Liberal Jews and the Legacy of Neoconservatism

With the passing of the Godfather of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol, the release the same week of the book Why Are Jews Liberals, (2009), by Norman Podhoretz, and the arrival of the annual Jewish high holidays, one entertains the fascinating subject of American Jewish politics.  

Neoconservatism, of course, is not essentially a Jewish political philosophy, and some of its leading exponents and adherents are/were not Jewish (Hons. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Scoop Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Wiliam J. Bennett, James Q. Wilson, and John Bolton, to name just a few admired American statesmen), but the list of Jewish intellectual forebears who inspired neoconservative ideas is impressive (Max Shactman, Leo Strauss, and Lionel Trilling, to name just a few).

Prominent modern Jewish conservative intellectuals have included, among many others, Nathan Glazer, Ben Wattenberg, Joshua Muravchik, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Elliott Abrams, David Frum, Robert Kagan, Peter Berkowitz, and Allan Bloom (although he asserted he was not a conservative of any sort).

Many Jewish neoconservatives are more comfortable without the designation, and the authoritative Jonah Goldberg, who has written about the label, and who is author of one of the most important books of our generation, Liberal Fascism, (2008), has rightly pointed out that the term neoconservative has often been used pejoratively to denote some sort of Jewish intellectual cabal, and suggests the term does not apply to himself: "there is nothing neo about my conservatism."

Indeed, the left has unkindly taken to using the word neocon as a smear, and has, as is its wont, sprinkled in much hostility to this pack of smart Jews. In this, it is joined by the occasional paleoconservative, such as political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, whose foreign policy views against Israel mirror leftist rants against "imperialist" America and its "Amen corner" in the United States.

Nevertheless, neoconservatism should be analyzed and respected on its own merits as a rich and deep contribution to modern conservatism. The case study of neoconservative patriarchs Kristol and Podhoretz inspires celebration and contemplation.  May the religious season upon us invite their stubborn American Jewish ideological opponents to seek some penitence as well.

Mr. Kristol was an important mentor to many public thinkers. Long-ago managing editor of Commentary magazine, frequent columnist for the Wall Street Journal, American Enterprise Institute scholar, and author of 4 books, including Reflections of a Neoconservative: Looking Back, Looking Ahead, (1983), and Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea, (1995), Kristol organized important intellectual support for a public policy school of thought one may label: What Works?

Irving Kristol was a Jewish New Yorker, born in 1920, who eventually moved to Washington, D.C., and who moved as well over his lifetime from leftist, to liberal, to conservative.  He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.  His son is William Kristol, the highly respected editor of the Weekly Standard magazine. Never really a partisan, Irving Kristol once stated that voting Republican was as strange to him as walking into a Catholic Church. Witty and wise, his scholarship focused on two major ideas around which both longtime and newer conservatives could rally:

1) the left is wrong about domestic social policy: 

Kristol helped to bring forward important discussions in his journal The Public Interest promoting supply side economics (tax cuts), and opposing the welfare state, moral relativism, the counterculture, and racial identity politics.

2) the left is hostile to American exceptionalism:

Kristol fought in World War II as an infantryman, and was, as well, a fierce anti-communist and advocate for a strong U.S. military defense doctrine and presence.

Here one can begin to tease out the varieties of American conservatism, the modern political philosophy which began to take hold under the late, great William F. Buckley, Jr.'s stewardship of National Review starting in the 1950's, ultimately achieving popular success -- though not permanent electoral majority or everlasting cultural dominance -- with the elections of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

As discussed in Keeping the Tables: Modern American Conservative Thought, (1988), edited by Buckley and Charles R. Kesler, the erudite editor of the Claremont Review of Books, modern conservatism is built upon layered foundations: traditionalists, libertarians, and neoconservatives make up, perhaps, three principal pillars.

