"Podhoretz in Retirement: A Report on the Mortality of Friendship,"
a review essay by Albert S. Lindemann

Date:         Mon, 27 Sep 1999 08:37:07 -0500
From: Albert Lindemann 

[Norman Podhoretz, Ex-Friends: Falling Out With Allen Ginsberg, Lionel
and Diana Trilling, Lillian Hellman, Hannah Arendt, and Norman Mailer. New
York, The Free Press, 1999. 244 pp.]

Ex-Friends has been widely reviewed in the mainline print media, but the
book may seem a surprising choice to be reviewed in H-Holocaust and
H-Antisemitism, since it is natural to assume, especially given the
eye-catching title, that it is mostly concerned with literary and political
matters, and with that mainstay of memoirs, gossip about the private lives
of famous people. Podhoretz does offer his readers some gossipy tidbits
(did you know that Hans Morgenthau had an affair, well, maybe, with Hannah
Arendt?). And parts of the book, in particular the opening chapter on the
poet, Allen Ginsberg, those dealing with the novelist, Norman Mailer, or
with the literary critics, Diana and Lionel Trilling, are germane to these
lists only in an indirect sense: They illustrate how little antisemitism
and the Holocaust preoccupied these particular Jewish luminaries in the
decades immediately following WW II. But the chapters devoted to Lillian
Hellman and Hannah Arendt offer some intriguing if also troubling
information about how current attitudes to the Holocaust came into being,
as well as about the evolution and paradoxes of Jewish attitudes to
antisemitism. The following remarks, then, have not been composed primarily
as a book review covering all aspects of the book but rather as an extended
review essay exploring those themes.

This is Podhoretz's third book devoted primarily to autobiographical
themes. The first two, Making It (1967) and Breaking Ranks (1979) were
longer (each over 350 pages, while Ex-Friends is 235 pages) and more
audacious. Although Podhoretz claims that his new book offers his readers
new material, except for the first chapter and "few bits and pieces" in the
others, he has in fact recycled quite a bit from his earlier books. There
are, to be sure, some interesting new details, and twenty or thirty years
have passed; inevitably similar information now looks different, sometimes
in fascinating ways. All three books, at any rate, are beautifully written
and reveal a man, whatever one's general attitude to him, of undeniable
talent and sophistication.

Neoconservatives have in recent years been less in the news than they were
in the 1970s and 1980s; feelings about them, pro or con, have quieted down.
Even their strongest detractors can hardly deny their overall importance,
and they themselves can feel something like "mission accomplished,"
particularly in such areas as American policy toward the Soviet Union and
Israel, or in the new respect for the role of the free market and the
discredit of leftist economic perspectives. Podhoretz was a major player in
that mission, as editor of Commentary magazine from 1960 to 1995, as well
as author of six books and hundreds of articles and editorials. Over the
years he outraged many; he ranks as one of the most widely reviled
neo-conservatives, if not the very most (it's a pretty competitive field).
Revealingly, his ex-friend Ginsberg is included in this volume not really
because they were once genuinely close but because Ginsberg came to
consider Podhoretz -- conventional, careerist, stuffy -- as symbolizing all
that he was rebelling against. In turn Ginsberg serves as a convenient
symbol for Podhoretz of the moral nihilism and malignancy that he believes
began to eat away at the left from the mid-sixties on. His revulsion for
what left-wingers, a  large proportion of them Jews, were up to in those
years easily exceeds Ginsberg's aversion to neoconservatives, most of whose
leading figures are Jewish. Podhoretz writes, for example, of "the cesspool
of Haight Ashbury" [48], and he treats his readers to some graphic excepts
from Ginsberg's poetic paeans to anal intercourse, fecal odors and all. [54]

This kind of graphic, hard-hitting language, the use of such concepts of
leftist filth, decadence, and depravity, cannot help but set off certain
alarms. Antisemites write like that. Historically, extreme right-wingers
have seen Jews as particularly dangerous to a Christian moral order and to
social peace; Jews were believed to be destructively dissident,
unpatriotic, and unusually prone to sympathy for Communism. Jews were also
believed to be heavily involved in such morally damaging activities as the
liquor trade, pornography, and prostitution. Not long ago the so-called
paleoconservatives aligned with William F. Buckley's National Review
regularly made comments about Jewish destructiveness, vengefulness, and
leftist inclinations. In reaction to Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961, the
National Review referred to the "Hate Germany movement" that was instigated
by the Israelis and supported by American Jews. "It is all there: the
bitterness, the refusal to forgive, the advancement of Communist aims." A
minister of the time wrote that he could see little ethical difference
between the hate of the "Jew-pursuing Nazi and the Nazi-pursuing Jew," and
a Catholic observer alluded to "some influential people who -- like Shylock
of old -- demand their pound of flesh."1

For Jews to move to the right, inevitably edging toward alliances with
other right-wing forces, was not entirely unprecedented in modern Jewish
history, but it could not be considered an entirely comfortable direction,
at least not for the great majority of the American Jewish population. It
did not help that the so-called "moral equivalence" argument (Nazism and
Communism are morally the same) was favored by the neocons, including
Podhoretz. If Nazis and Communists are basically the same, did that not
suggest that Communists in the 1930s through the 1950s, significant numbers
of Jews among them, should have been, like Nazis, put in jail, if not
sentenced to death, as Eichmann was? And even those Communists who had not
participated directly in mass murder but simply defended Stalin and the
Soviet Union as "progressive" -- were they not to be shunned and abhorred,
treated as Nazi sympathizers who themselves did not murder have been
treated?  Of course, two Jewish Communists, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg,
were put to death -- charged, to be sure, with more than being Communists,
but the pain that trial caused American Jews suggests something of the
treacherous symbolism, the Pandora's Box, of equating Nazism and Communism,
given the extent to which McCarthyism could feed on it.

