December 7, 2019

Three Jews, Two Links, One Lesson

Norman Podhoretz Screenshot from YouTube; Louis D. Brandeis Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Ben Hecht Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

On Nov. 10, Norman Podhoretz, the legendary editor of Commentary magazine, will receive the Herzl Prize from philanthropic and educational institution Tikvah. It is the latest in a long line of honors for Podhoretz, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom President George W. Bush awarded him in 2004. Now age 89, Podhoretz is the author of a dozen path-breaking books and countless essays on politics, literature, culture and religion.

Bush said: “Podhoretz ranks among the most prominent American editors of the 20th century. … Never a man to tailor his opinions to please others, [he] has always written and spoken with directness and honesty. Sometimes speaking the truth has carried a cost. Yet, over the years, he has only gained in stature among his fellow writers and thinkers. …[We] pay tribute to this fierce intellectual man and his fine writing and his great love for our country.”

Podhoretz takes his place among the Jews who, over the past century, have contributed immeasurably to both Zionism and Americanism, including Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis during World War I and renowned writer Ben Hecht during World War II.

When we examine their three lives together, we see they have two fascinating links, which provide a single, important lesson for our time. 

Brandeis was the first Jewish justice, whom Woodrow Wilson nominated in 1916. It was a controversial nomination because for the first time in its history, the Senate held hearings on a nominee, which lasted four months. Brandeis was confirmed only after a contentious process involving 43 witnesses. He served 23 years. 

He was born in Kentucky in 1856 to Jewish immigrants from Prague, who gave him no Jewish education. He never attended services, never observed Jewish holidays, and never made significant contributions to Jewish organizations before he turned 57. Then, in 1914, he agreed to head the American Zionist movement.

“Brandeis invigorated the American Zionist movement by articulating the connection between Zionism and American ideals.”

It was a time when most American Jews considered Zionism an unrealistic, possibly unpatriotic, European ideology. Out of 1.5 million Jews in the United States at the time, only 15,000 were members of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA). As Tikvah senior director Jonathan Silver has written, Americans “saw themselves as having fled oppression, crossed the wilderness, and arrived in a new promised land.” American Jews considered themselves not in exile, but at home in a new place.

Brandeis invigorated the American Zionist movement by articulating the connection between Zionism and American ideals. In his acceptance speech as chairman of the ZOA, he said, “My approach to Zionism was through Americanism: In time, practical experience and observation convinced me that Jews were, by reason of their traditions and their character, peculiarly fitted for the attainment of American ideals. Gradually, it became clear to me that to be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.”

The following year, Brandeis wrote “A Call to the Educated Jew” for a new college journal, telling students that the Jewish contribution to America could be very large, because their religion and afflictions had prepared them for democracy.              

“Persecution … taught the [Jews] the seriousness of life; … it deepened the passion for righteousness; it trained them … in self-sacrifice,” he wrote in The Menorah Journal. “The widespread study of Jewish law developed the intellect … America requires in her sons and daughters these qualities and attainments, which are our natural heritage. Patriotism to America, as well as loyalty to our past, imposes upon us the obligation of claiming this heritage of the Jewish spirit.”

Brandeis argued that without a Jewish home in Palestine, the future of the Jewish people was in doubt – and that American Jews needed such a home no less than others. In the last sentence of “A Call to the Educated Jew,” he wrote, “We Jews of prosperous America above all need its inspiration.” 

Two years later, Brandeis played a key role in the American endorsement of the Balfour Declaration — Britain’s promise of a Jewish national home in Palestine — a key step in the process that led to a Jewish state 30 years later.

Hecht was born in 1894 to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, grew up in Wisconsin, skipped college and became a crime reporter in Chicago. He went on to write articles, columns, novels, short stories, Broadway plays, screenplays, essays and nonfiction books that, in many ways, defined his times. He became Hollywood’s highest-paid screenwriter, receiving six Oscar nominations and two Oscars.

In his first 40 years, however, as he later recalled, “I attended no synagogue, read no Jewish history or literature … listened to no discussion of Jewish problems.” But in 1939, as the Jews in Europe faced disaster, he started to look on the world “with Jewish eyes.” He wrote, “I was deeply shamed by the silence of the American Jews. … The Americanized Jews who ran newspapers and movie studios, who wrote plays and novels, who were high in government and powerful in the financial, industrial and even social life of the nation, were silent.”

In one of Hecht’s Broadway plays in the 1930s, a character observes that “we are always on the right side of discussions, but never on any side of the barricades.” In 1941 — after having ignored Jewish issues for virtually his entire life — he joined the Jewish side. He met Peter Bergson, a young Zionist from Palestine, who asked him to serve as the American leader of their cause. Hecht agreed. 

On Nov. 24, 1942, the State Department confirmed the Nazi plan to destroy the Jews, and two months later, Hecht’s article in The American Mercury, “The Extermination of the Jews,” reached a nationwide audience when republished in Reader’s Digest. The article became the basis for his March 1943 production “We Will Never Die.” The production played to sold out audiences at Madison Square Garden and across the country, and NBC broadcast it nationally. In it, the character played by Paul Muni — the leading actor of his time — told the audience, “The Germans have promised to deliver to the world, by the end of [1943], a Christmas package of 4 million dead Jews. And this is not a Jewish problem; it is a problem that belongs to humanity, and it is a challenge to the soul of man.”

In 1944, Hecht wrote a bestselling book on anti-Semitism, and concluded he was writing it not only as a Jew but as an American: 

“If my sense of outrage against the Germans is a Jewish one, do I lessen my Americanism by voicing it? … If tyrants flout the laws of human rights, and murder the weak, and I shout against them, am I more Jew than American? … If [the Jew] cries more loudly for these than the American next to him, is he not, perhaps, more American?”

