Norman Podhoretz, fiercely conservative and fiercely proud of his Judaism, wonders why his conservatism puts him in such a small minority among Jews, when it seems to him that liberalism is contrary to the tribal interest of the Jews and the class interests of the majority of Jews who are prosperous rather than poor. (Someone said that this is the neocon version of What’s the Matter with Kansas?) Podhoretz has an answer: because the vast majority of Jews are deluded and morally blind and severed from their religious tradition. “Everyone’s daft save me and thee – and even thee’s a trifle queer.”
To most American Jews, then, liberalism is not, as has often been said, merely a necessary component of Jewishness: it is the very essence of being a Jew. Nor is it a “substitute for religion”: it is a religion in its own right, complete with its own catechism and its own dogmas and, Tertullian – like, obdurately resistant to facts that undermine its claims and promises. … Where the Torah of contemporary liberalism conflicts with the Torah of Judaism, it is the Torah of liberalism that prevails and the Torah of Judaism that must give way.
It is not a delusion, not a treason, to vote against your own economic interest. It is a recognition of the multiplicity of interests, the many purposes, that make up a citizen’s life. When, in the Torah of Judaism, Moses commands the Jews to perform acts of social welfare, he sometimes adds the admonition that they were themselves strangers and slaves. The purpose of this refreshment of their memory is plain. The fact that we are no longer strangers and slaves is not all we need to know. We may not regard the world solely from the standpoint of our own prosperity, our own safety, our own contentment.
Ira Glasser expands on this theme:
I have always thought that there were (to oversimplify somewhat) two kinds of Jews in American political life — those who saw Jews’ experience with discrimination and persecution as an example of a broader and more generic phenomenon that embraced similar discrimination and persecution based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation and other categories of invidious discriminations; and those who, like Podhoretz, saw Jews’ experience with discrimination and persecution as exceptional and singular, and worse by far than all others’.
For the first group, the support of a wide range of civil rights movements was a natural extension of the Jewish experience, even when such support seemed to conflict with their own immediate interests, as happened with certain aspects of affirmative action. For the second group, self-interest was predominant, to the exclusion of serious – which is to say, operational – sympathy for others who had suffered and were still suffering similar or even worse discriminatory persecutions. Podhoretz is a caricature of this second group.
One way to put this point is that the difference between the liberal majority among Jews and the conservative minority is the difference between those who do, and those who do not, observe the mitzvah of Deut. 24:7-8:
Thou shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow’s raiment to pledge.
But thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee thence; therefore I command thee to do this thing.
Podhoretz and his friends have gone Egyptian, and object to oppression only when they’re on the receiving end. No wonder they so hate those of us who have chosen to remain Jewish, and understand that the reason we say avodim hayyinu – “We were slaves” – at each Passover Seder is to remind ourselves that we must never, never, ever act like slavemasters.