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The Pugilist

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.

Ruth R. Wisse
March 09, 2011
Gert Berliner
Norman Podhoretz at the Commentary offices, 1960s.Gert Berliner
Gert Berliner
Norman Podhoretz at the Commentary offices, 1960s.Gert Berliner

I remain enormously grateful for the friendships I enjoyed with my beloved novelist, Saul Bellow, and my literary collaborator, Irving Howe. But for much of my life I was also looking for a certain kind of champion—someone adamant in his defense of America and the values for which it stands, and of the Jewish people and the heritage that had shaped us.

I eventually found him—though he did not, at first, meet my expectations.


From my early teens, discussions around our family table took off from articles in Commentary, the only publication read in common by my father, my brother Ben, and me, five years Ben’s junior. These discussions continued once Ben and I formed our own families and became independent subscribers.

In all that time, few essays ever got us more riled up than “My Negro Problem and Ours,” written in 1963, at the height of the American civil rights movement, and almost certainly intended to provoke the hundreds of letters it generated. In it, Commentary’s legendary editor-in-chief, Norman Podhoretz, pitted his experiences as a poor kid in Brooklyn who was stalked and bullied by bigger black boys against the prevalent notion that Jews were rich and Negroes persecuted. He unearthed in himself emotions like envy and hate and examined them in light of what increasingly militant blacks were saying about their treatment in America. Far from minimizing their grievances, Norman concluded that the tortured relations between blacks and whites should be dissolved. “I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.” Intermarriage was the desired resolution. Were he asked whether he would like one of his daughters to “marry one,” he wrote, he would have to answer, no, he would not like it at all, but he would accept it as the man he had “a duty to be.” There was real import to this statement by a man with three daughters.

“Politically incorrect” hardly suffices to describe the tenor and substance of this article, which retains every iota of its disturbing power to this day. Norman’s mercilessly rational analysis falls like a searchlight on thoughts and feelings that might have benefited from softer illumination. But what troubled us in Montreal was less the treatment of race, which hardly resonated north of the border, than the author’s indifference to whether his daughter’s hypothetical black suitor was Jewish. So the boy was black—big deal. But how could the editor of a Jewish magazine so casually treat his daughter’s marriage to a gentile?

And then, almost as an aside, came this reflection: “In thinking about the Jews I have often wondered whether their survival as a distinct group was worth one hair on the head of a single infant,” Podhoretz wrote. “Did the Jews have to survive so that six million innocent people should one day be burned in the ovens of Auschwitz? It is a terrible question and no one, not God himself, could ever answer it to my satisfaction.”

Was the question terrible or simply off-key? Striving for ultimate honesty, it betrayed moral innocence without registering what Judaism had come to accomplish. Jews had forsworn human sacrifice. The Germans murdered because they were not Jews and did not follow God’s law. The genocide of the Jews was the consequence not of Jewish survival but of Nazism’s perverted search for the “fittest.” Surely the unspeakable crimes by enemies of the Jews ought to have prompted questions about the value of their existence.


It wasn’t until several months later that Norman received redemption in our family, which came as a result of his response to Hannah Arendt’s coverage for The New Yorker of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann had been captured and brought by Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, from his hiding in Argentina to Jerusalem to stand trial for crimes against the Jewish people. This was the first such reckoning, as earlier trials of Nazi war criminals had charged them with crimes against humanity or against other nationals. Israeli leaders felt duty bound to try one of the chief organizers of the Final Solution for the genocide that had inspired the jurist Raphael Lemkin to coin that term. Arendt, by contrast, was bothered by what she considered legal gerrymandering in trying the SS officer in the court of a country that had not existed at the time of the massacres, by the prosecution’s emphasis on the national catastrophe rather than the narrow specifics of the case, and by its inadequate understanding of the Nazi mind. Author of a major study of totalitarianism, Arendt was convinced that the modern technocrat—Nazi or Soviet—was so regimented and brainwashed that he was not intellectually agile enough to try to save himself in a court of law. Eichmann was dull-witted, a pencil pusher: It was ridiculous to cast an efficient bureaucrat as arch-villain in so large a drama.

