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American Jewish History 87.2&3 (1999) 183-194

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Neocon Memoir

Midge Decter

I have been asked to reminisce about becoming a Jewish neoconservative. And given my age and the condition of my memory, it may in fact be the very last reminiscence of this particular neocon.

First a word about usage. The word "neoconservative" means a very special kind of conservative, one who has arrived at conservatism from the Left, and whose politics are far more politics in the head than in the local precinct or even national political party. Naturally, since neocons are by definition conservatives, the party they are most likely to incline to is the Republican party--though their political-party commitment is hardly either a leading or directing passion for them. I think here I should begin to say "us"--except for one slight embarrassment: I am a neocon no longer. Since I can find in myself no significant difference from the basic views of most serious conservatives, I have come to the conclusion that it is long since time for me to drop my original designation and call myself simply a conservative. How did I get here is the question, and thinking long and hard about the answer, I have come to the perhaps surprising conclusion that the story begins with Zionism.

So let's begin there, very briefly. Facing the twentieth century, a vast number, perhaps a majority, of the leading Jewish intellectuals of Europe were basically divided into two camps. There were those whose backs in the name of Halachah were obdurately turned away from the enlightenment, and there were the socialists, those who were going to bring about that glorious new world in which there would be neither Greek nor Jew but only proletarian man embodying the purest social justice. Within these camps there were, of course, certain divisions and disagreements. And between them, if goes without saying, there was passionate enmity. They would have been shocked at the thought that they had one very basic thing in common: it would turn out, when push came to shove, as it was so bloodily to do, neither of these camps was any part of God's plan for the survival of the Jewish people. Indeed, they had not even the ability to save themselves, women and children included. Who among European Jews were saved? Those who came to America to make their way in the brutal but promising new world, and those who pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to establishing a Jewish future on a forlorn little piece of land stuck between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. It is, I know, wrong to speak of those people with [End Page 183] a catch in one's throat; they were brave and determined people, but with few exceptions they were also considerably less than perfect. But that is beside the point--which is, that it has been hard to remain grateful and loyal to those people, who had obviously been intended by fate--I myself would say God--to insure the future of the Jewish people through the second half of the twentieth century without giving up one's dreams of perfection in favor of a very stark and perpetually endangered material condition on the ground. The existence of and prayer for the survival of the Jewish state was like a kite string that forever kept one from floating away on a passing political breeze. It would take me a long, long time to understand any of this, of course, and before I did, I certainly had my moments of flapping in the wind and mistaking what I was doing for flying.

Now, some of my elders in the neoconservative family--most prominently Irving Kristol--began in one or another kind and degree of leftist radicalism. Having emerged from adolescence at the end of World War II--when we cheered on, and then prayed for, and then joyously celebrated, the victory of the United States over what were without question the forces of evil--I myself was spared all but a nod of acknowledgment...


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