Friends and Politics, Part 3: Norman Podhoretz. The neoconservative icon and I weren’t personally close, but we shared a more important bond, over the struggle to defend Israel and American Jewry.
Still, this was a still-too-rare bright spot for me. On the whole, my relation to Commentary during Norman’s high liberal phase of the 1960s was about two-thirds respectful. When my brother Ben turned 13 in 1944, he based his bar mitzvah speech on the Dutch journalist Pierre Van Paassen’s book The Forgotten Ally, which recounted the massive help that was being supplied to Britain and the Allies by the tiny yishuv—the Jewish community in Palestine. The book contrasted Jewish support for the British with the pro-German actions of most Arab leaders and blasted Britain for unconscionably and foolishly betraying its Jewish allies by throwing its support to the Arab side. Ben joined Van Paassen in calling on the leaders of Britain to open the doors of the Land of Israel to its rightful Jewish heirs. No teacher had coached him in this: He was the best informed of all the adults in the room, his short wave radio the main source of our news. In college Ben edited the student magazine of the intercollegiate Zionist organization, and he later moved to Israel, where his daughter and her children now make their home.
By contrast how puny I found the exhibitionism of Norman Mailer, who could think of nothing bolder to boast of in the pages of Commentary than his march on Washington—Washington!—in 1967, the same year his fellow Jews in Israel were repelling enemy forces simultaneously on three fronts. I only wished Commentary’s literary stable could think like us and that we could write like them.
And so, no reader could have been happier in the early 1970s, as the magazine turned toward what is now called neoconservatism. Well, one person might have been as happy: associate editor Neal Kozodoy, who surely had a hand in the matter. I had met Neal at a Zionist workshop in the winter of 1966-67, and when I began submitting articles 10 years later, he became my editor.
Every writer knows how much depends on those who welcome their work, but I doubt that there are many like me, who aspired to publish only in a single magazine. On trips to New York I made heady visits to the Commentary offices on the seventh floor of the American Jewish Committee building—when there were yet no guards or X-ray machines at the entrance to thwart potential killers. Occasionally I got to chat with Norman. I came away from these conversations with a sense of having learned something I could not have come to on my own: “You can judge a man by the quality of his enemies.” This was not said cynically. If I recognized that Jews were the target of choice of the worst political offenders, I would have to take pride in their enmity as the consequence of effective resistance. “It was better to be rich than poor.” This was something a kid from Brooklyn could utter with more assurance than I, the child of a textile manufacturer who had once been enamored of Leon Trotsky, but its truth compounded when I inherited little of monetary value from my parents and could spend only what I earned.
Norman and I lunched only once, and I never visited him and his wife at home, yet just as political rifts could ruin a friendship, so political alliances could forge the marriage of true minds. I loved the way he argued. He made me realize how tempting it was to court approval, to temporize, equivocate, and pander when one is going against the received ideas of people whose good opinion one might otherwise seek. Norman made no concessions. He was utterly clear, as one had “a duty to be,” he said, when the stakes were as high as they remained throughout what he dubbed World War III (the Cold War) and World War IV (the current war with Islamism).
I was present one afternoon in the mid-1980s at a panel in Montreal’s Saidye Bronfman Center on President Ronald Reagan’s strategic missile defense, in which Norman represented the right against someone on the left and a moderate in the center. Reagan’s proposal for an anti-ballistic shield against nuclear missile attacks from the Soviet Union had been dubbed “Star Wars” by a media reflexively opposed to U.S. military build-ups and perhaps to Reagan in particular. The audience in Montreal likewise favored those who doubted the need for deterrent force and mocked its potential effectiveness. Norman’s opening gambit frightened me. I would have wanted him to begin by explaining that, along with his opponents and all sensible citizens, he favored diplomatic to martial resolutions. Instead, wasting no words, he portrayed the Soviet threat and drove home the arguments of Reagan’s 1983 “evil empire” speech more forcefully than the president himself had done. The strangest thing happened to me during the course of that debate: Having first wished that Norman would show his “good side” before rolling out the talk of war, I was so appalled by the other speakers that by the end I hoped Norman would not concede a smidgen of accord to the others. I had never before experienced such palpable change in myself in the course of any function. And I must have been ready for the instruction, because I have tried to follow it since.
