The Yiddishist Neocon

Nancy Sinkoff discusses her new biography of Lucy S. Dawidowicz, a Holocaust historian whose role in the neoconservative movement is often forgotten.

Hadas Binyamini
April 23, 2020
Lucy S. Dawidowicz in Vilna, Poland, on an unknown date. Photo courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

In a 1984 address on the “State of World Jewry,” part of an annual lecture series at New York City’s 92nd Street Y, historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz tried to convince her audience to resist “an automatic commitment” to the Democratic Party. She claimed that the party’s embrace of identity politics—for instance, in its support of affirmative action—constituted a threat to Jewish success and stability in the United States. The real danger to Jews in America, she warned, came not from “fascists, reactionaries, and [the] Christian Right,” but from the New Left, anti-Zionists, the United Nations, people of color in the Democratic Party, and communists and fellow travelers. Only voting for the Republican Party, she argued, would guarantee “Jewish security anywhere.” While a substantial 39% of American Jews had voted for President Ronald Reagan in 1980, and many were staunch anti-communists, Dawidowicz’s neoconservative political views were still marginal among Jews at the time of the address. Though an even smaller percentage of Jews vote Republican today, her critique of “left antisemitism” and embrace of capitalism are now widespread within the Jewish community, and among its mainstream institutions and pundits. 

While Dawidowicz was a public lecturer and frequent contributor to Commentary, she is best known for her pioneering works as a historian of the Holocaust and East European Jewry, including The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe (1967) and The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (1975). Her published works, as well as correspondence and unpublished reports, influenced how more famous public intellectuals— from social democrats like Irving Howe to neoconservatives like Norman Podhoretz—understood Jewish history.

Dawidowicz played a crucial yet often unacknowledged role in the neoconservative movement, which evolved out of a group of anti-Stalinist leftist literary critics known as the “New York Intellectuals” and eventually became associated with hawkish, Bush-era foreign policy. In her new book,
From Left to Right: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, the New York Intellectuals, and the Politics of Jewish History (Wayne State University Press, 2020), scholar Nancy Sinkoff—academic director of the Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life and associate professor of Jewish studies and history at Rutgers University-New Brunswick—describes how Dawidowicz’s early encounters with the Yiddish intellectual world in Vilna, Poland, in Germany, and in the US eventually influenced her political turn to the right. In this way, From Left to Right complicates contemporary narratives that frame Yiddish culture as inherently tied to leftist politics. Dawidowicz’s story also complicates our understanding of the development of American Jewish conservatism, showing that it is rooted not just in Zionism and a backlash to ’60s countercultural movements, but elsewhere, too: in religiosity, anti-communism, faith in capitalism, and in a specific reading of East European Jewish history. 

I spoke to Sinkoff about neoconservatism, anti-communism, and the roots of Dawidowicz’s politics in Yiddish cultural institutions. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hadas Binyamini: Dawidowicz is mostly known for her writing on Eastern Europe and the Holocaust. Why did you choose to write about her political evolution? 

Nancy Sinkoff: I’m a historian of the Jews of Eastern Europe; I’m interested in the ways in which East European Jews have responded to the encounter with modernity—an encounter that began in 18th-century in Poland and continued, I would argue, in the diasporic settlements of East European Jews in North America, Israel, South America, England, etc. The questions of Jewish modernity have not changed. They are the same questions, and they are responded to differently in different historical moments.

Dawidowicz was, in my mind, a perfect representative of this encounter, and these questions of modern East European Jewish life—questions about secularism, relationship to the state, Yiddish culture, memory, language—were all part of her life. Once I started reading everything she wrote, it became obvious to me that she had a parallel life to the famous male New York Intellectuals: she was an immigrant child in the Bronx; she went to public college just like they did, but a women’s college. And she was engaged with the process of acculturation and the study of literature. But there was a distinction. She was rooted in Yiddish culture in ways that most of the male New York Intellectuals were not. They knew Yiddish passively. But she was educated in Yiddish institutions, and had a deep, long association with them. Many of the ways she responded to political events later in her life were because of this bedrock foundation in Yiddish culture. 

HB: Dawidowicz worked for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the oldest Jewish advocacy organization in the US, for almost 20 years, during the heyday of its work for civil liberties and civil rights. But by the ’70s, like many New York Intellectuals, she started calling herself neoconservative. How did she move from the liberalism of the AJC to neoconservatism? 

