Thursday, May 23, 2024

Politics and Yiddishkeit-Beware of the Progressives

Politics and Yiddishkeit may seem, at first glance, a contradiction in terms. After all, what does the observance and practice of our religion have to do with the mundane, often dirty world of politics? In truth, however, it is imperative to understand the intersection of politics with religion, and specifically with Yiddishkeit, because in every country of golus in which Jews reside, the politics of that country frequently influence our ability to observe our religion.

For decades, there have been variations of liberal and conservative persuasions in politics. Over the past few years, in particular, some tweaking of the two sides has transpired. A new word, or perhaps ideology, “progressive,” has sprung up further left and warrants attention. On the right, too, the “tea party” has come into being. The tea party, however, is clearly just a change in level of adherence or strategy in implementing already existing conservative philosophy. As a general rule, frum Jews should always be wary of any extremes in political ideology.




In this column, we will limit our discussion to American politics. For decades, the basic mainstream political demarcation was between what are classified as “liberals” and “conservatives,” or, in political terms, Democrats and Republicans. To be sure, the definition of these terms have evolved as society has evolved, and things that would have once been labeled ultra-liberal are now mainstream, but for practical purposes, mainstream American politics have been split along those lines.


Historically, most Jews have aligned themselves with the liberal wing. The liberals were seen as friendlier to immigrants and the poor, and less discriminatory against minorities. The Republicans were seen as suspicious of Jews and all foreigners. Jews thus played a significant role in the struggle for civil rights and became stalwart supporters of liberal issues and of the Democratic Party. Even the fact that the ultimate Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, could have done much more for the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust did not repress the adulation that most American Jews had for him and the Democratic Party.


By and large, this has remained the case until today. Jews still overwhelmingly vote Democrat, as the data from the last presidential election proves without a doubt.




Nevertheless, a shift has been taking place in modern politics. Jews, especially traditional Jews, have now begun to vote Republican in increasingly greater numbers. As the secular Jewish community tragically diminishes due to assimilation, it seems that Jews voting Conservative/Republican will continue to increase.


Why, however, have traditional and religious Jews begun to vote Republican? What changed? Is not the vaunted liberal Democratic Party not still the natural home of the Jews?


What has happened is that the definition of liberal has changed with time. Many of today’s values that are presented as liberal values are not reconcilable with basic morality and certainly not with Torah hashkofoh.


In addition, the Republicans of today are no longer those of the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Many of the then liberal issues that were so appealing to Jews have become mainstream and are today part and parcel of life. Just as civil rights discrimination against blacks is gone and now even constitutes a crime, many of the other issues that made Jews identify with the liberals over the conservatives are no longer relevant.


The current problem is that the Democrats have gone so far left on social issues that for some observant Jews, even the perceived qualities of the Democrats, such as its professed propensity to support social programs for the poor, must be seen in its full context to determine if that positive aspect overrides the negative ones.




“Progressive.” What does progressive mean? It is hard to give an exact definition. Some consider it the left-wing or the ultra-left-wing of the liberal party, while some say that it is an entirely new ideology.


Inasmuch as there are those who define President Barack Obama as a progressive or at least as one with progressive tendencies and the new mayor of New York is a self-described progressive, it behooves us to try understanding the term and what those who call themselves progressive stand for.


Despite the lack of a clear definition of progressive, what is clear is that it is a concept that should give any thinking religious Jew reason for pause, if not outright rejection.




The founder of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta, described the difference between liberals and progressives this way: “Liberals tend to care more about individual freedom, while progressives care more about the public good.”


What he is saying is that even when the rights of individuals are compromised, if the progressives feel that the public good will be improved, no notice should be taken of the individual’s rights.


So what do progressives feel is the public good?


Let us take three areas of interest – social issues, political issues and economic issues – and by very briefly touching on them, we’ll see where progressives stand.


