During Ronald Reagan’s administration, and particularly during the presidency of George W. Bush, the influence of “neoconservatives” — the ideological students of Irving Kristol — was so influential and controversial as to be passionately damned by both the left and the Patrick Buchanan right. The neocons were charged with pushing America into the Iraq war, not only for America’s sake but for Israel’s.
For good or ill, “neocon” became a code word for “Jews,” though Reagan, Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld — the final deciders — were hardly that, prompting Jewish pride and paranoia.
The alleged dual loyalty of the neocons — perhaps the most scathing accusation for Jews in American political life — was openly discussed in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and in a lather across the Web. In the end, friends and enemies agreed on one remarkable thing alone: The neocons’ interventionist, pro-Likud foreign policy, along with their belief in the medicinal powers of traditional morality and a skeptical evaluation of liberal social legislation, had remarkably moved in a single generation from small-circulation journals to the Oval Office.
And yet, when Kristol — the founding neocon prophet — passed away from cancer on the eve of Rosh HaShanah (Sept. 18), The Washington Post didn’t use the word “Jewish” or “Israel” at all in its obituary, and hardly did the Times, other than to note that Kristol was born to non-observant Jews in Brooklyn in 1920, and that many of his fellow intellectuals and stoop-side Socialists in Depression-era City College were Jews, too. Judaism, it seemed, was for his early years alone.
If anything, Kristol arrived at a neocon religious and Zionist sensibility in the 1940s, long before his politics followed suit. (He didn’t vote for a Republican presidential candidate until Richard Nixon’s campaign against George McGovern, when Kristol was 52.)
A neocon, Kristol famously explained, was “a liberal mugged by reality.”
That’s what happened in the 1940s, he realized, when we were almost annihilated by a reality we didn’t — couldn’t — foresee because of an unrequited faith in “the world.”
Kristol’s first published short story, “Adam and I,” in 1946, was a first-person tale of a Jewish veteran, as was Kristol, encountering a young Jew, seared by the Holocaust, at the Zionist headquarters in Marseilles immediately after Germany’s surrender. The Jewish soldier and Adam, the Auschwitz survivor, speak of moving to the pre-state “eretz,” (the Land of Israel). Adam needs a gun with which to return to Poland, to find his father. The Jewish veteran, after some hesitation, gives the survivor a .32 automatic and a box of ammunition.
Kristol’s narrator asks, “Did I have the right to refuse?”
When it came to Israel, Kristol spent the next 50 years asking that same question.
When Israel was widely condemned in 1981 for knocking out Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction facility at Osirak, Kristol explained in Commentary (1984) that Jews ought to embrace the conservative critique of the United Nations, that it was unworthy of consideration because of its dual standard of morality for Israel and everyone else. That dual standard bothered Kristol more than dual loyalty.
“An extraordinary number of Jews,” he wrote, “remain loyal to those grandiose principles” of the UN, principles honored primarily in the breach. “As a result, their thinking about foreign affairs is incoherent to an equally extraordinary degree. When Israel bombed and destroyed the Iraqi nuclear reactor most American Jews realized that this was a sensible thing to do and that there was nothing ‘illegal’ or ‘immoral’ about the act — but they could not figure out a way to say this.” Liberal defenders of Israel “tried to talk their way out of a rhetorical trap of their own construction.”
Kristol wrote that he understood why “the prospect of fighting ‘dirty little wars’ in remote places should be so repugnant,” but, he added, if the United States “in righteous moralistic hauteur refuses to intervene” in one part of the world, what reason is there to think it will “intervene to counterbalance … an assault on Israel?”
The Times’ obituary said, “Mr. Kristol’s own religious views were so ambiguous that some friends questioned whether he believed in God.”
In 1995, however, Kristol wrote in The Weekly Standard (edited by his son William), “My own religious leanings are toward some version of modern Orthodoxy.”
In 1948, when he still was a self-described “unsynagogued” liberal Jew, he already found himself put off by the frequent claim that liberal politics was indivisible from Judaism.
Writing in Commentary, Kristol said, there is a “superficiality, even vulgarity,” that transforms “Messianism into a shallow, if sincere, humanitarianism.” When one’s religion and politics completely coincide, “how convenient.” There was something ominous, Kristol added, in the idea that that Judaism has nothing to say that liberalism hasn’t already said.
The extent of the Kristol family’s religious evolution may be seen in the younger Kristol’s response to a Commentary symposium (September 2009) on liberal Jews. Said William Kristol, “I’m going to stop worrying about [the politics of] American Jews. … The important things are for the practice and study of Judaism to become more vital … Focus on Jewish education … Fund Jewish day schools, improve Jewish supplementary schools … Demography isn’t destiny. Perhaps it’s davening that is destiny … Focus on examples of Jewish greatness (rather than) Jewish celebrity … Focus on ensuring the well-being of Israel.”
What made Irving Kristol a “neo” conservative was not only his rejection of traditional conservative isolationism, but that he held on to the ideals of the New Deal and the Great Society even as he critiqued them.
As Kristol explained in The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 15, 1972), “’All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, and I would like to suggest that the same can be said for bad politics. … It seems to me that the politics of liberal reform, in recent years, shows many of the same characteristics as amateur poetry. It has been more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer rather than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves. Indeed, the outstanding characteristic of [bad politics] is precisely its insistence on the overwhelming importance of revealing, in the public realm, one’s intense feelings — we must ‘care,’ we must ‘be concerned,’ we must be ‘committed.’ Unsurprisingly, this goes along with an immense indifference to consequences, to positive results or the lack thereof.”
In 1998, Kristol was at the center of a documentary, “Arguing The World,” that traced the times of Kristol and three of his once-youthful friends and sparring partners — Irving Howe, Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer — all of whom attended City College.
The film, said the Times review, leaves you with the thrill of watching “good minds grapple with the cataclysms of history and the human condition and have the temerity to keep searching for answers.”
Though the arguments that raged in the City College cafeteria and in the pages of Commentary, Public Interest and Dissent gave no quarter, there was an elegance to these gentleman, and the gentle women who thought along with them. They were of a slower, more thoughtful time. Commentators were expected to ponder rather than be cable-style pundits; they challenged each other to be thinkers, not talking heads; reasoning was prized, not rants.
As Howe said of Kristol in 1969, even after they parted political ways, “What we share is that both of us profess a commitment to … civility in political discourse.”
That seemed to have died in America, long before Kristol and Howe.