JEWS AND LIBERALISM
Milton Himmelfarb of the American Jewish Committee has famously noted that “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” In his insightful 2009 book Why Are Jews Liberal1 Norman Podhoretz, former editor of the Jewish journal Commentary, went a long way toward explaining this unnatural association between Jews and big-government liberalism. But he could have gone one crucial step further, as we shall see.
Considering the ferocity of European anti-Semitism over the centuries, it’s understandable, Podhoretz conceded, that Jews would today harbor an historical suspicion of the forces of conservatism: the church, the property owners, the military, the “establishment.” Those who had any sympathy at all for the plight of the Jews in ages past were the revolutionaries, the socialists, the reformers; those who were associated with what eventually became known as the political left.
But as Podhoretz noted, times have changed. Today, Christian conservatives are among the most consistent supporters of the nation of Israel, while Jews are among the most affluent and comfortable people in American society. Yet many remain firmly wedded to the political left – and end up embracing liberal programs which are not at all consistent with traditional Jewish values of Free Will and individualism.
Weighing the possible explanations for this anomalous behavior, Podhoretz concluded:
… we are left with the theory – the most popular by far – that traces Jewish liberalism all the way back to the ‘Jewish values’ that are said to derive from the commandments of Judaism or, more broadly, the spirit of the Jewish tradition….What we see here, in short, is that liberalism has not only superseded socialism and the religion of most American Jews, it has even superseded Judaism itself among many Jewish liberals who presume to speak in its name. So far as they are concerned, 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…”2
Podhoretz wondered why the Torah of Judaism, which reveres Free Will, would be supplanted in the minds of many Jews by the Torah of Liberalism, which reveres the all-embracing state. The underlying reason, which Podhoretz did not quite reach, is the seductive philosophy known as altruism.
ALTRUISM AND THE TORAH OF LIBERALISM
Webster defines altruism as “regard for and devotion to the interests of others as an ethical principle,” and goes on to quote the Dictionary of Political Economy as stating: “Altruism is an ethical term…opposed to individualism or egoism…and embraces those moral motives which induce a man to regard the interests of others.” Altruism, then, holds that the higher virtue lies not in pursuing one’s own rational self-interest, but in “devotion to the interests of others.”
But what is wrong with having a decent regard for the interests of others – charity, let us say? Nothing, of course, for charity is an important element of any civilized society. But charity is a voluntary response to one’s own values. Similarly, concern for one’s children, friends, community, etc., is also the voluntary response to self-interest. The altruist, however, disdains self-interest as mere selfishness: how much more noble, he declares, is selfless devotion to the interests of others?
This sentiment is at the heart of the liberal aversion to capitalism – the economic system which has generated the highest standard of living the world has ever seen, for poor as well as rich. But the profit motive is fueled by self-interest – which the liberal altruist scorns as simply “private greed.”
Many people, beguiled by what they feel is a doctrine of humanitarian benevolence, think of themselves – or would like to think of themselves – as altruists. If you think you are an altruist, consider the following situation: suppose you come upon two children drowning. Suppose one of them is you own child and the other a stranger. Suppose the situation is such that you can save one of them, but not both. Which one would you save? Surely you would – or should – save your own child. Altruism, however, urges selfless devotion to the interests of others; specifically it would mandate that you place the happiness of the other family above your own. Altruism requires, then, that you “unselfishly” save the other child and let your own drown. Do you still think you are an altruist?
Altruism is not a livable philosophy. (Ayn Rand described it simply as “evil.”) But the real problem arises when altruism invades and takes over the political process: who sacrifices for whom? And who decides? Why, government, of course.
ALTRUISM AND THE ROAD TO DESPOTISM
At best, the idea of selfless devotion to the interest of “others” leads to confusion. At worst it leads to tyranny. “To be a socialist,” declared Nazi socialist Joseph Goebbels,” is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.”3
A favorite slogan in Nazi Germany was Gemeinutz vor Eigennutz (common interest before self). Stalin was equally explicit in asserting that true virtue lay in self-sacrifice to the collective:
True Bolshevik courage does not consist in placing one’s individual will above the will of the Comintern. True courage consists in being strong enough to master and overcome one’s self and subordinate one’s will to the will of the collective, the will of the higher party body. 4
In any of the above statements the underlying premise is the same. But the doctrine of self-sacrifice is no longer in the ivory tower – it has entered the political arena, and the philosophical “thou ought” has finally become the legislated “thou must.” What was previously only an assumed “moral obligation” has now become a “duty.” Every tyranny in history has been based on some variation of the altruist theme. Under Stalin and Lenin it was the duty of the individual to serve the proletariat. Under Hitler it was the Fatherland. Under Mussolini it was the State. (Under President Obama the beneficiary of other people’s sacrifice is called “social justice.”) The altruist ideal of selfless devotion to some abstract “greater good” is the cornerstone of tyranny.
In American politics today the most powerful weapon in the arsenal of the political left is the moral intimidation derived from the unchallenged assumptions of altruism. For example, those who might seek to restrain government borrowing and spending will be reviled as “selfish,” “mean-spirited” and “uncaring.” The left seizes the moral high ground while bewildered critics are shamed into silence, and the out-of-control borrowing and spending continue. As long as people accept the idea that self-interest is simply “greed,” and that virtue rests only in service to “others,” demagogues of the left (or the right) will be more than happy to see that “virtue” prevails.
Moreover, altruism can be dangerous to one’s health. “Isn’t it much better for people to work for the good of everybody?” asked 1960s terrorist Diana Oughton a few days before she blew herself up while making bombs wrapped in nail-studded tape. 5
Podhoretz asked, “Why are Jews liberals?” The illusive explanation – the final dot in the puzzle – is the beguiling philosophy of altruism – the notion that the highest moral virtue lies in the sacrifice of one’s own goals and values to the needs and demands of others. All in the name of “doing good.” The Torah indeed urges “doing good,” but it nowhere mandates doing good by force, i.e. through legislation. Until Jewish liberals grasp this distinction they will no doubt continue to “earn like Episcopalians,” but will also, alas, continue “to vote like Puerto Ricans.”
And finally, there is an underlying issue here which transcends identity politics: the issue of Free Will, the historically unique ethical concept on which our Judeo-Christian culture is based.
1) Norman Podhoretz, (New York, Doubleday, 2009)
2) Ibid. p. 277; 288
3) Cited by Arthur Schlesinger, (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1962), p.54.
4) Ibid. p. 56.
5) Thomas Powers, (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Co. Bantam paperback edition 1971),