The Great Divide: Conservative pundit ponders why so many Jews feel it’s right to be left

Much as it pains him, Norman Podhoretz knows the numbers don’t lie: Democratic presidential candidates have captured around 75 percent of the Jewish vote in every U.S. election since the Roaring ’20s.

That figure makes him want to do a little roaring of his own.

When it comes to politics, Podhoretz, 79, is the Jewish gray eminence of the neoconservative movement. He has written 14 books, thousands of columns, and is a go-to pundit when a clear conservative voice is needed.

As for his politics, think Dick Cheney. Now move a little to the right. Or think of it this way: If Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is for it, Podhoretz is against it.

He cheered the Bush administration’s run-up to the invasion of Iraq and still stands by the decision. And he wants the United States to bomb Iran now.

In his 2007 book “World War IV,” he argued the West must fight and win a long twilight struggle with what he calls “Islamofascism.”

The editor of Commentary magazine for a remarkable 35 years (his son John is the current editor), Podhoretz says he’s been asked one question more than any other throughout his five-decade journalism career: Why are Jews liberals?

After pondering the question for years, he finally set out to answer it in his 14th and latest book, aptly titled “Why are Jews Liberals?”

Podhoretz and conservative talk-show host Michael Medved will speak 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. Podhoretz will expound upon his central thesis: Whereas liberalism may once have served the interests of Jews, to remain liberal today is a tragic mistake, perhaps even a kind of mental illness.

Norman Podhoretz

“I do think that Jews suffer from a pathology,” Podhoretz said in an interview before coming to San Francisco. Liberal Jews “do not know who their friends are and their enemies are. That’s a serious problem. Most people can tell the difference.”

Those are strong words from a man uninterested in soft-pedaling his message. Podhoretz prefers to clobber readers with what he believes to be the truth. If they emerge bruised but conservative, that’s fine. If not, so be it.

“I don’t write to persuade in the sense of coddling the opposition,” Podhoretz noted. “My habit as a writer has always been to try to tell the truth as I see it and tell it as clearly and forcefully as I can. What I do hope for and have experienced [is] there are people out there who, when confronted by a powerful statement of the case, can get shaken by it.”

In the first half of his new book, Podhoretz lays out the historical background for Jewish liberalism, starting with the birth of Christianity and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe.

He shows how religious and political forces from the Middle Ages onwards fell roughly along the lines of what today might be called the right and the left. Throughout most of that time, he argues, the right proved far more hostile to Jews.

Hostile as in crusades, pogroms, ghettos, exile, random murder and general all around Jew-hating nastiness.

As Podhoretz points out, although it was never a love fest, the political left — best exemplified during the Enlightenment and the rise of western democracies — embraced Jewish emancipation while rejecting religious intolerance.

The Rights of Man naturally had to include Jews, even if that prince of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, found them “the most detestable [nation] ever to have sullied the earth.”

Once Jews immigrated to the United States in great numbers, they continued to find a welcome home in liberalism. Alienated from the Orthodoxy of their parents, and finding anti-Semitism raging among Protestants and Catholics, many Jews turned to socialism, even Marxism, as a kind of replacement religion.

And that, according to Podhoretz, laid the groundwork for an attenuated, multigenerational devotion to liberalism that continues to this day. He calls their credo “the Torah of liberalism.”

“To most American Jews,” he writes in his recently published book, “liberalism is not … 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.”

The second half of his book marches across the last few decades, claiming the left, especially after Israel’s Six-Day War in 1967, has grown increasingly hostile to Israel and Jewish interests. Stiff-necked to the end, liberal Jews refuse to wake up, Podhoretz asserts.

“Many Jews, including even in Israel, don’t recognize the enmity of their enemies,” he said. “The point is not that liberal Jews are anti-Israel, but the political community of which they are a loyal member has gone increasingly unfriendly to Israel.”

Podhoretz is no one-issue conservative. On the other hand, he wonders at Jewish liberals’ embrace of all issues liberal.

