Neoconservatives are as entitled as anyone else to a political creation myth. Unfortunately for them, if Yale computer science professor David Gelernter’s Feb. 7 article in The Weekly Standard (“The inventor of modern conservatism”) is correct, the neoconservatives’ founding legend is a real whopper even by the standards of consciously constructed fables.
Gelernter argues that (neo)conservatism began with the ascension of Benjamin Disraeli to the premiership of the British House of Commons. This is a preposterous position to hold. Disraeli rose to power as a champion of protectionism and tariffs. He was the archetype of classical Toryism in foreign affairs, a romantic about his own nation but above all a foreign policy realist, disdainful of the conceptual constituents of what we would today call international justice. Disraeli was, in other words, profoundly opposed to whatever in 19th century British politics could be said to resemble contemporary neoconservatism.
In fact, the closest parallel of that period to the neoconservatism of our own time was the Liberalism of Disraeli’s archenemy, William Gladstone. A Gladstonian imperative to export Western values was latent in the interventionism of Woodrow Wilson and the Cold War liberalism from whose womb modern neoconservatism sprang. Gelernter’s aetiology is simply anti-historical. Except for one point: Disraeli was a Jew, and Gladstone was not.
There are quarters of both the left and the Buchananite right in which “neoconservative” and “Jewish conservative” are treated as interchangeable terms. Only from the point of view of someone who indulges in this notion might the idea of Disraeli as the forerunner of neoconservatism make a certain amount of sense.
For Gelernter, it would have been enough simply to embrace such a slur against Jews and neoconservatives alike — without assuming this perspective, his argument is unintelligible. But discontent, he further uses it to motivate a positively volkish glorification of Jewishness as a racial category and semi-plausibly attributes that view to Disraeli in order to coat his own inverted racialism with a patina of respectability. (How bad does it get? Without flinching, Gelernter takes himself to be scoring moral points by valorizing the Disraeli maxim: “All is race … there is no other truth.”) This is where Gelernter’s piece should have reached its nadir.
Improbably, however, Gelernter manages to descend even further into the muck by maligning the philosopher Isaiah Berlin. Were I as inclined as Gelernter to trade in unfalsifiable, categorical generalizations, I would say that he has wittingly defamed the rest of the Jewish intellectual tradition by extension. Since I am not so inclined, I will leave it to readers to determine just how thoroughly Gelernter impales himself upon his own words:
“Take Isaiah Berlin, who breaks out the sneer-quotes to mock Disraeli for conceiving himself ‘lifted above the teeming multitude by the genius of a “great” race.’ No doubt Berlin would have rated America, too, not great but merely ‘great’ — or was he afraid to exult in Jewish genius lest his gentile friends not like him any more? Berlin is long dead [sic], but many thousands like him live on. Who needs anti-Semites when so many Jewish scholars attribute a robust interest in Jewish achievement not to pride but to ‘insecurity’ — a disease with which they seem suspiciously familiar?” [Emphases mine].
Professor Gelernter is claiming, in effect, that Isaiah Berlin did the job of anti-Semites for them. Thus he fatuously convicts Berlin in sepulchro of the charge of cowardice — as if lack of courage were all that prevented Berlin from embracing Gelernter’s abnegating conception of Judaism as a golden calf of racial exceptionalism; as if courage were evinced in a philistine defacing of the memory of a man who is dead and unable to defend himself.
Gelernter does not restrict the ventilation of his spleen to Isaiah Berlin alone. The aforementioned thousands of Berlinian self-hating Jewish anti-Semites (if only many more like Isaiah Berlin lived on!) receive a gratuitous swipe. Noam Chomsky comes in for a condemnatory non sequitur — for all the legitimate reasons to deplore Chomsky’s politics, Gelernter has found a decidedly illegitimate one. And Karl Marx turns out to be not merely an anti-Semite, but also the origin of both Stalinism (mostly unfair) and Nazism (scurrilously unfair).
Yet Gelernter’s piece might still have a salutary effect, since he inadvertently confounds two radically different phenomena that are too easily referred to as “Jewish self-hatred.” The first is a tradition of self-enlightenment that stems from the manifest indecency of casual theodicy as an answer to the torments God inflicted on Job, and their reflection in the tragic history of the Jewish people. It is the key to understanding Hannah Arendt’s remark that the Jews, having ceased to believe in God after Auschwitz, believe in themselves. It is the thread connecting Maimonides to Spinoza to Martin Buber to Walter Benjamin to Primo Levi to Irving Howe to Woody Allen. It is the ability to doubt and to doubt genuinely and deeply, to doubt for the sake of doubt itself and not for the teleological confirmation of piety, and it is the true glory of Jewish culture.
The other kind of Jewish self-hatred is an attempt to rob Jews of their Jewish identity, and it is given expression in the sneering, unreflective contempt of a Jew both for the project of intellectual self-criticism and for other Jews. Professor Gelernter amply exemplifies this variety of self-loathing by everywhere littering his writing with accusations of anti-Semitism on the part of fellow Jews. I will not follow Gelernter’s example and accuse him of implicit or overt anti-Semitism in turn; by resorting to such defamations of Jewish thinkers subtler than himself, Gelernter has revealed a malice that is neither Disraeli’s nor his fellow neoconservatives’, but his own — and that is as ugly as it is, thankfully, self-defeating.
Daniel Koffler is a junior in Calhoun College.