Politics of liberal and conservative Jews reverse

Recently, I spoke to Reform rabbinical students in their class on “Jewish Political Tradition.” Which is, exactly, what?

My expertise, I told them, is
politics, not theology. Here was my dilemma: to talk reality or defer to the orthodoxy of Reform Jews, which is to say, political liberalism. (Forget the Reconstructionists, i.e., Jewish Unitarians, who are oxymoronic “religious” secular humanists.) How confusing all this, especially for non-Jews, who are further told that Conservative Jews are somewhere between Reform Jews and Orthodox Jews — sort of like the words “liberal” and “conservative.”

The profoundly influential economist, Milton Friedman, a Nobel Prize winner, championed free market economics. “I am liberal,” Friedman once said to me, explaining that he was a classical liberal, preoccupied with the individual, not the state. And so we have in America this role reversal, where today’s liberals are infatuated with government, except for national security.

And then we have conservatives, who conserve exactly what? Surely, instead, they would uproot the status quo, notably, the failed legacy of the New Deal.

Matters are further complicated, because discussion of values empowers conservatives and threatens liberals. Mythology aside, liberals do not want government to be neutral on values. For example, some liberals promote condoms at public (that is, taxpayer-supported) middle schools.

What then are values for today’s liberals? We are told, tolerance, diversity and an open mind. But they can’t provide even civility at their dominated university campuses, where they shout down speakers who talk about values.

This much I know: the American separation of church and state rejected a church-state but not religion. The founders were steeped in Western civilization and its Judeo-Christian roots. This explains why they invoked God, and some even mastered biblical Hebrew.

Therefore, what informs Jewish political thought? If, as liberals and conservatives agree, we are not a theocracy, then how does one enforce virtue?

Former communist Frank S. Meyer became the conservative theorist for Bill Buckley’s National Review. Born Jewish, converted to Catholicism, Meyer understood from both religious traditions that virtue must be chosen, not compelled. In contrast, the nostalgic Jewish romance with liberalism oddly resembles ancient theocracy. That’s because liberals repudiate limits on government. They would go beyond the Ten Commandments and consequent laws; they would enforce their version of morality.

In sum, as I told these Reform rabbinical students, it is a truism that Judaism instructs us on matters of justice. We may light the world for Jews or even others, for example, that people should voluntarily support charity. That is quite different than liberalism, which would use government forcibly to redistribute wealth.

Liberals are conflicted as they ponder that for much of history, political leaders claimed divine, if not denominational, rule, which most everyone today rejects, except radical Islamists. Perhaps Jewish religious liberals therefore cannot distinguish between government compelled action and private voluntary action. In other words, many liberal Jews who are religious want government to enforce what they consider social justice, rather than for people voluntarily to practice social justice.

A long time ago, I helped engineer the victory of James L. Buckley, elected from the Conservative Party to represent New York. I noticed, then, that Jews who were less affluent and more religious were more open to U.S. Senate candidate Buckley’s election in 1970 and then President Richard M. Nixon’s re-election in 1972.

What did it mean, that we — conservative Republicans — could do so much better, generally, among Jews in, say, Brooklyn or Queens, than, say, among Jews in Long Island or Westchester? Was it that liberal theory was undermined by the real world? For example, Jewish social scientists wanted public housing imposed in Forest Hills (Queens). But local Jewish residents who had worked hard to escape the projects asked Buckley, on his election, to oppose social experimentation in their neighborhood.

Years later, when I returned to California after working in Washington, I saw the same pattern. For example, later in the 1970s, affluent Westside Jews who had their children in private schools supported widespread mandatory busing for Los Angeles public schools. But their San Fernando Valley relatives preferred only voluntary integration tools like magnet schools. By the ’80s and ’90s, Jews in California were split on at least two other issues: illegal immigration and race/gender preferences.

Liberal Jews like Erwin Chemerinsky obsessed about their ancestors in sweatshops in the New York garment district. But Jewish Republican leaders, like former Judge Sheldon Sloan, recent California State Bar president, resented the comparison between Eastern European Jews who went through the system at Ellis Island and today’s (an Orwellian euphemism) “undocumented immigrants,” however hard working, who entered the country illegally and receive taxpayer-funded entitlements.

As for race and gender preferences, Jews with a sense of history (Jewish quotas) and justice (race classification) helped bring about California’s Proposition 209, which prohibited government race and gender preferences in hiring, contracting and education.

And, now, national security becomes the new schism, as many Jews reject Steven Spielberg’s morally depraved “Munich,” in which he equates terrorism with anti-terrorism. It is not surprising that liberals like Spielberg look for endless shades of gray. For all his cinematic genius, he cannot even see contrast.

Good and evil, rather than abortion or homosexuality, is the new values debate that these Reform rabbinical students must confront.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst.