How Jewish Is Neoconservatism?

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an early and prominent non-Jewish neoconservative. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, an early and prominent non-Jewish neoconservative. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The word “neoconservatism” has gradually slipped from public discourse in recent years, but many will recall that it used to be one of the most incendiary terms in politics. This was especially true in the United States, but even across the pond, people had heard of Paul Wolfowitz – and many hated him.

Even though the poor guy never made it higher than deputy secretary of defense in the U.S. foreign-policy hierarchy, he was identified with neoconservatism and thereby acquired the illusory halo of being one of the most powerful men in America.

Many typically neoconservative policies were and are widely popular. For instance, many on the American right have lately embraced an economic stance which is, on the whole, friendly to free enterprise, but more accepting of government intervention and the welfare state than traditional American conservatism. In decades past, this attitude was pioneered by neocons, Daniel Bell being an extreme example.

Even so, the label “neoconservative” has been tainted by derogatory usage to the point of being almost toxic. It seems the only two people who still embrace it are the retired Norman Podhoretz and the Iranian-born Shay Khatiri.

Against this backdrop, it is all the more unfortunate that the popular imagination has identified neoconservatism so closely with Jewish intellectuals. While describing the many conspiracy theories about “neocons” which he had encountered, David Brooks famously quipped: “con is short for ‘conservative’ and neo is short for ‘Jewish’.”

Now, it is true that Jews seem to have been overrepresented among neoconservative writers from the outset, even compared to their usual overrepresentation among political intellectuals. What can explain this? Is there something about Jewish culture that predisposes Jews to support neocon policies? Many antisemitic conspiracy theorists think so. However, the facts do not appear to bear this out.

A paper from the German Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, authored by one Pascal Fischer, offers a rare degree of insight into the history of the neoconservative current in American politics. As Fischer details, neoconservatism was largely brought forth by the migration of left-wing intellectuals to the right, especially as a reaction to the American left’s isolationism and insufficient anti-communism, and in response to the excesses of the New Left during the 1960s. However, having moved into the conservative camp, these people took on more right-wing views on a variety of issues, becoming, for instance, more averse to government intervention in the economy. Most any history of neoconservatism will give you this general picture. Observing the prevalence of Jews among neocons, Fischer observes that neoconservatism, being friendlier to the welfare state than other varieties of American conservatism, was accordingly more attractive to children of Jewish immigrants who had benefitted from the New Deal. For it was such Jews in particular who were most prominent in the early neoconservative movement. In Fischer’s words,

it is striking that many neoconservatives came from Jewish families which had moved to America from eastern Europe around 1900 and had settled in New York’s immigrant neighbourhoods.

Fischer also remarks that American conservatism had historically been dominated by WASPs. Thus, part of the historic enmity between neoconservatism and older American conservatism stemmed from the fact that “there were antisemitic tendencies, or at least a great deal of distance from ‘ethnic’ immigrants, within the old conservatism until long after the Second World War.” Although Fischer does not spell it out, this is obviously a possible reason why Jews who were inclined to join the conservative landscape would have flocked to neoconservatism, which was just then emerging from certain liberals’ discontent with what the left had become, rather than to more traditional conservative tribes. Finally, Fischer mentions this in passing: “It is, however, apparent that the majority of Christian neoconservatives are Catholics, another group which does not belong to the ancestral circle of the old conservatives.” Again, Fischer’s implication is clear: both Jews and Catholics gathered under the new umbrella of neoconservatism because the old right was so thoroughly dominated by WASPs.

It is surprising that such perceptive points should have been made by a German author, never (to my knowledge) having been expressed in the English language. Fischer’s account answers questions which would otherwise remain puzzling. Why were not just Jews in general, but specifically Jews from recent immigrant backgrounds so notably overrepresented among the early neoconservatives? Why were both Jews and Catholics so numerous amongst the neocons? Thanks to Fischer, we have convincing explanations.

Another point is worth making. Far from being some revolutionary, totally unprecedented innovation in American politics, neoconservative foreign policy emerged from a long-standing tendency of idealistic interventionism in American foreign relations. This tendency was present, in more or less manifest form, since the country’s founding. In Who Are We?, political scientist Samuel Huntington traces the strand of idealist interventionism in American foreign policy back to the country’s “Anglo-Protestant culture.” He spells out the difference between the USA and most countries:

In conducting their foreign policy, most states give overwhelming priority to what are generally called the ‘realist’ concerns of power, security, and wealth. When push comes to shove, the United States does this too. Americans also, however, feel the need to promote in their relations with other societies and within those societies the moralistic goals they pursue at home. [During the nineteenth century,] its emergence as a great power […] made it possible for America to promote abroad [its] values and principles[.] The relation between realism and moralism thus became the central issue of American foreign policy in the twentieth century, as Americans, in McDougall’s words, redefined their country from ‘promised land’ to ‘crusader state’.

As Robert Kagan once noted, “America did not change on September 11. It only became more itself. […] The ambition to play a grand role on the world stage is deeply rooted in the American character.”

If it is indeed “Anglo-Protestant culture” which is at the root of neoconservatism, that explains why neoconservatism was popular in Britain as well as the United States, but hardly anywhere else. The anthology The Neocon Reader notably includes a contribution from British neoconservative Michael Gove. It also features a chapter by Irving Kristol stating that, generally, neocons’ “twentieth-century heroes” are Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan. Even in terms of foreign policy alone, those presidents’ influence on neoconservatism is clearly discernible. This intellectual pedigree underscores how deeply neoconservatism was rooted in the American political tradition.

Certain paranoid individuals think they see some inherent relationship between Jewish culture and neoconservatism. And yet, there seems to be little evidence of any such connection. If anything, the Jewish backgrounds of some neoconservatives might have been expected to militate against neoconservative positions. For instance, one of Irving Kristol’s best-known statements is the following passage:
“Here, I will simply plead my ­Jewishness and say, equality has never been a Jewish thing. Rich men are fine, poor men are fine, so long as they are decent human beings. I do not like equality.”

On the basis of these few sentences alone, one would assume that neoconservatives were especially friendly to free enterprise and especially hostile to government and, above all, the redistribution of wealth. Yet the opposite is true. Neocons have been known to be more friendly to government interventionism and the welfare state than others on the American right. Kristol himself, who was known as “the godfather of neoconservatism,” penned a book entitled Two Cheers for Capitalism. Two cheers, that is, as opposed to a full three.

Thus, it seems that Kristol’s neoconservative ideas actually diverged from his Jewish heritage as he understood it. (Of course, one might argue that Kristol had misinterpreted the values of the Jewish tradition, but that is irrelevant.)

So was neoconservatism ever a particularly Jewish intellectual current? In terms of its membership, yes. But the notion that there was something specifically Jewish about its ideas has, to my knowledge, not been adequately demonstrated. It seems more as though, to follow Fischer’s analysis and Huntington’s, neoconservatism was a nexus of ideas naturally arising from the Cold War-era environment in which it was born, in addition to stemming from perennial elements of American culture.

About the Author
My writings about politics and literature have appeared in a dozen online publications. These include Providence, the Cleveland Review of Books, Merion West, VoegelinView, Redaction Report, and Cultural Revue. I occasionally publish poetry and have written a book about nationalism and ethnic identity. My academic background is in International Relations.
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