More will be said below about the issue of moral equivalence, but there is
no denying that a majority of Jews in America, as in most countries of
Europe, have long stood proudly on the left (mostly the moderate rather
than radical left, it should be said) even after a phenomenal upward
mobility. There is similarly no denying -- most Jews take pride in it --
that Jews have been prominent in support of gay rights and other such
hot-button issues as abortion that the Right associates with moral
depravity. Indeed, American Jews have notably spoken up in support of a
wide variety of unpopular causes and in defense of various social pariahs,
just as the Christian right has generally opposed or damned them. The left
that Podhoretz himself attacks in this book is almost exclusively a Jewish
left; all of the ex-friends featured in the chapters of Ex-Friends are
Jewish, as are the scores of others who make various cameo appearances. A
natural question arises: Is there then something specifically Jewish about
this American left that Podhoretz considers so cancerous? Do Jews have a
special responsibility for the ravages, moral and otherwise, of the sixties
and seventies?

Podhoretz, like most neoconservatives, avoids that question, or brushes it
aside as unworthy of a serious response. One Jewish ex-radical
neo-conservative has, however, offered some searing testimony in that
regard: "It was not my parents' idealism that elicited fear and provoked
hostility from the goyim. It was their hostility toward the goyim, and
indeed everything the goyim held dear, that incited the hostility back."
Leftist passion "is a mirror of the dark center of the radical heart: not
compassion but resentment . . . not the longing for justice but the desire
for revenge."2 Podhoretz does touch indirectly on the issue of a special
Jewish role in the left by emphasizing a related point: The proclivity of
Jews to be overly critical of themselves ("self-hatred") and the grave
danger that excessive self-criticism has presented to American Jews in the
twentieth century; he believes a related self-hatred began by the mid-1960s
to infect the American left in general. Leftist self-hatred -- for being
American, or affluent, or white -- was related to the sympathy of the New
Left for Communism (a sympathy that was really more a revulsion from
"Amerika") or for the revolutionary peoples of the Third World (struggling
to free themselves from American imperialism). Indeed, the self-hatred of
the left also often involved its becoming antisemitic, and so as far as
Podhoretz and other neoconservatives were concerned, the danger to Jews,
and especially to the state of Israel, was no longer primarily from the
right but from the left -- and, again, from leftist, destructively
critical, self-hating Jews to a very prominent degree.

It can come as no surprise that leftists have replied in kind, typically
dismissing Podhoretz as a hypocrite and an opportunistic sellout. Jews on
the left have in particular reviled him as a betrayer of central Jewish
traditions; he is a "Jew without mercy." That phrase was adopted by Earl
Shorris as the title of his 1982 book attacking the neo-conservatives.3 He
charged that these "new" Jews were finally not real Jews because they no
longer identified with the oppressed. By "making it," Podhoretz became for
his detractors the Sammy Glick of the intellectual set, driven by raw
ambition, sucking up to those in power, and in effect shouting "to hell
with rachmones; the poor should get off their duffs already!" Aside from
their alleged disdain for the economic underclass, the neoconservatives
have been charged with lacking genuine or credible sympathy on a range of
issues, prominent among them the plight of homosexuals, the sexist
oppression experienced by women, or the racism faced by people of color
(although paradoxically, those Jews considered "most Jewish" in a
traditional religious sense, the ultra-Orthodox, have been charged
similarly with a lack of sympathy in just those areas).

Podhoretz's admirers see him, quite the contrary, as he presents himself: a
man fighting at considerable personal cost against the ever more
threatening currents of the late 1960s. And he perceived a wide range of
threats -- to public order and private property, to public education, to
Israel, to American interests throughout the world, particularly from an
expansionist Soviet Union, and even to the life of the mind, given the
anti-intellectualism of the radical left. One man's renegade is of course
another's prophet, and Podhoretz did often bring to these controversies a
prophet's passion. Or perhaps a zealot's excesses: In 1969, Podhoretz
charged a journalist with wanting "to shove the Jewish people back into the
gas ovens."4 What had the journalist done to earn this monstrous charge? He
had written in support of black community control of schools.

Tony Judt, in a recent review of Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American
Life, complains that "poor Norman Podhoretz is wheeled out time and again
to illustrate the unwisdom of invoking the Holocaust whenever you want to
cast aspersions on your critics."5 Whether or not he has made cheap shots
in Podhoretz's regard, Novick surely has a point that overuse of the
Holocaust imagery has contributed to a degradation in the quality of
discussions involving Jews in America, and it is only fair to inquire into
Podhoretz's role, as a prominent and respected intellectual, in that
process. As Novick observes, "Once one starts using imagery from that most
extreme of events, it becomes impossible to say anything moderate,
balanced, or nuanced; the very language carries you along to hyperbole. . .
. Anyone who scoffed at the idea that there were dangerous portents in
American society had not learned 'the lessons of the Holocaust.'"6

Any reader of Podhoretz's autobiographical volumes might readily assume
that he would agree heartily with the need for nuanced, careful judgments;
he time and again laments the anti-intellectualism of at least a major
element of the left, and the prevailing tone of his writing is anything but
simplistic. He has led an enviably rich life, making friends -- for a while
at least -- not only with a large number of prominent writers and
intellectuals but all manner of politicos and glitterati, as far afield as
Jackie Kennedy. Many of them, including Jackie, eventually stopped inviting
him to dinner (Making It was more than she could stomach), but with enemies
like those, who needs friends?  Above all, the personal charm of the man,
at least when he wants to turn it on, seems undeniable; his recent [Feb.
1999] appearance, discussing his book, on C-Span2 offered further evidence
for those who doubt it. But one has to ask, is this avuncular, urbane, and
sometimes self-mocking individual the same "poor Norman" alluded to by Tony
Judt -- the "back into the gas ovens!" Norman? Will the real Norman please
stand up?

