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Norman Podhoretz in Black and White

Posted on Aug 20, 2010

By Norman Birnbaum

(Page 3)

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.


book cover


Norman Podhoretz: A Biography


By Thomas L. Jeffers


Cambridge University Press, 408 pages


Buy the book


book cover


Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right


By Benjamin Balint


PublicAffairs, 304 pages


Buy the book


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.) 

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By michael wreszin, July 7, 2011 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

This is not just hagiography it is sychophantism

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By kobe8lal, August 23, 2010 at 2:41 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In the 60s I led a double life as an Off-Broadway actor and a nightclub comedian.

In the former I went to a symposium at The Negro Ensemble Company where Norman was on the panel.

In the latter, some weeks later, I saw him in the Atlanta airport. I chatted him up and it turns out we both had gigs in the city. His was in a fancy synagogue, mine in a roadhouse.

As we were waiting for our luggage he asked,“You’re a comedian. Do you get laid a lot on the road?”

“No”, I said.

“Me, neither”, he replied.

Swear it’s true.

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By Druthers, August 22, 2010 at 3:25 am Link to this comment

What you describe is less a thought process than a constant endeavor to come up with ideas to justify the idealogy that was the starting point - mental gymnastics.
Each person is also “different” from the others, most just afraid to admit it, so eager are humans to be part of a “community, so they can then claim “theirs” is the best, the top gun.
I think I prefer the Ghandis of the world - but where are they?

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By David Ehrenstein, August 21, 2010 at 8:11 am Link to this comment

Podhoretz, like the pseudo-state he promulgates is a primary source for Evil in this world.

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By balkas, August 21, 2010 at 7:19 am Link to this comment

In many ways, people of mosheic cult or some connection to it, have a struggling life.

It is often called struggle to understand one’s jewishness or an essence or being being like no other.

Yes, people may also struggle with godishness, catholishness, fetishness, foolishness, etc. We all do!
In case of mother Theresa, she ended her struggle to make sense of the nonsense like godishness and catholishness.

Robert Novak gave up his useless burden of trying to make a sense of what it means to be a jew.
Jewisheness like any other ishness is but a foolishness.

Or trying to be with other fools but not of them. But i say, all fools shld get together and say: let’s stop chasing the snark! tnx

caveat about “godishness”. It is, to me, a fetish as long one preaches it,instead of actually believing in god;leaving it undefined. I say, do not add one word to word “god”!

And would we get along so much better and loose so many fetishes! Otherwise the craze continues!

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By Abbott Gleason, August 21, 2010 at 2:47 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Immoral and criminal acts—the seizure of other people’s land, for instance—can achieve a certain grandeur when clothed in the ideological mantle of Leo Strauss—or Karl Marx. But we need to look at them more directly. The demolition of houses and the seizure of Palestinian lands are at bottom no more than ordinary crimes. In this region they also defy common sense, as well as common humanity. How can Jews insist (rightly) on recovering property taken from theem by Germans, while putting Palestinians and their furniture out in the streets of Jerusalem and taking their houses? This seems to me like the Judeazation of John Dillinger’s America, not Thomas Jefferson’s.

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By nubeewon, August 21, 2010 at 12:18 am Link to this comment

Sounds like another change freak who’s left things pretty much as they were.

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By Pmanso, August 20, 2010 at 3:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, there’s very, very little white

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By jkehoe, August 20, 2010 at 1:30 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

A brilliant review Mr. Birnbaum. Many thanks.

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By GoyToy, August 20, 2010 at 12:40 pm Link to this comment

Poddy (as Gore Vidal likes to call him) the Putz. I really like that!

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By Hammond Eggs, August 20, 2010 at 11:52 am Link to this comment

“Vacuous sentimentalism”?  WTF! Podhoretz is the champeen of that.  Someone should tell that paskudnyak that the Sharron Angles, Sarah Palins and Glenn Becks of the Republican party - his great Heroes - would shove his Jewish backside mach schnell into a gas chamber once they assume power. The Bolshevik and Nazi Revolutions were both full of people like him.  Very quickly, they found themselves standing over a drain in a dungeon somewhere, hearing someone tell them not to turn around.  And then the bullet in the back of the head.

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By miroslav, August 20, 2010 at 10:22 am Link to this comment

Commentary appears to have had an interesting beginning and have a calcified present. Ditto for Mr. Podhoretz who once upon a time knew that he was a clown. The wages of making it, of money.

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By Pmanso, August 20, 2010 at 9:19 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Norman Podhoretz in Black and White”? Com’on, where’s the white here?

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By Anarcissie, August 20, 2010 at 6:32 am Link to this comment

Sounds like the book could be very damaging to Podhoretz by distilling and concentrating his views, making them more explicit.  But it’s probably not very interesting unless one comes from the same particular milieu Podhoretz comes out of.

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By Jaded Prole, August 20, 2010 at 4:28 am Link to this comment

Podhoretz is a putz but though many Jews have become more conservative, the “Jewish right” is a minority within a minority. Most Jews are still relatively liberal and yes, there is still a “Jewish left.”

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