Sniegoski on Podhoretz on Buchanan


What does Podhoretz mean
by "anti-Semitism"?



Norman Podhoretz, retired editor of the noted Jewish monthly "Commentary," has recently come to the forefront in castigating Patrick Buchanan as an anti-Semite. An analysis of Podhoretz's writings on Alexander Solzhenitsyn helps to clarify Podhoretz's understanding and use of the term. To most people (at least, to most gentiles) "anti-Semite" describes those who harbor some type of special hatred or prejudice toward Jews. My Webster's New World Dictionary (software version) defines "anti-Semitic" as "having or showing prejudice against Jews" and "discriminating against or persecuting Jews." Podhoretz's writing clearly illustrates that that is definitely not the meaning he assigns to the term "anti-Semitism." (His interpretation is probably not unique among Jews.)

Podhoretz wrote a notable piece on Solzhenitsyn, "The Terrible Question of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn," for the February 1985 issue of "Commentary." He presented a generally favorable view of Solzhenitsyn and even denied that the Russian was an overt anti-Semite. Podhoretz claimed that the "charge of anti-Semitism rests almost entirely on negative evidence. That is, while there is no clear sign of positive hostility toward Jews in Solzhenitsyn's books, neither is there much sympathy. I can well imagine that in his heart he holds it against the Jews that so many of the old Bolsheviks, the makers of the Revolution that brought the curse of communism to Russia, were of Jewish origin; and in general he also seems to ignore the mordant truth behind the old quip (playing on the fact that Trotsky's real name was Bronstein) that 'the Trotskys make the revolutions, the Bronsteins pay the bill.' Still, whatever there may be in his heart, there is no overt anti-Semitism in any of his translated works." (p. 24).

In the June 1985 issue of "Commentary," Podhoretz elaborated on his view of anti-Semitism in his response to readers' letters regarding his Solzhenitsyn article. He repeated his earlier evaluation that no overt anti-Semitism existed in Solzhenitsyn's works. He again mentioned Solzhenitsyn's "evident bitterness over the fact — and it is of course a fact — that revolutionaries of Jewish origin played so important a role in bringing communism to Russia" but declared that Solzhenitsyn's bitterness "is overridden by his consistently fervent support of Israel." Podhoretz continued: "In our own day, Israel has become the touchstone of attitudes toward the Jewish people, and anti-Zionism has become the main and most relevant form of anti-Semitism. So much is this the case that almost anything Solzhenitsyn may think about the role of Jews in the past — or even in the post-Communist Russia of his dreams — becomes academic by comparison." (p. 16)

Podhoretz's approach here is most revealing. Presumably, being bitter about the significant Jewish role in establishing communism in Russia, which Podhoretz admits is factually true (and which Podhoretz regards as an evil), would constitute anti-Semitism in an individual (gentile), unless  it were trumped by a more important pro-Jewish belief. And Podhoretz considers "fervent support for Israel" to be such a belief. (Something less than "fervent support," however, might not be enough to eradicate the stigma of anti-Semitism.) Hostility toward Israel, on the other hand, indelibly stains an individual with the mark of anti-Semitism.

The equivalent of Podhoretz's standard for anti-Semitism is not used to determine prejudicial attitudes toward other ethnic groups or religions. Jews themselves certainly do not follow such a standard. Jewish writers continually blame all manner of people and groups from the Pope on down for the sin of anti-Semitism. And after issuing their condemnations, they never feel the need to support some crucial Catholic or Ukrainian issue in order to demonstrate that they are not anti-Catholic or anti-Ukrainian.

In short, Podhoretz's standard for anti-Semitism illustrates a belief that Jews must be given more favorable treatment than other ethnic or religious groups. It is apparent that Podhoretz's view of anti-Semitism departs radically from the conventional and dictionary definition of the word that involves prejudice and discrimination against Jews. In fact, according to Podhoretz's definition, treating Jews like other people could very easily amount to an act of anti-Semitism. And anti-Semitism is now considered a hate crime that could have very serious consequences — even, in the more progressive democracies, strict censorship and imprisonment.

November 29, 1999

This version © 1999 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

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