Tag Archives: Norman Podhoretz

What’s The Matter with New York?

Norman Podhoretz, Why Are Jews Liberals?

[Introduction: this comment dates from 2009, with a revised last paragraph to consider current political realities.]

At several points in Why Are Jews Liberals,  Norman Podhoretz quotes an adage that American Jews “earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” i.e. despite affluent life-styles and dwindling anti-Semitism in the United States, most Jews remain comfortable supporting relatively progressive political positions and Democratic candidates.  In every presidential election since 1928, with the single exception of 1980, when Ronald Reagan bested incumbent Jimmy Carter for the Jewish vote:

the Democratic candidate has scored a landslide among Jewish voters even when defeated by a landslide among the electorate as a whole (George McGovern in 1972).  No Democratic candidate in all those elections (again, except Carter) has attracted less than 60 perceont of the Jewish vote, and the overall average since 1928 is a stunning 75 percent (p.258-59).

Podhoretz devotes this volume to trying to figure out why American Jews retain their affinity for what he considers an apostate Democratic Party – or, closer to the mark,  expressing his frustration that he has not been able to figure out why.  Look at the way you live, he seems to be shouting at his fellow Jews: why the hell are you not voting for lower taxes for job-creating gazillionaires and an end to all that stifling government regulation?  Why all this social justice nonsense and misguided concern for the downtrodden?   As discussed in my August post on neo-conservatism,  Podhoretz, started to the left of the Democratic party as a 1940s New York radical.  In his left wing phase as a young man, Podhoretz surely was imbued with the broad notions of economic determinism that underlie Marxist thought.  In this volume, Podhoretz appears to have reverted to that same determinism as an aging righty.

Podhoretz admits that the Democratic Party was the natural place for Jews in the New Deal era, and may have remained so until about 1967.  While anti-Semitism was found in all political circles, it was clearly stronger on the conservative and Republican side in the 1930s to 1950s, not to mention what the conservative alliance with the Nazis brought to Germany and Europe.   But Israel’s victory in the six-day War in June 1967 changed all that, at least for Podhoretz.  Gradually, anti-Semitism became more visible on the political left, in the African-American community in the United States, and throughout the Islamic world.   From roughly 1967 onward, support for Israel became the prism through which Podhoretz saw politics and the world.

Indeed, Podhoretz comes close to being a single-issue commentator, with Israel being his issue.  Such commentators are almost by definition impatient and often contemptuous of those who do not elevate the issue to the same priority level.  It is not surprising, then, that Podhoretz spends a good portion of the latter portion of this book heaping scorn on those who seek an “evenhanded” approach to the Palestinian imbroglio and Middle East politics generally (and Podhoretz uses “quotation marks” throughout this book as a vehicle to heap scorn).

Podhoretz grades American presidents and candidates on the extent of their support for Israel, beginning with Kennedy and Johnson.  Not all Democrats receive failing grades – he praises Al Gore in particular – and not all Republicans get top marks.    George H.W. Bush, for example, does not score high.  But on the whole, in Podhoretz’ view, Republicans have been firmer friends and more solid allies than Democrats.  Attitudes toward Israel among Republicans range from “solid to fervent” while, Podhoretz claims, on the Democratic side they range from “unsympathetic to overtly hostile” (p.294).  Still, Jews continue to vote Democratic in astounding numbers.

Podhoretz feels an affinity for Evangelical Christians and the so-called religious right that, he readily admits, escapes most fellow Jews.  These Christians are among the most fervent of Israeli supporters in the United States today.  Some Evangelical Christians’ support for Israel can have an apocalyptic tinge, he acknowledges, based on the belief that a strong and independent Israel must be in place at the time of Christ’s second coming, when Jews will be converted to Christianity.  But Jews should worry about this later, Podhoretz counsels.  He quotes the advice to a Jewish friend of Pastor John Hagee of Christians United for Israel:

When we’re in Jerusalem and the messiah is coming down the street, one of us is going to have a very major theological adjustment to make.  But until that time, let’s walk together in support of Israel and in defense of the Jewish people, because Israel needs our help (p.187).

 Nor should Jews be concerned that Evangelical Christians and the religious right seek to Christianize America or institute Christian prayers in public schools.  These concerns are exaggerated, Podhoretz advises, vestiges of Jews’ “ancestral fear of Christianity” (p.186).

