Norman Podhoretz receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, 2004.
Norman Podhoretz receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush, 2004.
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Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right by Benjamin Balint. Public Affairs, 304 pages, $26.95

Norman Podhoretz: A Biography, by Thomas Jeffers Cambridge University Press, 408 pages, $35

Considering Commentary's longtime position as the leading American Jewish exponent of political conservatism, some may find it surprising that throughout its first two decades, the magazine articulated sharply left-of-center positions on a range of foreign and domestic issues. The magazine's editors and many of its most significant writers, like quite a few other American Jews, shifted to the right only in the late 1960s and early 1970s. How substantial that shift was, and whether Commentary contributed to it or merely reflected what was already taking place, are among the important questions raised by two new books, Benjamin Balint's history of the journal, "Running Commentary," and Thomas Jeffers' biography of longtime Commentary editor in chief Norman Podhoretz.

The American Jewish Committee launched Commentary in 1945 with the goal of creating what its leaders described as "a journal of significant thought and opinion on Jewish affairs and contemporary issues," which would be "hospitable to divergent views" rather than represent the viewpoint of its sponsors. But from time to time, Balint notes, the "uncommonly articulate and uncommonly opinionated group of New York intellectuals" recruited by founding editor Elliot Cohen ventured beyond merely diverging from the consensus. Many of them were deeply alienated from Judaism, and before long, their sharp critiques of Jewish life had AJC executive vice president John Slawson complaining to his colleagues about "what happens when unfriendly groups - anti-Semites and others - get hold of this material."

Still, perhaps Slawson and company could derive some comfort from the fact that in its early years, Commentary's attitude toward Zionism, and later Israel, was consistent with the lukewarm approach of its sponsors. The AJC had opposed Zionism until 1947, and continued to fret audibly about dual loyalty accusations after Israel's establishment. Elliot Cohen's Commentary ran essays by the philosopher Hannah Arendt and various Israeli pacifists taking aim at the very concept of Jewish nationalism and sovereignty. Balint, a former assistant editor of Commentary (and a contributor to Haaretz Books ), attributes this tendency to the "old socialist [i.e. universalist] habits of mind" of the magazine's central figures as well as their fears that a Jewish state would be "militaristic" and "tribalistic." It may be true that those were their concerns, but Balint misses another possibility: that this uneasiness over Zionism also reflected the Commentary crowd's desire to be fully accepted as Americans, a longing they shared with Jews all across the political spectrum.

For further reading:

Multi-cultural longing for Zion
Q and A / A conversation with Sue Fishkoff
The root of return

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the magazine underwent two noticeable changes. The first was a shift "from leftist atheism to religion" (as Balint puts it ) and was led by sociologist Will Herberg, author of the 1955 best-seller "Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology." Herberg, an ex-Marxist, like most of his Commentary colleagues, argued that the three denominations had become equal components of "the American religion." The newfound affinity for Judaism that Herberg and other Commentary contributors exhibited was not so much an embrace of personal religious observance as it was a means of finding a comfortable place for Jews in postwar America. Herberg wrote more than 20 essays for Commentary on religious topics during this period; as editor, Cohen also published the writings of such noted Jewish theologians as Joseph Soloveitchik, Leo Baeck, Mordecai Kaplan and Emanuel Rackman.

The second significant trend in the 1950s among the Commentary "Family" (as the editors and frequent contributors called themselves ) was an unyielding anti-Communism. This completed a process begun in the late 1930s, when many of the future Commentary writers first grew disillusioned with Communism and shifted to socialism or mainstream liberalism. In the 1950s they became Cold War liberals, denouncing the Soviet Union and criticizing American apologists for Stalin, while at the same time dismissing senator Joseph McCarthy as a bully and a demagogue. Commentary's staunch anti-Communism infuriated some of its old friends, most notably the author and critic Irving Howe, who responded, in 1954, by establishing his own journal, Dissent.

Still, the Family remained firmly in the liberal camp, and its most influential critiques of government and social policy came from the left. A Michael Harrington essay in Commentary on the extent of poverty in the United States, for example, soon turned into his 1962 best-seller "The Other America," which played a significant role in stimulating president Lyndon Johnson's anti-poverty initiatives.

Under Norman Podhoretz, who served as editor between 1960 and 1995 and remains Commentary's "editor-at-large," the magazine aggressively promoted the black civil rights movement, even publishing a sympathetic essay about a Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver (although the author conceded Cleaver might be "lacking in certain fundamental moral qualities" ). Podhoretz himself set off a firestorm of controversy with a 1963 essay, "My Negro Problem - and Ours," in which he argued that interracial marriage - "the wholesale merging of the two races" - was the only real answer to America's racial problem. As for foreign policy, Podhoretz steered the magazine away from its traditional anti-Communist position and strongly opposed American participation in the Vietnam War.

Then, in late 1969 or early 1970, Podhoretz had a change of heart and turned vehemently against the left. Balint and Jeffers differ as to the immediate cause. Balint believes the tipping point was cultural: Podhoretz's growing resentment of the student radicals, "for what he regarded as their infantile ideas and hipster boorishness, their fantasies of revolution, and their self-indulgence." According to Jeffers, a professor at English at Marquette University and editor of a collection of Podhoretz's writings, the transformation was the result of a religious experience Podhoretz had at his country home in the Catskills. That episode left him convinced "that Judaism was true" and that the correct philosophy of life was one guided by "duty and responsibility [rather than] rights and entitlements."

