Why Are Jews Conservative?

“We Jews are so smart, just give us five or ten years and the most prominent American conservatives will be Jewish!”
–William F. Buckley, Getting It Right

Getting It Right, the 2003 novel by the late, great William F. Buckley, Jr., treats the emergence of the modern American conservative movement in the first half of the 1960s, as it coalesced around National Review magazine, the student organization Young Americans for Freedom, and the Goldwater campaign of 1964.  The novel dramatizes the struggle of the conservative movement to define itself against two ideological temptations, extreme or distorted forms of values that it held: anticommunism, given paranoid and sometimes antisemitic form in the John Birch Society, and libertarianism, divorced from Judeo-Christian values and turned cult-like in the Objectivism of Ayn Rand.  The novel’s two fictional protagonists, Woodroe Raynor, an earnest Mormon anticommunist and, initially, a Bircher, and Leonore Goldstein, a secular Jew who becomes for a time one of Rand’s acolytes, are mouthpieces for Buckleyan conservatism as it defined Birch and Rand out of the new right.

Like many historical novels, Getting It Right contains a few anachronistic winks at its present-day readers. One occurs during the novel’s depiction of the Sharon Conference of 1960.  This conclave of student activists and conservative intellectuals, hosted by the Buckleys at their Connecticut home, was as seminal a moment for the modern right as the Port Huron convention was for the New Left. It was at the Sharon Conference that Young Americans for Freedom was founded, helping to launch subsequent generations of conservative campus activists and pave the way for the Reagan revolution two decades later.

Portraying the interactions and banter among some of the key figures there, Buckley at one point has Frank Meyer, the house theorist of National Review, declare: “We Jews are so smart, just give us five or ten years and the most prominent American conservatives will be Jewish!”

It’s doubtful that the real Frank Meyer, who was indifferent to his own or anyone else’s Jewishness, ever said such a thing.  Rather, the line is a nod to what Meyer could not have guessed in 1960: that a decade or so hence a number of Jewish intellectuals, who came to be known as “neoconservatives,” would indeed become a vital force in conservative philosophical and policy discussions.

Playful anachronism aside, however, Buckley’s novel reminds us that Jews took part in the creation of the new right well before the neoconservatives came onto the scene.  In the novel, Meyer’s comment is directed to Ralph Schuchman, a twenty-two year old student at Yale Law School who was elected the first president of Young Americans for Freedom and who, like Meyer, was Jewish.  Other Jews present at the Sharon Conference (and who appear in the novel) were Marvin Liebman, the publicity maven who helped organize and fundraise for conservative causes, and Frank Chodorov, editor of the Freeman and founder, with Buckley, of the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists.  To these historical figures, Getting It Right adds the fictional Leonore Goldstein, whose Jewish origins are especially appropriate since she falls under the sway of Ayn Rand who, like many of her most devoted followers, was also Jewish.

George H. Nash, the indispensable historian of the American right, points out that no fewer than five of the men on the masthead of the inaugural issue of National Review were Jewish: Meyer and Chodorov, as well as Eugene Lyons, Morrie Ryskind, and Willi Schlamm.  In his essay, “Forgotten Godfathers: Premature Jewish Conservatives and the Rise of National Review,” Nash adds to these five two additional Jewish figures who were important early on in the Buckley circle: Liebman and Ralph de Toledano.

As Nash notes, far from being peripheral figures, all of these men were decisive influences on the magazine and on the formation of postwar American conservatism.  Schlamm, for instance, originated the idea for National Review and helped Buckley to launch it.  Ryskind enabled crucial financial support from California.  Meyer was the magazine’s proponent of “fusionism,” a political outlook which sought to unite libertarian and traditionalist conservatives.  Thus, writes Nash, we have seven Jewish intellectuals who were close to Buckley and the National Review in the 1950s, “an entire generation before the epithet ‘neoconservative’ was coined.”

Nash turns to the obvious question.  “[T]he conspicuous Jewish presence at National Review at its inception,” he writes, “presents a puzzle, for in 1955 much of the American Right was not exactly attractive to American Jews.”  Indeed, it was Buckley in the years that followed who helped purge the new right of the old right’s antisemitism and make it a more hospitable place for Jews.  What, then, accounts for the “premature neoconservatism,” as it were, of these largely forgotten (at least, outside of conservative circles) Jewish “godfathers”?  (The title of Nash’s essay refers to the sobriquet “godfather of neoconservatism,” often applied to Irving Kristol.)

In creating a group profile of these men, Nash finds that they were in some ways “typically Jewish.”  With the exception of Meyer, they were either immigrants or generationally close to the immigrant experience.  They each sought advancement through higher education.  New York City or its environs was for all of them “a formative cultural milieu.”  Nash notes that, like the later neoconservatives, these men all made a political journey from left to right, although their journey often began with the Communist Party, in contrast to the early anti-Stalinism and anticommunist liberalism of the neoconservatives.  Four of Nash’s intellectuals were members of the Communist Party, one was a fellow traveller, and the remaining two were involved in socialist politics in the one case, anarchism in the other.  Their encounter and subsequent disillusionment with Communism and radical causes pushed them rightward, skipping over liberalism which, most felt, was unable to take the measure of the threat posed by Communism.

