Monday, September 14, 2009

Liberal Jews, Liberal Episcopalians

Our little church comes up in Leon Wieseltier's review of Norman Podhoretz's book Why Are Jews Liberal? First, this elegant formulation -- and a quintessentially Anglican-sounding one -- on Israel's dilemma:
The Jewish interest that makes Podhoretz most desperate for a Jewish defection to the Republicans is Israel. While the abandonment of Israel by an American government seems to me unimaginable, and not only for reasons of politics, Podhoretz is not mistaken when he declares that the enthusiasm for Israel among conservatives is real and new and deep. He is also correct that what sympathy there is for the Palestinians in American politics is to be found largely among Democrats. The problem is that he cannot suppose that sympathy for the Palestinians may coexist with sympathy, and even love, for Israel.

If you think that the survival of Israel requires the establishment of Palestine, because the absorption of millions of Palestinians into Israel, in an annexation or an occupation, will destroy the Jewish character or the democratic character of the state, then Podhoretz’s scorn for the peace process will not suffice as an account of Israel’s situation. If you think that the establishment of Palestine threatens the survival of Israel, because the Palestinians desire only the abolition of the Jewish state and will never be satisfied with a territorial compromise, then Podhoretz’s suspicion of any American president who does not merely comply with the demands of the Israeli government will strike you as the apotheosis of fidelity. What counts is your analysis of the problem — of security and morality, of Israelis and Palestinians. Podhoretz does not provide an analysis; he assumes one, doctrinally. He is justified in his view that the left, or a lot of it, now regards Israel coldly. Indeed, it is in many quarters cruelly engaged in the revival of the “one-state solution,” which for demographic reasons is nothing other than Greater Palestine. But the intellectual confrontation with these poisons has frequently been the work of liberals. After all, you cannot denounce a one-state solution unless you believe in a two-state solution.
And now, the Episcopalian crack:
Podhoretz’s book was conceived as the solution to the puzzle that Milton Himmel­farb wittily formulated many years ago: “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” I have never understood the reputation of this joke. Why should Jews vote like Episcopalians? We are not Episcopalians. The implication of the joke is that political affiliation should be determined by social position, by levels of affluence. In living rich but voting poor, the Jews of America have failed to demonstrate class solidarity. Never mind that parties of the right in many Western countries have always counted on the poor to make the same betrayal, and support causes and candidates that will do nothing to relieve their economic hardship but will exhilarate them culturally or religiously or nationally.
Wieseltier may not realize that the Episcopal Church's recent troubles (or glory, or some combination of the two) is that many of its members sometimes act politically and speak prophetically against the interests of the class that dominated it back in the days when the denomination was described as the Republican Party at prayer. Concluding, he reminds us that faith often lies behind a person or group's decision to dwell on the interests of others as well as one's own (in Christian parlance, loving thy neighbor as thyself and remembering that the first shall be last and the last, first):
It is not a delusion, not a treason, to vote against your own economic interest. It is a recognition of the multiplicity of interests, the many purposes, that make up a citizen’s life. When, in the Torah of Judaism, Moses commands the Jews to perform acts of social welfare, he sometimes adds the admonition that they were themselves strangers and slaves. The purpose of this refreshment of their memory is plain. The fact that we are no longer stran­gers and slaves is not all we need to know. We may not regard the world solely from the standpoint of our own prosperity, our own safety, our own contentment. We are proven by the other, not by the same. The question of whether liberalism or conservatism does more for the helpless and the downtrodden, for the ones who are not like us, will be endlessly debated, and it is not a Jewish debate; but if the answer is liberalism, then the political history of American Jewry is neither a mystery nor a scandal.
Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan

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