With any memoir, a central question must be: "How accurate and how honest?"
In recent years, memoirists as different as Albert Speer and Elie Wiesel
have been charged with what Winston Churchill once called "terminological
inexactitudes" (when he was forbidden to use the 'l' word in parliament) or
what Huck Finn referred to as "stretchers." Podhoretz, in that familiar
tradition of memoirists, obviously strives to make himself look good. But
is he, as it were, remaking it? The book opens with this disarming
sentence: "I have often said that if I wish to name-drop, I have only to
list my ex-friends." He added on C-Span2 that he has lost "hundreds of
them."  Brave words and quite a record, suggesting an uncommon
self-assurance and a lack of regret or ruefulness (how many people could
speak of hundreds of former friends without at least some sense of self
doubt?). Later in the book he writes even more defiantly that "I never stop
counting [my] blessings . . . since I shouldered the burden of challenging
the regnant leftist culture that pollutes the spiritual and cultural air we
all breathe, and I do so with all my heart and all my soul and all my
might."  [21]

Still, these legions of former friends were a diverse company, by no means
all Weathermen terrorists or Ginsberg moral nihilists. One has to wonder
how they all fit into the "regnant leftist culture." More to the point, one
wonders, looking back now as the century is about to end, if they were all
consistently wrong about everything, while Podhoretz and the neocons were
consistently right. His language suggests more than mere tactical
differences or normal political jabs and punches -- he refers to pollution,
sewers and cesspools. Did the country in truth go completely in the wrong
direction in those years in regard, for example, to attitudes to gays,
women's rights, and minorities, and are we now in all ways worse for the
change? Is there not finally some profound ambiguity to the outcome of
those passionate and bewildering years, even granting the all-too obvious
excesses and blunders on the left? Metternich once reflected: "I cannot
help telling myself twenty times a day: How right I am and how very wrong
are all the others." If indeed Podhoretz is able to enjoy such
Metternichean certainties, he has triumphed remarkably -- heroically?
(believably?) -- over the man who once wrote that he was "much given to
anxiety," and was in particular "disadvantaged in the world of power by a
childish desire for everyone to love me and a terror of making enemies."7

Podhoretz's present rock-hard moral certainties are hard to detect in his
account of his long friendship with Lillian Hellman -- quite the contrary,
it is a story of human weakness, moral ambiguities, and wide-ranging
paradoxes. That tangled narrative reveals interesting details of another,
which is even more convoluted and, to many observers, deeply disturbing:
The story of how Anne Frank came to be one of the most universally
recognized icons of the twentieth century.  It is disturbing to some
because the story of Anne Frank that the world has come to know is
romanticized, bowdlerized, and "de-Judaized." The process of remaking Anne,
as it were, bothers Cynthia Ozick so much that she wrote in the New Yorker
that it might have been better if Anne's diary had been "burned, vanished,
lost" rather than her story being so offensively misrepresented.8 That
misrepresentation had much to do with the well documented role of Lillian
Hellman, while she and Podhoretz were still close friends. It was a
misrepresentation -- and here is a revealing point -- that little troubled
him at the time.

The Hellman-Podhoretz friendship started in 1957, more than a decade before
he turned to the right, yet even so the beginnings did not appear at all
auspicious. The story as narrated in Ex-Friends has already been told in
Breaking Ranks: his being incredulous when catching sight of her at a
cocktail party hosted by Lionel and Diana Trilling, for "it was hard to
imagine the Trillings associating with her, . . . [she] was the kind of
[middlebrow] writer for whom literary intellectuals like the Trillings
generally felt disdain and even contempt." But "this cultural divide . . .
was nothing compared to the fact that Lillian was . . . a 'Stalinist,'"
That was the preferred term in these circles to 'Communist,' since many of
those now democratic leftists had themselves once been Communists, and most
still held the red-baiting of the 1950s in horror.9

Whatever her middlebrow perspectives and unsavory political associations,
Hellman and Podhoretz became, as he writes, "fast friends almost
immediately." What was the attraction? Friendships often have unaccountable
aspects, but there were some obvious enticements, especially for a fiercely
ambitious young man who would later write Making It: She was famous,
well-connected, and affluent. Mixing in her circles "was heady, it was
exciting, and it was fun." But "the most fun of all -- playful,
mischievous, bitchy, earthy, and always up for a laugh -- was Lillian
herself." [118]

Lillian's lively qualities, it must be said, were at times expressed in
ways that may startle current Podhoretz admirers.  She harbored a barely
disguised hatred for the state of Israel, and she often exhibited a "streak
of Jewish anti-Semitism, [including] . . . cracks . . . about some 'kike'
or another." Looking back, Podhoretz reports -- yet again a revealing point
-- that he found these attitudes an "irritant" to the friendship, but he
"never took [them] to heart." [123-4] He presumably also never once charged
her with wanting to push the Jewish people back into the gas ovens.

Hostility to Israel and discomfort with Jewishness were not uncommon in
Podhoretz's circles. His mentor, Lionel Trilling, whom Podhoretz describes
as the most intelligent man he has ever met -- again, in a pretty
competitive field -- had "violently negative feelings" about Judaism and
Jewishness, especially in their Eastern European varieties. Diana's
sentiments were, if possible, even more negative. Lionel once wrote that he
would "resent it if a critic of my work were to discover in it either
faults or virtues which he called Jewish." [92] But Podhoretz, as he
describes himself at that time, comes across as anything but the stuffy
conformist and the prickly partisan in regard to Jewish issues that so many
later considered him to be. Indeed, he writes that he too was uncomfortable
with Jewish particularism, and in an essay published in 1963 he admitted
that he suffered doubts about the meaning of Jewish survival. (He "often
wondered whether . . . [Jewish] survival as a distinct group was worth one
hair on the head of a single infant.")10 He concluded that acclaimed essay
with these words: "I believe that the wholesale merging of the two races
[Black and White] is the most desirable alternative for everyone concerned.
. . . The Negro problem can be solved in this country in no other way."
These were not, need it be said, the kinds of remarks favored in Commentary
magazine in subsequent years.

