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Modern Judaism 23.3 (2003) 303-306

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Michael E. Staub, Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). 386 pp.

This book deals with the "intra-Jewish conflict over liberalism" in the United States during the first three decades after World War II. Emphasizing "the remarkable intricacy and complexity" of this struggle, Michael Staub announces his intention to illuminate "the interplay between left, liberal, conservative, and right-wing elements within" the American Jewish community. 1 He does not attempt, however, to provide a truly comprehensive overview of the political divisions within this community during the postwar years. His book is mostly devoted to the elucidation of certain issues that he believes previous scholars of this period in American Jewish history have overlooked or underemphasized.

There are two points that Staub especially wishes to make. He energetically seeks to disprove the view of "most scholars and journalists" that "the so-called backlash among Jews against liberalism began only when blacks were understood to be becoming more militant—i.e., in 1964–65." Drawing on evidence from Commentary and other Jewish journals, he tries to show, on the contrary, that "a remarkable variety of antiprogressive arguments were already being formulated at the beginning of the sixties." 2 Even at this time, Staub maintains, the American Jewish community was "bitterly at odds with itself over fundamental social justice concerns." 3

Staub's other main aim is to correct retrospective accounts of the 1960s that identify the disproportionate presence of young Jews in the New Left movements as "a symptom of self-hatred, masochism vis-à-vis gentiles, and alienation from Jewish tradition." 4 He wishes to preserve the memory of "numerous youth groups" that emerged during the late 1960s and early 1970s "that maintained both a commitment to New Left activism and cross-racial causes and fostered strong Jewish religious and ethnic identification." 5 From his sympathetic treatment of these groups it is evident that they represent for him the great, lost hope of American Jewry.

Looking back to the immediate postwar period, Staub finds much to admire in the "antiracist" posture of American Zionism and especially in the "rabbinical movement for a prophetic Judaism." He laments the "moderate backlash" against these tendencies in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the part of people who at the time remained [End Page 303] liberals but who were nevertheless "not convinced that antiracist activism was itself a great idea." 6 In pieces written during this period by such intellectuals as Marie Syrkin, Norman Podhoretz, and, surprisingly, Arthur Hertzberg, Staub locates what he believes to be the deepest roots of neoconservatism—and they are not an inspiring sight. By his account, these writers' growing skepticism about liberalism reflected at best a narrow concern with the threat it posed in principle to the survival of the Jewish people. In the worst cases, such as the "extremely important" sociologist and Commentary contributor Nathan Glazer, it betokened fears "that black demands for equality and integration, if met, would destroy Jews' ability to maintain the integrity of their own communities." 7

While Staub deserves credit for investigating the earliest signs of the neoconservative mood, his treatment of the writers he dislikes falls far short of reviewing their ideas in all their complexity. One can also fault him for the manner in which he dispenses with what he characterizes as the conventional explanation for the rise of the neoconservative movement. The Jewish retreat from liberalism may not have begun as a response to manifestations of anti-Semitism among black militants, but it derived much of its impetus from them. A narrative that altogether omits, as does Staub's, any detailed account of these unsavory phenomena does not assist its readers in understanding in its proper context the panicked Jewish reaction to them, which Staub does proceed to describe. Nor does it encourage people to ask the very reasonable question of whether neoconservatism would ever have flourished in their absence.

The radicals on whom Staub has in fact fixed...


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