An Overdue Exodus: Breaking the Bonds of Liberalism

Periodically, someone on the right—usually a neo-conservative—will address the anomaly of Jewish liberalism, noting that the politics of the Jewish community undermine the manifest self-interest of American Jewry. Many pundits confidently predict that it is only a matter of time before Jews come to their senses and begin voting for conservative candidates and supporting conservative causes. As an ardent conservative and a deeply-committed Jew, whose conservatism is a natural outgrowth of his Judaism, I wish I could believe such a comforting message. In truth, however, I cannot.

Shrimp will learn to whistle “Hava Nigilah” before American Jews escape the liberal ghetto. Ruth Wisse, professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard, has observed: “Jews are associated with liberalism the way the French are associated with wine: It is considered native to their region.” With the exception of blacks, Jews are the most liberal demographic group in the American population.

The 1988 election was, in this regard, typical. As the Democratic presidential nominee, Michael Dukakis received 70 percent of the Jewish vote. Jewish support for the Democrat exceeded his vote among the unemployed (66 percent), union households (64 percent), Hispanics (66 percent), and even his fellow Greeks (55 percent). Jews overwhelmingly endorsed the Massachusetts governor despite the fact that the Republican national platform opposed the creation of a Palestinian state, denounced anti-Semitism, and called for recision of the United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism; the Democrats, by comparison, were conspicuously silent on each of these subjects. Even Dukakis’s embrace of Jesse Jack-son (considered an anti-Semite by a majority of Jewish respondents to an opinion survey that year) didn’t keep Jews out of the Democratic column.

Far from an election-year phenomenon, Jewish liberalism is a day-in, day-out love affair. According to a Los Angeles Times survey, 41 percent of Jews consider themselves liberal, and only 17 percent are self-described conservatives. This is almost the reverse of political identification among the general population, where 18 percent choose the liberal label and 30 percent call themselves conservatives.

On issue after issue, American Jews pledge allegiance to the liberal agenda. Among Jewish groups, support for so-called abortion rights reads like a directory of community organizations. The Religious Coalition for Abortion Rights, which tries to cast an aura of sanctity over feticide on demand, lists 35 constituent organizations on its letterhead; fully one-third are Jewish. By a margin of nine-to-one, Jews endorse homosexual rights.

Whether it’s feminism, day care, defense cuts, opposition to school prayer, or First Amendment fanaticism—with certain honorable exceptions (the Orthodox, in particular)—the Jewish community marches in liberal lock-step. Indeed, American Jews are fervent proselytizers for every ism—feminism, environmentalism, pacifism, redistributionism—save Judaism.

It’s not just that Jews can’t distinguish their political friends from their enemies, or that Jews consistently promote non-Jewish principles. Far worse, this reflexive liberalism compels them to take positions adverse to their best interests. The politics of the Jewish community borders on the suicidal.

School Choice: In a 1987 poll, Jews opposed tuition tax credits by a two-to-one margin. It is no secret that intermarriage and assimilation are major problems for American Jewry—task forces are commissioned to study the crisis, conferences are convened to debate solutions. In some areas, the rate of intermarriage approaches 60 percent.

Combined with a declining Jewish birth rate, this has made us the incredible shrinking people. While the general population grew 22 percent between 1970 and 1990, Jewish demographic growth was an insignificant 1.8 percent. As a component of overall population, Jews declined from 2.7 percent to 2.2 percent during that period.

Jewish education is by far the best answer to this tragedy. Graduates of Jewish day schools rarely intermarry. Their levels of observance and commitment are extremely high.

There are now more than 500 Jewish day Schools nationwide, thanks in large part to the Orthodox and the Lubavitch Hasidic movement. Most struggle to survive. Their teachers are underpaid, their facilities inadequate. The parents of day school children bear a double burden: the taxes they pay to maintain the public school establishment and the tuition to educate their children. Many more would opt for the day school alternative, if they could afford it. If Jewish leaders had any sort of survival instinct, they would be leading the charge for public aid to private education. Instead they’re in the forefront of opposition. Tuition tax credits and vouchers would “entangle the government with religion in a way Jews find unhealthy,” a Jewish leader piously proclaimed.

Defense: In 1990, Saddam Hussein represented the greatest threat to Israel in our generation. In the face of that threat, Jewish organizations abandoned their historic pacifism. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations endorsed the Bush approach to removing Saddam from Kuwait.

Throughout the Reagan years, those Jewish organizations and leaders who lined up behind Desert Storm had invariably and habitually supported cuts in defense which, enacted, would have made the operation impossible. For instance, in 1984, some 60 percent of Jews surveyed agreed that “U.S. military spending should be cut” and then illogically added that this nation should continue “to be a reliable supplier of Israel” and “maintain a strong military capacity.”

