By Norman Birnbaum
Two specific events precipitated the change. One was the Six-Day War in 1967, and the response to it of the major American Protestant churches and the African-American leadership. With what Podhoretz thought of as suspicious rapidity, they began to regard Israel as an oppressive occupying power in the Palestinian territories. Meanwhile, in New York City, the demand by African-Americans (and Latinos) for local control of schools precipitated a clash with a teachers’ union with a large Jewish membership. Podhoretz connected this to projects for affirmative action as a threat to the position of Jews in government, the professions and in the labor market generally. He was unrestrained, in discussion and print, in denouncing the foundations and especially the Ford Foundation for supporting community control of education. It was, he said, an effort by the older Protestant elites to block and reverse Jewish social ascent.
Podhoretz took up the struggle within the Democratic Party, his allies figures like the leaders of the AFL-CIO (George Meany and then Lane Kirkland), Sen. Henry Jackson. He later shifted his loyalties to the Republican Party but found plenty there to discountenance him. Above all, he opposed the negotiated coexistence with the Soviet Union sought by Henry Kissinger under Nixon and Ford, and later by Reagan and the first Bush. The Soviet leadership was, Podhoretz insisted, implacable and insatiable in its drive for world domination. Its refusal to allow Jewish emigration was another crime. In those circumstances, compromise with it (arms control and other measures of military and political cooperation) was bound to fail. Worse, it was evidence of weakness that would in fact prove fatal not only to our influence in the world, but to our very independence.
Norman Podhoretz: A Biography
By Thomas L. Jeffers
Cambridge University Press, 408 pages
Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right
By Benjamin Balint
PublicAffairs, 304 pages
The collapse of the old Soviet Union served not as an occasion for rethinking, but for retroactive legitimization of a policy of maximal aggressivity. The apocalyptic images of a Soviet threat were transferred, intact, to the dangers of “Islamo-fascism.” That made it possible for Podhoretz, in the past two decades, to simplify an already simple worldview. The fate of civilization now rested not on the familiar defense of “the free world” but on the necessity of total alignment with Israel—provided that Israel was being led by the hardest of governments.
Podhoretz, initially a friend of the older Israeli leaders like Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, has come to distrust them and their successors. He thinks negotiation with the Palestinians a waste of effort and time, indeed, as an incentive to more terrorism directed at Israel and those who accept its existence. He deplores the inability of many, even a majority, of his fellow Jews to see that their interests, moral and material, require an alliance with Republicans and indeed, with the right of the Republican Party, including the Protestant fundamentalists. These, he insists, are Israel’s truest supporters in gentile America. His vexation with American Jewry is not limited to its alleged casualness about Israel’s fate; he believes American Jews to be self-destructive in their hostility to the liberalism and openness of American capitalism and in their preferences for the American welfare state. After all, he argues, much of the prophetic tradition of social justice refers to the distribution of power and wealth within Old Testament Israel. The others had to look after themselves.
His biographer does not dwell at length on his subject’s return, spiritually, to Brooklyn’s mean streets. He could have portrayed it as the appropriation of major strands of American tradition—a striking synthesis of domestic social Darwinism with a global imperial project. The younger George Bush, as president, awarded Podhoretz the Medal of Freedom and was delighted to learn that Podhoretz admired his achievements.
Podhoretz’s Judaism emphasizes ethnic solidarity, fidelity to tradition and large distrust of a world in which Jehovah neglected to place more Jews. He claims that his interpretation of Jewish history (including the iron obligation of every Jew to make the defense of Israel an absolute priority) brings American Jewry to the American heartland. The U.S. belongs, in the first and last analysis, to those who work tirelessly for success, who depend upon their ethnic communities and churches for help and not upon the state, and who above all suffer no pangs of conscience merely because they prosper and others do not. To the argument that he has Americanized Jewishness, he replies that he has shown how Jewish the American essence is—just as the Puritans with their Old Testament beliefs thought. On this reading, the American alliance with Israel is not a geopolitical and moral choice but a matter of American identity. That is why, presumably, the most determined defenders of Israel are gentile politicians of solid character rather than brilliant intellect. The Jewish exodus from the ghetto resulted in a large degree of intellectual achievement that does not, apparently, strike Podhoretz as entirely positive. Too many Jews in his view think too critically.
Large numbers of American Jews, and large numbers of their fellow citizens, do not accept Podhoretz’s story. He is certain that stringent criticism of his views is evidence for their rightness. Once very friendly with Norman Mailer and Moynihan, he took his distance from them as misguided. Those who have found Podhoretz somewhat heavy, even humorless, may be ignoring something essential. His labored phrases are the work of a man convinced of his direct access to being—a learned and pious figure uncorrupted by the complications and temptations of the Enlightenment.
Podhoretz had sure instincts for contracting intellectual, personal and political alliances—and moving onto other ones when it suited him. In fact, his present position is not that of a defiant iconoclast but of a single-minded defender of the narrow orthodoxy of an inward-turned segment of American Jewry. He is very much the product of circumstances.
There, precisely, lies the value of Benjamin Balint’s history of Commentary, “Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right.” It is an account of those circumstances, a short history of a good deal of Jewish intellectuality in the United States. It is very well written, informed by a larger view of American cultural and political life, and conspicuously unhagiographic, even occasionally impious. Balint himself was for a while an editor at Commentary, which makes his measured detachment an achievement. (He interviewed me as part of his research on the book.)