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Norman Podhoretz explains Why Are Jews Liberals?

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HH: Special hour of the Hugh Hewitt Show, pleased to welcome back to the program Norman Podhoretz, author of many incredibly important books, longtime editor of Commentary Magazine. Most recently, he was here to talk about his bestseller, World War IV and a couple of articles he wrote for Commentary. But he has a brand new book out, Why Are Jews Liberals? And it’s by Doubleday, and of course, it’s causing a lot of conversation. Norman Podhoretz, welcome back, great to have you on the program.

NP: Well, thanks very much. It’s great to be back, Hugh.

HH: Now we’re talking two days after the president of the United States gave a speech at the U.N. And I was finishing my notes for this interview as I watched and read that speech, Norman Podhoretz. Would you agree with me it was the most anti-Israel speech ever delivered by a sitting United States president?

NP: Well, it certainly comes close. I mean, Eisenhower made a few speeches that might rival, or at least his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles made a few statements that might rival Obama’s, but I won’t quarrel intensely with you over your characterization. I think he is certainly more hostile to Israel than any previous president, again except maybe for Jimmy Carter in his post-presidential phase.

HH: Right, that is detailed in your book, and Carter’s policy during his time in office, very hostile to Israel. But I was at my law school today, and I found a friend of mine, he’s a liberal, Jewish-American, very talented guy…

NP: You still have liberal friends, Hugh?

HH: Oh, of course. Of course. They’re just wrong. They’re not rotten.

NP: (laughing)

HH: And I was engaging him, because he’s a staunch defender of Israel, been there many times, and I asked him for his opinion. He didn’t like the speech much. But you know what, Norman? It’s the story of your book. I don’t think he’s moved an inch in his underlying theory of Obama or the left in America.

NP: Right. Well, the theory of my book is that liberalism has become much more than a political position for most American Jews, 78% of whom, by the way, voted for Obama in 2008, despite the fact that they had every reason to believe he would be hostile to Israel because of his long association with enemies of Israel like the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi and Bill Ayers. It’s become much more than a political position, and what I try to demonstrate is that liberalism has, for all practical purposes, become the religion of most American Jews, and superseded Judaism as their, what I call, Torah. It has its own commandments and its own dogmas. And whenever these conflict, as they do at many points with the Torah of Judaism, it’s the torah of liberalism that prevails.

HH: And I quote from the end of the book, “To this new torah they grew as stubbornly attached both out of conviction as a matter of honor, as their fathers and grandfathers had been to the Torah of Judaism itself.” We’ll get there, but I’m curious before we launch into the three eras of sort of Jewish emancipation and the reaction, the three puzzles…

NP: Yeah.

HH: Before we do the book, and I really want to make sure we put the hook out there, at this time, are you as concerned as you have ever been about the future of Israel, and of worldwide Jewry as you have often talked about like in World War IV? Is it getting worse?

NP: I’m more concerned than I’ve ever been, because it’s entirely possible, in fact likely, that Iran will get the Bomb. And if Iran does get the Bomb, I think this would set the stage for, almost inevitably, for a nuclear exchange with Israel, because once they have the Bomb, having threatened a million times to wipe Israel off the map, the Israelis have to sit there and ask themselves do we wait for him to strike us, and after we’re mostly destroyed, hit him with a second strike? Or do we preempt? And the Iranians are going to be thinking the same thing. And one or the other is going to try to beat the other to the punch. We haven’t had a hair trigger situation like that since the invention of nuclear weapons. And I fear very much that we’re headed toward such a situation, and of course, it can only bring calamity, and not just to Israel, but to the region, and very likely to the rest of the world.

HH: And Norman Podhoretz, given that backdrop, and I believe everything you just said in capital letters about where we are, the precipice upon which we find ourselves, because of the reasons you just articulated so succinctly. Given that backdrop, do you think that American Jews will move off of their torah, because honor in this instance isn’t going to stand between that and the destruction of the state of Israel.

NP: Well, I certainly hope so, and I think, I actually see a few faint signs of buyer’s remorse in some segments of the Jewish, of the liberal Jewish community. And you know, Hugh, Jews have had a lot of experience with false messiahs over the centuries. And every time one of these messiahs is exposed as false, the trauma has led to a deep reassessment of their attitudes and ideas. And I’m hoping something like that will happen as Obama, the first non-Jewish false messiah, gets more and more exposed as a fraud. And that could lead to a reassessment, a rethinking of the assumptions and the commitments that American Jews have so stubbornly held onto.

