Yesterday was the 92nd birthday of Norman Podhoretz, who for the past six or seven decades has been one of the most vibrant and perspicacious thinkers on American politics, society, and foreign policy, as well as on Israel and American Jewry, all in addition to being one of postwar America’s greatest literary critics. As anti-Semitism is very much on the mind of American Jews today, it’s worth revisiting Podhoretz’s 1986 essay “The Hate That Dare Not Speak Its Name.” When it was written, left-wing anti-Semitism cloaked as opposition to Israel was still something that resided on the radical fringes, and thus even Podhoretz was surprised to find it in the respectable pages of the Nation. The essay presages many debates to come, and makes clear how much the so-called “new anti-Semitism” has in common with the old:
Last March, in a special issue commemorating its 120th anniversary, the Nation published an article by the novelist Gore Vidal entitled “The Empire Lovers Strike Back” which impressed me and many other people as the most blatantly anti-Semitic outburst to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II. The Nation is a left-wing (or, some would say, a liberal) magazine run by an editor, Victor Navasky, who is himself Jewish. Yet one reader (who happened not to be Jewish) wrote in a personal letter to Navasky that he could not recall encountering “that kind of naked anti-Semitism” even in papers of the lunatic-fringe right which specialize in attacks on Jews; to find its like one had to go back to the Völkische Beobachter. Nor was he the only reader to be reminded of the Nazi gutter press. “I thought I was back in the 30’s reading Der Stürmer,” wrote another.
Actually, however, it was not the crackpot racism of Julius Streicher that Vidal was drawing on, but sources closer to home. Prominent among these, I would guess, was Henry Adams, about whom Vidal has written admiringly and with whom he often seems to identify. Adams, as a descendant of two presidents, was a preeminent member of the old American patriciate—the class to which Vidal also, if somewhat dubiously, claims to belong—and his resentment at the changes which came over the United States in the decades of industrialization and mass immigration after the Civil War knew no bounds. The country was being ruined, and Adams blamed it all on the Jews: “I tell you Rome was a blessed garden of paradise beside the rotten, unsexed, swindling, lying Jews, represented by Pierpont Morgan and the gang who have been manipulating the country for the last few years.” It made no difference that J.P. Morgan was neither Jewish himself nor in any sense a representative of the Jews. For as Adams wrote in another of his letters: “The Jew has got into the soul. I see him—or her—now everywhere, and wherever he—or she—goes, there must remain a taint in the blood forever.”
In Vidal’s diatribe there is no explicit mention of blood, but there is its functional equivalent in the idea that Jews born in the United States nevertheless remain foreigners living here by the gracious sufferance of the natives. Incorrigibly alien though the Jews may be, however, they exercise enormous and malevolent power over the politics of what Vidal, conjuring up the long-discredited spirit of 19th-century nativism, does not hesitate to call “the host country.”
In the days of Henry Adams, and up until the establishment of the state of Israel, the great power of the Jews was supposedly used in the interests of world Jewry; today it is generally said to be deployed in the interest of the Jewish state, which Vidal, taking up this line, characterizes as a “predatory people . . . busy stealing other people’s land in the name of an alien theocracy.”