Described in these broad-brush strokes, this group does not sound all that different from many of the later Jewish neoconservatives, also close to the immigrant milieu, products of New York, youthful but eventually disillusioned radicals, and increasingly at odds with the domestic and foreign policy tendencies of American liberals.

Nash finds the earlier group’s distinctiveness in their “noncomformity” regarding things Jewish.  They were ambivalent about or indifferent to their Jewishness.  Several skirt or minimize the fact in their writings and memoirs.  On the whole, “they were not—at least publically—very demonstrative about their religious and ethnic identity.”  Nash notes “how willing [they were] to deviate from the Jewish mainstream” in terms of their general political outlook and the political causes that exercised them.  The majority of them were cool toward Zionism and Israel, for instance.  Most strikingly, four of them embraced Roman Catholicism later in their lives either formally through baptism (Meyer and Liebman) or through intense spiritual and emotional affinity (Schlamm and de Toledano).

Nash is right to note these early Jewish conservatives’ Jewish “nonconformity.”  Yet I would expand a bit on what Nash points to here.  A notable feature of the group that Nash assembles is not simply its ambivalence about or distance from Jewishness.  Rather, it is the extent to which they depart from a certain kind of Jewishness, what we tend to think of as mainstream American Jewish identity—the cultural identity that emerged from the poor, Yiddish-speaking, socialism-suffused immigrant and post-immigrant culture of New York and its satellites, and which I will call American Yiddishkeit (Jewishness).  The language of these intellectuals’ parents was as likely to be French or English as Yiddish.  Their families were as likely to be middle or upper-middle class as working class.  Their schooling was mostly Ivy League, not City College.

Meyer, for instance, grew up in a well-off family of German Jewish background, part of Newark, New Jersey’s Reform Jewish community.  He attended prep school at the prestigious Newark Academy, matriculated at Princeton, and finished his degree at Oxford.  Willi Schlamm was born in Galicia, but his youth and education were shaped in the world of Austrian communism, not shtetl life.  De Toledano was not even Ashkenazic.  Born in Tangiers to a Sephardic family, he attended the Horace Mann and Fieldston prep schools, and graduated from Columbia University.

Chodorov, Lyons, Liebman, and Ryskind did have connections with conventional American Yiddishkeit, though here too there are significant variations in education, residence, and class background.  Chodorov and Lyons were raised in poor immigrant families on the Lower East Side, yet they both graduated from Columbia University.  Liebman’s parents were Galician immigrants, and as a boy he even spent one summer with his grandparents in Poland.  Yet he grew up in the 1920s and 30s in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, which he describes in his memoir as “a polyglot community of middle-class families—mostly Scandinavian, with a few Irish, Italian, German and Greek” families and only a “small number of Jews.”

Of the seven, Ryskind had perhaps the closest and warmest relationship with American Yiddishkeit—and, for that matter, with Jewish identity in general.  His parents were poor Russian Jewish immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish.  His mother took him as a boy to the Yiddish theatre, which he loved.  Even here, though, distinctions that may to us seem small could be decisive.  When he was four, the family moved from their tiny cold-water flat in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the more mixed and middle-class neighborhood of Washington Heights, Manhattan.  He later won a scholarship to a preparatory high school, before attending Columbia University.

What these observations suggest is not the existence of a specific common denominator among these seven men that explains their early conservatism.  Rather, they invite us to reflect on the opposite: how powerful a liberal political determinant is the cultural matrix of American Yiddishkeit.

There is no sociological formula that inevitably determines a person’s politics (though I sometimes suspect there are a number of psychological ones). Yet a left-liberal politics has been an outsized feature of the American Jewish identity that first developed among poor and working-class immigrants from Eastern Europe and continued to evolve among the children and grandchildren of these immigrants. More than any other religious or ethnic group in America, the Jews express and experience their identity through a set of political habits. And they do not tend to see these habits as politics, but as identity, as Jewish identity itself. Because of the way in which Jewish identity was forged in America, politics for American Jews has the force of culture, and Jews vote Democrat rather than Republican as surely and instinctively as the French eat baguettes rather than bagels.

Yet this political culture does not pertain to all Jews.  It is culturally and historically specific, a development peculiar to a certain kind, albeit the most well-known kind, of twentieth-century American Jewishness, a Jewishness with which our National Review Jews had less in common than most.  Again, this is not to suggest that the details I’ve pulled out of their biographies are necessarily determinative of their politics, any more than to suggest that the child of a lower East Side garment worker can never be politically conservative. Instead, it is to remind ourselves that the apparent oddity of Jewish conservatism is matched by the equally contingent phenomenon of Jewish liberalism.

(Pictured: Frank Meyer)

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