HH: Now Why Are Jews Liberals?, the new book by Norman Podhoretz, came out before you could actually quote Zbigniew Brzezinski, though he’s in the book on three places, before you could quote him suggesting that America might have to shoot down IDF planes headed towards Iran. But how do you assess such a stark and stunning turnabout on the part of one of the leading members of the American foreign policy establishment?

NP: Well, it’s not so great a turnabout as you suggest, Hugh. I mean, Brzezinski has a long history of hostility to Israel, and he’s one of these so-called realists who entertains the wildly unrealistic idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the key to everything in the Middle East, the source of all the troubles in the Middle East. If you could resolve that conflict, then everything would fall into place, and all the lions would lie down with all the lambs. I mean, this is a totally irrational assessment, because there have been something like 22 wars in the Middle East since the establishment of Israel that had nothing to do with Israel at all. And many, many more lives have been lost in those wars than in all the wars between Israel and the Palestinians or the Arab states altogether. I mean, something, at least a million were killed in the Iran-Iraq war, in which Israel played no part, for example, whatsoever. So Brzezinski has that view, and he’s long been cold toward Israel. He’s long blamed Israel for everything that goes wrong in the Middle East, and maybe in the rest of the world as well. But he’s never gone so far as to suggest that the United States ought to shoot down, to shoot down Israeli planes and make war on Israel. This is a wholly new stage.

HH: And as the president’s U.N. speech was a different in kind speech, Brzezinski’s statement’s a wholly new stage. I wonder about, when you write about 2008 in Why Are Jews Liberals?, you write “300 rabbis issues a statement all but declaring Obama to be a successor to the Hebrew prophets. A few well-known champions of Israel wrote articles explaining on rather convoluted grounds why they were backing him.” You cite Dershowitz, you cite Martin Peretz, you cite Martin Indyk, you talk about Sarah Silverman. Do you think these 300 rabbis and the assorted highbrows are having the kind of buyer’s remorse you see among others? Do you think anyone is willing to step up at this critical moment and break ranks as you had to break ranks, as the title of your autobiography put it many years ago?

NP: Yeah, well Marty Peretz has certainly expressed buyer’s remorse, and he has already broken ranks. He’s written some very tough stuff about Obama, and not just in connection with Israel. I mean, virtually the day after he endorsed and voted for Obama, he decided Obama was bad news. Alan Dershowitz, on the other hand, has indignantly denied that he feels buyer’s remorse, but I suspect that this won’t last very long. It’s going to be harder and harder to maintain the position that he has had, because he, Dershowitz is a very, very passionate supporter of Israel. And it’s going to, he’s going to run into a real conflict very soon.

HH: Have you heard from them yet on Why Are Jews Liberals? Any of your, the people that you…

NP: No, but I mean, I have heard from Marty Peretz’ colleague, the literary editor of the New Republic, who wrote a hysterical screed on the front page of the New York Times book review a week or so ago. I would assume that Peretz doesn’t agree with it, or for all I know, he does. But in any case, on the sacred principle of guilt by association, I ought to assume that he’s against the book, too.

– – – –

HH: Norman Podhoretz, this book is different. You know, I blew through World War IV, I read Breaking Ranks like it was, you know, cotton candy at the fair. This is a difficult book, and I had to postpone this interview a couple of times, because I was reading it slowly. And it’s not hard to read, I loved it, but it took a lot to take it in. I read Paul Johnson’s History Of The Jews a long time ago, but this is a serious work of scholarship. Is this different in kind than the sort of combination polemic and argument that you’ve made before?

NP: I don’t think it’s different in kind. I mean, there is, rather more research was involved for me here than I usually need to do in writing a book. So to that extent, it is different. But the book is characteristic of some of my others, in that it is a combination of analysis, polemic, and personal experience, you know, memoiristic. So that mélange, which is unusual in the world of literature in general, is pretty much my personal stamp.

HH: I very much enjoy the personal and the analysis. I want to come to that. But first, I want to give the listener a sort of signal of what’s ahead. In covering the three eras of sort of Jewish advance followed by reaction through history, give us the thumbnail so people understand that they’re going to be getting a history of why the Jews became liberal, not just okay, here’s the here and now.