Well, the Jewish community breathed a great sigh of relief when Saddam was driven from Kuwait, his army decimated, and then—this past November—the same community turned around and rewarded the party whose congressional delegation overwhelmingly opposed the war to stop Iraq. If there is any logic in this, it will take a keener observer than I to discern it.

Black Anti-Semitism: Opinion polls show that blacks are twice as likely as whites to hold negative views about Jews. The hostility is manifested in various ways. Organizations like the Nation of Islam and rap groups like NWA reach millions with messages of hatred. According to The New Republic, at a 1990 conference on African-American education in Atlanta, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were openly displayed. The Weisenthal Center’s newsletter reports on a November 1992 speech at Columbia University, sponsored by the school’s Black Students Organization, which amounted to a mini-Nuremberg revival. According to observers, the speaker, one Khalid Mohammed, spent two hours denigrating Jews and Judaism, charging that Jews were responsible for the slave trade, practiced a “dirty religion,” and had long conspired to oppress blacks.

In his new book, Inside American Education, black sociologist Thomas Sowell relates similar episodes on dozens of campuses. And the Anti-Defamation League’s 1992 Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents notes that since 1988, the number of anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses has more than doubled. It attributes this in part to “the disturbing fact that many black student leaders and representatives—in effect, a significant portion of the future leadership of the black community—repeatedly and enthusiastically support speakers who are well known for their Jewish-baiting.”

It’s just an intellectual stone’s throw from the Columbia campus to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. In August and September 1991, that heavily Hasidic area witnessed the worst anti-Semitic violence in this nation since the lynching of Leo Frank. Following the death of a black child in an auto accident, mobs of black teenagers went on a three-day rampage reminiscent of Czarist pogroms. To shouts of “Heil Hitler” and “Kill the Jews,” Jewish stores were vandalized, Jewish homes stoned, and Jews beaten in the streets. Yankel Rosenbaum, a 29-year-old Hasidic scholar, was dragged from his car and knifed to death for no other reason than his Jewishness.

Mainline Jewish organizations were literally paralyzed. Groups which could issue a press release denouncing skinhead graffiti in a matter of minutes took a week or longer to condemn these atrocities. The horror so contradicted their worldview—where Jews support “oppressed minorities” and the recipients of that beneficence naturally appreciate their benefactors—that they were psychologically unable to respond.

For some, the response can only be described as bizarre and self-loathing, but it is entirely consistent with liberal dogma. Consider the words of David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. Among the solutions he offers for Jewish-black tensions is “Economic Justice.” Saperstein writes: “Economic distress leads to bitterness and despair, which in turn lead to resentment and hatred. Where economic opportunity thrives, the divisive words of cynical demagogues—black and Jew—fall on deaf ears.” How typical for a liberal to fall back on economic determinism as an explanation for malice and envy, instead of admitting the possibility that human nature is flawed.

Why Liberal?

Two explanations are universally offered for the surrealist landscape of Jewish liberalism, one historic, the other philosophic.

The historic explanation holds that Jewish liberalism is a natural response to Jewish experience in modern times. In Eastern Europe, Jews were bitterly persecuted by autocratic regimes and so—quite naturally—side with the perceived underdog. Right-wing anti-Semitism from the Czars to Hitler caused Jews to identify with the Left. But even assuming that Nazism was a movement of the Right (which is open to debate), this century has seen at least as much Jew-hatred from the Left. Why didn’t the anti-Semitism of every Soviet ruler from Lenin to Brezhnev cause a major realignment of the American Jewish electorate? Moreover, other groups besides the Jews have known the sting of oppression—Irish, for example, who suffered centuries of foreign occupation as well as famine and civil war. Yet it has been decades since a majority of Irish-Americans voted Democratic. Why hasn’t the Jewish electorate undergone a similar transformation?

Then there is the philosophic theory, beloved of Jewish liberals, that their liberalism reflects something broadly called “Jewish values.” They take great pride in the paradox of one of the most affluent segments of society backing welfarist proposals. They argue that Jewish voting patterns are at variance with the rest of the white electorate because Jews put their values before self-interest.

Jews may indeed vote their values. The trouble is, there’s nothing remotely Jewish about those values. For example, Jewish liberals speak loftily about the Biblical mandate to feed the widow and orphan, and to clothe the naked, and they cite the prophets who put social justice above empty ritual. But for every “right,” the Torah posits multiple responsibilities. Recipients of tsadaka have an obligation to become self-sufficient as soon as possible. The rabbis of the Talmud would have been aghast at the thought of multi-generational welfare families.

And what of the other defining elements of Torah? Do words like modesty, sanctity, self-control, and faith have no place in Jewish tradition?

Jews are even more liberal on social questions than on economic issues. Yet one searches in vain, through 3,300 years of normative Jewish legislation, for anything that sanctions abortion-on-demand or homosexuality (which Leviticus declares to be an “abomination,” a designation reserved for the gravest transgressions).

