By Norman Podhoretz
One of the most extraordinary features of Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain was his capture of 78% of the Jewish vote. To be sure, there was nothing extraordinary about the number itself. Since 1928, the average Jewish vote for the Democrat in presidential elections has been an amazing 75%-far higher than that of any other ethno-religious group.
Yet there were reasons to think that it would be different in 2008. The main one was Israel. Despite some slippage in concern for Israel among American Jews, most of them were still telling pollsters that their votes would be strongly influenced by the positions of the two candidates on the Jewish state. This being the case, Mr. McCain’s long history of sympathy with Israel should have given him a distinct advantage over Mr. Obama, whose own history consisted of associating with outright enemies of the Jewish state like the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and the historian Rashid Khalidi.Nevertheless, Mr. Obama beat Mr. McCain among Jewish voters by a staggering 57 points. Except for African Americans, who gave him 95% of their vote, Mr. Obama did far better with Jews than with any other ethnic or religious group. Thus the Jewish vote for him was 25 points higher than the 53% he scored with the electorate as a whole; 35 points higher than the 43% he scored with whites; 11 points higher than the 67% he scored with Hispanics; 33 points higher than the 45% he scored with Protestants; and 24 points higher than the 54% he scored with Catholics.
These numbers remind us of the extent to which the continued Jewish commitment to the Democratic Party has become an anomaly. All the other ethno-religious groups that, like the Jews, formed part of the coalition forged by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s have followed the rule that increasing prosperity generally leads to an increasing identification with the Republican Party. But not the Jews. As the late Jewish scholar Milton Himmelfarb said in the 1950s: “Jews earn like Episcopalians”-then the most prosperous minority group in America-“and vote like Puerto Ricans,” who were then the poorest.
Jews also remain far more heavily committed to the liberal agenda than any of their old ethno-religious New Deal partners. As the eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer has put it, “whatever the promptings of their economic interests,” Jews have consistently supported “increased government spending, expanded benefits to the poor and lower classes, greater regulations on business, and the power of organized labor.”
As with these old political and economic questions, so with the newer issues being fought out in the culture wars today. On life issues, toeivah rights, school prayer, gun control and assisted suicide, the survey data show that Jews are by far the most liberal of any group in America.
Most American Jews sincerely believe that their liberalism, together with their commitment to the Democratic Party as its main political vehicle, stems from the teachings of Judaism and reflects the heritage of “Jewish values.” But if this theory were valid, the Orthodox would be the most liberal sector of the Jewish community. After all, it is they who are most familiar with the Jewish religious tradition and who shape their lives around its commandments.
Yet the Orthodox enclaves are the only Jewish neighborhoods where Republican candidates get any votes to speak of. Even more telling is that on every single cultural issue, the Orthodox oppose the politically correct liberal positions taken by most other American Jews precisely because these positions conflict with Jewish law.
The upshot is that in virtually every instance of a clash between Jewish law and contemporary liberalism, it is the liberal creed that prevails for most American Jews. Which is to say that for them, liberalism has become more than a political outlook. It has for all practical purposes superseded Judaism and become a religion in its own right. And to the dogmas and commandments of this religion they give the kind of steadfast devotion their forefathers gave to the religion of the Hebrew Bible. For many, moving to the right is invested with much the same horror their forefathers felt about conversion to Christianity.
All this applies most fully to Jews who are Jewish only in an ethnic sense. Indeed, many such secular Jews, when asked how they would define “a good Jew,” reply that it is equivalent to being a good liberal.
But avowed secularists are not the only Jews who confuse Judaism with liberalism; so do many non-Orthodox Jews who practice this or that traditional observance. It is not for nothing that a cruel wag has described the Reform movement-the largest of the religious denominations within the American Jewish community-as “the Democratic Party with holidays thrown in,” and the services in a Reform temple as “the Democratic Party at prayer.”
As a Jew who moved from left to right more than four decades ago, I have been hoping for many years that my fellow Jews would come to see that in contrast to what was the case in the past, our true friends are now located not among liberals, but among conservatives.
Of course in speaking of the difference between left and right, or between liberals and conservatives, I have in mind a divide wider than the conflict between Democrats and Republicans and deeper than electoral politics. The great issue between the two political communities is how they feel about the nature of American society. With all exceptions duly noted, I think it fair to say that what liberals mainly see when they look at this country is injustice and oppression of every kind-economic, social and political. By sharp contrast, conservatives see a nation shaped by a complex of traditions, principles and institutions that has afforded more freedom and, even factoring in periodic economic downturns, more prosperity to more of its citizens than in any society in human history. It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded-and apologized for to other nations-is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating and proudly defending against attack.
In this realm, too, American Jewry surely belongs with the conservatives rather than the liberals. For the social, political and moral system that liberals wish to transform is the very system in and through which Jews found a home such as they had never discovered in all their forced wanderings throughout the centuries over the face of the earth.
The Jewish immigrants who began coming here from Eastern Europe in the 1880s were right to call America “the golden land.” They soon learned that there was no gold in the streets, as some of them may have imagined, which meant that they had to struggle, and struggle hard. But there was another, more precious kind of gold in America. There was freedom and there was opportunity. Blessed with these conditions, we children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these immigrants flourished-and not just in material terms-to an extent unmatched in the history of our people.
What I am saying is that if anything bears eloquent testimony to the infinitely precious virtues of the traditional American system, it is the Jewish experience in this country. Surely, then, we Jews ought to be joining with its defenders against those who are blind or indifferent or antagonistic to the philosophical principles, the moral values, and the socioeconomic institutions on whose health and vitality the traditional American system depends.
In 2008, we were faced with a candidate who ran to an unprecedented degree on the premise that the American system was seriously flawed and in desperate need of radical change-not to mention a record powerfully indicating that he would pursue policies dangerous to the security of Israel. Because of all this, I hoped that my fellow Jews would finally break free of the liberalism to which they have remained in thrall long past the point where it has served either their interests or their ideals.
That possibility having been resoundingly dashed, I now grasp for some encouragement from the signs that buyer’s remorse is beginning to set in among Jews, as it also seems to be doing among independents. Which is why I am hoping against hope that the exposure of Mr. Obama as a false messiah will at last open the eyes of my fellow Jews to the correlative falsity of the political creed he so perfectly personifies and to which they have for so long been so misguidedly loyal.
Mr. Podhoretz was the editor of Commentary from 1960 to 1995. His latest book, “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is just out from Doubleday.