NP: Yeah, well, the whole first section of the book, about half of it, is devoted to explaining why the Jews became liberals. And I begin very far back with the birth of Christianity out of the womb of Judaism. And I trace the involvement of Jews, and the evolution of their political attitudes, over the centuries by demonstrating that the forces that tended to support the emancipation of the Jews, which means the granting of civil liberty, civil rights, equal rights to Jews that they had been denied for, you know, throughout the early years of the Christian era and throughout the Middle Ages. The forces that favored emancipation were on what we today would call the left, the moderate left, the far left, but the left. Whereas the forces that opposed Jewish emancipation were almost always on the right. They’re what used to be called the alliance of altar and throne. And it was particularly in the churches, the Catholic Church, the Russian Orthodox Church, and after the Protestant Reformation, both the Lutheran and Calvinist churches, all of which were blatantly, I think you would have to put it brutally, anti-Semitic to one degree or another, and sometimes to an incredible degree. So to the point where it was natural and justified for Jews to consider that churches their sworn enemy, and also to consider the parties of the right, supporters of what they called in the 18th Century the ancient regime, the old aristocratic monarchical regime as another sworn enemy. So when you get all the way through up to, let’s say, 1880, when something like two and a half million Jews poured into the United States from East Europe, between 1880 and 1924, those Jews were the ancestors of the vast majority of Jews who live in America today. And they brought those attitudes over with them from Europe and to the United States. And what they found here were forces that seemed to them to correspond with those in Europe. In other words, the Democrats and liberals were like the forces of the left that had been sympathetic to Jewish interest and Jewish rights. That was the Democratic Party and the liberal community generally. And the forces that corresponded, or an American equivalent to those on the right in Europe, were found in the Republican Party and on the right, generally. And this led to a revulsion against the Republican Party and the conservative community in general to the point where no one would, up to roughly fifty years ago, no one would have asked the question why are Jews liberals, because the answer would have seemed self-evident.

HH: Yeah, I laughed out loud when you cited perhaps my favorite writer of fiction working today, Joseph Epstein, had never met a Jewish Republican until he was, what, 25?

NP: Yeah, well I, myself, not just a Jewish Republican, a Republican. I mean, I myself never laid eyes on a Republican until I got to high school growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. And this high school teacher was really an exotic species. I mean, there were no Republicans. You know, the right wing of that world was the Democratic Party.

HH: Yeah, I must say…

NP: Anything to the right of the Democratic Party was off the radar.

HH: I had always known as a practicing Christian about the history of anti-Semitism within the Church. But I want to compliment you on both laying it out, but also moving through it quickly. It doesn’t become, it’s not the purpose of your book to put into Christians guilt about anti-Semitism. I summarize, though, Page 41, “assuming as I do,” you write, “that all animals including humans are equipped by nature with an instinct for telling the difference between friends and enemies. It can be said that the Jewish fear and distrust of Christianity was both healthy, that is based on the promptings of instincts, and rational, that it is consistent with a long and bitter accumulation of empirical evidence.”

NP: Yeah.

HH: That’s really, that’s just objectively true.

NP: Yeah, well, and what’s also objectively true is that a great change has taken place since 1967. There was a great and unexpected reversal of roles between left and right with respect to Jewish concerns, but especially to Israel. After 1967, after the Six Day War of 1967, the left, both in this country and in the rest of the world, which had been pro-Israel up to that point, turned and became increasingly hostile to Israel, and sympathetic to its enemies, the Palestinians and the surrounding Arab states, while the right, and especially the Christian churches, and especially the fundamentalists and Evangelical sectors of the Protestant world, became increasingly sympathetic to Israel. This was an enormous change, and although it was not all that clearly visible at first, it was pretty visible to me. It’s become so, so blatantly obvious today, that most people who pay any attention to these matters at all know that the single most pro-Israel sector of the American population is the conservative, or the religious right as it’s called, mainly made up of conservative, Protestant Christians. Even more, they’re even more supportive of Israel by now than the American Jewish community. And yet, and yet, just as I said that it made sense for Jews to regard Christianity as their enemy in the past, it makes sense for Jews to regard Christian churches today as their friend.

– – – – –

HH: Norman Podhoretz, to keep borrowing from the language of evolutionary biology here for a moment, in the last segment, we talked about why Jews evolved into liberals. But if we use that adaptation analogy, they’ve got an enormous eye for enemies on the right that is founded deeply in history. But somehow, natural selection left out the ability for them to see anti-Semitism on the left, and you detail, it’s not just modern leftists, it’s Voltaire, it’s Marx. It’s not new. These are the three great puzzles, the blindness within American Jewry, perhaps not in Israel, but in American Jewry, to see this threat. Why is that?

NP: Well, I try to answer that question by tracing the evolution of Jewish political attitudes from political preferences or associations, into what I call, seriously call, a religion in its own right. And you can only fully understand the force of that statement by following the history, by following the evolution. And the fact is, just as I said earlier in the book and in the earlier segment, that it was rational at a certain point for Jews to regard Christians as their enemy. It is now irrational for Jews to regard Christians as their enemy. And yet Jews have been unable or unwilling to open their eyes to this new reality. Why? Well, people, it’s not uncommon for people, you know, armies, generals, to fight the last war.

