How the American Jewish Committee Created One of the Country’s Most Important Magazines

October 21, 2020 | Norman and John Podhoretz
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In 1945, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) replaced its house organ, the Contemporary Jewish Record, with a more ambitious publication that sought to attract the foremost Jewish writers—and some of the foremost Gentile writers, too. What resulted was the monthly Commentary¸ which since then has had an outsized influence on American politics, literature, and culture. On the occasion of Commentary’s 75th anniversary, Norman Podhoretz, who edited the magazine from 1960 to 1994, discusses its history with his son, John Podhoretz, who took over the editorship in 2009—and lays out what he sees as its mission:

I used to say Commentary was originally a Jewish magazine with general interests that became a general magazine with Jewish interests. . . . My mission [as editor] was to fight aggressively in what I saw then and see even more today as a war, a war about America and about Israel. There were those who thought and felt that America and Israel were forces for good in the world and those who thought that they were forces for evil in the world, and I see that same war going on. It’s still unresolved and may even end up with guns in the street. Some days I feel that.

But that war was consistently being fought from 1945 until now in the pages of Commentary, and it’s heated up considerably. That’s what Commentary is about in my opinion, and that’s the value that Commentary has and had, and I would say not only the important contribution but almost the indispensable contribution it made to the cultural life of the country. No one else was fighting that war in the way that we fought it; that is to say, wholeheartedly, aggressively, and with a desire to win.

Part of what contributed to the magazine’s success was the freedom of thought that it enjoyed, a rarity in today’s media environment:

NORMAN: There were many instances when articles were published that offended some important member or leader of the American Jewish Committee. And I always took the position, from the day I was hired until the day I retired, that the AJC was the owner of the magazine and that I was its employee and that it had a perfect right to fire me for cause or no cause. But as long as it didn’t, keep your hands off the magazine. And that worked.

JOHN: We’re talking about a long-gone world in which freedom of speech had become an almost unassailable, liberal value. And even though freedom of speech does not in fact govern the notion of whether or not an institution has to allow people within it whom it is paying the right to use their facilities to say whatever they want to say—nonetheless, it was observed so scrupulously!

NORMAN: [The founders] said from the beginning, . . . we want a distinguished magazine, and they agreed . . . that the only way they were going to get a distinguished magazine was to allow complete freedom.

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