Podhoretz, too, harbored some fairly heretical thoughts about Israel and
the Israelis. After his first visit, he wrote to Lionel Trilling that the
Israelis, "despite their really extraordinary achievements [are] a very
unattractive people. . . . They're gratuitously surly and boorish." Such
reflections must have been especially troubling to someone who hoped that
the state of Israel could repair "the ravages done to the Jewish
personality by two thousand years of Diaspora." [156] His reservations
about Israelis at any rate provide further insight into how Podhoretz and
Hellman could have maintained their close friendship for as long as they
did. He was, in short, a strikingly different man.

Still, there were always a number of awkward aspects to the friendship. He
had a low opinion of the artistic quality of her work but could not bring
himself to be honest with her about it, understanding full well that
dishonesty -- that is, praise -- was a price to be paid for preserving the
friendship. There was a certain ironic justice to it all: She herself was
dishonest -- chronically, at times blatantly. There would have been a nice
symmetry to it all if she had also hidden from him her negative opinions of
his writing, but we have no evidence of that. What we do have ample
evidence of is how she twisted events and personalities to make herself
emerge as a person of courage and principle. Podhoretz thinks that Mary
McCarthy may have exaggerated a bit in her celebrated quip ("every word
[Hellman] writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'"), but he came to
recognize that a great deal of what she wrote about herself "could only be
interpreted as deliberate lies." [121-22] Still, the Podhoretz-Hellman
friendship endured, the lies passed over (though some of the worst, it
should be said, came after they were no longer friends).

That a woman so dishonest and self-serving as Hellman should have played
the role she did in the fabrication of the popular image of Anne Frank,
through an enormously successful play that later became popular movie, can
only be termed disconcerting. Here Hellman's Stalinism emerges as a key
issue. Her exact relationship to the Communist Party remains uncertain; she
may have been a member for only a brief period, but she undoubtedly
remained a "fellow traveler" for much longer. The main point is that she
had a Stalinist's aversion to Jewish particularism, one that went well
beyond Podhoretz's own, or the familiar distaste for seeming "too Jewish"
that was so common among many of her German-Jewish background. She had no
use for the play composed by Meyer Levin about Anne Frank. Prominent among
its flaws, she argued, was Levin's preoccupation with Jewish themes, which
she plausibly maintained would be fatal to its commercial success. At any
rate, she used her good offices (perhaps not the best term) to hurry along
the process by which two non-Jews, successful commercial playwrights, were
given the job of presenting Anne Frank to the world on stage.

The rest, as they say, is history. The universalizing, and de-Judaizing, of
Anne Frank's diary has been explored in a number of articles and books,
most notably in Cynthia Ozick's above-mentioned New Yorker piece and in
Lawrence Graver's study of Meyer Levin, An Obsession with Anne Frank
(1996). The actual process by which Jewish qualities were excised from the
diary in writing the play is described in meticulous detail by Ralph
Melnick, in The Stolen Legacy of Anne Frank (1998), a more sympathetic
portrayal of Levin than is to be found in Graver. The strength and
prominence of Anne Frank's Jewish identity are certainly debatable, but
there is little question that even before Hellman's efforts, the diary
itself had been bowdlerized -- and first of all by her father, Otto Frank.

Otto deleted certain passages for perfectly understandable reasons. For
example, he removed some graphic passages dealing with Anne's emerging
sexual awareness -- this was, after all, the fifties. He similarly sought
to tone down the bitter, wounding remarks that Anne made about her mother
-- these were, after all, her teenage years, and her mother subsequently
perished in the Holocaust. But Otto, too, was much concerned with universal
themes and notably cautious about emphasizing Jewishness "too much." The
play and then the movie evolved yet further than the diary, with no real
objections from him, in the direction of focusing on Anne as a universal
rather than as a specifically Jewish victim. Most strikingly the play and
movie took large liberties in presenting an uplifting story, one with
redemptive "lessons" about the human condition. Such revisions were no
doubt defensible commercially and again not contrary to Otto's wishes. But
they were, to say the least, difficult to reconcile with this bleak and
ugly tragedy, and, more to the point, with this undeniably Jewish tragedy.

Against Levin, Melnick, Ozick and others who bemoan how this Jewish tragedy
was misrepresented, it might be argued that a watered-down yet highly
popular story of Anne Frank was finally better than a story neglected or
ignored, just as pop history, for all its simplifications, can serve to
awaken an interest where little existed before. Such an awakened interest
can then develop in more serious directions. In spite of the many dubious
aspects of Spielberg's Schindler's List, it did bring the Holocaust to a
wide audience in ways that are hard to dismiss as in all regards without
merit. And, revealingly, some of the same problems loom in it as in the
presentation of Anne Frank, in particular the upbeat quality given to what
was anything but an upbeat reality. Similarly, there is the problem of how
representative these stories can be considered. The surprising and finally
baffling actions of a corrupt man but "good German" (and Nazi party
member), or the travails of a family in hiding are remote from the obscene
horrors that are at the heart of the Holocaust.

There is the related and no less difficult issue of whether even the Jewish
public was ready in the 1950s for a more truthful and somber play about
Anne Frank. Raul Hilberg recounts that in 1989 it was explained to him that
his The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) "had been published too
early."11 His extraordinary and in many regards path-breaking book thus
received scant attention at first, and much of that attention consisted of
outraged, angry dismissal. Similar considerations certainly seem relevant
for the timing of the appearance of a play about a "too Jewish" Anne Frank:
If such a play, rather than the now familiar one, had been offered to the
public, it is a fair guess that it would have opened to mixed reviews and
half-filled houses, and would have closed after a few performances.

