhoretz does and he explains his ideas in his brilliant book Why Are Jews Liberals?
American Jews, Podhoretz explains, grew up in liberal homes heavily influenced by the ideology they inherited from their Eastern European ancestors. There, in Russia and Germany, you either followed the Kaiser´s or the Czar´s line or were a Communist. Reacting to their exclusion and the pogroms that harassed them, these ghetto Jews readily embraced Marxism. Indeed, Marx was, himself, born a Jew and the majority of the first Bolshevik Politburo in 1917 were Jews. When Hitler railed against Jews and Communists, he often felt no need to distinguish between the two.
In the New World, communism morphed into socialism in the early years of the twentieth century when Eugene V. Debs won a million votes (almost 10%) on the Socialist Party ticket for President. Finally, under the more benign influence of FDR and the New Deal, this leftist impulse settled into the cozy niche of liberalism where it has remained ever since.
Zionism, also, closely identified itself with socialism and the Labor Party of Golda Meier and David Ben Gurion, which dominated Israel´s early years, pushed its ideological agenda. Kibbutzim were formed with communal living as a Fabian or utopian socialism took root in the holy land. So leftist were the early Israelis that Russia recognized the state of Israel even before the United States did in the hopes that it could become a socialist ally. The political majority which underscored this leftist bent was based on Jews descended from the ghettos of Europe — Ashkenazi Jews.
In the U.S. Jews stayed in the liberal camp not just out of conviction but also from fear of the Christian right. When fundamentalism reared its head in American politics, they feared that anti-Semitism would not be far behind. And, as the anti-communism of the McCarthy era targeted the Jewish intellectual establishment, their dependence on Democrats only increased.
It came as a shock to America´s Jews that first Nixon, then Reagan, and finally Bush-43 emerged as Israel´s strongest supporters. (The tepid backing Bush-41 gave the Jewish state was more in line with what they expected from the GOP). And it came as a total shock when the religious right became Israel´s strongest backer based on its biblical conviction that God had promised the Holy Land to the Jewish people.
But, by then, religion and even Israel had weakened their holds on American Jewish hearts. They attended religious services less than half as frequently as establishment Protestants and only one-third as often as Catholics or Evangelicals. Most Jews, Podhoretz notes, attended synagogue “four times a year” on the high holy days.
Meanwhile, in Israel, the socialist Ashkenazi-based Labor Party (led by Shimon Peres) fell to the campaigns of Menachem Begin and Bibi Netanyahu. Both had as their base the Sephardic Jews who came, not from Europe, but from Africa or the Middle East. They had no heritage of socialism, much less Marxism and had a healthy disrespect for their long term neighbors in the Arab world. To American Jews, they looked racist and embarrassed them in front of their liberal friends. When Obama accuses Netanyahu of “intransigence”, he echoes what liberal Jews themselves often think of the Israeli right-wing.
But Podhoretz´ book, written before Obama manifested such an anti-Israel bent, leaves unanswered the question of whether the pro-Palestinian bias of the current administration, not to mention its war on prosperity, will drive Jews away from their liberal moorings. The answer probably lies more with events than within Jewish thinking. As it becomes apparent that Israel faces a holocaust-like threat from Iranian nuclear weapons and the disastrous results of Obama´s socialist project become evident, Jews will likely gradually wean themselves away from the liberal Democratic Party. As it becomes more anti-Israel and anti-wealth, the Party will leave the Jews before the Jews realize it has left and themselves leave the party.