Podhoretz dismisses the theory that Jewish liberalism is grounded in “Jewish values” or the “spirit” of the Jewish “religious tradition” (p.274-75—the quotation marks are Podhoretz’, indicating his scorn for these notions).  He seizes upon the views of Rabbi Sidney Schwartz of the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, who in 2008 found it obvious that “social justice is the primary mandate of Judaism.”  To Schwartz, it was equally obvious that there is “no attitude or behavior as universally shared by American Jews as their commitment to the ideals of tolerance, peace, and justice for all people” (p.276).  To Podhoretz , such views are no more than “moral self-gratulation” (although my computer doesn’t recognize the word “gratulation,” giving me the big red underline,  fortunately Merriam-Webster’s dictionary does and tells me that it is an archaic form of “congratulation”).

At the end of his book, Podhoretz provides a stark view of the liberal-conservative divide in the United States.  With a few exceptions, Podhoretz asserts that:

What the Left mainly sees when it looks at America is injustice and oppression of every kind – economic, social, and political.  By sharp contrast, the Right sees a complex of traditions, principles, and institutions that have made it possible for more freedom and – even factoring in periodic economic downturns – more prosperity to be enjoyed by more of its citizens than in any other society known to humans.  It follows that what liberals believe needs to be changed or discarded is precisely what conservatives are dedicated to preserving, reinvigorating, and defending against attack (p.294).

This Manichean passage might be written off as a rhetorical flourish.  In 2009, however, I found it to be a breathtaking appeal to fellow conservatives to dig in and resist “precisely” any and all suggestions from Rabbi Schwartz and other whiny, carping liberals that public policy might dare to seek “tolerance, peace, and justice for all people.”

Three years later, I find the passage less breathtaking and fully in keeping with the general Republican game plan in effect since President Obama took office earlier in 2009: oppose everything that the President and his party favor, even when they adopt ideas that Republicans once favored (e.g. individual mandate to support health care); or just might be good for the country (e.g. some increases in taxes as part of deficit reduction).  Podhoretz is plainly more than comfortable marching in lockstep with today’s Republican Party.  I for one am grateful that the majority of his fellow American Jews do not feel bound by his smug economic determinism and do not appear ready to march with him.

Thomas H. Peebles

Rockville, Maryland

September 5, 2012



Filed under American Politics, Politics, Religion

Neo-Conservatives: Not Always Right

Jacob Heilbrunn, They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons

Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Turned the Jewish Left Into the Neo-Conservative Right 


 [Introductory Note:  This is another comment that splices together two earlier pieces: Helibrunn from 2009, Balint from 2011, when it was posted on my Facebook page.]

I’ve always been fascinated by the so-called “neo-conservatives,” many of whom are former leftists – even Marxists! — who gave a particular twist to American conservatism in the last decades of the 20th century.  Neo-conservatives are often credited – blamed is a better word from my perspective – for pushing President George W. Bush to launch the 2003 Iraq war.  Jacob Heilbrun’s They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons surveys the personalities which have driven the neo-conservative movement, particularly Norman Podhoretz and the late Irving Kristol.  Benjamin Balint’s Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Turned the Jewish Left Into the Neo-Conservative Right has a narrower focus, as the title suggests, on the evolution of Commentary, one of America’s most influential magazines.  However, there is considerable overlap between the two books.  Podhoretz served as editor of Commentary for more than three decades, from 1960 to 1995, and Kristol was a frequent contributor to the magazine up to his death in 2009.

Podhoretz and Kristol were sons of Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s and began their reflections on politics as anti-Stalinist Marxists.  Heilbrun argues that Podhoretz, Kristol, and their neo-conservative soul mates were cantankerous and unusually sure of the rightness of their convictions as lefties.  As they cast aside most of their old convictions, they maintained this same cantankerousness and certainty.  On their rightward journey, they made a brief stop with traditional anti-communist liberalism, perhaps best represented by the Americans for Democratic Action.  But by the 1960s, the liberal ADA consensus was falling apart, caused by such factors as the excesses of the decade’s counter culture; the anti-Americanism and nihilism of much Vietnam war protest; the isolationism that seemed to grip the Democratic party between 1968 and 1972; a black power movement which manifested anti-Semitic tendencies; and, especially, Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.  Israel’s victory, Heilbrun emphasizes, gave the “first real impetus to the birth of the modern neoconservative movement” (p.83).