One may add, however, from among the varieties of species conservative:  foreign policy hawks, pro-defense realists, democratization idealists, anti-Jihadists, and skeptics of the United Nations; capital punishment advocates, victim's rights supporters, and gun rights defenders; small business entrepreneurs, free marketeers & free trade economists, property owners, deficit hawks, investors, and taxpayers; young voters desiring entitlement reform and personal savings accounts, and elderly voters concerned about cost and medical effectiveness government health care panels; anti-illegal immigration and border security campaigners; the religious right, traditional values families and pro-life voters; strict constructionists of the constitution and state's rights champions; today's campus free speech activists, color blind non-racialists, urban parents seeking school choice and competition and the growing home schooling community; and much of the middle class.

And lovers of individual liberty, such as legal immigrants from the former Soviet Union empire, who arrived to the United States after suffering under communism, and who shake their heads against the welfare state and creeping socialism, as well as many ethnic communities, such as Persians, who recoil against the foreign policy views of Democrat Jimmy Carter, arguably the worst U.S. President, and among the most offending political personalities alive today.

This coalition of the center-right, public opinion polls consistently reveal, is larger than and competes successfully with the liberal-left, made up of the government-dependent poor, the super wealthy, special interests (union bosses, trial lawyers), secular-progressive elites, college educated sophisticates, public employees, and some racial minorities (blacks and Hispanics). 

More Americans consider themselves ideologically conservative than liberal, and therefore perhaps there is an opening for the GOP to grow its currently low base of merely one-third of the Hispanic vote.  This has been difficult, but if the Republican emblem is the elephant, one expects that their efforts to grow a big tent would intensify in an era where Republican registration in many large states is currently under 40 percent.   Conservatives should note that they stand on solid ground as the original supporters of black emancipation, civil rights, and desegregation, while the Democrat Old South promoted slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the KKK.  Today's race-based ideas in public employment and contracting, and in university admissions, all come from the left.

American politics today, therefore, has two clear idea or interest group camps, the conservatives and the progressives, with a growing group of political Independents in the middle, who potentially swing between the GOP and the Democrats every 2 and 4 years.

These political Independents reward the party seen as the most competent on the economy, and most accountable to the voters, and led by candidates whose personal character appeals as trustworthy, and whose public campaigning speaks most clearly to the salient issues of the day.  Election experts suggest too that "voter intensity" is an important marginal factor in electoral outcomes where political identity or gerrymandered districts do not foreclose any chance at competitive elections.  Here, conservatives face a continuing challenge; the liberal left is far more naturally inclined to civic politics than are conservatives, who often find meaning in religion, work, and community, and who are therefore not as committed to combative, daily, secular political battle.

All of the disparate conservative ideologies and factions generally assent to shared principles opposing the nanny state, with honest disagreements about the exact role of government.  To grow their base and to win in American politics today, conservatives must not only stand against the bureaucratic, administrative state of the progressives, but also promote positive policy ideas meant to encourage job creation and prosperity, retirement security, health care and entitlement reform, the breakup of failing educational monopolies, and a clean environment, as well as the security of our nation and our borders in an ever dangerous world.

Indeed, conservative arguments are kept fresh, (Sam Tanenhaus suggests strangely in his new book title that Conservatism is Dead, (2009), through the public, internecine right-world debates over, for example, a) the prudential use of pre-emptive force vs. neo-isolationism, b) the state's role in regulating lifestyle "liberties" vs. social conservatism's "standards", and c) "Buy American" policies vs. corporate globalization interests.  Here's a good one: Should conservatives seek to rollback Chinese communism or trade with it ?

What does unify political conservatives, of course, is opposition to the growth and power of Leviathan, organized by those who think they know best how to run our lives. The government that governs best, governs least is a core conservative precept, and it certainly was the spirit of the American founding. 

Who are modern conservatives? Those who recoil from statism domestically, and from military pacifism and diplomatic trans-nationalism in international affairs. Here one suggests a definition of modern conservatism, which would include neoconservatism fusing together many strands of thought, from Edmund Burke to Buckley to today's Tea Partiers:

Defending the western tradition of ordered liberty, moral virtue, and equality of law, Securing individual rights, Preserving the family and social order, and Promoting national security and prosperity.  