“What exactly accounts for the fact that 99 percent of Jewish women are in favor of abortion rights,” he wondered. “What’s that got to do with Judaism? It’s impossible to see any connection with the Jewish experience, Jewish law, that would account for this, whereas once [abortion] became obligatory dogma of the liberal agenda, Jews went for it with all their might.”

Not surprisingly, liberal Jews do not take kindly to Podhoretz or his thesis.

In a scathing New York Times review of “Why are Jews Liberals?” New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier calls it “a dreary book,” adding this of Podhoretz’s “Torah of Liberalism” notion:

“The alternative, of course, would be to consider the possibility that liberalism is not just an undifferentiated darkness, and that there may be some substance to what some liberals believe about some principles and some policies. But those would be heretical thoughts, which are unlikely in a heresy hunter.”

One does not need to travel as far as New York, however, to find critics of Podhoretz. In the merry liberal utopia of San Francisco, Jason Porth is always happy to tee up against conservative philosophy.

A former civil rights attorney, Porth works in the government and community relations department of San Francisco State University. He is also president of the Raoul Wallenberg Democratic Club.

Porth pored over the book and thinks little of it.

“His definition of liberalism is flawed,” Porth said of Podhoretz. “The great liberal ideologies out of the Enlightenment were the values of equal rights, equal freedom and shared responsibility. Liberalism is understanding the rights people have and the obligations we have to one another.”

Porth also blasted Podhoretz’s views regarding liberal Jews vis-à-vis Israel.

In light of the open hostility toward Israel expressed by liberal Democrat icons such as Jimmy Carter, not to mention the radical left, Podhoretz argues that liberalism is a slippery slope to American abandonment of the Jewish state.

Rubbish, saids Porth.

“[Podhoretz] places a lot of his argument on the safety and security of Israel,” Porth said. “He talks about liberalism as a nail in the coffin of the Jewish state, that anyone who cares about Israel couldn’t be a liberal, and why can’t Jews get it through their heads they should be members of the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is deeply committed to a safe and secure Israel at peace with its neighbors.”

As a former liberal Democrat, Podhoretz disagreed. Because the Brooklyn-born author grew up worshipping FDR and, early in his journalism career, repeated liberal tropes, he feels he understands the liberal mindset.

He also got an early taste of Jewish conservatism.

Though his parents had fallen away from strict religious observance, Podhoretz recalls his fervently Orthodox maternal grandfather for whom “613 mitzvahs were not enough.”

When he signed up for Jewish studies at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, Podhoretz’s said, “my mother told her father, thinking it would please him, whereupon he spat.”

Podhoretz went on to serve as editor of Commentary, perhaps the nation’s pre-eminent Jewish intellectual publication. During his tenure, as his political views shifted rightward, so did the magazine.

Although Podhoretz does not consider himself Orthodox, he does draw on his knowledge of Judaism to refute liberal Jews’ claims to Jewish religion and texts as the bases for their politics.

For one thing, he believes liberal Jews who throw around terms like “tikkun olam” and “tzedakah” largely do not know what they’re talking about.

“The importance tikkun olam [repair of the world] is given is wildly overblown,” Podhoretz said. “The concept is kabbalistic and means almost the opposite of what Reform Jews take it to mean. Tikkun olam says every time a Jew performs a mitzvah he brings the messiah a little closer. It’s about preparing for the messianic age. It’s not the Democrat Party.”

And for good measure, Podhoretz said that according to traditional Judaism, the primary recipients of tzedakah are other Jews, not Darfur refugees or humpback whales.

Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco is a proud liberal who would happily wrestle with Podhoretz over his interpretation of Jewish texts.

And she thinks she would win.

“Liberalism,” she said, “in its best sense has continued to fuel and inspire Jews’ connection to their traditional texts, while allowing us to take on modernity. With the pressing issues of today, acting as a liberal Jew gives us a balance in our Judaism, politics and activism.”

As a tongue-in-cheek example, she noted the philosophical debate within Judaism goes all the way back to the conservative Shammai and the more liberal Hillel.

