The first issue of National Review, the magazine founded by the late William F. Buckley that would make such an enormous contribution to the success of political conservatism in America, appeared sixty years ago this week.
It’s an anniversary worth noting, as is the little known fact that Jews played a key role in National Review’s formative years.
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.
But 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 1940s and ‘50s to the original neoconservatives of the 1970s and ‘80s.
In fact, some of the most trenchant criticism of American Communists has always come not only from Jewish intellectuals who 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.
For example, the most widely accepted debunking of one of the more durable left-wing myths of the Cold War era – the supposed innocence of Soviet agents Alger Hiss and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – was accomplished in the 1970s not by right-wing Jews but rather 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 leftists who had little patience with those they considered dangerously sympathetic to the Soviet Union – “fellow travelers,” in the day’s parlance.
Not that there weren’t Jews in the 1940s and ‘50s who forthrightly identified as political conservatives. Some even worked as lawyers and investigators for the House Committee on Un-American Activities and on the staff of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
(A related aside: Despite Herculean efforts by liberals and leftists to paint McCarthy as an anti-Semite, there is absolutely no evidence for that; to the contrary, as the historian David Oshinsky notes in his widely praised McCarthy biography A Conspiracy So Immense, “[McCarthy] never engaged in anti-Semitic diatribes or made the loaded connection between Jews and left-wing radicalism. Despite the unrelenting hostility of organized Jewry to his crusade, McCarthy still praised the state of Israel [and] condemned the Soviet persecution of Jews.”)
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 Buckley’s inner circle when he launched National Review in 1955. “[W]ithout them,” writes historian George Nash, “the magazine might never have gotten off the ground…”
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 Sephardic ancestors who had been victimized by the Inquisition.
It remained for the next generation of Jewish conservatives – or more precisely one-time leftist Democrats like Norman Podhoretz and Irving Kristol who in the 1970s became known as neoconservatives – to bring a more affirmative Jewishness to their politics.
Though theirs was, for the most part, a cultural Jewishness rather than a religious one, it nonetheless was a significant departure from the complete rejection of Judaism that had defined so many politically conservative Jews of an earlier era.
Still, conservatism in the early 1960s was largely viewed by Jews as a downscale hothouse of paranoia, racism, and resentment fronted by such figures as the Christian Crusader Rev. Billy James Hargis, the blatantly anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler, and Robert Welch, whose John Birch Society was never officially racist or anti-Semitic but attracted a fair number of those who could accurately be classified as such.
Indeed, in 1960 Buckley told a friend that less than one percent of National Review readers were Jewish.
By the end of the ‘60s, however, Buckley and National Review had basically read the more conspiratorial-minded organizations and polemicists out of mainstream conservatism, thereby making the movement a far less forbidding place for Jews and smoothing the way for those liberal Jewish intellectuals who eventually made the journey into the conservative camp.
Because of National Review, liberal journalists and academics, try mightily though they did, found it increasingly difficult to credibly portray the right as some exclusive redoubt of angry kooks and Ku Kluxers in the nation’s body politic.