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Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Byron L. Sherwin, an accomplished theologian, ethicist, scholar and teacher. Ordained a Rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he received his PHD in Cultural History from the University of Chicago. Sherwin is the author or editor of 28 books and over 150 articles and monographs, most recently Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism (Oxford, 2009). For 40 years, he has served at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies at Chicago, where he currently is Distinguished Service Professor and Vice-President for Academic Affairs Emeritus.
FP: Rabbi Sherwin, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Sherwin: Thank you, Dr. Glazov, and thanks to Frontpage which is one of the very few media outlets available for holding the discussion we now begin.
FP: True enough, thank you sir.
I would like to talk to you today about why the vast majority of American Jews identify themselves as political liberals, something they have done especially since the 1930s.
Hopefully you can explain this trend for us — as well as its consequences.
Let’s begin by you illuminating the phenomenon for us in general.
Sherwin: For many decades now, sociological and demographic studies of Jewish voting patterns have consistently demonstrated that the vast majority of American Jews are social and political liberals, and that American Jewry is basically a one-party group. In recent presidential elections, the Democratic candidate received over 75 percent of the Jewish vote, or more than three of every four votes. Most recently, in 2008, Obama received 78 percent, the largest percentage of any group except African-Americans, which was 95 percent. It is not surprising that the Jewish proclivity for liberal politics, articulated through their attachment to the left wing of the Democratic Party, has been called “an addiction,” and voting Democratic has been described as having been implanted into the DNA of American Jews. As Leonard Fein put it years ago: “Politics is our religion, and our preferred denomination is liberal.”
For many American Jews, especially those whose forebears immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe in the great wave of immigration from 1880 to World War I, it is almost inconceivable for a Jew to be a Republican or a conservative. In many Jewish circles, Jewish conservatives and Republicans are readily considered genetic aberrations, heretics, and traitors to their heritage. Yet, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews who came in an earlier wave of immigration, largely from Germany and Bohemia in the mid-19th century, were mostly Republicans who embraced the party of Abraham Lincoln. So, historically, it is a mistake to claim that American Jews were always Democrats.
FP: Ok. Well, you are an American Jew, a rabbi, a professor of Jewish studies, but you have always been politically a conservative. How come you are not a liberal?
Sherwin: Jamie, the odds of a person like me being a liberal who supports the Democratic Party and its liberal politics are pretty good, about 4 to 1. Statistically, it would be a good bet, though the person so betting would lose.
I have never been a liberal because I am convinced that liberalism is incompatible both with the teachings of Judaism and with the current self-interests of American Jews. I further believe that the ideological tendencies and programmatic features of liberalism pose an existential threat to the future of Judaism in America and to the survival and continuity of Jews as Jews in The United States. Over the years, these convictions have been verified by the consistent findings of sociological and demographic studies of American Jewry, as they have been affirmed by the writings of a wide variety of Jewish scholars and theologians.
For example, the late Rabbi Seymour Siegel, who was my teacher, served for many years as Professor of Jewish Theology at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. In the early 1970s, after surveying the basic tendencies of liberalism, he came to the conclusion that “[Liberalism is] by and large inimical to Jewish interests and it does not reflect some of the basic tenets of Judaism,” and that “Jewish teachings are contrary to liberal ideology.”
The Jewish identification with the Democratic Party coalesced during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. However, the beginning of the unraveling of Jewish support for the Republican Party first became evident in the three-way race for president among Taft, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Since his days as New York City’s Police Commissioner, Roosevelt had endorsed pro-Jewish policies, including the first appointment of a Jew to the Cabinet in 1906 during his presidency. Seeing Wilson as the epitome of the Enlightenment liberal, Jews helped elect Wilson though he had demonstrated little regard either for Jews or for Jewish interests. So began the shift of American Jewish voting patterns away from candidates who reflect their self-interests toward those who embrace the utopian views of the European Enlightenment.
I am a conservative because a conservative world-view represents a world-view more compatible with Judaism and with Jewish interests than the world-view represented by political liberalism.
FP: Tell us what role Judaism plays in the political affiliations and activities of American Jews.
Sherwin: Over the past few decades, sociological studies of American Jews have consistently found that the vast majority of American Jews:
(1) are politically liberal,
(2) are more likely to define themselves in secular ethnic terms rather than religious terms,
(3) tend to understand their group identity as demanding adherence to liberal ideas,
(4) believe that their religion, i.e., Judaism, teaches them to be socially and politically liberal.
Based on these findings and upon the already mentioned claim that liberalism is inimical to Judaism, one can readily conclude that Judaism plays no real role in the political activates and affiliations of most American Jews. Ironically, precisely because many American Jews perceive a close identity between liberal teachings and Jewish religious teachings, they mistakenly believe that Judaism plays a central role both in their political affiliations and activities, and in their identity as Jews.
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