Milton Himmelfarb died earlier this month at age 87, and chances are you never heard of him if, like most Americans, you tend not to be a devotee of intellectual and political journals. But Milton Himmelfarb — Mendy, as he was known to his family — was, by virtue of temperament, history and family, a seminal figure in the development of neoconservatism as one of the country’s most influential political forces.
Serving in various capacities at the American Jewish Committee for better than 40 years, Himmelfarb was the longtime editor of the AJC’s American Jewish Yearbook and a contributing editor to Commentary, which under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz became, in the late 1960’s, the flagship journal of the emerging neoconservative movement.
“Himmelfarb,” wrote the exemplary New York Times reporter Joseph Berger in an obituary the Times incomprehensibly ran a full week and a half after Himmelfarb’s passing, “was a member of an astonishingly accomplished intellectual clan with working-class and liberal roots that evolved into neoconservative royalty. His younger sister, Gertrude Himmelfarb, is a historian of Victorian thought…. His brother-in-law, Irving Kristol, is a founder of neoconservatism; and his nephew is the founding editor of the influential conservative periodical The Weekly Standard.”
A writer with a penchant for turning a memorable phrase, Himmelfarb, describing the curious political habits of American Jews, once observed that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” The line became an instant favorite with academics and journalists, quoted over the years in countless articles and studies on Jewish voting patterns.
In a symposium on “Liberalism and the Jews” in the Jan. 1980 issue of Commentary, Himmelfarb elaborated on his dismay with the American Jewish voter. Looking back at the Nixon-McGovern presidential contest of 1972, he scoffed at the notion that Jews were on the brink of switching party loyalty:
Before the 1972 election there was hardly an issue of a news magazine without its revelation about the new Jewish conservatism. Though the Democrats were, then as now, the majority party, and though the Republican nominee was unattractive, about 69 percent of white Christian voters voted against the Democrats. Of Jewish voters, about 65 percent voted for him. That is what Jewish conservatism means: giving a two-thirds vote to the most unpopular Democratic candidate in memory. Compulsive smokers know that smoking is not good for them but they keep smoking. Most Jews are compulsive Democratic voters….
Himmelfarb’s assessment was just as fresh nine years later in an April 1989 Commentary article — sardonically titled “American Jews: Diehard Conservatives” — on the 1988 presidential election:
Most whites once voted for Democratic presidential candidates but have long since changed to voting for Republicans….Practically alone among white voters, Jews have changed hardly at all…. Clinging more than most to old attachments and habits, American Jews may fairly be called more conservative than most.
For all of Himmelfarb’s political perspicacity, it was when he wrote about specifically Jewish subjects that one got a glimpse into what was intrinsically important to the man. Though long removed from the Orthodoxy of his youth, he peppered his articles with references to biblical and rabbinic literature. His deep and abiding sense of Jewishness was on eloquent display in an exultant October 1967 Commentary article titled “In the Light of Israel’s Victory”:
Each of us Jews knows how thoroughly ordinary he is; yet taken together, we seem caught up in things great and inexplicable. It is almost as if we were not acting but were being acted through….The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us….
When the Psalmist says “I,” the pronoun is singular and plural, individual and collective, personal and referring to the children of Israel — as in another verse from the last of the Hallel psalms: “I thank Thee, for Thou hast answered me, and art become my salvation.”