NS: The standard historiography is that neoconservatism begins in the mid-to-late ’60s. But Dawidowicz was prescient. At the AJC she was a committed liberal, the way most Committee members were: she supported the separation of church and state, she was anti-communist, pro-Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, and supportive of civil rights. Those were all part of the program, and she did the Committee’s research on all those topics. But she began to question whether these commitments on the part of the Committee actually paid enough attention to Jewish continuity, or what she would call “Jewish survival.” 

American liberalism is predicated on individual rights. What happens when there’s a group that wants to create structures in an open society to maintain itself as a group? That was the question of the day—and it still is today, really. The complexity of Jewish group rights is that there is deep ambivalence about defining what a Jew is and what a Jewish group is, both because of the fear of antisemitism, and because there’s no agreement among Jews in the modern period on these questions. Are Jews an ethnicity? A religion? A linguistic group? In the imperial context and later in the Soviet period, Jews could argue for group rights because other people, like Ukrainians and Belarusians, were arguing for group rights. But in the US, the only groups that began to argue for group rights were racial groups and, now, groups with diverse sexual orientations. Jews are in this conundrum because their definitions of “groupness” do not fit the categories in which contemporary Americans discuss oppression or exclusion. They’re not Christian, but they’re also coded as white. So to argue for white rights—well, I don’t need to tell you the problem there! From Dawidowicz’s perspective, the Committee’s liberalism meant that there was actually a weakening of any commitment to articulating the need for Jewish group rights. Dawidowicz said the only people who were trying to continue their religious identity were Catholics, and perhaps Jews should take a page out of the Catholic playbook—for instance, by asking for federal money for parochial education. 

In the mid-to-late ’60s you have a “crisis of liberalism”—the rise of the counterculture, the rise of the New Left, which was pro-Palestinian, and which Dawidowicz saw as ambivalent about Jewish group rights. She recoiled from that, and began to move to the center right. At that point she came to the conclusion that the “best” politics were politics that support social stability run by people with expertise, and not the adversary politics of the New Left, which she felt had pushed the Democratic Party too far left. Her neoconservatism, like that of her male peers, was a reflection of their sense that the Democratic Party was being held hostage by inexperienced, volatile young people, who were threatening the stability of American civil society, which heretofore had been very good for Jewish integration. In this, Dawidowicz was thoroughly invested in the American culture wars. 

HB: What criticism did she receive from Jewish contemporaries about her neoconservative politics? 

NS: She received a fair amount of criticism for her 1984 “State of World Jewry” lecture. The audience, which included many of her friends, still felt that, on balance, the Democratic Party better represented Jewish interests, because of the party’s support of social democratic programs, such as welfare and progressive taxation, and because of its “liberal” social values, such as women’s rights. Those Jews who stayed in the Democratic Party, if they were supporters of Israel or bothered by Jesse Jackson’s “Hymietown” comment, “held their nose” when they voted, believing that the latter was an anomaly.  

HB: You write that the New York Intellectuals embraced Dawidowicz in the late ‘70s, when they “discovered” their Jewish roots. How else did she influence the New York Intellectuals, and those of them who later became neoconservatives? 

NS: Her influence was in her major works, The Golden Tradition and The War Against the Jews, which were seminal texts in the emergence of Holocaust consciousness in the United States. To the degree that many of the New York Intellectuals who became neoconservatives were immigrant Jewish sons, their political evolution—which came to articulate the need for civil stability—was due, in part, to their reckoning with the Holocaust and the breakdown of the European social order.

HB: You say that she is forgotten among historians of neoconservatism. Why do you think that’s the case?

NS: Because she comes out of a Jewish particularist background, not that of a “cosmopolitan,” alienated New York immigrant child. She had an extensive Yiddish education. Dawidowicz was always perceived as “too” Jewish, and the preoccupation of the scholarship has been on those Jewish intellectuals who did not foreground their Jewish identity. She’s also forgotten because of her sex. Most of the work on the neoconservatives of the ‘80s has focused on the men. 

HB: Right, when I think about the New York Intellectuals and the neocons around Commentary, I mostly imagine a Jewish male social and intellectual clique. 

NS: As a public intellectual, she was gendered female, and she knew it. Yet, she didn’t want to be considered that way, and she wasn’t a feminist. She wanted to be accepted on the terms of her intellect and her writing, and she didn’t want femaleness to be why she was allowed in. I call her an “intellectual tomboy” because she wanted to play with the “big boys.”

HB: Tell us about her Yiddish education. 