“Alternative Marriage” and Racism


“Alternative marriage” is one of the pet issues of progressives. They are pro-toeivah “marriage.” Even if it is voted down by the majority, even when there are constitutional problems, the progressives feel that this is the “public good.” Buoyed and assisted by allies such as the New York Times, which has a progressive editorial policy, as well as other prominent media, they have been successfully chipping away at all opposition. They have been so successful in creating a lynch-mob atmosphere against their opponents that expressing an opinion against alternative marriage is now treated as a form of racism, and those who risk expressing such an opinion will have the “thought police” after them in no time.


Even worse, if the reason for that opinion is based on religion, that “antiquated” opium of the masses, one can easily lose his or her job. As one pundit put it, progressives feel that “governments derive their just powers from the intellectual and moral superiority of progressive elites.”




Animal rights is another progressive social issue that seeks to equate the life of an animal with that of a human being. In effect, what it does is cheapen human life, and it is this cheapening of human life that can lead to genocide. If a human’s life and an animal’s life are not different, then the lives of human beings are as negotiable as those of animals. When you mix in the contempt for religious practice that characterizes many progressives, you can understand why outlawing shechitah is such an important issue for them.


As quoted in this week’s Editor’s View, Nathanial Popper, the reporter who was dedicated to bringing down the Rubashkin slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, wrote, “When allegations about the working conditions at the company first came to public attention through my 2006 reporting, these Orthodox rabbis vouched for the company. But a group of progressive, socially engaged, and mostly clean-shaven rabbis decided to visit the plant themselves. After a tour of the plant and town, these rabbis said that while the company seemed to be in compliance with narrow kosher laws, there was less attention being paid to another, less codified set of Jewish rules about the proper way to treat workers.


“These rules do not loom large in everyday Jewish life – there is little contemporary rabbinic legislation on the proper minimum wage – but they are strikingly consonant with modern concerns about human dignity and equality…”


You see, the “progressive clean-shaven rabbis” have it right, not the dirty-looking rabbis with whiskers on their cheeks…



Politically, too, progressives are usually fighting for the rights of the poor, oppressed Palestinians, who are being “occupied” by the Israeli “apartheid” regime.


Progressives also abhor a large military and want us out of “foreign wars.”


With regard to the economy, progressives believe in “spreading the wealth” and are usually anti-business and anti-corporation. They believe that the government should step in and artificially decrease the gap between rich and poor.


Mayor Bill de Blasio’s class-warfare campaigning was a classic example of progressive thought. Calling New York “A Tale of Two Cities,” pitting rich against poor, and getting votes by increasing class-warfare and enmity for the rich have been linchpins of de Blasio’s election strategy since he began.


By the way, this, to my mind, also answers a question about de Blasio. After the heinous murder of Menachem Stark z”l, many Jewish publications were wringing their hands about why the new mayor, who has “such good friends in the Hasidic community” from his days as councilman in a district that included much of Boro Park, had not publically spoken about the murder. Even when he was asked about the murder in a press conference, the tape released by the de Blasio administration cut out before he gave his answer…


Only over the weekend did de Blasio make a comment on an Orthodox radio program that was obviously meant for Orthodox consumption only. What happened? Why couldn’t de Blasio say something about the crime that had made headlines throughout the New York secular media? Why was his first public comment made more than a week after the incident in a tiny Orthodox religious outlet, clearly not intended for general consumption?


The answer is simple. It is difficult for a progressive to come out publicly on behalf of a “rich landlord,” especially if the press – regardless of the veracity of the allegations – reported that he wasn’t nice to his tenants. The rich landlord is the ultimate source of contempt for the progressive. Appearing to be sympathetic to him, even after he was asphyxiated, burned and thrown into a dumpster, would not look good.




Yes, progressives believe in enlarging government for the poor, and there are those who say that this is an important factor for our community, where many are struggling. Nevertheless, as Torah observant Jews who wish to live our lives in a society that enables us to properly transmit our values to our children, we must ask ourselves: Is it worth it?



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