Podhoretz's own account offers support for "the world was not ready"
argument. He was hardly unaware of or insensitive to Jewish issues, yet he
writes that he was "not especially bothered by the role Lillian played in
the de-Judaization of the stage version of The Diary of Anne Frank,"
largely because of the sensational commercial success of the play. Meyer
Levin tried to enlist Podhoretz, as so many others, in his cause but was
unsuccessful, in no small part because Levin seemed to Podhoretz "more than
a little paranoid," a common judgment, it must be said, even by those
sympathetic to him. Podhoretz writes that "in retrospect, I think Levin had
a good case." [124] Probably most observers would now agree that Levin had
a case, but few would be so bold as to say that the merits of that case
should have been obvious to all sensitive observers at the time -- or that
his play effectively presented that case.

Podhoretz's account of the immediate postwar years gives further evidence,
though not quite so explicitly recognized by him, of how Europe and America
were "not yet ready" to deal with the Holocaust: He spent most of his time
in the army in Germany, less than a decade after the end of the war,
explaining the dangers of Communism, not of  Nazism or antisemitism, to
American troops. Novick's Holocaust in American Life describes how the Cold
War pushed the Holocaust aside, as it were, since German support against
the Soviets was essential and there was no point to accusing and weakening
our German ally.12 Given his later career, Podhoretz's own activities at
this time offer a particularly strong support to Novick's point.

By his own account, Podhoretz's friendship with Hannah Arendt  was slower
in forming -- he thought she would never call! -- less close, and
considerably less fun-filled than his friendship with Lillian Hellman. But
the more important difference was in his deep respect for Arendt. "Of all
my [intellectual] elders . . . , there was none for whom I had a higher
regard than Hannah. The intellectual quality I prized most at that stage of
my life was brilliance, by which I mean the virtuosic ability to put ideas
together in such a new and surprising combination that even if one
disagreed with what was being said, one was excited and illuminated."
[142-43] Early in their friendship he resigned in disgust from Commentary's
staff (before he later returned as editor, in 1960) because one of her
"brilliant" pieces, having to do with the struggle for civil rights in the
South, was judged to be too much at variance with liberal and Jewish
opinion to be published in Commentary at that time. But his readiness to
stand up for brilliance soon enough received another test, one that
escalated into one of the most emotional affairs in the world of American
Jews after WW II. It was also one that may be considered a revealing
signpost in the process by which a wide public came to understand the Nazi
Final Solution to the Jewish Question.

After the Israelis captured Adolf Eichmann and put him on trial in 1961,
Arendt wrote a series of articles in The New Yorker, beginning in 1962, and
then combined them into a book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the
Banality of Evil, in 1963. What was in those articles and book to bring
forth such a storm of protest and indignation? The affair has some puzzling
aspects, even to this day, especially the extent to which Arendt was
charged with beliefs and statements that were wildly inaccurate.
Revealingly, Podhoretz -- who, as will be explored below, this time lost
his taste for brilliance and joined the fray in attacking her -- recognizes
in Ex-Friends that the affair spiraled out of control and that "many of the
criticisms were either wrong or unfair, sometimes to the extreme of
outright defamation." [160] In trying to account for these reactions,
perhaps the most important point to be made is that she was reaching an
audience not previously reached; Jews had debated among themselves many of
the matters she now discussed, including charges that Jewish leaders had
cooperated with the Nazis and that Jews went meekly to their deaths, but
not in a journal like The New Yorker -- a shande far di goyim!

Most of those who have studied this contretemps concur that Arendt's love
of grand theory was accompanied by carelessness with details. She had
penchant for forced or arcane distinctions, reveled in paradox, and
delighted in being provocative -- all complicated by the kind of imperious
tone that when used by a German Jew drove Eastern European Jews to
distraction. She did not suffer fools gladly, and she seemed to many
observers to be particularly impatient with Jewish fools. Even putting the
best light on it, as Walt Rostow did at the time, she had no more tolerance
for "Jewish pomp, folly, xenophobia, and hypocrisy than for any other
variety."13 That could easily be perceived as lacking sympathy for the
sufferings of the Jews. In the opening pages of Eichmann in Jerusalem, she
worked in sardonic remarks about Israel, touching on topics that were
practically taboo at the time (e.g., how the Israelis, as the Nazis,
outlawed intermarriage, or how the Law of the Return, basing the right to
immigration on Jewish descent, was the kind of "racist" law vehemently
opposed by American Jews for the United States). She described Eichmann's
trial as in origin a show trial, initiated and stage-managed by the then
prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. It was a trial, moreover, in which the
prosecution was allowed to introduce mounds of irrelevant evidence and
witness after witness who had had no contact with Eichmann. As she pointed
out, the prosecution built a large part of its case on what the Jews had
suffered in general, not on what Eichmann had done in particular -- again,
procedures that would not be allowed American courts of law.

