One day in the fall of 2001, not long after a final salute to the portrait of Abraham Cahan in the lobby of the Forward, I entered Borough Hall in Brooklyn to vote in the New York City mayoral primary. Greeted by a very nice poll watcher, I asked for a ballot that would permit me to vote for Herman Badillo. The lady leafed through the voter registration lists, looked up at me and said: “I’m afraid you can’t do that. You’re registered as a Democrat.” “What?” I exclaimed. “Badillo is a Republican?” She turned her palms up and gave me a look of finality. So it was that at the age of 55, after decades of being set down as a right-wing extremist and arch-collaborator of Robert L. Bartley of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, I actually changed my registration. If I couldn’t vote for Badillo that year, I would be prepared should he ever make another run for high office.
All of which I mention to underscore the fact that it was with the anticipation of a certain amount of self-discovery, among other things, that I picked up Norman Podhoretz’s latest book, Why Are Jews Liberals? In the substantive sense, I’d abandoned liberalism long before I changed my party registration—and over essentially the same issues that had prompted most neoconservatives to part company with the party that marched off after Sen. George McGovern in 1972. But for me it was something of a long goodbye that included 10 years at the Forward, an institution that had seemed to pitch rightward with each crisis that came upon the Jewish people but had yet to reach a conservative shore.
Podhoretz doesn’t disappoint. He starts his story with the birth of Christianity. In the first several chapters he takes us through the expulsion from Spain into the ghettos of the Middle Ages. He sketches Jewish achievement under terrible conditions. But he notes that Jews emerged from the Middle Ages “knowing for a certainty that—individual exceptions duly noted— the worst enemy they had in the world was Christianity.” Podhoretz reckons it “was a knowledge that Jewish experience in the ages to come would do very little, if indeed anything at all, to help future generations to forget.”
Podhoretz explores several mysteries, and he does not fail to put them in a way calculated to touch on the exposed nerves. One example: if the Jews “never took it as a mark of friendship that under Christian rule they could escape the disabilities and dangers of being Jewish simply by ceasing to be Jewish, why did they fail to recognize that the Enlightenment was offering them the same bargain in modern dress? Why were they unable to see that the French philosophes and their counterparts in other countries were in their own way no less an enemy to them as Jews than the early Fathers of the Church?”
A second mystery he investigates in a chapter on the Marxists and other radicals, including some on the right. He puts it this way: “The question thus arises of why the Jews who joined the radical camp were not put off by the egregious anti-Semitism of Marx or that of several other major figures of the socialist movement, including Charles Fourier (to whom the Jews were the ‘the leprosy and the run of the body politic’) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (to whom the Jews were ‘the race which poisons everything [and] the enemy of the human race’).” Podhoretz has mined the literature for choice nuggets, such as Rosa Luxembourg (“Why do you come with your special Jewish sorrows?”) and Marx, who was baptized and had a flirtation with Christianity before moving to materialism. (“What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.”)
Podhoretz sees America as different. Even in early days Jews here were far freer than in Europe. Podhoretz reprises the American anti-Semites. He does not flinch from what he calls the “upshot”—that it was the conservative upholders of the old order who were hostile to the Jews, whether they were rich or poor and whether they had immigrated from Germany or Eastern Europe. And as he brings the story forward he sees the emergence of the Jews as loyalists to the Democratic Party as related to the fact that F.D.R. was clearly, despite protestations to the contrary, trying to get America into the war against Hitler. Not even the “immensely popular” Eisenhower, Podhoretz notes, was able to “break up the Jewish love affair with the party of Roosevelt.”
Up to that point, Podhoretz argues, the loyalty of Jews to the Democratic Party was “in harmony with their interests as Jews.” In the second half of the book, the focus is shifted to a different question, namely “why the Jews are still liberals.” This covers an era in which Jewish interests and Jewish politics became, at least in Podhoretz’s view (and my own), far less harmonious and even fell into disharmony. Podhoretz gives this discord a rich telling, in which—with his typical courage—he doesn’t spare the leaders he supported, such as Reagan, on the occasions when he thought they were wrong. Nor does Podhoretz pace the widow’s walk, searching the horizon in hopes that the Jewish move to the right will appear in the distance.
What he does conclude is that modern progressive politics have become a substitute religion—the “Torah of Liberalism,” he calls it at one point. Early in the book he quotes a passage from I.J. Singer’s novel The Brother’s Ashkenazi about Nissan, the son of a rabbi who becomes a disciple of “the prophet Marx” and who, as Singer puts it, “never let his copy of Das Kapital out of his sight and carried it everywhere, as his father had carried his prayer shawl and phylacteries.” Podhoretz comes back to this theme toward the end, quoting G.K. Chesterton as observing: “When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” That was not true of the Jewish immigrants who came to America, Podhoretz writes. “Almost all the young intellectuals and political leaders among them had stopped believing in the God of Judaism, but it was not ‘anything’ they now believed, it was Marxism.” And when Marxism failed, Podhoretz writes, the “same process that had made social democracy into an acceptable refuge from orthodox Marxism now began making liberalism into an acceptable refuge from social democracy.”
Is all lost? It happens that I read Podhoretz’s book as I was at work on a short biography of the founding editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Abraham Cahan, and I was struck at how closely the trajectory Podhoretz describes followed that traversed by Cahan. It turns out that the bitterest feud of Cahan’s life was not that with the Orthodox Jews of his hometown in Lithuania, nor the monarchists he plotted against in Russia, nor the capitalists he railed against in America, nor the Zionists he slighted for years, nor the Communists he turned against in the 1920s. Those feuds certainly were epic. But his bitterest moment erupted in the late 1930s, when his star writer, Sholem Asch, wrote a novel, The Nazarene, suggesting Jesus should be regarded by Jews as he was regarded by Christians. Then, even while protesting that he was not religious, Cahan went into a final frenzy, denouncing Asch as a traitor and a destroyed person. He wouldn’t let up, turning out articles, speeches and even a book until, alas, he was silenced by a stroke and leaving to the next generations the search for that line in liberalism that they just won’t cross.