In two weeks, the Jewish Leadership Conference will award its Herzl Prize to the neoconservative thinker, literary critic, and longtime editor of Commentary. Reflecting on Norman Podhoretz’s legacy, Rick Richman compares his trajectory with that of the Supreme Court justice and American Zionist leader Louis Brandeis, and also that of the Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht, who advocated relentlessly for European Jewry during World War II and for the Jews of a nascent Israel thereafter:
[Podhoretz] grew up in a poor section of Brooklyn, in a family of immigrants. He was the son of a milkman, speaking Yiddish at home. . . . In his first years at Commentary, he focused on literature. He was responsible for publishing Philip Roth’s first short story in a national magazine, and wrote piercing reviews on Saul Bellow’s work. Soon, he was combining literary criticism with geopolitical insights, addressing the intellectual issues of the cold war.
He became increasingly troubled by the anti-Americanism infecting the left, and he eventually broke with it, becoming one of the founders of the neoconservative movement. It was not, to put it mildly, a popular thing to do. [Ultimately, he] turned Commentary from a left-wing critic of America into a defender of America and Israel, with exceptional analysis and argument, in essay after essay for 35 years.
After he retired in 1995 at age sixty-five, . . . he wrote five of his twelve books as well as many of his most powerful essays, [including] The Prophets: Who They Were and What They Are, which offered new interpretations of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and others, arguing that their messages were the imperatives of rejecting the idolatry of self-worship, which, in modern times, took the form of the disastrous belief that using ideology and coercion, humans could create a perfect society. That idolatry created a 20th century in which 100 million people were murdered by totalitarian states seeking the perfect race or class.
Podhoretz concluded that “Now, as [in ancient times], the battle will have to be fought first and foremost within ourselves and then in the world of ideas around us. . . . Because unless we all commit ourselves to the struggle for our own civilization, it will, like Jerusalem in the days of Jeremiah 2,500 years ago, wind up being sapped from within . . . and it will then become vulnerable to sacking from without.”