In retrospect the extent to which Arendt was riding for a fall may seem
obvious; her writing was dangerously prone to misunderstanding, especially
now that she was addressing not only non-Jews but a much wider audience
than those intellectually ambitious types who had admiringly struggled
through the dense and sometimes bizarre 500 pages of The Origins of
Totalitarianism. But even those who understood her reasonably well at times
angrily disagreed with what she wrote in this book. And, finally, even
those admirers who were willing to give her every benefit of the doubt were
occasionally baffled or put off by some of her language. Who, to this day,
is entirely confident that they understand what Arendt meant by the
"banality of evil" (or, as she more amply and engagingly formulated it in
the closing lines of her book, the "fearsome, word-and-thought defying
banality of evil"14)? Anyone who thinks they do may be interested to learn
that the philosopher Karl Jaspers, her most respected intellectual mentor
and close personal friend, wrote her privately about his own reservations
and puzzlement concerning the term. Indeed, she herself later recognized,
in a private letter, that at the time of writing the book, the term had
implications she had by no means thought through.15

Podhoretz in Ex-Friends does not much delve into these elusive issues, nor
is he ostensibly much interested, even now, in exploring the possibility
that there were finally some merits to Arendt's musings about Eichmann.
It's a pity, but perhaps understandable, since, to repeat, memoirists
normally try to avoid making themselves look bad, and in this episode it is
difficult to see how he might be made to look particularly good, at least
insofar as he fancies himself an intellectual who can, standing
knowledgeably above blind passion and prejudice, lay credible claim to show
the way to others. Central to Arendt's musings was an issue of continuing
concern to students of the Holocaust and antisemitism, one that in turn
touches on a nettlesome aspect of the nature of historical understanding.
Arendt bent her considerable talents in an effort to "understand" Eichmann,
in the process confronting this old question: Does historical imagination
unavoidably involve one in "sympathy" for the protagonists under study,
whether they were virtuous or evil? And is such sympathy finally legitimate
in examining extreme examples, in this case Nazis or other varieties of
anti-Semites? For many perhaps most readers and authors, the answer to the
second question is an emphatic No.

What then should the historical narrative involve? Again, the answer for
many is "describe and condemn" -- and, please, no more than that! Any
effort to enter imaginatively and openly into the moral universe of an
Eichmann or a Hitler is morally treacherous, permanently and properly terra
incognita. The Nazis were moral monsters rightly relegated to Haman's
realm: We may stamp our feet and make noises at them to show our revulsion,
but we must reject the notion of trying to understand them as human beings.
In short, the irreducible mystery surrounding such evil must remain;
historical analysis must not be allowed to weaken moral outrage.

Interestingly, this stance is close to Arendt's own in The Origins of
Totalitarianism, where she defined "radical evil" as "rooted in motives so
base as to be beyond human comprehension."16 In The Awakening, Primo Levi
wrote, "Perhaps one cannot, what is more must not, understand what
happened, because to understand is almost to justify. . . . No normal human
being will ever be able to identify with Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels,
Eichmann and endless others. This dismays us and at the same time gives us
a sense of relief."17 However -- and here is a central, often neglected
point -- it was precisely in following the trial and reading about Eichmann
that Arendt came to doubt the validity of her own earlier conception of
radical evil, which in turn meant a reconsideration of the issue of whether
it could be understood.

In Podhoretz's article "Hannah Arendt on Eichmann: A Study in the
Perversity of Brilliance," (Commentary, Sept. 1963) the issue of the
permissible scope of "understanding," of historical imagination is central.
So too is a related and if possibly even more difficult question: In
studying victim and victimizer is it ever permissible to speak of an
interplay, of degrees of mutual responsibility? For the
"describe-and-condemn" school there is again a trenchant answer, especially
when dealing with the relations of antisemite and Jew: Never! In his
article Podhoretz bemoaned the lack of black-and-white moral clarity in
Arendt's account of the Eichmann trial; in her "perverse" pursuit of
paradox and ambiguity, she had the audacity, on the one hand, to describe
this Nazi as banal and, on the other, the Jews as complicit in their own
destruction. In Eichmann's case, in short, she tried to be "sympathetic" in
the sense of struggling to understand his mental processes as those of a
normal or banal human being, while she seemed uninterested in a comparable
effort in regard to the Jewish victim. Her account, Podhoretz ironically
intoned, had "all the appearance of 'ruthless honesty' and all the marks of
profundity. . . . But if this version of hers can from one point of view be
considered more interesting, can it by the same token be considered truer,
or more illuminating. . . ? Is the gain she achieves in literary interest a
matter of titillation, or is it a gain to the understanding?" [201-02]. His
answer was flatly "No gain." How then did he think we are to understand the
confrontation of Nazi and Jew? As far as Podhoretz in this article is
concerned, what Jews or Jewish leaders did or failed to do in confronting
the Nazis did not matter "in the slightest to the final result. Murderers
with the power to murder descended upon a defenseless people and murdered a
large part of it. What else is there to say?" [205]

What else indeed? Undoubtedly Podhoretz had a point about the imbalance, or
at least the seeming imbalance, of sympathy in Arendt's account. Yet even
granting her sins of presentation, the know-nothing implications of his
words suggest that it may have been "poor Norman" speaking here. Was there
really nothing else to say? Was the story indeed so simple as, in his
terms, "monstrous Nazi" and "virtuous martyr"? Was the evil of Eichmann's
character so patent that to express puzzlement about him, astonishment at
his apparent normality, morally reprehensible? Revealingly, even one of
those who first reacted negatively to Arendt's book, Arthur Hertzberg,
later wrote her privately that "there are issues to be discussed, and . . .
you raised almost all of them, but so far the discussion has not been equal
to the searing dignity of the subject, or the seriousness of your analysis,
which has been treated quite unfairly by almost everyone, and certainly by
me in a few paragraphs."18