Consider three main conservative philosophical orientations:

1)  Conservatives believe all men are created equal:

The Declaration of Independence asserts the fundamental American founding principle that individual liberty is rooted in equality of law and opportunity, not outcome. Liberty implies human equality, which is assumed from the belief that there is one Creator, so that we are all equally dignified human beings.

2)  Conservatives believe that man is not inherently all good:

Limited, republican government, separation of powers, and checks and balances secure our individual, natural, inalienable and God-given rights, and organize factions that may compete within ordered liberty.  To protect private property, liberty of conscience, and national security, we created government, dependent always upon our consent to be governed. 

3)  Conservatives believe that the state cannot be made perfect:

The more perfect union does not imply an ever expanding bureaucratic regime.  Both federalism and subsidiarity imply that when practical, the most local government should be tasked with assisting citizens in protecting their liberties (or achieving some public good, the list of which is literally endless to the progressive).  Conservatives reject Newtonianism, the belief that political science is cumulative, and that society can be organized in detail, and calibrated like a clock.  Man is not ultimately perfectable, and neither is the state, although the Preamble to the Constitution expresses noble ambition:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for The United States of America.

Neoconservatism takes these ideas seriously, and asserts a classically liberal minded political philosophy.  It wants government to act to achieve the above goals.  But, the gift of the neoconservatives was to suggest that social science must measure bureaucratic performance.  Government does not (and should not, barring corruption) offer the personal rewards to the individual that free enterprise does, and therefore government most often performs poorly and counter-productively to its stated aims.

The neoconservatives became leaders in critiquing the administrative state, correctly noting that large, public welfare social programs were not actually helping citizens to achieve the American dream, but instead often produced unintended consequences.

And so there you have the essential political doctrine of Irving Kristol, who suggested that neoconservatives were classic "liberals who had been mugged by reality."

Mark Gerson argues in his book The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars, (1997) that the neoconservatives no longer exist as a distinct movement, suggesting that "their ideological development over the past fifty years has culminated in what we now identify as American conservatism; in that sense, they have been so successful that it is now appropriate to drop the prefix 'neo' from their appellation."

Irving Kristol's longtime peer was fellow Brooklyn native, Jewish conservative Norman Podhoretz, (born in 1930, and 10 years Mr. Kristol's junior). Podhoretz, editor of Commentary for 35 years, prolific essayist, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and author of a dozen books, including Breaking Ranks: A Political Memoir, (1979), My Love Affair with America, the Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative, (2001), and World War IV: the Long Struggle Against Islamofascism, (2007), was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His brilliant son, John Podhoretz, is now editor of Commentary Magazine.

Norman Podhoretz' masterful 12th book, explores two major ideas:

a)  Jews are liberal Democrats in voting (78 percent for Obama vs. 43 percent of all white voters) and far-left on social issues (abortion, school prayer, stem cell research, same-sex marriage) and in their reflexive support for ever more centralized big government taxing and spending, and they have stubbornly remained so even as their individual, community and global interests rationally would suggest and merit a more politically conservative economic and foreign policy orientation.

b)  Jews are liberal due to historic, sociological and philosophical reasons which are now so ingrained as to form a new religion of the Jews, namely, the Torah of Liberalism.

There are 44 Jewish members of the 111th Congress.  Only one, (Rep. Eric Cantor) is a Republican.  American Jewry has some soul searching to do.

Prudentially, thoughtful American Jews should promote access to and influence within both major political parties.  With intellectual honesty, American Jewry should also admit that in public opinion poll after poll, and Congressional vote after vote, the GOP  a) far outdistances the Democrats in support of Israel and affinity to the Jewish state, b) sides with Jewish students facing vicious anti-zionist and anti-Semitic hostility from the left on campuses, and c) honors Jewish interests against leftist advocacy of "groups rights" over individual rights in our social and economic life.