Orthodox Judaism itself is the ultimate refutation of the “Jewish values” polemic. Those Jews whose lives are governed by Jewish law (i.e., authentic Jewish values), and who spend years studying the sacred texts in their yeshivas, are as conservative as the rest of the Jewish community is liberal. In 1984, for example, while Ronald Reagan lost the Jewish vote by a margin of three-to-one, he carried the Satmar Hasidic neighborhood of Williamsburg by four-to-one, and Boro Park by two-to-one. In 1988, George Bush swept Orthodox areas of New York City with anywhere from 72 percent to 86 percent of the vote.

It is almost axiomatic then: The more observant a Jew, the more he understands Jewish law, the more he lives Jewish values, the less liberal he will be—witness the pronouncements on a broad range of social questions of the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, Agudat Israel, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

There is only one explanation for the phenomenon of Jewish liberalism, and it is a theological explanation: Liberalism has become the ersatz religion of secular, assimilated Jews.

Jews are the most secularized community in America. While 40 percent of the population as a whole attends religious services weekly, only 11 percent of American Jews go to synagogue at least once a week. In a Gallup poll, only one in four Jews indicated that religion was “very important” in his life; that percentage is less than half the level of religious commitment of any other identifiable group.

America as Paradise

The reasons for Jewish alienation from historic Judaism are numerous and complex. The phenomenon is due in part to the relative paradise that Jews found on these shores—a land where they weren’t pariahs, where their opportunities were limitless. Many Jewish immigrants wanted to put the Old World—including the old faith—behind them. The values that children and grandchildren of these immigrants should have learned in cheder or yeshiva were replaced by dogmas absorbed at Harvard, Yale, and from the editorial pages of the New York Times.

As a result, the average Jew of my generation has at most a casual acquaintance with Jewish law, customs, and philosophy. For such Jews, Jewish ritual is confined to a highly abbreviated Passover seder in English and synagogue attendance twice a year, on Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur. What has filled the vacuum for many is a new god: the pseudo-religion of the twentieth century. Like all religions, liberalism provides its followers with an ethical worldview, an explanation for the existence of evil, a code of conduct, rituals, and a vision of salvation. In liberal theology, evil is explained by environmental factors: lack of adequate education, lack of social services (especially counseling), and—most importantly—inequality. Prominent in its demonology are capitalism, racism, sexism, homophobia, emotional repression, and religious fundamentalism. Its dogma is comprehensive: “Thou shalt raise taxes, spend more on the poor, enlarge the public sector, institute quotas for disadvantaged minorities, deny the concept of personal responsibility, reduce defense appropriations, ignore foreign dangers, decry intolerance, fight censorship, remove all obstacles to a “woman’s right to choose,” give condoms to 13-year-olds, and bow down to the rain forest and the ozone layer.

The religious quality of modern liberalism is the reason adherents cling to the creed in spite of its glaring failures, including a crushing tax burden, declining productivity, stifling bureaucracy, multi-generational welfare families, an explosion in criminal behavior, drug contagion, bankruptcy of public institutions (schools first and foremost among them), and social disintegration. Blind faith alone explains a willful disregard of the obvious.

It is, therefore, naïve to suppose that Jews will reject their creed any time in the near term. The devout don’t abandon their faith. In the light of rational challenges, they cling ever more tenaciously to cant.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. An antidote to Jewish liberalism exists; it’s called Judaism.

A Hopeful Trend

Ours is the first generation of Jews to experience something miraculous—substantial numbers of Jews from assimilated backgrounds returning to traditional Judaism. The phenomenon even has a name, the ba’alei t’shuva movement.

In the United States and, indeed, around the world, Orthodox Judaism (which was supposed to have expired in the death camps of Europe) is experiencing a renaissance. The Orthodox are establishing day schools and yeshivot in record numbers. (There are more yeshivas in Israel today than in all of Eastern Europe prior to the Second World War.) Always in recent generations, it was Orthodoxy which lost sons and daughters to the modernist branches of Judaism. This is the first generation in which the trend has been reversed. And this trend has accelerated a change in Jewish demographics. The Orthodox alone are having Jewish children at above-replacement levels. Demographers predict that sometime in the century before us, Orthodoxy will be the Jewish norm in America.

This projection has led to a new confidence among Orthodox organizations, and an insistence on being heard in the public policy debate. As Orthodoxy grows, and as its political presence is felt within our community, Jewish liberalism will fade.

American Jewry of the twenty-first century will be strikingly different from today’s community: smaller as a percentage of the population, more cohesive, more religious, and once again aware of its mission in the world—to attest to the presence of a universal God and His law. In that day, perhaps it is we Jews who will be able to raise a banner to which the righteous can repair.


  • Don Feder

    Don Feder is a media consultant and free-lance writer. He is also World Congress of Families Communications Director. Feder operates Don Feder Associates, a communications firm for non-profits with a message (those promoting faith, family, freedom and national security).

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