One thing I’ve noticed roaming around the blogosphere is that most people who use the term “neoconservative” have no idea what it means (or perhaps this means that the word itself is becoming meaningless). I’m especially sensitive to this because as a college student, I for a while considered myself a neoconservative, and I wrote my senior thesis on neoconservatism.
I can’t give a whole history of neoconservatism in this blog post, but I can address one issue, whether neoconservatism is a “Jewish” movement.
Some writers use “neoconservative” as a synonym for “right-wing Jewish Likudnik [sic],” especially when talking about neoconservatives who served in the Bush Administration.
In their Israel Lobby book, Mearsheimer and Walt are actually more sophisticated than that. They recognize, for example, that many leading neoconservatives, including the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, James Woolsey, Robert Bartley, John Bolton, and William Bennett, are not Jewish. To that list I’d add, among others, Michael Novak, John Silber (though he has Jewish background), Frank Gaffney, and Frank Fukuyama, before his recent recantation. One of the most influential original neoconservatives, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, should also be on the list, though he later reverted to mainstream liberalism. Even of the important Jewish early neoconservatives, people like Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell had no particular ties to Israel, and the subject dosen’t seem to have been of particular interest to them.
Nevertheless, M & W suggest that because Jews make up about 2/3 of prominent neoconservatives, and because neoconservatives are hawkishly pro-Israel, we can assume that neconservatism is a “Jewish” movement (e.g., “Jewish Americans are central to the neoconservative movement” (p. 132), and several later pages where the authors suggest that neocons are part of the “broader Jewish community” e.g., p. 243), and that neocons’ hawkish positions on Israel can be traced to their primarily Jewish origins.
There is an exceptional logical flaw in this. Once we acknowledge that around 1/3 of prominent neocons are not Jewish, and that these neocons share the Jewish neocons’ general position on Israel (not to mention that some of the Jewish neocons, like Wolfowitz, are significantly more dovish on Israel than most Gentile neocons), the question is, why attribute the neocons’ views on Israel to their Jewishness? After all, neoconservatism is generally hawkish, on everything from Taiwan to Bosnia, going back to opposing the Panama Canal Treaty, and opposition to SALT I and II negotiations with the Soviets. Clearly, being hawkishly pro-Israel fits directly in with this ideology. Plus, the neocons share a disdain for Great Society domestic programs, but, unlike many other conservatives, a fondness for FDR, Truman, and the New Deal. That seems to have nothing to do with being Jewish. What does the Weekly Standards’ neocon “national greatness conservatism” have to do with “Jewish?”
Ahh, you might say, but what about the fact that 2/3 of neocons are Jewish? Well, Richard Posner, in his book Public Intellectuals, notes that of around 600 leading public intellectuals, approximately 50% of Jewish. 66%, then, is well within the general stats for public intellectuals, especially if you consider that Jews are going to be severely underrepresented among some categories of public intellectual, like the (Pat) Buchananites, the Phyllis Schlaflyites, left-wing anti-globalists, and others.
Jews, indeed, are often represented at levels above 66% in intellectual movements. Consider leading American libertarians between, say, 1950 and 1980. By common consent, the greatest libertarians of this time period were Rand, Von Mises, Hayek, and Friedman–3 out of 4 (all but Hayek) Jews. If you look at second-tier libertarians, the next group would have to include Nozick and Rothbard, and, in the 50s, perhaps Chodorov. Then you have the whole Ayn Rand circle (the Brandens, Greenspan, et al.), Israel Kirzner, Gary Becker, Richard Posner, Aaron Director, Julian Simon, Sam Peltzman, and so on.
I think it’s fair to say that at least on the intellectual level, for quite some time libertarianism was virtually dominated by Jewish thinkers, and they are still well overrepresented in those circles (consider the authors of this blog). That doesn’t make libertarianism a “Jewish movement.”
For that matter, in the 1960s, about half of all leading activists (think Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin) were Jewish, but the peace movement wasn’t a “Jewish” movement. The leadership of the ACLU has been at times overwhelmingly Jewish, but that doesn’t make the ACLU a “Jewish” organization. If you look at Brian Leiter’s list of the most cited law faculty, you will find that seven of the top eight are Jews. The same is true for the younger cohort of most cited scholars. Jews, in general, are well-overrepresented on the faculties of top law schools, and especially in the field of constitutional law. That doesn’t make constitutional law a “Jewish” field.
One could go on in a similar vein, but the point by now should be clear: Jews are extremely prominent in various intellectual fields and movements, and the fact that they happen to constitute 2/3 of neoconservatives doesn’t mean that neonconservatism is “Jewish” in the sense that as a movement its goal is advance specifically Jewish goals, any more than libertarianism, ACLUism, etc., are Jewish. Obviously, there are cultural and historical reasons why Jews are more attracted to libertarianism, or the ACLU, or neoconservatism, than they are, to say, Pat Buchanan-style conservatism, or Quaker-influenced peace movements. But to say that Jews are more likely to find a particular ideological movement intellectually and socially congenial is very different than saying that the movement is a “Jewish” one in any meaningful sense.
In short, M & W (and many others) think that because Jews are 2/3 of neoconservatives, and neoconservatives are pro-Israel, that neoconservativism as an ideology is motivated by pro-Israel sentiment. My take is that by random chance, a prominent intellectual movement like neoconservatism will have around 50% Jews among its leaders. If the movement is one that is socially and culturally congenial to Jews, as neoconservatism, among others, is, the percentage will be higher. But there is no good reason to use “neoconservative” as a synonym for “pro-Israel Jew”, any more than there is good reason to use “civil libertarian” as synonym for “secularist Jew.”
Caveat: One of the founders of neoconservatism, Norman Podhoretz, was clearly put off by the 60s’ lefts’ hostility to Israel. But he was also put off by their support of racial preferences in the guise of affirmative action, their hostility to America and sympathy with the Viet Cong, their perceived libertinism, etc. It’s not that the attraction of neoconservatism has nothing to to with neoconservatives’ Jewish background, any more than the attraction of ACLUism has nothing to do with leading ACLUers Jewish backgrounds. Rather, it’s that the ideology itself broadly transcends any specifically Jewish concerns, has appeal to many non-Jews, is not thought of by its adherents as being a specifically Jewish movement, and would inevitably attract a large percentage of Jews even if Israel didn’t exist. To put it another way, if Israel suddenly was at complete peace with its neighbors and was no longer an issue of foreign policy concern, I would bet that all of the Jewish neoconservatives would remain neoconservatives, and continue to promote neoconservative views on foreign and domestic policy.