Commentary magazine has recently published a terrific symposium that offers a surprisingly wide range of answers to the question Norman Podhoretz raises, namely, why are Jews mostly political liberals? 

The fearless and insightful pundit Jeff Jacoby notes that Podhoretz has masterfully demonstrated that the loyalty of American Jews to the left has been unaffected by the failure of the left to reciprocate that loyalty.  Jacoby notes that Jewish secularism and universalism have resulted in a kind of religious anti-choseness that suits the majority of American Jews who are not rooted in their own text and tradition. 

Jacoby clearly sees modern, progressive Jews as faithful to an irrational but reassuring and seductive belief system of emotional liberalism.  This liberalism is familiar; it confronts head on all the principles conservatives hold about human nature, and therefore about economics, and politics, and national security.  Essentially, the universalist liberal Jew has left his religion, and with it, conservative and traditional ideas, for the utopian assertions that man is basically good, that poverty causes crime and that crime is caused by guns, that "war is not the answer", and that environmentalism, feminism, and all the other religions of our age make sense but that biblical Judaism does not.

The liberal Jew believes with other liberals that liberalism and all of its commandments are good.  Therefore, the conservative is not merely wrong, but evil.  This is actually welcome news.  At least the modern liberal believes in some notion of good and evil, after all.

Prolific writer and pulpit Rabbi David Wolpe suggests that Jewish political memory results in an unshakable political faith, and that "it may not be about whom we vote for, but whom we vote with."  Long estranged, separate from the establishment, often unloved, and feeling alienated from the collective, Jewish political identity is a result of self-conception as a minority within a majority culture.  While conservative traditionalism may appeal to faith-based religionists, Wolpe suggests conservatives must appeal more programmatically and sympathetically to earn secular Jewish votes.

Popular author and talk show host Michael Medved argues that Norman Podhoretz was correct to spend the first half of his book analyzing the history of European, Christian, anti-Semitism. Jewish politics is rooted in deep fear of the cross and the extreme religious wars of Europe, and Jews see the left as their emancipator and defender.  Podhoretz reveals the European and socialist left, though, has never been kind to the Jews.  Voltaire (!) and Marx, for example were bitter anti-Semites and the rationalists and philosophes of the enlightenment were no friends of the people of Abraham.  

Medved understands well that what unifies and drives many Jews politically is not love for Israel, or Jewish religious study or observance, but merely the fundamental self-identity of Jewish rejection of Jesus.  Jews are non-Christians, and they associate the modern Republican Party as the party of the cross and of Christian conservatives.   The politics of resentment and disassociation drives Jews away from conservative, Christian America.

But Medved, like his fellow gifted, prominent public intellectual Dennis Prager, has long recognized and celebrated the fact that American Christians had a chance to build a theocracy but affirmatively decided not to do so.  Today's American conservative Christians are the kindest and warmest people in the world to the Jewish people, and to the Jewish state of Israel.  Whereas the church replaced the Jews as the inheritors of God's love under European replacement theology, America's Christians promote brotherhood and reconciliation, grafting their Christianity of love onto the story of the Jews, not superseding them.

Sadly, Jewish fear and ingratitude to Christian Zionists borders on unsavory bigotry, so much so that one wonders how long many conservatives will put up with it. Remembered for its rarity as much as for its vulgarity, the sting remains from James Baker's comment when President George H.W. Bush (41) once complained about Jewish lobbying in Washington, D.C.:   "F - 'em!  They don't vote for us anyway."

Fortunately, (conservative) Christian philo-semitism and love for Israel appears solid, and is based upon Genesis 12:3
And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed. (KJV)

Irving Kristol himself once commented that "the danger facing American Jews today is not that Christians want to persecute them but that Christians want to marry them." Put another way, Jihadist Muslims want to kill the Jews, while neighbor Christians want to save them.  Is it not obvious which is the natural ally?

