In the Diaspora: William F. Buckley and the Jews

Steering clear of 'crackpot alley.'

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
In American political discourse, we take for granted that the term "neoconservative" identifies a certain kind of Jew. If anything, at times during the Iraq war the euphemism has been flung around so promiscuously as to take on the taint of bigotry. But seen against the broader sweep of history, against the immigrant generation's deep affinity for New Deal liberalism and various types of socialism, one can be amazed that a substantial number of American Jews became conservatives of any kind at all. That phenomenon, like it or not, owes more to William F. Buckley, Jr. than to any other figure. Without Buckley's efforts a half-century ago to purge American conservatism of anti-Semitism, it is difficult if not impossible to imagine that Norman Podhoretz, Irving Kristol and the other founders of neoconservatism could ever have comfortably lined up on the political Right. For American Jews, their movement is the legacy that Buckley bequeathed when he died last week. In the vast number of obituaries, eulogies and remembrances that have already been written, much has been made of Buckley's role in bringing intellectual legitimacy, respectability and rigor to conservatism. Many a writer has harked back ironically to Lionel Trilling's pronouncement in the 1950s that liberalism was "America's sole intellectual tradition," while conservatism consisted of nothing more than a miscellany of "irritable mental gestures which seem to resemble ideas." There was a specifically Jewish relevance, though, to Buckley's way of proving Trilling wrong. Conservatism before Buckley did provide a nourishing petri dish for anti-Semitism. Charles Lindbergh embodied the isolationist streak that blamed the Jews (along with the British and FDR) for dragging America into Europe's war. The John Birch Society, while skirting clear of overt anti-Semitism, trafficked in the familiar conspiratorial code words for international Jewry when its leader, Robert Welch, blamed a "hidden conspiracy of Insiders" called "the Illuminati" for everything from the Russian Revolution to the income tax to the United Nations. The backlash against civil rights in the American South viewed northern Jews as the consummate "outside agitators," and singled out scores of temples and synagogues for arson and vandalism. IN SUCH a climate, even Jews like Podhoretz and Kristol who were losing faith with welfare-state liberalism and being alienated by black nationalism - being "mugged by reality" in Kristol's famous aphorism - would not have found a comfortable political home, much less a natural one, in the conservative movement. William F. Buckley changed that. Buckley knew first-hand the sound of Jew hatred, for he heard it from his own father and namesake at the family dinner table, as John B. Judis recounts in his excellent biography, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives. Judis posits that Buckley's military service during World War II and the revelation of the Holocaust led him to forever break with his father's prejudice. (Indeed, the historian Deborah Dash Moore has pointed out in her book GI Jews that the wartime experience of Jews and gentiles fighting together against fascism led to the construction of the entire concept of a "Judeo-Christian tradition" in America.) In a typical Buckley quip, he said, "In my own experience, anti-Semitism is not a communicable disease." More importantly, he acted on his attitude when he founded the National Review magazine in 1955. From early on, he made a point of separating it from the lunatic fringe of the Right, particularly the John Birch Society, even at the cost of periodic losses in circulation. The most succinct defense Buckley ever offered for his approach came in the early 1960s, when he replied to a letter from a John Bircher who claimed Buckley was harming the conservative movement. "Our movement has got to govern," Buckley wrote. "It has got to expand by bringing into our ranks those people who are, at the moment, on our immediate Left - the moderate, wishy-washy conservatives; the Nixonites… I am talking… about 20 to 30 million people… If they are being asked to join a movement whose leadership believes the drivel of Robert Welch, they will pass by crackpot alley, and will not pause until they feel the warm embrace of those way over on the other side, the Liberals." When Buckley referred to those malleable moderates, he could very well have been thinking of Jews who became progressively estranged from liberalism by crime, welfare and affirmative action, the social forces and government policies that went against their belief in meritocracy and their own optimistic experience of America. It seems no accident that the young conservative insurgents inspired by Buckley captured the 1964 Republican nomination for president Barry Goldwater, an ancestral Jew (albeit also the punchline to the joke that went, "I always knew the first Jew to run for president would be an Episcopalian"). As early as 1959, Buckley was speaking out publicly against the persecution of Soviet Jews. While his agitation on the issue arose from an overarching disdain of "Godless Communism," as the mid-century phrase went, it put him on the barricades "long before anyone was really aware there was a problem and it became a politically beneficial position to take," said Gal Beckerman, the author of Let My People Go, a forthcoming history of the movement to liberate Soviet Jewry. In the 1980s, when Patrick Buchanan began denouncing Israel and its "amen corner" in Congress, Buckley painfully and painstakingly broke with his fellow traveler, devoting a 40,000-word essay in National Review to arriving at the conclusion that Buchanan was indeed engaging in anti-Semitism. The critique was subsequently published in book form as In Search of Anti-Semitism. It must be said that Buckley had his frailties on the subject. His fervent support for Joseph McCarthy and his initial endorsement of "state's rights" in the segregated South put him in de facto coalition with elements of "crackpot alley." Buckley could not bring himself to fully disavow the National Review contributor Joe Sobran, who assailed the Israel lobby in terms very similar to Patrick Buchanan's. Still, over the course of nearly 60 years in public life, William F. Buckley, Jr. remained largely consistent and unquestionably effective in cleansing the Augean stables. As Mark Gerson, the author of The Neoconservative Vision, put it earlier this week: "Buckley's systematic and continually vigilant elimination of anti-Semites from the ranks of mainstream American conservatism made it an intellectual disposition that everyone who abhorred anti-Semitism - Jews and gentiles alike - would at the very least seriously consider."