Irving Kristol on Jews and Judaism

Gertrude Himmelfarb, the noted neoconservative writer and wife of Irving Kristol, discusses “Irving Kristol on Jews and Judaism“:

“Is there such a thing as a ‘neo’ gene?” With this query Irving Kristol opens his 1995 essay, “An Autobiographical Memoir.” His life, he recalls, has been a series of such “neo’s”: neo-Marxist, neo-Trotskyite, neo-socialist, neo-liberal, and, finally, neo-conservative. “No ideology or philosophy,” he explains, “has ever been able to encompass all of reality to my satisfaction. There was always a degree of detachment qualifying my commitment.”

But there is an exception. One “neo” has been “permanent” throughout his life, Kristol writes, and was “probably at the root of all the others.” In his religious views (although not, he notes parenthetically, in his religious observance), he has always been “neo-orthodox.”

From his early Trotskyite days through his movement to become the Godfather of Neoconservatism, his Jewishness (and what it meant) was a central concern of Kristol’s:

Returning home after the war, Kristol discovered a new outlet for his literary as well as his theotropic impulses in the recently founded Jewish monthly Commentary. He hastily wrote a short story which, to his surprise, the magazine accepted and even paid for. Based upon his encounter with a young Jewish survivor in a displaced-persons camp near Marseille — in the story, the meeting takes place in the Zionist headquarters in Marseille — “Adam and I” recounts the confrontation between the troubled, guilt-ridden narrator (clearly, Kristol himself) and the rather aggressive young man seeking his help. This is Kristol’s only published story. (He later wrote, and scrapped, a novel, deciding that fiction was not his forte.) It is also his first literary venture with an explicitly Jewish theme. He followed it up with a review of a book on the Holocaust and a short essay on Communist anti-Semitism.

“By the late 1940s,” Kristol writes in one of his memoirs, “religious thought was my most passionate interest — though in the secular-liberal milieu in which I lived and worked, it was an interest to be revealed with prudence.” This may seem an odd comment to make, for Kristol’s “milieu” was then Commentary, where he had become an assistant editor. That Jewish journal, however, was itself of a decidedly “secular-liberal” temperament, not given to any serious interest in Jewish religion or for that matter religion in general. (Nathan Glazer, also on the staff at the time, has said that Kristol was the magazine’s de-facto religion editor.)

On the subject of anti-Semitism:

“The Myth of the Supra-Human Jew: The Theological Stigma” is a passionate discourse on the Christian origins of anti-Semitism, and it is a challenge from the outset… Where a magazine like Commentary might have been expected to focus on the social, economic, and political sources of anti-Semitism, Kristol subjected it to a profoundly, agonizingly theological examination.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as the emergence of ‘neoconservatism’ as a coherent and viable intellectual movement emerged and consumed most of his efforts:

Kristol did not cease to think about Jews and Judaism in these years; he was an ardent supporter of Israel and followed its history with intense interest and anxiety. But he did cease to write about them, so that the bibliography of his Judaica shows a gap of two decades.

In a 1999 essay, Kristol addressed the “utopianism that had so long afflicted Jewish political thinking” vis-à-vis an ardent and unconditional support for Israel. Kristol writes:

American Jewry will not survive without Israel, and Israel cannot survive without the Jews of the United States. And neither community can survive without the development of a sound Jewish political tradition, which will teach us to think realistically about our politics, our economics, and our foreign relations.

A tip o’ the hat to Kristol for having been what is still likely a minority-position within the NYC Jewish intellectual mileau. Himmelfarb writes:

Commenting, one Christmas Eve, on the familiar objections by some American Jews to the crèches in the public square and Christmas carols in public schools, Kristol observed that America, while not a Christian nation, was after all a Christian society. The “wall” separating church and state was not, as some Jews thought, a wall separating religion and society. To try to secularise society by eliminating all traces of religion from American public life was contra naturam, defying the lessons of history, sociology, and psychology.

Of the connection Kristol believed existed between his Judaism and his neconservatism:

His neo-orthodoxy is firmly Jewish, rooted in history and community, in an ancient faith and an enduring people… And so, too, his neoconservatism is firmly rooted in Judaism.

From an essay he wrote on the conservative philosophy of Michael Oakeshott, Kristol himself wrote:

Judaism especially, being a more this-worldly religion than Christianity, moves us to sanctify the present in our daily lives — but always reminding us that we are capable of doing so only through God’s grace to our distant forefathers. Similarly, it is incumbent upon us to link our children and grandchildren to this “great chain of being,” however suitable or unsuitable their present might be to our conservative disposition. And, of course, the whole purpose of sanctifying the present is to prepare humanity for a redemptive future.

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