September 18, 2003
Over the last year, there’s been a torrent of articles on
neoconservatism raising (usually implicitly) some vexing issues: Are
neoconservatives different from
other conservatives? Is neoconservatism a Jewish movement?
Is it “anti-Semitic”
to say so?
The dispute between the neocons
and more traditional conservatives — “paleoconservatives”
— is especially important because the latter now find themselves on
the outside, looking in on the conservative power structure.
Hopefully, some of the venom has been taken out of this argument
by the remarkable recent article by neoconservative “godfather”
Irving Kristol (“The
Neoconservative Persuasion,” Weekly Standard, August 25,
2003). With commendable frankness, Kristol admitted that
“the historical task and political
purpose of neoconservatism would seem to be this: to convert the
Republican party, and American conservatism in general, against
their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics
suitable to governing a modern democracy.”
And, equally frankly, Kristol eschewed any attempt to justify
U.S. support for Israel in terms of American national interest:
“[L]arge nations, whose identity is
ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United
States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition
to more material concerns… That is why we feel it necessary to
defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened. No complicated
geopolitical calculations of national interest are
If the US is an “ideological” nation, this can only mean that the
motivations of neoconservative ideology are a legitimate subject of
For example, it is certainly true that the neocons’
foreign policy fits well with a plausible version of Jewish
interests, but is arguably only tenuously related to the
interests of the U.S. Also, neocons oppose the
isolationism of important sections of traditional American
conservatism. And neocon attitudes on issues like race and
immigration differ profoundly from those of traditional mainstream
conservatives — but resemble closely the common attitudes of the
wider American Jewish community.
Count me among those who accept that the Jewish
commitment of leading neoconservatives has become a critical
influence on U.S. policies, and that the effectiveness of the
neoconservatives is greatly enhanced by their alliance with the
organized Jewish community. In my opinion, this conclusion is based
on solid data and reasonable inferences. But like any other theory,
of course, it is subject to reasoned discussion and disproof.
We shouldn’t be surprised by the importance of ethnicity in human
affairs. Nor should we be intimidated by charges of anti-Semitism.
We should be able to discuss these issues openly and honestly. This
is a practical matter, not a moral one.
Ethnic politics in the U.S. are certainly not limited to Jewish activism. They are an
absolutely normal phenomenon throughout history and around the
But for well over half a century, with rare exceptions,
Jewish influence has been off-limits for rational discussion. Now,
however, as the U.S. acquires an empire in the Middle East, this ban
must inevitably fall
My views on these issues are shaped by my research on several
other influential Jewish-dominated intellectual and political
movements, including the Boasian school of anthropology, Freudian
psychoanalysis, the Frankfurt School of Social Research, Marxism and
several other movements of the radical left, as well as the movement
to change the ethnic balance of the United States by allowing mass,
My conclusion: Contemporary neoconservatism fits into the general
pattern of Jewish intellectual and political activism
I have identified in my work.
I am not, of course, saying that all Jews, or even most
Jews, supported these movements. Nor did these movements work in
concert: some were intensely hostile to one another. I am
saying, however, that the key figures in these movements
identified in some sense as Jews and viewed their participation as
in some sense advancing Jewish interests.
In all of the Jewish intellectual and political movements I
studied, there is a strong Jewish identity among the core figures.
All center on charismatic Jewish leaders—people such as Boas,
Trotsky and Freud— who are revered as messianic, god-like figures.
Neoconservatism’s key founders trace their intellectual ancestry
to the “New York Intellectuals,” a group that originated as
followers of Trotskyite theoretician Max Schactman in the 1930s and
centered around influential journals like Partisan Review and
Commentary (which is in fact published by the American Jewish Committee). In the
case of neoconservatives, their early identity as radical leftist
disciples shifted as there began to be evidence of anti-Semitism in
the Soviet Union. Key figures in leading them out of the political
left were philosopher Sydney Hook and Elliot Cohen, editor of
Commentary. Such men as Hook, Irving Kristol,
Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer and Seymour Martin Lipset,
were deeply concerned about anti-Semitism and other Jewish issues.
Many of them worked closely with Jewish activist organizations.
After the 1950s, they became increasingly disenchanted with leftism.
