Already the world’s most studied group of writers since Bloomsbury, the neoconservatives aren’t even close to passing into history. If one counts Ex-Friends, Norman Podhoretz has produced three memoirs. Add to that a score of sympathetic studies and an equal number of critical ones, and one wonders what more can be learned from a new history of Commentary magazine.

As Benjamin Balint’s very readable book shows, quite a lot. A young former assistant editor at the magazine, Balint is a fellow at the neocon-friendly Hudson Institute and now lives in Jerusalem. Yet his book is neither apologia nor hagiography. It explores its subject with both real familiarity and a critical distance all the more refreshing for being unexpected.

There has been some recent controversy over whether to describe neoconservatism as, in the main, a Jewish phenomenon. It was fueled by some neoconservatives who charged that critics of the Iraq War were using the term as a coded anti-Semitic slur. Eschewing such silliness, Balint situates the movement firmly in the stream of Jewish-American history.

That history was inseparable from Commentary, founded, housed, and supported by the American Jewish Committee for the purpose of providing “informed discussion on the basic issues of our time especially as they bear on the position and future of Jews in our country and in the world scene.”

From its first issue in 1945, Commentary seemed ideally fitted to its time. It could tap a surge of new Jewish literary talent as the first college-educated generation had burst forth from the confines of the immigrant neighborhood, the Yiddish press, and Marxist sectarianism. Add to this a wave of refugee intellectuals from Hitler’s Europe—probably the most concentrated stream of brainpower to settle on these shores—and there existed a can’t-miss recipe for a vital magazine.

Commentary’s first editor, Eliot Cohen, held one guiding restriction: the magazine would be staunchly anti-Communist. It gives a sense of the talent available to Cohen to note that during one early period, the magazine had Nathan Glazer and Irving Kristol as assistant editors, soon joined by Norman Podhoretz. Balint’s account gives much evidence of how freewheeling and irreverent American Jewish intellectual life was during the ’40s and the allegedly conformist ’50s. For instance, in 1949, Commentary ran a satirical piece, “Adam and Eve on Delancey Street,” by the young novelist Isaac Rosenfeld. He speculated that kosher food taboos against the mixture of meat and diary symbolically functioned as sex taboos, keeping Jews away from the unrestrained sexuality of the goyim. The piece provoked several “not since Julius Streicher”-type denunciations from prominent rabbis, and some tried to kill the magazine. But after an apology, Cohen and Commentary survived.

Zionism, too, was subjected to probing criticism. Even the limits of what the magazine would publish revealed a breadth of debate. When Norman Podhoretz assigned Hannah Arendt to explore Little Rock and school desegregation, she made the kind of argument that Rand Paul would find ill-tolerated 50 years later: the use of federal troops to enforce integration imperiled the Constitution. Podhoretz’s superiors stepped in to spike the piece, prompting Podhoretz to claim that “it was dereliction of intellectual duty” not to run it and to resign in a huff. Remarkably enough, Arendt was able to publish her piece in the further Left quarterly Dissent.

Commentary’s trajectory after Podhoretz reappeared as the top editor in 1960 is better known: after a measured flirtation with writers of the prodromal New Left, Commentary shifted rightward in the late 1960s. By the 1970s, the magazine was engaged in full-scale war against “the movement” and the counterculture. By the late ’70s, it was benefiting from the New Left’s collapse: the Cambodian genocide, the Vietnamese boat people, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan brought in new refugees from ’60s liberalism. Israel’s 1973 war, in which the country desperately needed an American military airlift, had been a turning point for many Jewish New Leftists. Podhoretz’s magazine was there to welcome them.

And, of course, not only Jews. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who seemed in the mid-1970s the most serious intellectual in American politics, wrote there, to his and the magazine’s mutual benefit, as did James Q. Wilson, Robert W. Tucker, and Owen Harries.

Balint’s illumination of some of the magazine’s internal gears, especially the role of Neal Kozodoy, who worked as Podhoretz’s right hand from the 1960s to 1995, when he took over as editor, is especially valuable.

