Why Norman Podhoretz needs to read the Torah more closely

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.

Leon Wieseltier – hardly a lefty himself – shreds Podhoretz.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

8 thoughts on “Why Norman Podhoretz needs to read the Torah more closely”

  1. Yeah, well, the Orthodox Jews I know are less interested in avadim hayyinu than they are in zecher amalek.

  2. The most disgusting thing about neocons like Podhoretz is that they often seem to translate the Hebrew word "amalek" into the Yiddish word "schvartze." This is certainly true for Podhoretz (author of "My Negro Problem–and Ours"), and true to some extent for many neocons. It helps them feel comfortable with the more benighted elements of the Republican Party, with whom they otherwise have almost nothing in common except anti-communism.

  3. For those who don't know Hebrew, what Bloix and Joe S. are discussing concerns the commandment to remember ("zecher") the Amalekites – by remaining at perpetual war with them, so as to wipe out the very memory of them: a sort of Hebrew koan.

  4. I have this suspicion — of which I am more than willing to be disabused — that most American Jews who agree with Podhoretz are members of synagogues and otherwise counted among the 40%-50% of Jews who are "affiliated," and that most unaffiliated Jews find him abhorrent. That's not to say that I don't think liberal Jews can't be found in synagogue (my family pays dues to two!), just that his attitudes are more prevalent in the organized community than not, and that the prevalence of those attitudes probably helps keep a good number of the unaffiliated away.

  5. I shouldn't have said "the Orthodox Jews I know"- some of the Orthodox Jews I know is what I meant. I was feeling a little uncharitable yesterday. I was thinking specifically Amelek = Arabs or Palestinians.

    But perhaps more on point there's a strain in Judaism that holds that the world outside the Jewish world is a world of enemies and the response to it should be to ally oneself as a matter of expediency with the ruling elite as a means of self-protection and a way to make a living. Make yourself useful to the rich and powerful and you will be safe and well-fed. You don't need to have opinions or beliefs about justice and injustice in the world outside the Jewish community – let the goyim worry about the goyim, take care of your own. Podhoretz is a court Jew. Kristol was even worse. It works for him and he wonders why the rest of us don't see how comfortable it can be.

  6. At first, I wondered whether Glasser's Jewish taxonomy doesn't apply to conservatives generally. I was thinking of the number of conservatives who take an appropriately lib'rul view when events conspire to touch their family in the relevant way. For example, Cheney disagrees with the prevailing conservative view on homosexuality – because his daughter is lesbian.

    But then I realized that this was unfair. Ted Haggard, for example, was perfectly willing to condemn homosexuality even though he himself was a practicing homosexual. One can only fairly conclude that most conservatives are principled after all.

  7. The leading lights of the US political movement that calls itself "conservative" want to bring back 1920s-style retirement insurance (i.e., none), 1920s-style labor law (i.e., bringing back the Lochner era), 1920s-style retirement insurance (i.e., no Social Security), 1920s-style gender relations (i.e., out with birth control, in with legalized sex discrimination)… how can I not suspect that if they got their way, we'd also see a resurgence of 1920s-style antisemitism?

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