The conscience of a Jewish conservative

The late Irving Kristol was not just a Jewish thinker, he was something else: a consummate American intellectual.

A Jewish thinker is normally someone devoted to the study and interpretation of Jewish texts, Jewish history, Jewish issues, Jewish ideas.The late Irving Kristol (1920-2009) was, for the most part, something else: a consummate American intellectual. Founding editor of The Public Interest, contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he is best known as the “godfather” of neoconservatism, a movement of ideas that spurred a major realignment in American politics.
Yet as we are reminded by The Neoconservative Persuasion, a sparkling collection of his essays edited by his widow, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Kristol was also an important Jewish thinker – and especially important for American Jews. Among his cohort of resolutely secular New York intellectuals, Kristol displayed an unusual attitude toward religion. Raised in Brooklyn by nominally traditional immigrant parents, and exposed to an inferior – he called it “decadent” – Jewish education, the teenage Kristol unaccountably chose to attend daily synagogue services after his mother died. (His father declined.)
A Trotskyist by the time he attended City College, he was persuaded by reading Plato that “it made sense for a supra-sensible universe of ideas to exist,” and by reading the Bible that the book of Genesis was, in some nonliteral sense, true. In his 20s, asked whether he really believed in God’s existence, Kristol found the question irrelevant; his relation to God was existential, not rationalist: “[A] religious person doesn’t ‘believe’ in God, he has faith in God.”
When he got a job at Commentary magazine in 1947, Kristol was assigned the area of religion as the only editor then interested in theology. Along with literature and politics, he read Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Christian theologians and the writings of American rabbis who complained that Commentary did not pay them sufficient attention. One of these rabbis was Milton Steinberg, whose book, Basic Judaism, occasioned Kristol’s first attempt, in 1948, to set down his thoughts about Judaism in a review included in this volume.
ON THE whole, he appreciated Steinberg’s view of Judaism as a system of living religiously rather than a system of religious thought. But he was troubled by something shallow in Steinberg’s “religion of the good deed and the good community,” which struck him as fatally blind to the serious torment of a Jewish heretic like Franz Kafka and in general to the problem of evil. Why didn’t American rabbis like Steinberg address the gulf between God’s imperatives and man’s cruelties?
Kristol was disturbed by “the transformation of [traditional Jewish] messianism into a shallow, if sincere, humanitarianism,” by the retirement of “Jewish thinking” into sociological platitudes. His critique of the thinness of American Jewish theology is even more striking today than it was at the time.
If it was odd for a secular Jewish intellectual to be rousing rabbis to their spiritual duties, it was no less odd for Kristol to oppose the liberal drift of American Jewry, not to mention the leftward tendencies of most of his fellow intellectuals. But he had learned something from personal experience. As an infantryman in Europe during World War II, Kristol had seen American fighting strength put to the service of rescuing civilization from its enemies.
His first published story after the war, “Adam and I,” describes how a survivor of Auschwitz talks an American Jewish soldier into providing him with clothing and a gun. Though the story is slight, and Kristol soon after gave up writing fiction, it conveys the American’s dawning realization of the difference between his own protected existence and that of a Jew, an Adam, who has been expelled from the civilized world.
One can see here the seeds of a more general outlook on politics and its purposes. As far as the Jews were concerned, Kristol thought that the encounter between the worst of European weakness and the best of American power ought to have wised them up politically, making them vigilant against declared enemies; he was disappointed to find how keen they remained to ignore history’s teachings. In later decades, those same teachings were what prompted Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality”: that is, someone essentially hopeful of human progress who – however reluctantly – musters the ability to confront the forces that would thwart it.
The phrase spoke for those who in the late 1960s and early ’70s were sobered up by aggressions against the American democratic order, and against Israel and the Jews, and by the failure of so many to stand up to them: from without, Soviet expansionism, Arab revanchism and other cold-war dangers; from within, New Left violence and the anti-American excesses of the accurately-named counterculture.
Kristol marveled that the liberalism of Jews, who ought to have been the first to rally in defense of the goodness of American society and its values, remained “especially rich in illusions.” How could Jews, of all people, fail to appreciate the justice of Israel or the force of the enmity against it; how could they blithely continue to support socialist, quasi-socialist or left-liberal positions that demonstrably threatened the social and economic health of the United States?
Kristol’s 1988 analysis of Jewish liberalism ends with the expressed conviction that his coreligionists’ “cognitive dissonance” could not continue for much longer. A final, darker essay on the subject, “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (1999), suggests no such hope, though one suspects that so congenitally even-tempered an observer still longed for evidence to the contrary.
Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary and, with Kristol, the most powerful voice of neoconservatism, has held up his late friend and colleague as “a great warrior on the battlefield of ideas and a great general in the political and cultural wars of our time.” The military metaphor is apt – there was, and there continues to be, a great battle of ideas over the essential worth of our civilization, and great battles require great leaders.
IN THE struggle for the minds of American Jews in particular, Kristol’s leadership was of a special kind. To him, the reflexes of American Jews had atrophied; overhabituated by too many centuries of accommodation to power, they had become unable or unwilling to recognize where their true friends lay, and who were now their true enemies. He encouraged them to consider afresh what it meant, and what it would take, to persevere as a minority in a primarily Christian country – without obsolete fears of religious persecution.
In a climate of cultural conformism – the elites being, as Kristol reminded us, much more conformist than the average American – this Jewish intellectual, as independent-minded as they come, gave American Jews the best guidelines for becoming at once fully mature citizens of their country and fully mature representatives of their people.
The writer is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press) and The Glatstein Chronicles (Yale). This article was first published by and is reprinted with permission.