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Jewish World Review April 30, 1999 /14 Iyar 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Politically Conservative and Jewish: Not an Oxymoron After All

(JWR) ---- (
IT HAS LONG BEEN the conventional wisdom that a volume on the history of American Jewish conservatism would be a pretty short book. Jews were and are predominantly, even overwhelmingly, politically liberal.

Translate this into party politics and you cannot avoid the conclusion that many American Jews define Judaism as the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. Polls, election results and years of my own reporting on the Jewish community back this up.

But like most consensus thinking, it isn't the whole truth.

In fact, conservative thinking has always played a role in Jewish life, even here in America. And in recent decades, American Jewish conservatives -- though few in number -- have had a disproportionate impact not only among Jews but also on American political life in general.

This topic was explored at a conference held in Washington earlier this month sponsored by Temple University's Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History and the Jewish Studies Program of American University.

The program was something of an intellectual feast as academics and Washington pundits like Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks came together to hash out the significance of Jewish political conservatism.

The historical roots of American Jewish conservatives are strong. As Rabbi David Dalin, a historian who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, pointed out at the conference, the Jewish philanthropic tradition is by no means synonymous with the welfare state.

"From biblical Israel to the New Deal," said Dalin, "helping others to help themselves" and not discouraging dependence was the "central principle of Jewish philanthropy."

Dalin even pointed out that the medieval Jewish community of Padua, Italy, had its own "welfare to work" program requiring those receiving aid to work for it, a legal precedent for contemporary laws.

According to historian professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, in America, prior to Franklin Roosevelt, the Jewish vote was as likely to be Republican as Democrat. (It was the other Roosevelt, Teddy, who appointed the first Jewish Cabinet member.) Indeed, 100 years ago, the national Democratic Party and its populist leaders such as William Jennings Bryan and Tom Watson scared American Jews as much as the Christian Coalition does today.

But that was then. This is now. Since the Great Depression, Jews have overwhelmingly identified with liberalism. If, more than 30 years ago, the writer Milton Himmelfarb was right when he quipped that American Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans, one would have to revise the remark today since recent elections show that urban Hispanics are less loyal to liberalism than Jews are.

This was a truth acknowledged by one of the pre-eminent conservative Jewish voices of the era: writer and editor Midge Decter, who gave a retrospective about her own path to conservatism.

Along with her husband, longtime Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz, Decter was at the heart of one of the most remarkable political transformations of the postwar era: the neo-conservatives who helped shift American attitudes on welfare and the Cold War.

A "neo-conservative" is, according to Decter, "a liberal who is mugged by reality." Along with friends like author Irving Kristol, Decter and Podhoretz were once not merely liberals, but leftists. But in the 1960s, they realized that the political left had abandoned American democratic values as well as Israel. With the passion of converts, the neo-cons assailed the sacred cows of the left and generally gave a lot better than they got in the wars of the intellectuals.

The witty and combative Decter now says that she has dropped the "neo" from her ideological label as she sees herself as no different from other conservatives. Indeed, her primary interest nowadays is the danger to American values that leftist multiculturalism poses.

Though acknowledging that American Jews are still far more frightened of what they think men like the Rev. Pat Robertson will do to American democracy (a threat she scoffs at as unrealistic and fundamentally bigoted in its intolerance for religious conservatives), Decter believes that if American Jewish parents would only read what liberals are putting into their kids' textbooks and sex-education classes, they would soon change their minds.

Interestingly, two of the most significant statements made at a conference generally devoted to Jewish conservatives' assessments of themselves were made by liberals who spoke there.

Writer and critic Paul Berman derailed what was supposed to be a session on American Jews and Israel into one about the future of American Jewry itself. Berman said that asking Jews to embrace the conservatives was akin to asking them "assimilate and give up their particular identity."

Berman clearly believes that political liberalism is synonymous with Judaism. One would have thought that the idea that left-wing activism was a viable or survivable form of Judaism was as discredited as "bagels and lox" Judaism, but apparently not.

The same holds true for conservatism. As writer Lisa Shiffren (she was the author of the much-maligned and since vindicated "Murphy Brown" speech on single parenthood given by then Vice President Dan Quayle) noted in a subsequent session, Jewish conservatives are going to have to integrate more Jewish tradition into their thinking or else they, too, will become indistinct from their non-Jewish allies.

It fell to Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and one of the most important Jewish liberals of our time, to make what seemed to me the most ironic remark.

Saperstein defended the Jewish liberal tradition and rightly pointed out that a long-predicted shift of Jews to conservatism never happened. But he also made a plea for Jewish political pluralism.

The "Jewish tradition is diverse," said Saperstein. "Jews need to hear voices on the other side of the argument. We are best represented on both sides of the spectrum."

Of course, this flies in the face of the experience of Jewish conservatives. Jewish conservatives have been marginalized by mainstream organizations and ridiculed by a liberal establishment that had a stranglehold on the media -- both secular and religious -- in the United States and in Israel.

Ours is a Jewish world in which the "cult of consensus" remains ascendant and the impulse to attempt to "shut up" dissidents is still strong. Though sometimes liberals are the ones who are victimized, most often it is conservatives who have to fight to be heard.

Though liberalism still holds the affections of a majority of American Jewry, political conservatism has taken its place as a respectable and influential force within Jewish life and the country as a whole. But perhaps the most important victory of the neo-cons and the younger generation that has followed in their footsteps, is that liberals are finally acknowledging their legitimacy.

Jewish conservatives have far to go before they can claim to represent most American Jews. For example, discussions at the conference about the Kosovo crisis showed just how divided they were on a post-Cold War foreign policy.

But if Jewish liberals are now pleading for tolerance from the once-despised minority of American Jewry that calls itself conservative, then anything is possible.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.


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©1999, Jonathan Tobin