In 1981, I put on my yarmulke and went off to the political wars. They are over now, the casus belli is merely history: The left hand can no longer distinguish itself from the right. I do not know who won. It was not me.
Some say it was all because of Stalin and the Moscow trials. Or the ax they sank into the skull of Frida Kahlo’s sometime lover, Leon Trotsky. Or the non-aggression pact. Something brought those Jewish intellectuals across the aisle. I’ve also heard that it was the Sixties, but it couldn’t have been the Sixties; I lived in San Francisco then, where I saw that wearing flowers in one’s hair was just another bourgeois way to be. To tell the truth, it was Stalin in the early cases, but it was also the discovery by some Jews that, in America, they were white, and therefore finally safe from the racial wars of an immoral world.
This so astonished one fellow from Brooklyn that he soon abandoned his liberal star-gazing and intellectual social climbing and became overnight a racist, homophobe, and public enemy of mercy. With the stout support of his wife, the Brooklyn boy became an evangelist for a new philosophy that he billed as a reinterpretation of the Jewish ethos. Not Jews for Jesus; Jesus had nothing to do with it. The man from Brooklyn and his allies decided that the Jewish way was to put one’s own interests first and, yes, even foremost. It was Jews for Reagan, the man who had won more Jewish votes than any Republican candidate in history.
What was a Jewish writer to do, especially one who knew that the corners of the field were to be given to the poor and had read enough Rashi to know that there was also a left hand of God?
I began writing a book about neoconservative Jews. My first idea for a title had religious overtones: The Apostates. But even as a working title it seemed to drive the book in the wrong direction, toward metaphysics rather than ethics. Then, while looking for something else on my bookshelf (Gogol? Gorky? Goethe?), I came across a book by Mike Gold published in the Thirties. His Jews Without Money suggested that I should call my book Jews Without Mercy and that it should have a short subtitle, A Lament.
It was the first of many errors and miscalculations. I should have stayed with apostasy, if I wanted to avoid a war.
But war is exactly what I wanted. Podhoretz, Kristol, Hook, Decter, Glazer and Co. had been able to move from mercy to justice—the left hand to the right hand of God, according to Rashi—with very little resistance from Jewish liberals. Or anyone else. Silence, I thought, was a danger to democracy as well as ethics, a greater danger than the politics of self-interest and its attendant duplicities (one of the noisiest promoters of self-interest was a magazine called The Public Interest). Worse, Glazer’s attacks on affirmative action, Podhoretz’s transmogrification of a failure of virtú—his “Negro Problem”—into “Ours,” Decter’s wildly homophobic pronouncements, and Kristol’s encomia for the selfish—all, strangely enough, from what they insisted was the Jewish viewpoint—angered and shamed me. Instead of “a light to nations” they were making us into a shadow.
Loretta Barrett, an editor at Anchor Press—the “egghead division of Doubleday”—published the book with expectations of controversy, although not of sales. She went at the publishing of my little gadfly as other people go about guaranteed bestsellers. Galleys went out, advertising was prepared. A quote from Jacobo Timerman, who was then in the news, found its way onto the front of the jacket. The Nation published an excerpt. I did not expect an argument against neoconservatism to stir up much controversy with its readers, but the audience was admirable, and I was glad to be there.
At the end of March, two months before publication, the Boston Globe did a half-page piece in the Sunday paper featuring large photographs of Daniel Bell, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Nathan Glazer, and Sidney Hook. Kristol had no comment, Glazer said he hadn’t seen the book, but three of the gentlemen did have comments: Podhoretz called the book “garbage.” Bell said he found “even the title offensive.” And Hook said that the author was “a Jew without scruples.” Decter, who was not pictured, called the book “unspeakably ignorant.”
Robert Levey’s Globe story was fair, intelligent, and cleanly written. The neoconservatives responded to the book with invective, nothing more. I knew they would do better later, but for the moment the book seemed to be carrying out its intended function. On publication day two extraordinary things happened: A favorable review by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt appeared in the New York Times and I received a telephone call at seven-thirty that morning from an executive on the editorial side of the paper who described the review as “an act of moral courage.”