HH: The guns of Singapore, yeah.

NP: Yeah, and the guns of Singapore is a great image, because they were in place facing the direction from which the island had last been invaded, so what the Japanese did in 1940 is simply invade from the other side. And the guns of Singapore becomes a good metaphor for fighting the last war, instead of the war that you’re in at the moment. And this is a not uncommon phenomenon, and Jews sort of fighting the war where the enemy was last seen on the right, and of course, in the person of Hitler, who represented the consummation, you might say, of the hostility, murderous hostility toward Jews that had been building for all those centuries. So…but the fact of the matter is that it is the last war, and the current war is very much with the left. And the allies of Jews in this war are on the right, and especially in the Protestant and fundamentalist, Evangelical churches.

HH: Yeah, it’s a two front war, though, Norman Podhoretz. On the left, of course, the intellectuals in whom the anti-Semitism, I think it’s Santillana who said you could smell it in the room, not Santillana, but it was Herman Wouk who said it about Santillana, you could smell it in the room when you came in, but also, fundamentalist, radical Islam. I mean, it’s a two front war that’s very, very difficult to wage, much less win.

NP: Yeah, well, fundamentalist Islam is not a problem to most Jews, frankly. I mean, they know that fundamentalist Islam is an enemy. I don’t know that there’s much they do about it, but at least they know it. There’s very few Jews who will side with or try to justify the ideas or the actions of fundamentalist Islam. But they are relentlessly unwilling to acknowledge the change that’s taken place in the Christian world.

HH: Is there an event out there that could be the Dreyfus Affair for American Jewry in the way that you write, I mean very succinctly, but I think very powerfully, about the trauma of Dreyfus to the French and to European Jewry?

NP: Yeah, well, I believe that only a trauma is going to shake most Jews loose from this commitment not only to the Democratic Party as a party, but to whatever happens to be on the liberal agenda at the moment. Jews are the most passionate liberals in America, more than any other group, whether you measure it by ethnicity or by religion, or by socioeconomic conditions as demographic factors. Jews support all the items on the liberal agenda much more heavily than anybody else. And they voted for Obama much more heavily than anyone except blacks. The Jewish vote for Obama was much, 78%, much higher than the white vote in general, much higher than the Protestant vote, much higher than the Catholic vote, much higher even than the Hispanic vote.

HH: Yeah, it’s stunning.

– – – –

HH: Norman Podhoretz, I want to switch to the memoir part. I remember this vaguely from Breaking Ranks, but it came out so long ago that I had to be reminded of it, and it’s the role of the New York teacher’s strike of 1968. And of course, I’m eight years old at the time, so I don’t really know what’s going on. But I found it fascinating. In fact, I think there’s a book in there somewhere, unless someone’s already written it. Has that ever been chronicled in detail, because wow, what a collision that represents.

NP: You know, I’m pretty sure there’s a book or two, but I can’t remember. I’m getting old, you know, I’m nearly 80 years old. But do you want me to rehearse…

HH: Yeah, tell the audience, because I’m sure they don’t know about this.

NP: Yeah, well, in 1967, the New York teacher’s union went on strike against the city, because what had happened was that the city administration under Mayor John Lindsay supported very much by the establishment of the city, particularly the Ford Foundation, then headed by McGeorge Bundy, who had come fresh from the Kennedy-Johnson administration, and had been one of the main proponents of the Vietnam War before he turned against it. Okay, anyway, they had dreamed up in collaboration with some black nationalist radicals a scheme whereby black teachers, administrators and principals would be promoted in defiance of the seniority rules which were in the contract of the city with the union. It was what we would later come to call an affirmative action program. Now the Jewish teachers, the New York teachers union was not a Jewish organization, but many teachers who belonged to that union were Jewish. And the black radicals, hated by the liberal media, immediately turned this into a black-Jewish confrontation, which it wasn’t. It was much more like a labor dispute with management. But they did, and the consequence was that for the first time in twenty years, that is the first time since the end of World War II, when there had been a taboo against the open expression of anti-Semitism, largely because of the Holocaust, the Holocaust had taught people that even casual anti-Semitism could lead to the ovens of Auschwitz. So it was simply ruled out of public discourse. And for the first time in twenty years, you began getting openly anti-Semitic statements made, and almost entirely by blacks, who…and there was a strain of anti-Semitism in the black nationalist tradition in any case. But out it came, very ugly. And you know, if it had been anybody else other than blacks who could claim superior victimization to Jews at that point, they would have been ruled out, in effect, of polite society. But instead of being penalized by being in effect excommunicated, they were all given grants by the Ford Foundation on the theory that they represented the authentic voice of the oppressed blacks of the city. So this, it was eventually resolved in a complicated way, this strike, but the detritus of it was that the taboo that the black-Jewish alliance, which had been very solid up to that point, Jews had been the leading white supporters of the civil rights movement, that alliance was shattered. And anti-Semitism was allowed to sneak back into American public discourse, and it’s gotten worse and worse ever since.