Bill Kristol, like Michael Medved, suggests that Jewish identity, love of Israel, and rootedness in one's own religious tradition might make a difference over time to Jewish political identity.  He agrees with Norman Podhoretz in promoting a Torah of Judaism.  This makes sense when one considers that the Jews closest to their own tradition and teachings, the Orthodox community, are the most aligned with and respectful of political conservatism.  Here we see the clear rebuttal to the Jewish left which asserts that Judaism is liberalism.

But the Jewish left indefatigably makes that case.  While Jonathan Sarna argues that wise Jewish thinkers once believed that Jews are naturally conservative, and that throughout Jewish diaspora communities, Jews make reasoned judgments about their interests and ideologies based on contemporary circumstances, today, the Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination, is the engine that drives the Jewish liberal train in the United States through indoctrination.

Those familiar with the bias in American secular higher Illiberal Education, (1991), as Dinesh D'Souza puts it, at Indoctrination U (2007) and in the One Party Classroom (2009) as David Horowitz has also well explored in his books, are not surprised by the hijacking of Judaism, (and now many Christian church communities as well), by the religious left.

Several examples suffice:

--Tikkun Olam, a "social action" imperative asserted confidently throughout American Jewry as the Jewish obligation and ethical imperative, somehow always seems to demand agreement with the current creed of the Democrat party's social and economic agenda.

Interestingly, as Rabbi Avi Shafran has pointed out, originally Tikkun Olam was a legal term which resulted in conservative, not liberal, policy solutions aimed at protecting the community.  The religious left has simply dropped the full term, "litakein olam bi'mal'chut Sha-dai" (to repair the world under the Kingdom of God) to reach liberal, never conservative, or God commanded, policy results.

Similarly, as Norman Podhorertz details, Tikkun Olam as a kabbalistic term expressed not liberal social politics but the belief that one's own life would find meaning through observance of the commandments.  This is all a far cry from the politicization of the pulpit and the left-wing social action committees which dominate American Jewish synagogue life today.

--Abortion is prohibited in Jewish law, except in cases of protection of the mother.  Can one imagine American rabbis daring to preach to liberal Jewry a non-leftist interpretation of the essential Jewish teaching to choose life?   Partial birth abortions, and late term abortion on demand would have shocked even the most progressive of ancient Jewish scholars.

--Capital punishment is the only law in all 5 books of the Torah, the Old Testament.  (Genesis 9:6, for example:  Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed). Nevertheless, liberal Jews twist rabbinic caution (during the times of Roman rule) requiring witnesses, into a full blown antipathy to a just result clearly authorized in the tradition, and prescribed by the American, and the several states, founders. The left's assertion that the death penalty for mass murder, genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, terrorism, or cold blooded homicide has no moral rationale from a Judeo-Christian perspective is simply bizarre.  Strip away the left's false and unpopular claims about the injustice of not keeping all murderers alive, and you will simply find discredited social views on deterrence, racism, and cruel and unusual punishment.

--Hostility to Israeli self defense is now common amongst American liberal Jews.  J Street is just the latest in a long line of groups (Breira, New Jewish Agenda, Americans for Peace Now, Tikkun magazine), which morally condemns Israel's delayed and reluctant response to thousands of rockets, mortars and missiles fired at Israeli civilians, with carefully targeted Israeli military actions (which are often accompanied by warnings and always aimed at military installations or centers of aggression).

At synagogues throughout the United States this week, rabbis of the left, who were urged by President Obama in a pre-holidays conference call to preach the moral imperatives of universal, government health care reform now  (we are in crisis!), will once again invoke religious authority for their policy preferences, something they have long and loudly assailed Christian religionists for doing, a fact which utterly surprises many of them as never before considered when confronted with this double standard.

Religion used to be a skeptic of, and counter-balance to, government.  In the hands of the religious left, however it has become government's leading advocate.  So much then, too, for the separation of synagogue and state.  Nothing is quite so unpretty than the revelation that the arrogant who assume the moral high ground are actually mere earthly partisans.