The notion of a book review as an act of moral courage seemed to me absurd. The review hadn’t been that good, and I hoped the book was not that bad. But the thought of book reviewing as a moral act set my soul to dancing.
It was the last dance. A silence unlike any I had ever known began. The New York Times Sunday books section, which has reviewed every book I have written, with the exception of a first novel long ago, was silent. When someone at the paper brought it up to the editor of the Sunday Book Review, he reportedly snapped, “Who wants to know?”
The neoconservative magazines—Commentary, The Public Interest—and the more or less Jewish intellectual magazines, with the exception of the New Leader, were utterly silent. Loretta Barrett ran an ad in the New York Times, with one side devoted to positive comments from Timerman, Victor Navasky, Justin Kaplan, and the Lehmann-Haupt review, as best I can remember, and the other side repeating the invective from the Globe story.
Curiously enough, David Brudnoy, a conservative who hosted a Boston radio program, invited me up there one night to talk about the book. My wife and I drove up during a terrible rainstorm. Brudnoy was polite; he had read the book, but it was the day the Israelis chose to bomb Lebanon, and that was the story. Between network reports of the bombing we spoke of death and politics.
Not long afterward, a young editor at Harper’s told of attending a meeting of the Committee for the Free World, which he said was run by Midge Decter and included Eugene Ionesco and Saul Bellow among its members. One of the subjects of the meeting, according to the young editor, was the book I had written. How to respond to it was the question. The final decision was “to kill it with silence.”
The meeting had taken place shortly after the publication of the Globe article and before the daily Times review. If the members of The Committee for the Free World had indeed used their considerable influence to stifle another point of view, their effectiveness was astonishing. Suddenly, the world seemed to have become mute.
Eventually the silence itself became a point of interest to people other than the author, and a few people tried to spark a public discussion. Art D’Lugoff, who owned the Village Gate nightclub, tried to arrange a debate there between liberal/left Jews and neoconservative Jews. Alan Wolfe and I agreed to speak for the liberal/left, but no matter how hard he tried or who he telephoned, none of the neoconservatives who appeared in the book, even in passing, were willing to debate.
Finally, a lesser known woman and Joshua Muravchik, a fellow so young he apparently had not been apprised of the silence decree, agreed to debate. Muravchik was a pleasant enough person, and though it was not an easy night for him, he remained gracious to the end.
Not long afterward, the American Jewish Committee held a board meeting in New York. A member of the board telephoned Loretta Barrett at her office at Anchor Press. She reported the following conversation:
“I am a member of the AJC, here for the meeting, and I would like to put copies of Shorris’s book in the hands of the board members.”
“Wonderful!” Barrett said. “How many do you need? I’ll send them by messenger.”
“Where shall I send them?”
“To the hotel.”
“All right, and to your attention. Your name?”
“I can’t tell you my name. If anyone found out . . .”
And that was the end of it. There were no nasty letters, no responses, nothing. The question of whether it was a passion for mercy or for self-interest that had enabled a tiny minority to survive slavery, expulsions, the Inquisition, pogroms, and the ultimate barbarity of Hitler’s attempt at genocide was never debated. I pined mightily for the moral exhilaration of dialogue and I mourned the loss of the gorgeous curiosity of a great tradition.
It broke my heart. In my mid-forties I lay in the cardiac care unit in that common debate with death. The thought of Lebanon, the pull of mercy, and a little oxygen conspired to keep me alive.
Upon recovering, I sat on an empty beach and dreamed. Metaphors came to visit there. They made a schedule of work.
Then to put the seal to summer, a friend phoned from New York with news.
“Your book has been reviewed by the American Spectator,” he said.
“Yes,” I said, wondering what gentile conservatives thought about mercy.
“They called you a swine.”