Seemingly blocked as a writer, Kozodoy has often been described as self-effacing for his long career in Podhoretz’s shadow. Few of those who knew him would attest to the description. For Commentary’s younger contributors (those born after 1940 or so), Kozodoy’s was the self-confident voice of the magazine, the man who read their pitches, judged their submissions, and did the lion’s share of their editing. Handsome in an understated 1950s sort of way, Kozodoy was almost certainly the only middle-aged neoconservative to attract beautiful young women.

His considerable erudition, grounded as an scholar of accomplishment in Jewish studies, was clothed in gruffness, making him an unusual mixture of earthy and intellectual. Balint captures this nicely in a vignette. At an editorial meeting, a title was being sought for a piece about interfaith dialogue. Senior editor Gabe Schoenfeld protested that the proposed “How Not to Conduct Interfaith Dialogue” didn’t work. It implied that Commentary knew the proper way to conduct such dialogue. “We do,” Kozodoy replied. “F–k you! No, f–k you! F–k me? F–k you.”

To the author of one piece he had solicited, he eventually said, “Yes, we’re going to run it.” When the writer asked if he had liked it, Kozodoy replied, “What are you, needy?” But he had more than one tone: for many younger writers, he was tremendously encouraging. When you did well, and heard back quickly on the phone, “Great! Just great!” it was worth far more than the modest sum you might eventually be paid. For a gentile, publishing in Commentary was a badge of intellectual and moral seriousness, one that could open as many doors in New York City as a Harvard degree might have done for a young Jew in Walter Lippmann’s day.

By the end of the Cold War, many believed neoconservatism had run its course. Midge Decter’s Committee for the Free World declared victory and disbanded. In Commentary’s own pages, Norman Podhoretz proclaimed that neoconservatism was no longer distinct from the American mainstream variety—such had been its triumph. The one distinctive passion the magazine had was Israel, a topic it worked hammer and tong from a Likudist perspective, opposing the Oslo Peace Accords and any effort to bring about a Palestinian state.

As mentioned above, Commentary had not always been dogmatically Zionist: in its early days, it had run such leading dovish intellectuals from Palestine as Uri Avnery. In 1946, Hannah Arendt assessed Theodor Herzl’s legacy 50 years after the publication of The Jewish State. She found the Zionist idea flawed: there was no country to be had without displacing the original inhabitants, and such a state would not end anti-Semitism in the world. Four years later, Clement Greenberg wrote that if Jews could survive only by becoming aggressive nationalists, they would have lost justification for persisting as a group.

Anti-Zionism receded after Israel’s founding, in the magazine and beyond. Commentary devoted little space to Israel before 1967. By the 1980s, however, Podhoretz could be counted on to slam critics of Israel as anti-Semitic. By the 1990s, advocacy for Israel and alarmist pieces about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were Commentary staples.

To his credit, Balint treats the debates swirling about the magazine in the age of 9/11 with considerable dispassion. He claims it is a “canard” that neocons cared more for Israel than the U.S., but quotes without sneering many of those who make the charge. In his epilogue, he adds this assessment from the late paleoconservative essayist Sam Francis: “What neoconservatives have done is to design an ideology … that offers ostensible and plausible rationalizations for the perpetual war in which Israel and its agents of influence in the U.S. government and media seek to embroil the United States (and which all too many American conservatives, out of a foolishly misplaced patriotism, are eager to support) without explicitly invoking the needs and interests of Israel itself.”

It is a damning indictment, on the mark in my estimation. And how rare is the Commentary editor who would present it for contemplation, not, of course, with an endorsement, but without insinuations about Father Coughlin reincarnated! Perhaps it is due to Balint’s living in Israel, where debate has traditionally been much freer than in New York.

As for the rest, from Balint one receives a full and vivid sense of Commentary’s achievement. Eliot Cohen and Neal Kozodoy were enormously successful editors. Norman Podhoretz—a talented and pugnacious ideologue with control of a nicely subsidized magazine—could well be counted the most influential American intellectual of the postwar era. Commentary has since been passed to Norman’s son John, whom no one believes is on the same rank as his predecessors. But this may not really matter. Neoconservatism has made solid and probably irreversible inroads among most politically active and influential American Jews, for whom hawkishness and resolute Zionism (regardless of party affiliation) have become the default majority positions. That is an historical development with major global consequences, and for which Commentary’s editors deserve a great share of credit or blame.
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Scott McConnell is editor at large of The American Conservative.