Jay Michaelson has an interesting essay in the Forward on “why Jews are so liberal?” which he wants to link to the Passover holiday. In some ways, he could not be more right, in others, he could not be more wrong. And why that’s true of both cases gives us an insight into the dilemma of the “liberal” in the 21st century.
NB: Michaelson works on millennial movements and has read my book (or at least knows of it), so in principle he knows about active cataclysmic apocalypticism and the dangers involved in this religious belief, as well as the current wave of apocalyptic Islam. He’s also has written before (2009, after Operation Cast Lead) on these matters, expressing, among others, the dilemma of understanding Israel’s problems defending herself on the one hand, and being pressured to condemn her by his friends and by the images of Israeli might and Palestinian suffering on the other. To judge from this piece, the sloganeering of his “liberal” “friends” has won the day.
Why Are American Jews So Liberal? – The Jewish Daily Forward Published Tuesday, April 3, 2012
Why Are American Jews So Liberal?
Enduring Political Message of the Passover Seder
By Jay Michaelson
Strangers in Strange Land:
American Jews have long since adapted to life in the U.S. So why do they vote like they are just off the boat? Why are Jews so liberal?
Every few years, the question gets asked, often with the unspoken follow-up “… and what can we do to change that?” This year, Republican super PACs are drooling with anticipation. If you think the attacks on Mitt Romney by Sheldon Adelson — I mean Gingrich — I mean a Super-PAC that theoretically doesn’t co-ordinate with Gingrich — were mean, just wait until the general election. Israel! The war on religion! The Ground Zero mosque! Anything to wake up the Jews and get them to vote Republican.
What’s more, Jews have every reason to vote Republican. In a series of studies, political scientist Sam Abrams (together with Steven M. Cohen and others) has shown how American Jews’ views on helping the needy, on diplomacy versus war, and on other litmus test issues actually line up with the center, maybe even the center-right, rather than with the left.
No link, but I suspect that on helping the needy most Jews end up on the left of the left. Certainly when Madoff went down, every major non-Jewish charity in the Boston area lost because their Jewish donors no longer could keep up their contributions.
Moreover, Jews are, on average, more affluent than most Americans, and political scientists tell us that the more affluent you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. (More on that below.) When Jews were hawking pickles on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, our Democratic politics made sense. But not now, when we live in gated communities.
This is old stuff. Jews, unlike other immigrant groups, continue to vote against their pocketbook (which is admirable). And in the 21st century, they even vote against their identity (which is not so noble).
And yet, since Ronald Reagan, no Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 30% of the Jewish vote. It’s an anomaly. Abrams has suggested that Jews vote Democrat largely out of identity. Judge Jonah Goldstein, a 1940s Republican from New York, said famously, “The Jews have three veltn (worlds): di velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.”
Despite the fact that Roosevelt sent their fellow Jews back to the Nazi killing machine.
No doubt, that is in large part true. But in light of the Passover holiday, I want to suggest a different, perhaps complementary, view: It’s in our religion. The Torah says, many times, that our experience of oppression is meant to lead to ethical political action. “The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers once in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) “You must open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land… and you must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 15:11–15). These are clear, powerful texts. It’s only human that when we have plenty, we lose our sense of empathy for those who have little. So, religion comes to remind us not to do that — in the Jewish case, by remembering the narrative of the Passover story and our shared experience of oppression.
Actually, it goes much deeper than that. This is what one might call the empathic imperative: “do not do onto others as you would have them do onto you” rather than the dominating imperative, “do onto others before they do onto you.” It’s the way that the Exodus leads not to a reversal of relations (the slave becomes master), but it short-circuits that tendency to reverse and prolong the cycle of abuse – do onto someone weaker what someone stronger has done to you – with an empathy for the less powerful. It’s the key to true freedom which involves granting others the same freedoms we wish to exercise.
Now, let’s go back to that political science point from a moment ago, about how wealth and voting Republican tend to correlate. This is a telling point. Republicans tell us that they, too, are living out the mandates of the Bible — this was part of my point in an earlier column, that conservatives also say they have Jewish values. They just say that the best way to help the poor is to get government out of the way, let rich people make more money and then assume that those same rich people will generously make up the difference. But then, if Republican policies were really for the benefit of everybody, why do wealthy people disproportionately vote Republican? Is it that the richer you get, the more you care about the poor? No, of course not. Conservative politics are not for the benefit of everybody; that’s just spin. Trickle-down economics, for 30 years a pillar of Republican policy, doesn’t work. A little spending trickles down, but mostly, capital enriches itself. The wealth gap widens. The super-rich take bigger and bigger risks, and are then declared too big to fail. Trickle-down rhetoric — that tax cuts for the rich promote jobs, that taxing millionaire’s estates would hurt small businesses — is just a cover for rich people to pay fewer taxes and keep more of their money. Which is why rich people vote Republican. Because we are selfish animals, and we want more stuff.
Aside from the superficiality of this analysis (which I largely agree with in as much as it’s partially accurate), the most striking element of this is the reductive and self-congratulatory nature of the invidious comparison. “We” democrats are good people; those republicans are selfish hypocrites. Not being a republican, and no longer being a democrat, this does not push my “us-them” emotions as it’s apparently supposed to.
Except when we remember. We remember, because of the Passover story, that we were slaves in Egypt: slaves, with no freedom, no property and no ability to look the other way from whatever we found unpleasant. And we remember, more recently, our Diaspora Jewish experiences, whether in the Holocaust or during times of anti-Semitism. Or, not too long ago, when we were disempowered peasants in Eastern Europe and new immigrants to America — just like the new immigrants that today’s Republicans want to keep out.
In other words, if we have an appreciation of the good that’s been done by letting us in, we are not to keep out others.
Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that, right at this time of year, reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed.
Here’s where we skate close to the edge of something not identified. Apparently Michaelson wants us to view all “Others” as ourselves. But the commandment is to do so with neighbors and strangers. But enemies? That’s not Jewish, that’s Christian, and not even Christian, it’s radical Christian. While Judaism – indeed the Haggadah – reminds us we have enemies, liberals seem to live in a world where evil does not exist: bad things are done by people who have been misunderstood, abused, mistreated; being nice and empathic will make them “good” like us.
And while this is true, maybe even in a large majority of the cases – depending on how good one’s therapeutic techniques are – in some cases, those where the Other is remorselessly hostile, such openness can render one fatally vulnerable.
Is this Judaism? Or, asserted without nuance, is it a potentially suicidal deviation, a system of thought that insists everyone is basically decent and humane, an approach to human nature that confuses humane with human, one that has far less longevity than the idealistic but also realistic three millennia-long Jewish tradition. Sadism is human. Only a moral imbecile treats a sadist as if he’s humane.