Podhoretz's ideological reversal may have been dramatic (and very public ), but it was something that a significant number of American Jews already shared, albeit to varying degrees. Many left-wing Jewish activists were profoundly alienated by the anti-Israel positions adopted by the New Left during and after the 1967 Six-Day War. A serious rift between African-Americans and Jews in the civil rights movement resulted from the eruption of anti-Semitism among militant blacks, especially during the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teachers' strike, which pitted a largely Jewish teachers union against black leaders of a Brooklyn school district.

Political and social circumstances, not essays in Commentary, caused these developments. Still, it may be said that Commentary's forceful and engaging critiques of every major aspect of the New Left - its militant politics, its peculiar culture, its radical economics - did provide the intellectual underpinnings for an important shift in Jewish opinion. For the first time, a not insignificant minority of American Jews embraced conservatism (or neoconservatism, as it was becoming known ), and a significant number of others moved from the left to the center. The electoral consequences of this shift could be seen as early as the 1972 presidential race, when the incumbent, Richard Nixon, received about 35 percent of the Jewish vote, unprecedented for a Republican.

It is worth noting that Commentary also played a role in shaping American Jewish perceptions of issues surrounding the Holocaust, though this is not adequately explored by either Balint or Jeffers.

Among other things, it sharply criticized Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem” ‏(for depicting Europe’s Jews as accomplices in their own destruction‏); published Emil Fackenheim’s famous 1968 essay arguing that in the wake of the Holocaust, Jewish survival should be seen as the 614th commandment; and featured David S. Wyman’s influential 1978 expose of the U.S. refusal to bomb Auschwitz, the centerpiece of his subsequent bestseller, “The Abandonment of the Jews.”

Moynihan lambastes

By the mid-1970s, Commentary was widely recognized not merely as the vanguard of a small but growing segment of American Jewry but, more importantly, as a platform for centrist and conservative intellectuals who were playing an ever-greater role in American politics. Daniel P. Moynihan’s 1975 Commentary essay lambasting U.S. diplomats at the United Nations for their weak and apologetic responses to anti-American tirades by Third World representatives led directly to the Ford administration’s decision to make him U.S. ambassador to the UN. Four years later, a Commentary essay by Jeane Kirkpatrick criticizing Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy caught the eye of presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, leading to her own appointment as American ambassador to the UN.

For 12 years, through the Reagan and Bush I administrations, Podhoretz and his colleagues enjoyed a seat at the table. Many of the ideas for which they had fought were adopted by U.S. policymakers. A number of Commentary contributors were appointed to government positions. And with the collapse of the USSR in 1991, their advocacy of steadfast Western opposition to Soviet expansionism appeared to be vindicated.

Commentary’s impact was less obvious within the American Jewish community, where polls and election returns indicated the continuing preference of most American Jews for liberal policy positions. Eventually, an exasperated Podhoretz would author a book-length analysis, published last year, “Why Are Jews Liberals?” ‏(His answer, although it does not really answer the question, was that for many Jews, liberalism has become a secular religion, to which they adhere even if, in his view, their real interests lie elsewhere.‏) On this score, Balint offers a particularly interesting observation: The persistence of Jewish liberal voting patterns “grated so much” on the Commentary crowd because while they had made the transition from outsiders to insiders in American life, most other Jews continue to view themselves − and to vote − as outsiders, identifying with social and economic classes of which they are not actually a part.

Balint’s “Running Commentary” offers a number of perceptive insights along these lines, which ultimately make it a more original and thoughtful study than Jeffers’ biography of Podhoretz. Balint correctly situates the story of Commentary within the “larger story about how Jews over the last half-century embraced America and how they were changed by that embrace.” Despite ‏(or perhaps because of‏) the fact that he himself was an editor at the magazine, Balint does not shy away from periodically ‏(although not frequently‏) criticizing the subjects of his study. Jeffers, by contrast, is seldom critical of Podhoretz. Still, the two books complement one another well and, together, present a fascinating chronicle of contemporary American, and American Jewish, intellectual history.

What does the future portend for Commentary and Podhoretz?

The collapse of the Soviet Union, combined with stiff competition from lively conservative periodicals such as The Weekly Standard and The American Spectator, took some of the wind out of Commentary’s sails as the millennium approached. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, however, Commentary reasserted itself with a fresh focus on the need for an uncompromising war against Islamic terrorism.

Podhoretz characterized the war against terror as World War IV ‏(he counts the Cold War as III‏). The magazine strongly advocated military action to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime, and is now recommending a preemptive strike against the government of Iran.

Not surprisingly, Commentary today − with Podhoretz’s son John at the helm − has positioned itself as the voice of Jewish critics of the Obama administration on both domestic and foreign policy. That alone makes it likely Commentary will remain a force to be reckoned with on the American scene in the years ahead.

Rafael Medoff is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies (www.wymaninstitute.org).