Is the Neocon Right?


Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary magazine, and unofficial senior member of the American neoconservative movement, has not modified his criticism of his fellow Jews for being on the political left.

In an interview with Hillel Italie of the Associated Press to tout his new book, Why Are Jews Liberal? Podhoretz expresses puzzlement on why most American Jews continue to identify themselves as liberals despite what he insists is an abandonment of support for Israel by the American left.


The vast majority of American Jewish voters have supported the Democratic or more liberal candidate in every election since 1932. Indeed, President Barack Obama received an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote, and previously, Al Gore and Bill Clinton received similar huge majorities among Jewish voters. This is confounding to Podhoretz, who publicly repudiated liberalism in his famous book Breaking Ranks.

He and other early neocons like Irving Kristol and former United States Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan felt that liberal leaders such as former Senator George McGovern were cool in their support for Israel. In Podhoretz’s eyes, conservatives like Richard Nixon were strong supporters of the Jewish State. (Interestingly, Podhoretz is an apologist for Nixon’s well-known anti-Semitic streak: “A lot of Nixon’s anti-Semitism is talk,” as though talk were somehow unimportant).

Fast forwarding, Podhoretz points to such leftists as former President Jimmy Carter, and his recent book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid to make his case that in the current climate, Jews are unwise to cast their political lot with the left.

The trouble is, much of Podhoretz’s criticism is nothing more than a sophomoric “Straw Man” argument — he suggests that those who espouse anti-Israel or pro-Palestinian positions are left of center, so therefore all liberals must be wrongheaded. This kind of logic would earn a first-year law student a “D” for “Disingenuous.”

Imagine if the tables were turned. What would Podhoretz think of this statement: “How could any Jewish person be a conservative, because Glenn Beck is a conservative and he’s a nut?” Does that make logical sense? Of course not.

Podhoretz is hardly a fool, and his carefully considered opinions, which have been honed for nearly 40 years, deserve to be given serious attention. He makes a good point that the far left – who he mistakes for “liberals” – is too hard on Israel and too easy on Palestinians and Islamists. The aggressively pro-Palestinian Hedy Epsteins of the world really do operate in some make-believe land in which it’s fine to fire 6,000 rockets into a sovereign nation and expect no retaliation. Such viewpoints are misguided and highly dangerous.

But to suggest that the views of the likes of a Carter or Epstein are representative of the left-of-center Jewish population in America is intellectually dishonest. Clearly, not all people who call themselves liberals are on the fringe of the left; indeed, very few are – that’s why it’s called “the fringe.”

Jews tend to support liberal causes because of our most ancient teachings about the mitzvot of pursuing justice, of clothing and feeding the poor and of welcoming the stranger. After centuries of persecution, from the time of the ancient Egyptians and Romans, through the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and Expulsions, exiles, massacres and pogroms, Jews have developed a collective and enduring empathy for the poor and the disenfranchised in society. A large swath of the conservative movement rejects substantial governmental intervention in such matters.

Moreover, to suggest that the right has supported Israel more fervently than the left is somewhat misleading if recent history is considered. While it is true that the administration of President George W. Bush was so supportive of Israel that it practically gave Israel’s government a “blank check,” the peace process did not advance one iota during his two terms. Only in the last few months of Bush’s term did Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice make an effort to re-start the moribund Israel-Palestinian peace process.

The Obama Administration, by contrast, has named George Mitchell, the distinguished former United States Senator who later helped broker peace in Northern Ireland, as the special envoy to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Mitchell is to be joined in his efforts by Dennis Ross, a veteran of Mideast diplomacy in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations.

Yes, Podhoretz remains, at 79, a compelling and powerful intellectual presence among American Jewry. But no, his position that Jews are wrong to be liberals remains as incorrect now as when he first put forward the notion 30-plus years ago.