I Know a Little

I Know a Little

How Commentary and Israel’s Six-Day War informed the neoconservative movement (or didn’t).


This week’s Think Again column is called “The Conservative Class Warfare Against Free Speech” and it focuses on Republican efforts to control academic research and writing, here.

Oh and I’ll be speaking at Vassar College on the evening of April 5th on the topic of “How Jewish Intellectuals became ‘American’ by becoming liberals.” All future appearances, by the way, are here

“And baby I can guess the rest…”

Jonathan Chait, writing in The New Republic, demonstrates the danger of a little knowledge put in the service of a pundit’s prejudices. Chait, who, together with Ronald Radosh and David Horowitz, was a lonely defender of Marty Peretz’s views of the Middle East, (and James Kirchick’s reporting of it), seizes on this paragraph in Franklin Foer’s review of Irving Kristol’s most recent posthumous collection:

"Israel’s socialistic ethos alienated Kristol. “Truth to tell,” he later recalled, “I found Israeli society, on the whole, quite exasperating.” He was not alone. In 1951, he received a copy of a letter from a Columbia student named Norman Podhoretz. This missive had circulated to Kristol by way of Cohen, who had received a copy from its original recipient, Lionel Trilling. The letter was an account of Podhoretz’s first visit to Israel. “I felt more at home in Athens!” he told Trilling. “They are, despite their really extraordinary accomplishments, a very unattractive people, the Israelis. They’re gratuitously surly and boorish…. They are too arrogant and too anxious to become a real honest-to-goodness New York of the East.” On the basis of Podhoretz’s chilly response to the Jewish state, Kristol recruited him to write for Commentary."

To make this point:

"The truth is that the original neocons were very far from deep, emotional supporters of Israel. They were pro-Israel, but their pro-Israel views stemmed from their general hawkishness rather than vice versa. In any case, the neoconservative ideology was wildly simplistic and intellectually corrupt, as Frank well shows, but this particular understanding of it has always been misplaced."

But if Chait had taken even a moment to consider what he was trying to argue, it might have occurred to him that what a person wrote about Israel in 1951 has virtually no relevance to what he may have thought or written twenty or so years later. Specifically, the June 1967 war changed everything for American Jews and Israel, and note that the date is awfully consistent with the origins of neoconservatism.

Israel’s victory in the “Six-Day War” of June 1967 played an enormous role in forging a new, Israel-centric identity for millions of American Jews, whether religious or secular. Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, writing two months after the war in Commentary, with its memories still fresh, noted that the crisis had united American Jews “with deep Jewish commitments as they have never been united before, and it has evoked such commitments in many Jews who previously seemed untouched by them…. There are no conventional Western theological terms with which to explain this,” he said. “[M]ost contemporary Jews experience these emotions without knowing how to define them…. Israel may…now be acting as a very strong focus of world wise Jewish emotional loyalty and thereby as a preservative of a sense of Jewish identity.” [I]  "Jews all over the world walk with greater pride upon the face of the earth because of the state of Israel," Commentary associate editor Werner Dannhauser accurately discerned immediately after Israel’s victory. "The Israelis have simply showed us all that Jews need not always be powerless before the murderous intentions of their enemies," Podhoretz himself crowed in a letter to the famous psychologist Erich Fromm, "and it is this rather than any stirring of militarist or chauvinist fervor, that has moved so many Jews outside Israel." [II]  Three years later Podhoretz put his new view quite plainly in an article with the deliberately provocative—from the point of view of Commentary’s history of universalism and anti-Zionism—title, "Is It Good for the Jews?" Podhoretz explained why Jews ought to look "at proposals and policies from the point of view of the Jewish interest." [III]  And he later announced that "the role of Jews who write in both the Jewish and general press is to defend Israel." Critical reporting of Israel, Podhoretz insists, "helps Israel’s enemies–and they are legion in the US.” Meanwhile, it’s true that Kristol took longer to come around to these views, but come he did, obsessing at the end of his life over what he termed the “political stupidity of American Jews.”

(And where did Marty’s politics come from? Well, in September 1967, a left-wing "New Politics" convention convened in Chicago, largely funded by the then hard left Peretz, using, as he would for the coming decades, his second wealthy ex-wife’s substantial inheritance. The conference collapsed amid a storm of acrimonious accusations, when Black Caucus rammed though a resolution condemning the "imperialistic Zionist war." Though its members later rescinded the resolution, the damage was clearly done. Peretz moved sharply rightward, particularly on racial issues and those involving Jews, and would eventually tell Henry Kissinger in 1974 that his “dovishness stops at the delicatessen door.”)

Now it’s true that there’s a great deal more to the story of the origins of neoconservatism than Israel—it’s not even clear that it was the prime reason for the transformation—but to dismiss its importance on the basis of a comment made by Podhoretz in 1951—when, in fact he was on the far left, with no tribal loyalty to Jews whatever (and on his way to calling for the end of the Jewish people and the defeat of the United States in Vietnam)—and tie that to the origins of neoconservatism in the late sixties and seventies—itself an explicit rejection of these views—well, to be charitable, it’s just plain silly.

And speaking of Jews, and we almost always are here, lately, this is pretty interesting…

[I] Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for Healing; American Jewry since World War II. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, 207-208.
[II] Benjamin Balint, Running Commentary, The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right. New York: Public Affairs, 2010, 110.
[III] Balint, 114.

The Mail
Stephen Kottler
Lewiston, ME
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Best regards,
Steve Kottler

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