But there was one topic on which I have always wished Norman were somewhat less frank—not that I wanted him to dissemble, but merely to refrain from revealing as much as he did. Whenever he wrote of his travels to Israel, he made a point of saying that he did not feel at home in the country. I perfectly understood his “love affair with America” but not this detachment from the Jewish homeland. I, too, loved America—and also Montreal, my home for five decades—but I loved Israel and its resilient citizenry with all my heart and mind and soul. One day during a visit there, as I felt Sabbath descending on Jerusalem, it even occurred to me, someone with no talent for faith, that God restored the city to the Jews so that he, like me, could experience this blessed moment. When I confessed this to a friend, she insisted on showing me how Sabbath descends on Tel Aviv, which turned out to be no less affecting to us lovers of the country.
I missed in Norman, with whom I otherwise shared so many enthusiasms and aversions, this common affection for our common inheritance. Yet, might not his fight for Israel be the more impressive and effective, being charged less by sentiment than respect for justice and truth?
The 21st century began for Israel with an eruption of suicide bombings in a discothèque frequented by teenagers, at a Passover seder, and wherever Israelis went about their daily lives. Just as the pogrom in Kishinev at the start of the 20th century shattered hopes of political progress that had been lovingly nurtured by the Jews of Europe, the murderous force of the Second Intifada exploded expectations of peace planted by the Oslo Accords. Parents feared sending their children off to school. Hospitals filled with the wounded. Tourism to Israel collapsed. Craven European leaders, afraid of their own Muslim minorities, blamed Israel for the assault against it. The greatest threat was to Jewish morale, battered by the sadism of the people to whom Israel had made unprecedented concessions, and by a “free world” that should have given Israel support. American Jews, who might have been expected to rev up their visits to Israel, instead canceled conferences, visits, tours.
In the spring of 2002, with Cynthia Ozick, I drafted a statement of solidarity with Israelis that we intended to publish in some of America’s leading newspapers:
We affirm our love for the State of Israel, the hope of the Jewish people. Our gratitude goes out to the citizen-soldiers of Israel who protect one another from their would-be destroyers. We embrace the resolve of Israeli citizens who suffer ongoing merciless terror in their streets, buses, restaurants, and synagogues.
The statement invited Arab and Muslim leaders to belatedly recognize the homeland of their Jewish brethren, and it invited all people of conscience to condemn the attacks. It was to be published first over the signature of prominent writers and intellectuals, then academics. We went first to Norman, confident that he would endorse it, and to Saul Bellow, knowing that his signature would reassure others. I hope that Irving Howe would have signed had he still been with us.
To friends over the years who share my concerns but urge me to “moderate” the message, I offer the example of the tug of war, in which the person standing firmest, farthest on the outside, strengthens those who prefer to hug the middle.
It was this that I learned from Norman, who taught me—in adulthood—to unearth and honor my mother’s teaching: “If you’re a warrior, shmek pulver!—smell gunpowder.” Like it or not, Arab belligerence against Israel constitutes the most lopsided and protean war ever prosecuted, and, Bellow’s telephone message notwithstanding, it is not over. Even as anti-Jewish ideology and violence spill over to other targets, Jews bear the brunt of the assault. Though no one has yet found a way to improve their odds against determined enemies, the Jews of Israel and America today have the best chance we will ever have to prove our staying powers.
The outcome of this struggle is so consequential that I wished to describe some of what I know of it, honoring most those who soldier best. Norman Podhoretz celebrated “making it” when as a young man he rose to prominence in the intellectual family that included the likes of Saul Bellow and Irving Howe. The far greater marvel to me was the stamina and skill of his championship of America and the Jews.
Friends and Politics, Part 2: Irving Howe. The prominent critic and I worked on Yiddish translations together, but a dispute over Israel and its Arab neighbors ruptured our relationship—until we reconnected over literature.