It is finally hard to understand how a man of Podhoretz's intelligence and
sophistication could have assumed, with complete inner sincerity, such an
ultimately dogmatic and anti-intellectual stance. In particular it is
difficult to understand how he could have continued, again, with complete
inner conviction, to maintain that he was entirely right and she entirely
wrong. Raul Hilberg, from whose book Arendt learned much of what she wrote
about the "collaborationist" role of the Jewish councils, had also been
bitterly criticized -- indeed defamed and crudely misrepresented, much as
she had been. In his view, it was the watchdogs of Historical Correctness,
reflecting the "main current of Jewish thought" at the time, that were
responsible: "Modern Jews know, like their ancient forebears, the hazard of
giving the perpetrators a face, endowing them with identity and thought,
allowing them a modicum of doubt or regret, of making them human. Remember
only what they did" -- describe and condemn. He continues, "And what have I
done? I insisted on delving into forbidden territory and presenting Amalek
with all his features as an aggregate of German functionaries." Similarly,
he believed that he encountered hostility from leading Jewish figures
because he had failed to recognize that "the Jewish victims must be seen as

Hilberg surely has a point about how Amalek [the forebear of Haman and the
symbol of absolute evil in Jewish tradition] is to be presented, at least
according to some Jewish spokesmen, but he does not seem to recognize how
much Jewish thought, even in the immediate postwar period, was itself
divided about the Jewish victim as hero. As noted above, knowledgeable Jews
were aware of Jewish collaboration, and indeed there was no little "blaming
the victim": Trials, several spectacular ones, of Jews who had cooperated
with the Nazis were held in Israel. And far from stressing Jewish heroism,
many Israelis emphasized the opposite -- that Galut Jews suffered from
cowardice, servility, and other character defects (presumably what
Podhoretz had in mind when he wrote of the "the ravages done to the Jewish
personality by two thousand years of Diaspora"). Ben-Gurion remarked that
the survivors of the Holocaust included "people who would not have survived
if they had not been what they were -- hard, evil, and selfish people, and
what they underwent there served to destroy what good qualities they had

A more hard-bitten interpretation of Podhoretz's article on Arendt might
suggest that the real issue was quite simple: As editor of Commentary
magazine, witnessing the powerful waves of indignation in response to
Arendt's articles and book, he had to recognize that a substantial defense
of Arendt would have cost him plenty. Whatever the merits of such an
interpretation, it must be recognized that he by no means acquiesced even
in that article to all the charges against her; he termed it "stupid" to
maintain that she actually defended Eichmann, for example. Finally what
motivated Podhoretz to write the article must remain uncertain, perhaps
even to himself; the truth may lie in some messy combination of
calculation, emotion, principle, and encouragement by others.

After the article appeared, Podhoretz accepted Arendt's rather surprising
invitation to meet privately with him and "thrash things out." He writes
that she greeted him in a friendly manner, quipping "I may be brilliant but
I am not perverse." Later in the conversation she got to the point: "Why
did you do it?" She thought she knew. She believed that he had been
instructed or strongly encouraged by influential Jews to write a "hit"
piece in Commentary. (Podhoretz writes in Ex-Friends, "I had feared that
she would think I was put up to it by the AJC, and . . . I was to find out
that my fear was well founded.") [170]

Arendt had become convinced that a circle of influential Jews were
conspiring to defame and destroy her -- not quite the Elders of Zion but in
that ballpark, akin perhaps to Hilary Clinton's vast right-wing conspiracy.
She was not entirely wrong (nor is Hilary), although "conspiring" is too
inflammatory a word, since it was to an important degree an open campaign,
several of whose leaders contacted her directly to indicate their plans. It
is undeniable that a number of Jewish leaders and organizations, notably
the ADL, launched an elaborately coordinated -- and "stupid" in Podhoretz's
sense -- campaign to denounce and defame her as an anti-Semite, a
"self-hating Jewess" who had written a "pro-Eichmann series."21

A consideration of the methods of the ADL in this case cannot be pleasant
for those who identify with ideals of the American Civil Liberties Union,
and the large numbers of Jews on both sides of this divide suggest the
degree to which this affair split the Jewish community. And it is a lasting
division, for this would not be the last instance in which the ADL was
believed to show scant regard for the rights of those it defines as
defamers and enemies. A decade ago Noam Chomsky, discovering that the ADL
had a 150 page record on his activities, "just like an FBI file," charged
that "the Anti-Defamation League. . . [has become] actually an organization
devoted to trying to defame and intimidate and silence people who criticize
current Israeli policies, whatever they may be. . . . If there's any
comment in the press which they regard as insufficiently subservient to the
party line, there'll be a flood of letters, delegations, protests, threats
to withdraw advertising, etc."22 Chomsky of course ranks as a prime example
of the self-hating leftist that Podhoretz so detests, but the question
remains whether Chomsky's opinions make it justifiable to use such methods
against him or against others the ADL, with its many resources and
contacts, deems a danger.

One of the greatest disappointments of these memoirs is that Podhoretz does
not provide us with much information about what was actually said in that
five-hour discussion -- hidden tapes where are you when we really need you?
 This must have been a fascinating exchange. He writes in Ex-Friends that
he had already described that conversation in Breaking Ranks, but in fact
there is little more information about the real content of the discussion
in that book than in the present one. And so certain questions must linger,
as must doubts about how forthcoming Podhoretz has been about his role in
the entire affair, to say nothing of how ambitious he has been in offering
interpretations of it.