Their overriding concern was the welfare of Israel.
By the 1970s, the neocons were taking an aggressive stance
against the Soviet Union, which they saw as a bastion of
anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel. Richard Perle was the prime
organizer of Congressional support for the 1974
Jackson-Vanik Amendment which angered the Soviet Union by
linking bilateral trade issues to freedom of emigration, primarily
of Jews from the Soviet Union to Israel and the United States.
Current key leaders include an astonishing number of
individuals well placed to influence the Bush Administration:
(Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, I. Lewis Libby,
Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, David Wurmser, Abram Shulsky),
interlocking media and thinktankdom (Bill Kristol, Michael Ledeen,
Stephen Bryen, John Podhoretz, Daniel Pipes), and the academic world
(Richard Pipes, Donald Kagan).
As the neoconservatives lost faith in radical leftism, several key
neocons became attracted to the writings of Leo Strauss, a
classicist and political philosopher at the University of Chicago.
Strauss had a very strong Jewish identity and viewed his philosophy
as a means of ensuring Jewish survival in the Diaspora. As he put it
in a 1962 Hillel House lecture, later republished in Leo
Strauss: Political Philosopher and Jewish Thinker:
“I believe I can say, without any
exaggeration, that since a very, very early time the main theme of
my reflections has been what is called the ‘Jewish
Strauss has become a cult figure—the quintessential rabbinical
guru with devoted disciples.
While Strauss and his followers have come to be known as
neoconservatives — and have even claimed to be simply
“conservatives”— there is nothing
conservative about their goals. This is most obviously the case
in foreign policy, where they are attempting to rearrange the entire
Middle East in the interests of Israel. But it is also the case with
domestic policy, where acceptance of rule by an aristocratic elite
would require a complete political transformation. Strauss believed
that this aristocracy would be compatible with Jewish interests.
Strauss notoriously described the need for an external
exoteric language directed at outsiders, and an internal
esoteric language directed at ingroup members. In other
words, the masses had to be deceived.
But actually this is a general feature of the movements
I have studied. They invariably frame issues in language that
appeals to non-Jews, rather than explicitly in terms of Jewish
interests. The most common rhetoric used by Jewish intellectual and
political movements has been the language of moral universalism and
the language of science—languages that appeal to the educated elites
of the modern Western world. But beneath the rhetoric it is easy to
find statements expressing the Jewish agendas of the principle
For example, anthropologists under the leadership of Boas viewed
their crusade against the concept of “race” as, in turn, combating
anti-Semitism. They also saw their theories as promoting the
ideology of cultural pluralism, which served perceived Jewish
interests because the U.S. would be seen as consisting of many
co-equal cultures rather than as a European Christian society.
Similarly, psychoanalysts commonly used their theories to portray
anti-Jewish attitudes as symptoms of psychiatric disorder.
Conversely, the earlier generation of American Jewish
Trotskyites ignored the horrors
of the Soviet
Union until the emergence there of state-sponsored
Neoconservatives have certainly appealed to American patriotic
platitudes in advocating war throughout the Middle East—gushing
about spreading American democracy and freedom to the area, while
leaving unmentioned their own strong ethnic ties and family links to
Michael Lind has called
attention to the neoconservatives’ “odd bursts of ideological
enthusiasm for ‘democracy’”— odd because these calls for
democracy and freedom throughout the Middle East are also coupled
with support for the Likud Party and other like-minded groups in
Israel that are driven by a vision of an ethnocentric,
expansionist Israel that, to outside observers at least, bears an
unmistakable (albeit unmentionable) resemblance to apartheid South
These inconsistencies of the neoconservatives are not odd or
surprising. The Straussian idea is to achieve the aims of the elite
ingroup by using language designed for mass appeal. War for
“democracy and freedom” sells much better than a war
explicitly aimed at achieving the foreign policy goals of
Neoconservatives have responded to charges that their foreign
policy has a Jewish agenda by labeling any such analysis as “anti-Semitic.”
Similar charges have been echoed by powerful activist Jewish
organizations like the ADL and
But at the very least, Jewish neoconservatives like Paul
Wolfowitz, who were deeply involved in pushing for the war in
Iraq, should frankly discuss how their close family and personal
ties to Israel have affected their attitudes on US foreign policy in
the Middle East.
