Sept/Oct/Nov 2009

The Neocon Bible

Jim Sleeper


The neoconservative polemicist Norman Podhoretz has chosen an odd time to urge Jews to become Republicans on the grounds that they’re endangered most by the left and their own liberalism. He acknowledges that 78 percent of Jews voted for Obama, but not that Jewish neocons such as Ed Koch and David Brooks defected from the GOP as the populism they’d tried to rouse and channel took a sinister turn. Worse, old-line conservatives, like the late William F. Buckley Jr., have muttered that neocons are conservatism’s misfortune. To update neocon elder Irving Kristol’s quip, today a liberal may be a neoconservative who’s been mugged by reality.

Podhoretz himself worried about conservative anti-Semitism in 2000 in My Love Affair with America, but unable to break ranks with his allies on the right, he ultimately blamed the left, from Voltaire and Marx on, for despising Jews more. Now, in Why Are Jews Liberals?, he frets that liberal Jews remain pathetically susceptible to leftist siren songs because of a tragic history and lost covenantal faith. But even a reader who disdains leftists and Democrats will remain unmoved by Podhoretz’s explanations for Jewish liberalism, rendered first in a series of potted history lessons and then in a vintage Podhoretzian didactic rant that reads world-historical currents into every affront he has suffered.

His infamous self-importance short-circuits insight and honesty, collapsing the American republicanism he celebrates so loudly and the liberalism he invokes so selectively into a Jewish survivalism congenial to his Manichaean temperament. His claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Podhoretz doesn’t speak from the sublimity of ancient Hebrew faith or from some inner reckoning that liberals and civic republicans might respect. He relies on tribal loyalty instead of revelation or republican comity, and on tactical alliances (even with anti-Semites like Pat Robertson and the late, unlamented Argentinean junta) in lieu of a politics nurturing civic strengths that wealth can’t buy and armies alone can’t defend. Today, even Pope Benedict XVI and the conservative philosopher John Gray have warned that liberty can’t be promoted amid riptides of capitalism and militarism. Yet Podhoretz is silent about these dangers. He escaped adolescent gang life in Brooklyn for Columbia and Cambridge universities, emerging with a facility for textual exegesis in a liberal idiom. But sheltered ever since from capitalist realities by the nonprofit American Jewish Committee and Hudson Institute, he has made himself a tribune for “Brooklyn” Jews like himself, who expect to rescue liberalism in education and democracy from fatuous liberals by toughening it up for war.

Podhoretz’s compulsive “texting” (if I may give an older meaning to the word) parades excerpts from others’ work to score points for the American national-security state as a big brother to Israel and for a vague Jewish survivalism. The vision of Jewishness embedded in such rhetoric lets the scar do the work of the wound, as Leon Wieseltier has put it—and as New York black activists discovered in 1968 while assailing Jewish teachers with anti-Semitic epithets in the battles for control of Brooklyn’s schools. As Wieseltier’s aperšu suggests, Podhoretz sees only blood-curdling Jew hatred in the conflict—not blacks’ effort to mind-game the only whites whose skin they could get under.

Blocked from such reckonings by his character and subculture, Podhoretz often loses his bearings. “Assuming, as I do, that all animals, including humans, are equipped . . . with an instinct for telling the difference between friends and enemies, it can be said that the Jewish fear and distrust of Christianity was both healthy (that is, based on . . . instinct) and rational (that is, consistent with a long and bitter accumulation of empirical evidence). On the other hand, the Jewish [worshipful] attitude toward the Enlightenment was neither healthy nor rational. It could even be described as . . . pathological.” Citing Voltaire and Marx, he thinks he has made an argument.

Like his book The Prophets (2002), which renders the Hebrew prophets as heralds of proto-American policies, this one belongs with Elliott Abrams’s Faith or Fear and David Gelernter’s Americanism, a manifesto for what Gelernter calls “American Zionism.” These writers (together with Wieseltier and Marty Peretz) remind me of some French Muslim girls who wore head scarves to public school, less in submission to their fathers’ faith than to wrench from a liberal state the personal recognition and rights their faith didn’t give them. Neocons similarly brandish veils of Jewish covenantalism with liberal claims on a republican culture they don’t really grasp or know how to defend.

Podhoretz isn’t wrong to insist that liberals who breezily invoke “the teachings of Judaism” to support social causes forget that justice in biblical Judaism often requires force. Yet he argues that in the 2008 election, such wishfulness became dangerous complacency: “It did not occur to [them] that the real stealth candidate in this race—a stealth candidate, that is, for the anti-Israel left—might be Obama.”

But it doesn’t occur to Podhoretz that while most liberals support Israel as a justified response to what the West dealt Jews while making “blood-and-soil” nationalism the only refuge in an illiberal world, most also judge responses like Podhoretz’s to be histrionic and destructive. Neocons, who lurched from their shock at black radicals’ illiberalism of the late ’60s into a Jewish tribalist cathexis during the 1967 Six-Day War, would never imagine that an Obama might save Israel from itself and from their own crushing embrace.

Podhoretz admits he can’t explain why most Jews remain liberals, but his book is good material for a case study of why some Jews become neoconservatives. If Jews want to flourish in non-Jewish societies, either as Jews or as communicants in secular civic faiths drawn from Christian and Enlightenment as well as Hebraic wellsprings, they’d better be political liberals. And they’d better hope that most other Americans are, too.

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1991).

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