On balance, Podhoretz's account of his relationship with these two
ex-friends, while in many regards intriguing, is in other ways
disappointing. He does not finally achieve his goal of making himself look
good, particularly since the lacunae, the things not adequately addressed,
are all too obvious. One neglected though certainly not completely ignored
aspect to the friendship with Hellman has again to do with the issue of
sympathy and understanding. Podhoretz laments in Ex-Friends the extent to
which she won the admiration of the mass public, most dramatically in the
Academy Awards ceremonies in the mid-1970s, receiving a prolonged standing
ovation "before a television audience of fifty million Americans, myself
included." [137] He further laments how many other Communists or Communist
sympathizers have never really had to face their past in the way that Nazis
and Nazi sympathizers have. This imbalance is particularly lamentable if
one accepts the "moral equivalence" argument mentioned above. Podhoretz
remarks, "As any reader of the obituary pages could testify, Lillian was
not the only old Stalinist to whom this same absolution was extended." Many
of them have died and have been celebrated as "progressive" heroes or
martyrs during the persecutions of the McCarthy period. "Very few of these
people were ever held morally to account, and Lillian perhaps least of all
of them." [137]

But is his own attitude to her, expressed in those words, finally
consistent or coherent in a deeper sense? Are Nazis and Stalinists, or
their defenders and sympathizers, indeed morally equivalent? And if so, how
might the Stalinists have been held to account -- some sort of Nuremberg
trial? Might we then term Communist Party members (or the great majority of
the population of Soviet Russia) "willing executioners," or perhaps
"monstrous Communists," while their non-Communist victims were "virtuous
martyrs" -- and are we then to insist that there is simply nothing else to
say about the subject, or that to do so is immoral? So many Germans and
even Nazis have claimed "We didn't know!" They have not been widely
believed. When the same words are pronounced by ex-Communists, especially
those Communists in free countries who had ample access to overwhelming
evidence in regard to the Stalin era's terror and mass murder, how can they
be believed? Germans during the Nazi years obviously had much less ample
and reliable sources of information, and we can hardly conclude that doing
something about Nazi evil was easier for them than denouncing Stalinist
Russia was for American Communists. Simon Wiesenthal is hunting down former
Nazis to general applause -- and a sense that these men have gotten away
with murder for too long -- but who is hunting down former Communists, who
also have gotten away with murder, with a similar persistence and zeal?
Who, indeed, in this country is even suggesting that such be done?

These questions -- and many more of a kindred nature that might be posed --
point to some of the problems with the moral equivalence argument. Most
Americans, and it seems a fair guess, most Jewish Americans, finally do not
believe that Nazis and Communists are to be considered moral equivalents,
although it's also a fair guess that most of them have not thought about
the implications of the question with much tenacity. It seems clear that
even many staunch anti-Communists, Podhoretz included, have been able to
extend quite a bit of "sympathy" to at least some Communists and fellow
travelers; they have been willing, in other words, to try to understand
what Communists as human beings believed and to grant that they were in
some instances misguided idealists or selfless people of good will. A
similar willingness holds far less in regard Nazis or their defenders. How
much sympathy can most people, especially those who lived through the Nazi
years -- and above all Jews -- work up for, say, Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot,
let alone Hitler and Heydrich? The notion of a misguided but idealistic
Nazi is still not received with much enthusiasm in the countries that
fought Nazi Germany. Indeed how "understanding" are most Jews, again
especially those old enough to remember the late 1930s, to Charles
Lindbergh? He was not a nazi, a nazi sympathizer, or even an anti-Semite,
but to be sure he was impressed with Nazi power and opposed to committing
American forces against Nazi Germany -- and is thus seen as lastingly
tainted and is hated for his isolationist role (one of course that
undoubtedly did anti-Semites to its banners). Podhoretz confesses to an
enduring affection for Lillian to the very end of her life. How might it
seem if he described a lingering affection for a clever, fun-loving,
bitchy, and lying former member of the American Nazi Party or admirer of
Nazi Germany?

There is finally not a lot of fresh understanding in Ex-Friends, and there
is less new information than Podhoretz claims. The merits of the book are
real but small scale: The writing is skillful, the overall tone anything
but simplistic, and the cast of characters fascinating. But there is a
notable lack of a broader, kinder wisdom in this remarkable if also
puzzling man, even as he approaches his eighth decade of life. The book
does not have, in short, "all the appearance of 'ruthless honesty' and all
the marks of profundity." And, we are left to conclude, that's the way he
wants it.

1 Quoted in Peter Novick, The Holocaust in American Life (New York, 1999)
129, 130.
2 David Horowitz, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey (New York, 1997), 44;
David Horowitz and Peter Collier, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts
about the Sixties (New York, 1996), 309-11.
3 Earl Shorris, Jews Without Mercy (New York, 1982). The theme of Jews as
standing on the left because of Jewish religious tradition is an old one,
recently and knowledgeably covered in Edward S. Shapiro, A Time for
Healing: American Jewry since World War II (Baltimore and London, 1992),
especially in Chapter Seven, "From Culture to Causes."
4 Novick, 177.
5 The New Republic, July 19 & 26, 1999, p. 38.
6 Novick, 177, 178.
7 Making It, 300.
8 "Who Owns Anne Frank?" The New Yorker, October 6, 1997.
9 Ex-Friends, 104; compare the account in Breaking Ranks, 315 ff.  --
certainly more than "bits and pieces" repeated.
10 "My Negro Problem -- and Ours," Commentary, Feb. 1963, reprinted in
Norman Podhoretz, The Commentary Reader (New York, 1966), 376-387.
11 Raul Hilberg, The Politics of Memory (Chicago, 1996), 123; the words are
those of Judith Sklar, then President of the American Political Science
12 The point has been made, though less amply, by a number of historians,
among them  Shapiro, Time for Healing, Chapter One, The Aftermath of War.
13  The Harold Tribune, May 19, 1963.
14 Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
(New York, 1963; revised and enlarged edition, 1964), 252.
15 Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, Hannah Arendt, For Love of the World (New Haven,
1982), 362ff.
16 Cf. the discussion in Young-Bruehl, Arendt, 369.
17 Primo Levi, The Awakening (New York, 1965), 213.
18 Young-Bruehl, 367.
19 Raul Hilberg, The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust
Historian (Chicago, 1996), 132-33.
20  Tom Segev, 1949: The First Israelis (New York 1986), 138; cf. Novick,
Holocaust, 69
21 Novick, 127 ff.
22 Noam Chomsky Language and Politics, New York, 1988, pp. 642-3.


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/podhoretz-review.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:41:59 EDT