The Tyler Durden of neoconservatism

Kristol-Irving-HRI still remember my wife’s remark when I told her I was going to the Reagan Library for the annual banquet hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition:

“Who’s going to be there?” she asked. “All eight of them?”

Indeed, Jews have a long tradition of liberalism in this country. For years, “New York intellectual” has served as a more social appropriate, though only mildly less anti-Semitic, stand-in for “liberal Jew.” But in the past half century — at least since 40 percent of Jews voted for Eisenhower in 1956 it’s been more common to find Jews who are political conservatives. One man can take the credit for that.

What Tyler Durden was to Fight Club, Irving Kristol was to two groups with a bit of overlap: Jewish political conservatives and, gulp, neocons.

Why then have the obits of Kristol, who died last Friday at 89, paid such short shrift to the importance of his ideas in the American Jewish community?

Unlike such earlier advocates of the right as Sen. Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, whose National Review journal Irving Kristol found “insufficiently analytical and ‘intellectual,’” most neoconservatives were not lifelong Republicans. They were former Democrats, often academics, who broke with their party over Vietnam, race relations and what they regarded as the breakdown of civic order.

Kristol left his liberal views behind as he became increasingly disillusioned by the perceived failures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, by the rise of crime, drug abuse and other problems that government programs were supposed to solve.

They shared the anti-communism of Buckley and others, but worried less about government spending than about moral and cultural issues, believing that people needed to change along with the system. Kristol, the old student rebel, was appalled by the long-haired youths of the late ’60s.

“Suddenly we discovered that we had been cultural conservatives all along,” he wrote. “This shock of recognition was to have profound consequences. We were bourgeois types, all of us, but by habit and instinct rather than reflection. Now, we had to decide what we were for, and why.”

That’s the bread-and-butter AP obit.

The New York Times barely mentions that Kristol as Jewish — though they talk a bit about his tenure at Commentary, then a liberal and influential magazine published by the American Jewish Committee, which the Times doesn’t mention.

But perhaps most surprising of the obits I read was this one from The Washington Post. The only time the letters J-E-W, and in that order, appear in the whole story is in reference to where Kristol attended college:

Irving William Kristol was born Jan. 22, 1920, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended City College of New York because of its free tuition. His classmates at a school dubbed a “Jewish proletarian Harvard” included many who would become the leading intellectuals of their generation, including sociologists Daniel Bell and Glazer and literary critic Irving Howe.

Now, you’d get the feeling from these obits that Kristol was shy about his Yiddishkeyt. He wasn’t, though I don’t think he was a religious Jew.

But why is his religion important?

One of Kristol’s famous lines, repeated over and over in obits, pertained to his definition of a neocon as a former liberal “mugged by reality.” And in recent years this has been the perspective of a great many Jews who feel you can’t both support Israel and U.S. policies of non-intervention. And during the past decade, neoconservatism, a movement for which Kristol was the godfather, became, like “New York intellectual,” a code for feelings of hostility and, at times, anti-Semitism.

Neocons, after all, were among the most prominent members of President Bush’s administration; they’ve received plenty of blame for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, a fear a great many liberal Jews felt before March 2003.

A friend of mine opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning. He predicted it would lead to a deadly morass; that it would create more terror and more terrorists; that President George W. Bush had neither the moral or mental gravitas to prosecute such a war. Over the weekend, he asked me if it was true that the Jews were behind the war. I looked at him dumbfounded. After all, he is Jewish.

In the months leading up to the war, polls showed that American Jews supported it in the same percentages as other Americans. Recent polls have shown a majority of Jews dissatisfied with the way the president has handled it.

But so many pundits and analysts are going around blaming Jews or people-who-happen-to-be-Jewish for the war, you’d think it was downloaded directly from www.eldersofzion.com. No wonder my friend is confused.

The fears were well founded, as Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of my old paper, reflected in this column. But it seems the pundits and the analysts have tired of blaming Jewish individuals for a bad decade. And that’s, obviously, a good thing.

I’m still reserving judgment, however, for Jack Abramoff and Bernard Madoff.

PHOTO: Kristol’s mug from the American Enterprise Institute, where he was senior emeritus fellow

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  • http://mithras.blogs.com Mithras

    And during the past decade, neoconservatism, a movement for which Kristol was the godfather, became, like “New York intellectual,” a code for feelings of hostility and, at times, anti-Semitism.

    That’s quite an accusation. It’s too bad you present no evidence at all to substantiate it.

  • S. Newark

    You might just as well ask the Liberals to unsubstantiate it.

  • Dave

    A man’s influence on his religious community is one of his lasting legacies. It’s outrageous for the obituary to omit it.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    I know, I committed the same kind of sin that we GetReligionistas would get all over a daily newser for committing. My apologies. I thought that was a pretty well know point of discussion.

    This from “The Anti-Neocon Fervor” in The City Journal:

    Not long ago, while visiting a friend at Oxford University, I found myself in a heated political discussion with a Scotsman. The subject of our dispute was the Iraq war, but the conversation turned toward the rise of latent anti-Semitism in once-respectable quarters of British opinion. Two years earlier, a story entitled “A Kosher Conspiracy?,” illustrated by a gold Star of David plunged into the heart of the Union Jack, graced the cover of Britain’s most prominent left-wing magazine, The New Statesman. Since then, the intellectual climate had only worsened. In response to my remark that many use the epithet “neocon” to describe Jews, my interlocutor replied, “I’d rather be an anti-Semite than a neocon.”

    Or, if you’d prefer the comfort of a trusted newsman, here’s George Will:

    It’s not necessarily anti-Semitic. There is often an anti-Semitic twist to it, yes.

    Not always, but certainly too often.

  • Davis

    When did George Will start playing Jimmy Carter? Replace “anti-Semitic” with “racist,” and you end up with the exact same argument. Any criticism of neocons or Israeli foreign policy is “anti-Semitic,” in the same way any criticism of Obama is “racism.” It’s a provocative point, but is it true?

    It is an interesting question of how little discussion there is of Krisol’s Jewishness, but I also wonder if it is like stating the sun rose. Is there anyone who doesn’t know Kristol was Jewish?

    It would be interesting to see how the Jewish press dealt with his death.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Here’s an appreciation for JTA from the executive editor of Commentary. And here’s the basic short obit. Meh.

  • Julia

    Interesting article in Commentary and vile comments in the combox.