HH: It’s been forty years since then, and it’s really the genie that’s out of the bottle.

NP: Yeah.

HH: …the evil genie that’s out of the bottle. But while it’s well recognized whenever the hint of anti-Semitism, and your chapter on Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley, and Buckley sort of distancing, not distancing, fascinating stuff, the left is quick to denounce and demand accountability. But it seems to sail by not just among Jews, but among media generally, Norman Podhoretz.

NP: Well, that’s true, and we know that there’s an egregious double standard on the left, and it extends to almost every issues you can think of. I mean, you know, if a Republican congressman shouts you lie to Obama, you know, the walls of Jericho come tumbling down. And you’d think that the world had virtually come to an end. And they’ve forgotten about the million times during the eight years of George W. Bush in which he was not only called a liar, but compared to Hitler, and his assassination was advocated. And the…I remember Dick Durbin, the number two Senator in the Democratic Party, comparing, saying something like the gulag is back in business under new management, and so on. But that double standard extends in general to, and lately, beginning to be extended to Israel.

HH: I’ll be right back with Norman Podhoretz. He is my guest. His brand new book is Why Are Jews Liberals? It is published by Doubleday. Norman, in terms of the Commentary Magazine which you headed for so long, now headed by my friend and your very able son, John Podhoretz, do you think the American Jewish Committee regrets that it turned loose the magazine first under your editorial control, and then under Neil’s, and now John’s?

NP: You know, the American Jewish Committee, I have to say, although a liberal organization, moderate liberal, was, allowed Commentary complete editorial independence, in spite of the fact that Commentary took positions that were at variance with the committee’s point of view and philosophy. But they’ve, except for some members of the committee who were always unhappy and wanted to cut Commentary loose, but mostly, they were proud of Commentary, because it was considered both intellectually distinguished and intellectual. Of course, there has been a divorce since I left, and the magazine is no longer published by the American Jewish Committee. But there were those who considered the magazine, oddly enough, the jewel in the AJC’s crown.

– – – –

HH: Norman Podhoretz, a week ago, Irving Kristol passed away, one of the great defenders of the American exceptionalism and one of the great examples of an American Jew who switched in mid stream as you did, to come to view the American right as not the enemy of American Jewry. Are there, is there a replenishment, in your view, of the intellectual capital of conservatives who also happen to be Jewish in America? Obviously, I mentioned my friend, your son, John Podhoretz, but generally, is there a new neoconservatism powered by, at least in part, a new set of Jewish-American intellectuals out there?

NP: Yeah, I mean, there’s Irving Kristol’s son, Bill, who is the editor of the Weekly Standard in addition to my son, John, who actually helped found the Weekly Standard with Bill Kristol. And there are any number of intellectuals who I think have a lot of firepower, although they’re often invidiously compared with the generation of Irving Kristol and my own generation, which was, I was ten years younger than Irving, although people often thought we were the same person. But yeah, I mean, you’ve got neoconservatives, self-identified neoconservatives like Robert Kagan, Fred Kagan, David Frum, they don’t all agree with one another, but they’re all very smart and very well informed. They tend to be more policy wonkish than we were. We were much more ideologically inclined, as we were sort of fighting the war of ideas rather than…

HH: But Bill and John were sort of raised on rationalism, that they come from families and from an intellectual milieu which had already made the break. Do you seen anyone making the break on the left now who can fill the same sort of role that you and Irving Kristol and others did in having crossed over and having broken ranks? Is there anyone out there like that?

NP: Well, I don’t see much movement from left to right among Jewish intellectuals nowadays. The people I named, the young people I named were to the manner born, so they’re not, strictly speaking, neoconservatives, new conservatives.

HH: Right.

NP: And actually, there’s been something of a movement from right to left in the last few years, although I think that’s going to be petering out a bit as the Obama administration continues to fail. But I do believe that the tradition that Irving Kristol represented, and then I tried to carry forward into the area of foreign policy, he was mainly, to begin with, concerned with domestic issues. I think that tradition is very much alive, and it will continue to have influence and impact in American political culture.

HH: So we hope. Always a pleasure, Norman Podhoretz, the brand new book, Why Are Jews Liberals?, in bookstores now, linked at

End of interview.


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