“Who wins out in the end?” Mintz asked. “You don’t see any Shammai Houses on college campuses, do you?”

Mintz says Torah girds her liberal activism, even though she acknowledges that Orthodox Jews see things differently. “Orthodox Jews are commanded, they do it and they try to understand it later,” she explained. “Liberal Jews try to understand, and based on understanding we decide whether to do it or not. If you’re on the liberal end of the spectrum, you understand there is a liberal and a traditional halachah [Jewish law].”

Mintz, a lesbian, is well known in the Bay Area Jewish community as a fighter for LGBT rights. She says she is not as doctrinaire a liberal as one might think. When it comes to Israel, Mintz calls herself a centrist.

“Sometimes I find myself to the right of the left,” she noted, “other times to the left of the right. Some on the right think I’m left on Israel, others on the left think I’m right. No matter where you stand, someone thinks you are too far over the other side.”

Magali Cohen is 25, Jewish, Bay Area-born and bred. But if you think that adds up to raging liberal, think again. The Menlo Park resident is a rock-solid conservative.

This wasn’t always so. She grew up in a liberal home and remembers Bill Clinton-for-president bumper stickers gracing the family station wagon. But over the last decade she, as well as her parents and brother, all experienced a gradual rightward shift.

It started with reflection on her knee-jerk pro-choice views on abortion, expanding further after the launch in 2000 of the second intifada and its attending violence.

“It was hard, but I forced myself to become introspective and really examine my own first beliefs,” she recalled. “I needed to have a political opinion based on what I saw as truth, and facts could support. I started looking at basic social platforms, and by the time I could vote I registered as a Republican.”

To conservatives, Cohen represents the ideal future of politically active U.S. Jews.

She works at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto as a rabbi’s assistant and United Synagogue Youth advisor. She doesn’t walk around with a sandwich board advertising her right-leaning political views, but she does lament that so many Jews adopt liberalism without thinking it through.

“You do it because it’s part of Jewish culture,” she said, taking a stab at answering Podhoretz’s title question. “You eat bagels, you have Tupperware parties with the Sisterhood and you vote Democrat.

“Jews do [liberalism] because we’re comfortable. We think, OK, Jews are taken care of, look at our 401k and our summer houses. Israel seems to be doing OK. So what about the kids in Sudan? What about other people?”

The liberal emphasis on far-flung suffering populations sticks in her craw. She agreed with Podhoretz that liberal Jews misappropriate Jewish texts and Judaic concepts to justify their political opinions.

For her, Judaism is “not like a diet. You don’t get a buffet to pick and choose. Whether it’s divinely imposed on us or it’s just a cultural gene we inherent, we want to make other people like us. They won’t.”

That argument doesn’t hold up for liberals Mintz and Porth. The latter believes liberalism will remain the dominant political ideology for a vast majority of Jews, and that the only way Jews would stray, Porth said, “is if we lost our moral compass.”

As the left-right divide widens, political discourse has grown ever more coarse, the debate nastier and more personal. It may just be the inevitable result of a First Amendment gone wild, or perhaps an increasing sense of urgency that the world has become more precarious for Jews.

Both sides believe they know what’s best.

“I disagree with [Podhoretz’s] premise that liberalism is wrong for Jews,” said Porth. “It goes to why people choose to believe what they believe. Any view has to come from a place of compassion and seeing the other not just as a threat, but as partner. Liberalism is understanding the rights people have, the obligations we have to one another and the shared responsibilities we have to live as neighbors.”

But Podhoretz holds fast to his conservative views, come hell or Obama. So much so, he has grown used to being disliked by many of his fellow Jews. Today he says he has not a single liberal friend.

“The price I paid is well worth the satisfaction to speak my mind,” he said. “I don’t regret it for a minute.”

Norman Podhoretz will speak 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 7, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. $10-$18. Information: (415) 292-1200 or

“Why are Jews Liberals?”
by Norman Podhoretz ($27, Doubleday, 337 pages)

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.