From the late ‘60s onward, Kristol and Podhoretz began to preach more aggressive use of American power to oppose left-wing tyrannies and promote democratic values around the world.  Simultaneously, they became profoundly skeptical of the efficacy of centralized planning and collectivist action of the kind they had espoused as young Marxists.  Some time elapsed before they explicitly embraced the Republican party.  One subject I wish Heilbrun had elaborated upon is how Kristol and Podhoretz, as secular Jews, reconciled their views with those of the Christian fundamentalists who began to gain influence within the Republican Party during the Reagan presidency and maintain a pivotal role in today’s GOP.

This book is not only about Kristol and Podhoretz.  There are interesting portraits of Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, neither of whom bolted the Democratic Party, and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who did (and in his later years, Moynihan backed away from many neo-conservative positions).  Heilbrun also includes portraits of such proponents of the Iraq war as Dick Chaney, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and many more.  These portraits give portions of the book a People Magazine flavor.

But there’s no People Magazine flavor to the final portion, where Heilbrun discusses the Iraq war and delivers a scathing indictment of neo-conservatism.  Writing in 2008, Heilbrun surmised that neoconservative enthusiasm for the war had “quite possibly not only destroyed conservatism as a political force for years to come but also created an Iraq syndrome that tarnishes the idea of intervention for several decades” (p.274).  Four years later, this appears far too strong.  Although the discredited Iraq war was a central issue in the 2008 presidential election, that seems almost like ancient history in this election year.  Republican party candidate Mitt Romney seems to have taken his foreign policy positions from the neo-conservative playbook and strident conservatism of all stripes gives no sign of being ready to disappear.

At bottom, Heilbrun concludes, neo-consesrvatives are contrarians, far happier operating against the grain. They are  “temperamentally predisposed to seek extremes,” with a tendency to “scold, hector and denounce” (p.68).  Unfailingly certain of being always right, no matter how many times they changed their views over the years, it’s imperative for them to have, “somewhere, somehow, an enemy – both at home and abroad.  This suits their need to see themselves as lonely prophets standing in the breach between implacable foes on the one hand and weak-kneed liberals (and paper-pushing bureaucrats) on the other” (p.137).

Benjamin Balint shows how Commentary magazine has served as a vehicle for expression of Jewish-American thought from its beginning in 1946, with much reflection upon the role of Jews in the United States.  In its early post-war days, Commentary took decidedly liberal and progressive positions on public issues, from a mostly Jewish point of view.  Commentary was also firmly anti-communist, very much part of the liberal anti-Communist cold war consensus, with its style of “political pragmatism and moderation, its stress on incremental reform” (p.65).  Today, the Jewish viewpoint remains but Commentary has become a forum for neo-conservative thought, generally favorable to conservative and Republican Party positions, and largely contemptuous of liberal and Democratic positions.

In Balint’s study, the evolution of Commentary is itself a commentary on the acceptance and absorption of Jews into the American mainstream, where Jews discovered they could be fully Jewish and fully American at the same time.  Commentary’s evolution parallels that of Podhoretz, its editor in chief from 1960 to 1995.  Balint discusses some of the convulsions of the late 1960s and early 1970s which led Podhoretz and Commentary from the liberal left to the conservative right, much the same factors discussed in Heilbrun’s book.  By the mid-1970s, Balint recounts, the cast of mind of Commentary and Podhoretz was “fully formed and would remain firmly set” on the right side of the American political spectrum (p.134).

Balint summarizes Podhoretz’ left-right journey, and that of Commentary, as demonstrating how “deracinated outsiders had become insiders; under their own centripetal force they had thrust themselves from the margins to the inner most hub of American politics and letters” (p.203).  Less charitable is the view of an observer whom Balint quotes, that Commentary has come to reflect the views of “American Jews who have made it here and don’t want anyone rocking the boat” (p.115).  As one who does not share the neo-conservative persuasion, I found this view close to my own.  Still, the left-right evolution of Commentary is a fascinating story, which Balint details in a lively and breezy style, with scrupulous objectivity.

Thomas H. Peebles

July 29, 2012

Rockville, Maryland


Filed under History, Politics