Latest update: May 1st, 2012
For obvious reasons, the disproportionate number of Jews who were either members of the old American Communist Party or otherwise active in left-wing politics during the Cold War has always been a sensitive issue for the Jewish community.
Even now, with the Soviet Union dead and buried and Marxism thoroughly discredited just about everywhere outside of liberal-arts departments of elite (and not-so-elite) universities, the subject still tends to make people uneasy, if not defensive and hostile.
It is, however, a subject that will not go away anytime soon; if anything, the release in the 1990’s of previously classified documents by both Washing-ton and Moscow gave new life, and provided several unexpected twists, to the debate over such questions as the extent of Soviet espionage in America and the true loyalties of American Communists.
Jews actually predominated on both sides of the 20th century’s epic political controversy. The old Jewish affinity for leftist causes notwithstanding, many of America’s leading anti-Communist intellectuals were Jews, from the liberal and socialist anti-Stalinists of the 1940’s and 50’s to the original neo-conservatives of the 1970’s and 80’s.
Some of the most trenchant criticism – past and present – of American Communists has come not only from Jewish intellectuals who, like the prolific author and conservative activist David Horowitz, started out on the left and gradually moved right, but also from those who, despite a sense of growing disillusionment, chose to maintain their political affiliation with the left.
In fact, the most widely-accepted debunking of two of the more durable left-wing myths of the Cold War – the supposed innocence of Soviet agents Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – was accomplished in the 1970’s not by right-wing Jews at all, but by Jews – most famously Allen Weinstein (Hiss) and Ronald Radosh (the Rosenbergs) – who commenced their investigations fully intent on exonerating their subjects.
And that was much the way things had gone for the first two decades or so of the Cold War, a time when many of the most vocally anti-Communist Jews were found on the left: socialists or liberals who had little patience with those, like FDR’s third-term vice president and 1948 presidential candidate Henry Wallace, whom they considered dangerously sympathetic to the Soviet Union – “fellow travelers,” in the day’s parlance.
Not that there weren’t Jews in the 1940’s and 50’s who forthrightly identified as political conserva-tives. Some even worked as lawyers and investigators for the House Committee on Un-American Ac-tivities and on the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
And no fewer than seven Jews – Frank Chodorov, Marvin Liebman, Eugene Lyons, Frank Meyer, Morrie Ryskind, William Schlamm and Ralph De Toledano – were members of William F. Buckley’s inner circle when Buckley launched Na-tional Review, his groundbreaking conservative magazine, in 1955.
But as intellectuals who came of age when Judaism in America was paid little public regard and Orthodox Jews in particular were thought to be a near-extinct species, the National Review Jews had at best a superficial knowledge and understanding of their religious heritage and therefore failed to see in Judaism a spiritual bulwark against the encroachments of moral relativism.
Not surprisingly, those Jews were profoundly influenced by the intensely Roman Catholic milieu of National Review. Liebman and Mayer ended up baptized as Catholics; Schlamm was buried with Catholic rites; De Toledano came close to converting but held back out of a sense of loyalty to his Sephardi ancestors who had been victimized by the Inquisition.
It remained for the next generation of Jewish conservatives – or more precisely those one-time liberal Democrats like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol who in the 1970’s became known as neoconservatives (and whose political heirs would reach their pinnacle of power and influence during George W. Bush’s first term as president) – to bring a more affirmative Jewishness to their conservative politics.
Though theirs was, for the most part, a cultural Jewishness rather than a religious one, it nonetheless was a significant departure from the rejection of Judaism that defined so many politically conservative Jews of an earlier era.
About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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