Of all the prominent European Jews who found refuge in America during the war, Arendt had, before this, been singled out for homage by the New York intellectuals, who were just coming to terms with the Jewish national experience they had until then mostly ignored. They had not realized that she was moving in the opposite direction, distancing herself from her earlier Zionist and Jewish sympathies. Although no one at the time suspected her liaison with her teacher Martin Heidegger, or the resumption of her correspondence with him despite his wartime association with the Nazi regime, the Americans felt betrayed by her account of the trial in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Saul Bellow ascribed his dislike to one of his characters, the Holocaust survivor Arthur Sammler, who protests that the Germans’ idea of making the century’s great crime look dull was not banal but an idea of genius: “Banality is the adopted disguise of a very powerful will to abandon conscience. Is such a project trivial? Only if human life is trivial. This woman professor’s enemy is modern civilization itself.” The historian Jacob Robinson exposed Arendt’s many factual errors in a study called, after Isaiah, And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight, and Arendt’s German-Jewish landsman Gershom Scholem called her tone “heartless, frequently almost sneering and malicious.” Citing Scholem, Irving Howe recalled that what struck them both—“struck like a blow—was the surging contempt with which she treated almost everyone and everything connected with the trial, the supreme assurance of the intellectual looking down upon those coarse Israelis.”

The debate over Arendt’s coverage of the Eichmann trial affected the American Jewish intelligentsia almost as powerfully as the trial shook Israelis.

Norman’s contribution telegraphed its verdict in the subtitle: “Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the Perversity of Brilliance.” As if taking up her challenge to look at the universal aspects of what might otherwise seem merely a Jewish quarrel, he examined the symptomatic qualities of her reportage: Eichmann may or may not be a new type of modern man, but Arendt represented a new style of modern thinker. What she did, he noted incisively, was to “translate this story for the first time into the kind of terms that can appeal to a sophisticated modern sensibility. Thus, in place of the monstrous Nazi, she gives us the ‘banal’ Nazi; in place of the Jew as virtuous martyr, she gives us the Jew as accomplice in evil; and in place of the confrontation between guilt and innocence, she gives us the ‘collaboration’ of criminal and victim. It has all the appearance of ‘ruthless honesty,’ and all the marks of profundity—have we not been instructed that complexity, paradox, and ambiguity are the sign manifest of profundity?”

Norman identified the technique of postmodern inversion that destabilizes the moral order: preferring flawed originality to mere accuracy. Resentful of being a “young fogey,” he was by this point publishing articles as subversive as the work he was dissecting here. But the venerable Arendt was turning frivolous, and so he took on the task of undoing her mischief—a task that required a more patient pen and disciplined mind than the mischief-maker’s own. Distortion is to accuracy as snorting is to sobriety, but unlike the private vices that harm only their practitioner, the intellectual follies—to use Lionel Abel’s term—infect the body politic.

Let me quote Norman again: “The brilliance of Miss Arendt’s treatment of Eichmann could hardly be disputed by any disinterested reader. But at the same time, there could hardly be a more telling example … of the intellectual perversity that can result from the pursuit of brilliance by a mind infatuated with its own agility and bent on generating dazzle.” He was speaking here for almost all the New York Intellectuals, who had painfully outgrown their own misguided enthusiasms. One can hardly exaggerate how genuinely thinkers like Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Daniel Bell, and Irving Howe had come to value lucidity and intelligibility over other literary virtues. But attaining that clarity required filtering out pollutants, not once but repeatedly, in a society that embraced Arendt’s “perversity” as eagerly as France sanctified the criminal Jean Genet.

What no one foresaw, of course, was how quickly postmodern frivolity would engulf the elites and flood the humanities. Bellow would soon be savaged by the counterculture, and Howe by the New Left, the latter winning his way back into its good graces only once it had passed its faux-revolutionary phase. As for Norman, he cleaned the stables, earning the Homeric adjective that accompanied these labors.

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.

Ruth R. Wisse, the author of the Nextbook Press book Jews and Power, is currently senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund.

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