“Neoconservatism became one of the keys to America’s victory in the Cold War.”

After the war ended, Hecht wrote “A Flag Is Born,” a pro-Zionist play that opened on Broadway in 1946, with music by Kurt Weill. It starred Stella Adler, Muni and 22-year-old Marlon Brando. In 1948, Hecht received a cable from Menachem Begin, the 32-year-old leader of one of the Jewish military forces in Palestine, asking Hecht to speak to the “soul of the Jews of the world.”

Hecht spoke for 45 minutes in Los Angeles, in one of the landmark speeches of modern Jewish history, saying that if the battle for Palestine were lost, “we Jews, all of us, are lost for another seven generations.” He ended by saying, “Jewish money has poured into a thousand causes, but there was never any cause in Jewish history like this one. In Palestine, a David is standing against Goliath, and I ask you Jews — buy him a stone for his slingshot.”

On that one evening, he raised the equivalent of $3.1 million today, and the ship carrying aid to the Jews in Palestine was renamed the “SS Hecht.” When he died in 1964, Begin spoke at his funeral, saying Hecht had “wielded words like a drawn sword” and did “so much for the Jewish people and for the redemption of Israel.” 

Podhoretz became the editor of Commentary — the premier journal of neoconservative Jewish intellectual life in America — in 1960, at the age of 30.

He grew up in a poor section of Brooklyn, in a family of immigrants. He was the son of a milkman, speaking Yiddish at home. Unlike Brandeis and Hecht, he received a full Jewish education, starting at Columbia at age 16 on a full scholarship and studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, commuting two hours a day because his family couldn’t afford a dorm room for him. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia and a Bachelor of Hebrew Letters from JTS.

In his first years at Commentary, Podhoretz 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, among others. Soon, he was combining literary criticism with geopolitical insights, addressing the intellectual issues of the Cold War.

Today, it is difficult to believe there was a time when it was not evident democracy and the blessings of freedom were superior to Communism, but during the Cold War, many intellectuals were both anti-Communist and anti-American. They could, in Podhoretz’s words, “give wholehearted support only to some alternative possibility which did not exist” — like the characters in Hecht’s play who never joined any side of the barricades. Podhoretz believed America should be actively supported, not because it was without blemishes but because it was the force standing against a new 20th-century tyranny — one that was, in many ways, as bad, if not worse, than the Nazi horrors.

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. For many Jews, conversion to conservatism was roughly equivalent to conversion to Christianity. It earned Podhoretz the lifelong enmity of former literary friends, as he recounted in his memoir “Ex-Friends: Falling Out with Allen Ginsberg, Lionel and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer.”

Neoconservatism became one of the keys to America’s victory in the Cold War, which was not only a diplomatic and military conflict, but an intellectual one that required intellectual and social courage to fight. In the same way Brandeis and Hecht came in mid-life to champion a cause they earlier ignored or downplayed, Podhoretz 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 65, he continued writing. He wrote five of his 12 books as well as many of his most powerful essays after he “retired.” Fifty years after graduating from JTS, he published “The Prophets: Who They Were and What They Are,” offering 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.”

Podhoretz’s 2001 book, “My Love Affair With America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative,” ends with what he calls his “American Dayenu,” a nine-paragraph expression of gratitude for what America did for a poor Yiddish-speaking boy from Brooklyn. He took Brandeis’ appreciation of the Jewish contribution to American life, combined it with Hecht’s recognition that Jewish intellectuals needed to participate in history, and added his own awareness of the importance of America and Israel in the world.

There are two fascinating connections among these three Jewish American giants. The first is that each of their contributions to history seemingly came by chance. For Brandeis, one of the keys was a chance meeting in 1912 on an unrelated subject with Jacob de Haas, Theodor Herzl’s close associate. De Haas engaged Brandeis in an hourlong discussion of Zionism, which prompted Brandeis to start to study it with the same intensity he brought to his legal cases.

Hecht was, in his words, “walking down the street one day [and] bumped into history” in the form of Peter Bergson. Hecht agreed to have a drink with him at the 21 Club. The conversation lasted for hours, and it changed his life and legacy.

For Podhoretz, a chance meeting with a teacher changed his life. As a 5-year-old at public school, a teacher stopped him as he headed up a staircase and asked where he was going. In his heavy Yiddish accent, he said: “I goink op de stez.”

“And they slapped me into a remedial speech class … [which] did me an enormous favor.” This gave Podhoretz the gift of beautifully spoken English. Later, a high-school teacher gave him what he needed for what was at that time, as he wrote, “one of the longest journeys in America: from Brooklyn to Manhattan.”

In 2015, at age 85, Podhoretz wrote a classic essay, “What Do Jews Owe America?” Like Brandeis’ essay, Podhoretz’s is a clarion call to every educated Jew. Like Hecht’s 1948 speech, it is a text every American Jew should know. In the same way high-school students used to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, every Jewish student should know parts of these three Jewish texts by heart.

The second point about these three modern heroes perhaps contradicts my first one. Their contributions may not have begun by chance. Brandeis died in 1941, the same year Hecht met Bergson. Hecht died in 1964, as Podhoretz approached his historic intellectual crossing to defend Americanism and Zionism. There seemingly was an invisible baton, passed from one to the other, and from one generation to the next. Perhaps it wasn’t by chance at all.

Tikvah is a baton held out to each of us. We are, in Brandeis’ words, the “trustees” of Jewish history, “charged to carry forward what others have, in the past, borne so well.” And the past, as Podhoretz wrote, offers us a dual blessing: a heritage to protect and a summons to contribute.


Rick Richman is resident scholar at American Jewish University and the author of “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler.” This story is adapted from his Oct. 10 talk to a Los Angeles event of the Tikvah Fund.