David Bernstein asks this question at the Volokh website. He raises a number of good points, including probably insoluble ones about whether we can generalize about the ethnic character of any ideology held only by certain members of a group. After all, most American Jews are not neoconservatives, either explicitly or otherwise.
But his and others’ virulent opposition to such a characterization has an air of insecurity. After all, most neoconservatives are Jewish, and they famously support Israel in all of its endeavors (other than displays of weakness or compromise). Some explicitly defended the Iraq adventure on the grounds that it was good for Israel.
In the contentious discussion, no one acknowledged or defended the problematic application of dual standards by neoconservatives themselves. Neoconservatives routinely criticize Muslims and Arabs as evil, speaking with forked tongues, and as disloyal to the Western World and its values. They similarly criticize Christians, most viciously in their attacks on Mel Gibson’s Passion. Why is generalization about the ethnic and religious character of these groups appropriate, while none whatsoever is appropriate about neoconservatives themselvess, especially when such a characterization finds numerous facts in support. After all, the neoconservatives’ flagship magazine is a publication of the “American Jewish Committee,” and it is pretty easy to connect the dots between interests and policy in this case, particularly on the issues of immigration and Israel.
More important, if neoconservatives and neoconservatism aren’t Jewish in character, then why is it anti-Semitic to say that neocons are wrongheaded, stupid, unusually entranced by the interests of a nation with whom we have no defense treaty, and totally indifferent to America’s historic ethnic composition? I mean, can’t we just say these things on the merits without constantly being called anti-Semitic? Since a great deal of ink is spent by neoconservatives on the Jewish Character of Jewish Thinkers, it seems fair that the Jewish character of neoconservatives and other thinkers can be looked at in less hagiographic ways. It’s simply a debater’s trick for ethnicity and religion to be a one-way ratchet, whereby ethnicity is invoked to bestow praise and dignitas, but also used as a canard when that same identity is brought up in negative ways.
On this matter, I’ve always enjoyed this excellent and very honest contribution by Leon Wieseltier in The New Republic:
It is not true that the moral life is lived only individually, even if acts of good or evil are the work of individuals acting together or alone. Individuals belong to groups, and it is a cost or a benefit of their belonging that they are morally implicated by their groups, which are moral agents, too. One can oppose the misdeeds of one’s group, but one cannot secede from it, I mean not neatly after the fact.
For this reason, I am not hurt when I am interrogated about the misdeeds of Jews or the misdeeds of Americans, because I have chosen to be known as a Jew and as an American. I understand why they are coming to me with their questions, even with their slanders. I accept that I have some explaining (or refuting or apologizing) to do. To be sure, I am not just a member of my groups, I am also an individual whom they cannot entirely reach or entirely rule; but I cannot hide behind the fact of my individuation, behind the doctrine of individual responsibility, when the going gets rough.
So, what’s my point? It is a fairly mundane one. Neoconservatives themselves tell us that their ideology is partly a Jewish movement that asks the old question of any policy: “Is It Good For the Jews?” Neoconservatism is also a type of “liberalism with guts” that contains strong and influential views on foreign policy. But this variant of liberalism has especially great appeal among a group whose interests and historical way of life matched liberalism’s handmaiden, modernism itself—individualistic, mobile, unrooted to time or place. This viewpoint demands a universalist foreign policy for the nascent universalist nation, which will be made more “pure” in time with mass immigration.
In this new “nation” that is not creedal accidentally, but is by design united in nothing else, no minority will stand out, and no minority group at home or abroad will have to go undefended. This principle of a universal obligation to protect the universal values of democratic capitalism applies most especially to the Jewish nation surrounded as it is by illiberal Arab wolves in the Middle East. The historic American nation and people will be obliterated. But their sins—racism, the delayed entry into WWII, the 1924 Immigration Act—will be atoned for once and for all by this new universalist entity fighting for democratic capitalist values the world over. We’ll even have a non-American military to boot if Max Boot has his way.
Neoconservatism is an imposter with little relationship to authentic conservatism, which is rooted in the actual and the historical. Neoconservatism’s differences start with its fundamental liberalism. Like any liberalism, neoconservatism is hostile to the historical American nation and attractive to many Jews, because the historical American nation–the nation of WASP Presidents, the English language, Ivy league quotas, discriminatory private clubs, nepotism, and blue laws–is one in which Jews would always be, at least in part, outsiders and a minority.
One can defend this ideology on its own terms. Certainly some of its contributions are quite valuable. But the sinusoidal embrace and rejection of the Jewish character of neoconservatism is insulting to the intelligence of ordinary people.
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