Misconceptions

10.30.12

Neoconservative ≠ Jewish Conservative

Make what you will of Jay Michaelson's latest in the Forward on conservative Jews and the religious right—after skimming, I found it a mix of sloppily recounted old news and half-baked analysis. Truth be told, I couldn't really get past the assertion at the top where, after describing the Old Right's exclusion of minorities, Michaelson wrote, "That began to change 50 years ago, whenneoconservatism—that is, Jewish conservatism—began to take hold."  A minor quibble, but: No, no, no. Neoconservatism and Jewish conservatism are not the same thing. And if Michaelson's ire was directed at neocons, he's only helped inoculate them from criticisms by conflating their ideology with "Jewish conservatism."

The movement's been shaped by right-wing Jewish thinkers, no doubt, who sometimes invoke some aspect or another of Jewish identity as they see it. Neoconservatism, though, is not a Jewish political movement; rather it's an American one (with adherents in the U.K., Canada, Australia and elsewhere). Usually identified with using military might to pursue interests, the movement's otherwise no monolith: neocons disagree on things like utopian democracy promotion or Straussian machination. Many Jewish conservatives seem to be neocons, but not all—see: Dov Zakheim, a Jewish conservative from a hawkish-realist bent that, unlike contemporary neocons, understands the limits of U.S. power.

The real problem with Michaelson's characterization, however, is that not all neoconservatives are Jewish conservatives. Some of the figures who loom largest in neoconservative history—Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Jeane Kirkpatrick—were non-Jews. Lee Smith's neoconservatism is as dyed-in-the-wool as it comes, right down to his institutional home at what might now be Washington's leading neocon think-tank. I followed Smith's work closely for years, not knowing—or caring—that he was not Jewish, until he wrote as much in an article early this year. That Smith writes sloppy pieces to push the usual neocon memes—such as the general ease of employing American military force—has, by definition, nothing to do with Smith's Jewishness.

In fact, the conflation of Jewishness and neoconservatism only serves to hamper salient criticisms of the movement by claiming any focus on neocons is anti-Semitic. To be sure, some critics are anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists; they should be ignored or ridiculed. But to entirely dismiss the influence—not control, but influence—of a number of prominent neoconservatives during the Bush administration and the push for the Iraq war is to deny history; and to dismiss any and all criticisms of an ideology is to transgress intellectual honesty. That hasn't stopped neoconservative writers and some of their liberal hawk allies from doing just those things since the invasion in 2003.

Supporters of the war claimed that its critics' focus on neocons amounted to a "sinister stereotype" about "Jewish neoconservatives" running the Bush administration (cf. the Maureen Dowd "puppet mastersnon-controversy). In David Brooks's 2004 New York Times column absolving neoconservatism, as an intellectual movement, of any responsibility for the now-discredited invasion of Iraq, he wrote: "con is short for 'conservative' and neo is short for 'Jewish,'" blaming any careful look at neoconservatives, or even their policy positions, on anti-Semitism. The Washington Post editorial board, and neocon opinion contributors there and elsewhere, ascribed the same motives to critics' daring to discuss neoconservatives' role. Some neocons, like Richard Perle, now even deny that neoconservatism exists at all—which might come as something of a shock to the neoconservatives, like Richard Perle, who have proclaimed themselves as such and even bragged to television crews about how much George W. Bush accepted their ideals. 

Supporters of neoconservatism seem to contend that, because some conspiracy theorists view neocons as a Jewish conspiracy (which is absurd, since so few American Jews are actually neocons), the movement's ideas are beyond reproach even as just that, the ideas of a movement. Michaelson indadvertedly lent a hand to those who use the conflation between neoconservatism and Jewishness and as a bludgeon against critics of the former who have no quibble with the latter.