NS: Dawidowicz was educated in the New York public school system but received a simultaneous education in the supplementary Yiddish education movements of the interwar years. Her parents were not so ideological; they sent her to the Scholem Aleichem Folk Institute, a Yiddishist organization not politically aligned with socialists, communists, or Zionists. When she graduated from college with a degree in English literature, it was post-Depression, and the economy was not strong. Her mentor, Yaakov Shatzki, encouraged her to continue her interest in Yiddish culture by going to the YIVO [Yidisher Visnshaftlekher Institute, or Institute for Jewish Research] in Vilna, so she sailed to Europe in August 1938.

The people around the YIVO were deeply committed to the language, because the language represented this “civilization”—East European Jewish life in its broadest sense. But very early on—and she wasn’t alone in this—she saw the acculturation occurring among Polish Jews at the time, the linguistic “Polanization,” the fact that Yiddish was at this point already subject to modernity’s linguistic “assault.” This was a dilemma for all Yiddishists in the interwar years: the viability of Yiddish culture. Her time in Vilna was cut short by the war. She had to leave Vilna when the Hitler–Stalin Pact was signed. She came back to the US and worked with the YIVO for six more years. Until the mid-’40s, the YIVO was core to her identity. 

HB: Many Jews were anti-communist in the 1950s, but Dawidowicz seemed stauncher in her anti-communism—she even supported the execution of the Rosenbergs. In 1956, she received a personal thank you note from J. Edgar Hoover for a report she wrote about Communist propaganda and Soviet antisemitism. Why was Dawidowicz an anti-communist? What did she think about Communist Jews, or about Jewish Currents’ precursor, Jewish Life?

NS: She was a Communist as a kid in Hunter College; for about two years, she was in the Young Communist League. But then she left or was expelled—it’s a little unclear what happened. Either way, she was already a disillusioned Communist by 1936; her anti-communism was not only a Cold War response.  

When she got to the Vilna YIVO, one of her most important mentors was Zelig Kalmanovich. Kalmanovich fled the Soviet Union, and he hated the Bolsheviks. He believed that there was no room for autonomous Jewish culture in their ideology. You could have something called “Jewish” communism, but it had to be harnessed to Bolshevism and to loyalty to the Soviet Union; he said it had no independence or autonomy. Many people felt that the fight against fascism was going to guarantee the Jewish future, but Kalmanovich was opposed to that idea because he knew that there have been moments in Jewish history that were politically oppressive and horrifying for Jews, and yet Jewish culture had sustained itself. For him, there was no historical evidence that there was one way for Jews to be political that would guarantee a Jewish future. His perspective meant he was not respected by some people, but Kalmanovich was very influential for Dawidowicz. 

As for Jewish Life—she didn’t think much of it. In fact, that’s generous of me. If you’re reading Jewish Life [which later became Jewish Currents] in that day, you would think everything is just hunky dory in the Soviet Union; they defended Stalinism basically until Khrushchev’s speech in 1956. From Dawidowicz’s perspective, Jewish communism, and Jewish Life, were harnessed to Soviet ideology and were against autonomous Jewish culture, whatever form it was going to take—be it socialism, anarchism, religious Jewish life, liberalism. So, no love lost there. 

HB: How does Dawidowicz’s story complicate common notions of Yiddish politics? 

NS: I’m going to problematize your term “Yiddish politics,” because in my mind that has no meaning.

HB: How so?  

NS: Yiddish is a language. Politics are politics. There are many Jews who used Yiddish, spoke Yiddish, loved Yiddish, who had one set of politics; others had different politics. 

Now, it’s true that there’s a particular historical movement when Yiddishism and leftism —socialism—go hand in hand. The Jewish Labor Bund decided to become Yiddishist, moving from its bread-and-butter trade-unionism and its revolutionary position in the 1890s to be explicitly Yiddishist before and after World War I. Is there a particular kind of left-wing Yiddishist politics at a particular historical moment? Yes. Is it global? Yes. But, as a mass movement, this particular kind of politics has a beginning, a middle, and an end. 

Dawidowicz grew up amid the socialist spirit of those movements, but they are from a moment when there was a Jewish proletariat, a Jewish working class, from Eastern Europe. Part of their process of encountering the modern world was through Yiddish as a vehicle of secular non-theistic Jewishness, which goes hand in hand with their working-class identity. But the goal of most Yiddish proletarians was to get out of the proletariat. They wanted their children to be upwardly mobile. And with that, the politics changes. 

I think it’s interesting that now, in the second decade of the 21st century, there’s this misreading and this desire that there be a static conception of “Yiddish politics.” But the problem with talking about “Yiddish politics” as a concept is that it essentializes politics and it essentializes Yiddish. So, no, I don’t think there is a Yiddish politics.

Hadas Binyamini is a PhD student in history and Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.