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American Jewish History 87.2&3 (1999) 159-181

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Commentary, the Public Interest, and the Problem of Jewish Conservatism

John Ehrman

Jews are a small, but vocal and active segment of the modern American conservative movement. One measure of their importance to the Right is their ability to support two of conservatism's leading journals, the monthly Commentary and the quarterly Public Interest. As might be expected, the two magazines have much in common. Both have their intellectual roots in the New York intellectual community that flourished roughly from 1940 until the early 1970s; the editors of the Public Interest previously served as editors of Commentary and the two have shared many contributors; and both have made the ideological journey from liberalism to neoconservatism to, finally, unqualified conservatism. The two have just as many differences, however. Where Commentary is combative, the Public Interest is more scholarly and urbane; Commentary is a Jewish magazine, concerned with the fate of Israel and developments within the American Jewish community, while the Public Interest is purely secular in orientation; Commentary addresses a wide range of subjects, including domestic politics, foreign affairs, and the arts, but the Public Interest focuses only on public policy issues and related topics. 1

Another point that Commentary and the Public Interest have in common is that both are considered prestigious, influential magazines. That is, both have high intellectual and literary standards and long have been perceived as having impacts on politics and policies disproportionate to their small readerships. An examination of their histories, particularly during the past 20 years, however, suggests that this perception may no longer be accurate. Instead, and for reasons largely [End Page 159] beyond their control, Commentary and the Public Interest no longer have as much influence as they did until the early 1980s. In addition, a look at the factors contributing to the declines in influence helps show why conservatism likely will remain a minority tendency among American Jews.

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Commentary originally was the successor to the Contemporary Jewish Record, a bimonthly whose editor, Adolph Oko, had died in October 1944. The American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Record's publisher, appointed a committee to decide what to do with the magazine. The committee included such figures from the New York intellectual community as sociologist Daniel Bell and literary critic Lionel Trilling, and it quickly recommended that the AJC hire Elliot Cohen (1899-1959) to start a new journal. Cohen was well known to the group. A prodigy from Mobile, Alabama, he had graduated from Yale at 18 and had become managing editor of the Menorah Journal, a Jewish cultural magazine, when he was 25. He quickly established a reputation as a brilliant editor and developer of new talent--he was Trilling's first publisher, for example--as well as a polymath with a wide range of interests, especially baseball and popular culture. Cohen fell out with Menorah Journal's editor in 1931 and left the magazine to work as a fundraiser for a Jewish organization. Because he was unhappy in his new work and longed to return to magazine editing, Cohen immediately accepted the AJC's offer to edit Commentary, despite having to take a large salary cut. 2

Cohen's mandate from the AJC was to produce a nonpartisan journal focusing on Jewish affairs and other contemporary issues--Norman Podhoretz, Cohen's eventual successor, believes that they planned for a "Jewish Harper's, only more scholarly." Cohen, however, appears to have had several somewhat different goals for Commentary, and the AJC's vague instructions and guarantee of editorial independence left him plenty of room to maneuver. First, in the recollections of Bell and Irving Kristol, Cohen wanted to use Commentary as a vehicle to reconnect assimilated Jews and Jewish intellectuals with the broader Jewish community and its concerns. Conversely, Cohen also wanted to use the magazine to bring the ideas of the New York intellectuals to a wider audience, especially among upwardly mobile Jews. Second, as [End Page 160] Podhoretz later pointed out, Cohen saw the magazine as providing a way to...