THE LIBERALISM OF AMERICAN JEWS is as stubborn as it is longstanding. Jews have voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1928, and with the single exception of Jimmy Carter in 1980, no Democratic candidate in all those decades -- not even those, like George McGovern, who lost in a landslide -- has attracted less than 60 percent of the Jewish vote. The average has been closer to 75 percent.
Last November, 78 percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama. That was 25 percentage points higher than the 53 percent he drew from the electorate as a whole, and 35 points higher than the pro-Obama white vote of 43 percent. Not even Hispanics, who gave Obama 67 percent of their vote, surpassed Jewish voters in supporting the Democratic nominee.
In congressional elections too, American Jews display the same partisan loyalty. Exit polls consistently show that between two-thirds and three-fourths of Jewish voters back Democratic candidates for the US House of Representatives.
It isn't only on Election Day that American Jews lean so strikingly to the left.
On issue after issue, Jews are far more likely than other Americans to embrace liberal positions. More than 80 percent of Jews oppose prayer in public schools, for example, while only 38 percent of non-Jews feel the same way. Three-fourths of Jews tell pollsters they want more government spending on health, education, and the environment; among non-Jews the figure is 57 percent. On race, abortion, the military, civil liberties, marijuana, euthanasia, gun control – name almost any controversial political issue, and American Jews can be trusted to come down firmly and disproportionately on the left.
This persistent Jewish liberalism perplexes many non-Jews and non-liberals. Why should Jewish Americans be so out of step with their socioeconomic peers? And why, they ask, do Jews in America remain so loyal to the left at a time when hostility to Jews and to the Jewish state is increasingly a left-wing phenomenon, and when the right – especially the Christian right – has become a bulwark of support for Israel and the Jewish people?
"I cannot remember ever being asked any question as often as I have been asked why so many Jews continue clinging to the Left and why they still vote as heavily as ever for the Democratic Party," writes Norman Podhoretz, the former editor-in-chief of Commentary and one of America's leading public intellectuals. "Usually I respond by saying that it is a very long and very complicated story." In Why Are Jews Liberals? he sets out to tell that story, and does so with insight and verve.
Podhoretz is known today as a founding father of neoconservatism. But he began as a committed liberal and underwent a metamorphosis. A radical stalwart in the 1960s, Podhoretz had begun moving rightward a decade later, repelled as much by the "open expression of hostility to Jews" that he encountered in the New Left as by its growing contempt for traditional American values and institutions.
Few in the Jewish community, however, followed Podhoretz across the ideological divide. His efforts to sound the alarm – pointing out in a 1971 speech, for example, that "the main source of anti-Semitic propaganda in the world today is not a fascist country like Nazi Germany but a socialist one, so-called: the Soviet Union" -- had little impact. So did his argument that what made the United States such a tolerant and prosperous haven for Jews and so many others was precisely the social and moral traditions that the left wanted to overturn. Neither evidence nor polemics could budge what Podhoretz calls "the stubborn Jewish refusal to rethink the old political pieties."
For a long time, those "pieties" had made sense. Podhoretz spends the first half of Why Are Jews Liberals? briskly surveying 2,000 years of Jewish history, from the birth of Christianity in the Roman era to the defeat of Hubert Humphrey in 1968. It was that history, he explains, that forged Jewish liberalism. Time and again during those 20 centuries Jews had suffered persecution and ostracism, and time and again the most hostile elements of society had also been the most conservative and/or Christian. Jews reasonably internalized an intense aversion to what came to be known as the right, the source of so much that had immiserated Jewish life: medieval blood libels, czarist pogroms, Nazism.
Equally reasonable was the affinity they developed for the left, where they had found most of their allies during the struggle for equal rights and emancipation. (There were of course exceptions, as Podhoretz points out. Voltaire, the great Enlightenment philosophe, reviled Jews as "ignorant" and "detestable." Marx, whose vision so many Jews embraced, demanded "the emancipation of society from Judaism.")
Norman Podhoretz, one of the original neoconservatives
But the world has changed, Podhoretz argues in the book's second half, and Jews should change with it. Numerous polls confirm that support for Israel today is far stronger among Republicans and conservatives than among Democrats and liberals. And while the right has grown far less willing to tolerate anti-Semites in its midst, much of the left has gotten comfortable with anti-Semitism – especially the variety that expresses itself in malignance for the Jewish state. "It is long past time for the Jews of America to join the side that has come to side with them," Podhoretz writes.
But he writes knowing that he will not be heeded. American Jews cling so tenaciously to liberalism, he concludes, because it has superseded Judaism as their religion -- or because they have come to regard Judaism as "liberalism by another name." Doubtless that is an assertion many Jewish liberals will scorn. But then, scorn from the left has never kept the author of "Breaking Ranks" and "Ex-Friends" from speaking bluntly about politics and ideas.
Like its author, this cogent book is both pugnacious and perceptive, and even readers who don't share Podhoretz's politics will find his analysis thought-provoking. Why Are Jews Liberals? may not change many votes, but it sheds new light on an old and intriguing enigma.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe. To follow him on Twitter, click here.)