Is it possible that Jonathan Sarna's guidance that the rising influence of younger Jews, immigrant Jews, and Jews paying attention to the growing anti-Semitism on the left and anti-Israel policies of President Obama and many liberal Democrats, will begin to moderate Jewish political identity?  

Well, prior to the 2008 election, as chronicled in and argued in Jewish vote forums so strongly that the Obama campaign finally boycotted the Republican Jewish Coalition, detailed evidence was presented that Mr. Obama had pandered to 7,500 AIPAC 2008 policy conference attendees and a large media audience with an assertion that Jerusalem was the undivided capital of Israel, only to withdraw the statement the very next day. And that Mr. Obama's mentors on the Middle East included rabid Israel haters (the late) Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi.  And that 20 years of church attendance and warm friendship with an anti-American, anti-Israel, racist pastor might raise an eyebrow, and that President Obama would surely abandon the unique, special, and longstanding relationship between the United States and Israel.

All this and much more about Obama's supporters and funders and worldview and voting record and inexperience and Carter-like foreign policy sentiments -- but Jews did not seem to care.  They played the race card, asserted with utmost confidence that Obama loved Israel, formed Rabbis for Obama, lied about Israeli generals supporting the Democrat, and falsely smeared Governor Palin as a supporter of Pat Buchanan.  More than a few Jews stated that they were uncomfortable with Obama, and admired Senator McCain, but that they just could not vote for the Republicans because Governor Palin was so... conservative?  Christian?   Too clever to say so publicly, many Jewish voters just knew that while somehow Palin was too inexperienced to become Vice President, one-term Senator Barack Obama, who had never run a business, worn the uniform, or authored any major piece of legislation, was somehow kosher to become President.

Since his election, Mr. Obama's lack of urgency regarding Iranian nuclear proliferation (and his abandonment of the Iranian people after the June 12, 2009 election), his bow to the Saudi King, his obnoxious statements at Cairo denying Jewish historical claims on Jerusalem, his administration's pounding against Israeli second floor apartments (settlements!), and the pandering to the UN (joining the Durban II planning conference and the anti-Israel Human Rights Council), the appointments of Chas Freeman and many other hostile voices to Israel, and the honoring of Israel-basher Mary Robinson, and the awkward celebration of Muslims as integral to the founding of America, all of this and more explains why the Israeli people, at least, have abandoned the idea that Mr. Obama is a friend to the Jews.

Finally, David Gelertner urges that American Jews had better hurry in saving themselves from the sort of death wish inherent in reactionary liberalism, which is a sort of religion that denies history, experience and (classical) liberalism itself.  Modern left wing politics has caused the death of much of European Christianity; it has destroyed the inoculation of nationalism and religiosity that Europe needed against Arabization and Islamification.  Gelertner asks:

Will American Jewish liberalism drift by inches into American Jewish paganism?  Not necessarily.  But that fate will be avoided only if American Jews form a clear picture of the direction in which they are headed before they follow Europe into the anonymous pagan abyss and disappear.  Jewish religious genius is capable of rearing up at any time and changing the direction of history -- but only if Jewish prophets speak up loud and clear, as Norman Podhoretz does in this book.

In Bill Kristol and John Podhorertz, modern conservative thinking has two wise heirs. John's touching tribute to Bill's father merits as much tribute to the author as he pays to his subject.  

The Jewish trinity, like the Christian one, is rooted in theology.  God, Torah and Israel are the basis for Jewish convenant and continuity. But modern, secular Jewry has struggled to keep the faith, and so has been particularly vulnerable to the superseding religion of liberalism.

The people of the book have some reading to do.  The wisdom of neoconservatism has been effectively passed down from fathers Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz to their sons, both literal and metaphorical.  The question remains just how much scholarship and savvy and prophetic wisdom will reach their now less holy-spirited, but still politically stiff-necked people.

Larry Greenfield is a fellow in American studies at the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statemanship & Political Philosophy.
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