Diary

Why Are Most Jews Politically Liberal?

bs asked in his recent diary (see not far below in Member Diaries) why so many Jews are politically liberal, even going so far as to support an arguably anti-Israel candidate such as Barack Obama.

VanishingNYRep gets some of the answer, I think: long Jewish resistance to the Right in Europe (kings, kaisers, and tsars). It is probably true that anti-Judaism came more from the Right than from the Left in Europe until the 20th century, and the idea of an anti-Jewish Right persists, even though the Left is now far more hostile to Jews. But threats to Jews sometimes came from the common people while the nobility and higher placed clergy offered protection. Such was the case in certain countries during the Crusades, for instance, and in Poland at certain times. The political interests of Jews depended partly on the country and partly on the class of the Jews in question, and, as always, partly on which political winds were blowing at that time. And other Jews were simply not politically involved.

There are theological reasons, too, as VanishingNYRep points out, for being Democrat, but there are just as many, if not more, for being Republican.

There are also recent political reasons for Jewish Americans to vote Democratic, such as, to take only a couple examples, Truman’s recognition of Israel and a perceived (and sometimes real) anti-Jewish bias among certain Republicans (e.g., Sec. James Baker III).

But the main reason, I think, that so many Jews are liberals goes back about 200 years to the French Revolution. Before that time, there were only orthodox Jews (and they weren’t called orthodox – just Jews). There were different groups with varying customs and ideas, but they were all in practice orthodox. With the French Revolution came “liberation” – the Jews were to be treated as everyone else. It wasn’t only to do them justice, after a fashion, but also to remove their Jewishness and make them citizens like all others.

It was legally a liberation, but it was also terribly destructive. A great number of Jews wanted nothing more than the acceptance of the European societies that had spurned them, and in order to gain that acceptance, they tossed away as much of the Jewish tradition as possible in order to live like their neighbors. Reform Judaism was born with the goal of creating a kind of Christian Judaism. In Germany, there were even Reform synagogues that held services on Sundays, and it is still common to find organs in Reform synagogues. In some Reform synagogues, they do not wear skullcaps, and much of the service is not in Hebrew but in the native tongue of the place. And many Jews simply abandoned the synagogue and the tradition entirely.

In this way, many Jews became children of the French Revolution and followed its ideals. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite means more now to most Jews than the Torah and Talmud (if indeed they know them at all). If they quote Torah, they especially like lines like, “Justice, justice shall ye pursue…” and then immediately interpret this to mean the contemporary brand of social justice (rather than the more obvious answer: following the Law given to Moses).

Such is my idea on the subject. I’ve read only a few books and articles. There are other views, though, from more educated persons. For instance, some say that because Jews have been oppressed so long, their sympathies are naturally with others who are oppressed, leading them to lean to the political Left. But any full explanation, I believe, has to go back centuries and consider the course of European history.

Suggestions for Further Reading

by Bernard Lewis

Napoleon and the Jews (Wikipedia article)

A History of Jews in the Modern World

    by Howard M. Sachar