Wolfowitz, however, has refused to discuss this issue beyond terming
such suggestions “disgraceful.”
argument is that neoconservatism is not Jewish because of the
presence of various non-Jews amongst their ranks.
But in fact, the ability to recruit prominent non-Jews, while
nevertheless maintaining a Jewish core and a commitment to Jewish
interests, has been a hallmark—perhaps the key hallmark—of
influential Jewish intellectual and political movements throughout
the 20th century. Freud’s commented famously on the need
for a non-Jew to represent psychoanalysis, a role played by Ernest
Jones and C. G. Jung. Margaret
Mead and Ruth Benedict were the public face of Boasian
anthropology. And, although Jews represented over half the
membership of both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party USA
at various times, neither party ever had Jews as presidential
candidates and no Jew held the top position in the Communist Party
USA after 1929.
In all the Jewish intellectual and political movements I
reviewed, non-Jews have been accepted and given highly-visible
roles. Today, those roles are played most prominently by Dick Cheney
and Donald Rumsfeld whose ties with neoconservatives go back many
years. It makes excellent psychological sense to have the
spokespeople for any movement resemble the people they are trying to
In fact, neoconservatism is rather unusual in the degree to which
policy formulation — as opposed to implementation — is so
predominantly Jewish. Perhaps this reflects U.S. conditions in the
late 20th century.
All the Jewish intellectual and political movements I studied
were typified by a deep sense of orthodoxy—a sense of “us versus
them.” Dissenters are expelled, usually amid character assassination
and other recriminations.
This has certainly been a feature of the neocon movement. The
classic recent example of this “We vs. They” world is David
Frum’s attack on “unpatriotic conservatives” as
anti-Semites. Any conservative who opposes the Iraq war as contrary
to U.S. interests and who notes the pro-Israeli motivation of many
of the important players, is not to be argued with, but eradicated.
“We turn our backs on them.” This is not the spirit out of
which the Anglo-American parliamentary tradition was developed, and
in fact was not
endorsed by other non-Jewish pro-war conservatives.
Jewish intellectual and political movements have typically had
ready access to prestigious mainstream media channels, and this is
certainly true for the neocons. The anchoring by the
Washington Post of the columns of Charles Krauthammer
and Robert Kagan
and by the New York Times of William Safire's
illustrates this. But probably more important recently has been the
invariable summoning of neoconservatives to represent the
“conservative” line on the TV Networks. Is it unreasonable to
suppose that this may be somewhat influenced by the famously heavy
Jewish role in these operations?
Immigration policy provides a valuable acid test for the
proposition the neoconservatism is actually a vehicle for perceived
Jewish ethnic interests. I believe I have been able to demonstrate
that pro-immigration elements in American public life have, for over
a century, been largely led, funded,
energized and organized by the Jewish community [PDF file]. American Jews have taken
this line, with a few isolated exceptions, because they have
believed, as Leonard S. Glickman, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant
Aid Society, has bluntly stated,
“The more diverse American society is the safer [Jews]
are.” Having run out of Russian Jews, the HIAS is now deeply
involved in recruiting refugees from Africa.
When, in the middle 1990s an immigration reform movement arose
amongst American conservatives, the reaction of the neoconservatives
ranged from cold to hostile. No positive voice was permitted on the
Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal, by then a
neoconservative domain. (Perhaps significantly, a more recent
exception has been a relatively favorable review of the anti-illegal
immigration book Mexifornia—
whose author, the military historian Victor Davis Hanson, has
distinguished himself by the extreme
hawkishness of his views on the Middle East.) The main vehicle
of immigration reform sentiment, National Review, once a bastion of
traditional conservative thought, was quite quickly captured
by neoconservatives and its opposition to immigration reduced to
Prior to the post-9/11 U.S. invasion of the Middle East, this
suppression of the immigration reform impulse among conservatives
was probably the single most important contribution of the
neoconservatives to the course of U.S. history.
It may yet prove to be the most disastrous.
Kevin MacDonald [email him] is
Professor of Psychology at California State University-Long