Leo Strauss’s traditionalist defense of Israel

We hear a lot nowadays about how the political philosopher Leo Strauss was the dark force behind the neoconservatives’ universalist-democratist ideology. While most Straussians, or at least the better known ones, are clearly in the neoconservative camp, I have not seen the evidence proving that Strauss himself was the neocons’ fons et origo. If anything, just the opposite. For example, in two separate articles in the 2005 issue of Humanitas, Paul Gottfried and particularly Claes Ryn go on at length making all kinds of charges about Strauss’s sinister proto-neoconservative tendencies, but, amazingly, Gottfried and Ryn supply virtually no quotes from Strauss’s work to back up the accusation. Nor, as best I remember, does Natural Right and History, the only one of Strauss’s books I’ve read, supply any direct support for the “neocon” charge. The main effect of the book on me was to provide a concept, the “constitution of being,” which opened up the thought of Plato to me and got me to start reading his works again, particularly The Republic, after having turned off on him 15 years earlier. I even adapted Strauss’s discussion of the constitution of being for an article I wrote justifying a society’s right to preserve its ethnic and racial character, published, of all places, in American Renaissance—hardly a neoconservative theme or venue. For making Plato accessible to me, I am profoundly grateful to Strauss, though, as I said, I do not know his thought as a whole and really have no idea what “Straussianism” is.

All this is by way of introducing a letter Strauss wrote in 1956 to National Review on the subject of Israel, sent to me today by a reader. It seems that in NR’s earlier days it was hostile to the state of Israel, partly because of its socialist politics, and partly because, though this is hard to believe, NR apparently saw Israel as a “racist” entity. Strauss’s letter is both a noble defense of the state of Israel, and an eloquent expression of traditionalist principles. The letter, reproduced below, is contained in a pdf file of a Claremont Institute symposium on Strauss, and, though the Claremont document does not give the letter’s date, I’m told it appeared in the January 5, 1956 issue of NR.

Strauss’s Letter to the Editors of National Review

For some time I have been receiving NATIONAL REVIEW, and I agree with many articles appearing in the journal. There is, however, one feature of the journal which I completely fail to comprehend. It is incomprehensible to me that the authors who touch on that subject are so unqualifiedly opposed to the State of Israel.

No reasons why that stand is taken are given; mere antipathies are voiced. For I cannot call reasons such arguments as are based on gross factual error, or on complete non-comprehension of the things which matter. I am, therefore, tempted to believe that the authors in question are driven by an anti-Jewish animus; but I have learned to resist temptations. I taught at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for the whole academic year of 1954-1955, and what I am going to say is based exclusively on what I have seen with my own eyes.

The first thing which strikes one in Israel is that the country is a Western country, which educates its many immigrants from the East in the ways of the West: Israel is the only country which as a country is an outpost of the West in the East.

Furthermore, Israel is a country which is surrounded by mortal enemies of overwhelming 44 numerical superiority, and in which a single book absolutely predominates in the instruction given in elementary schools and in high schools: the Hebrew Bible. Whatever the failings of individuals may be, the spirit of the country as a whole can justly be described in these terms: heroic austerity supported by the nearness of biblical antiquity. A conservative, I take it, is a man who believes that “everything good is heritage.” I know of no country today in which this belief is stronger and less lethargic than in Israel.

But the country is poor, lacks oil and many other things which fetch much money; the venture on which the country rests may well appear to be quixotic; the university and the government buildings are within easy reach of Jordanian guns; the possibility of disastrous defeat or failure is obvious and always close. A conservative, I take it, is a man who despises vulgarity; but the argument which is concerned exclusively with calculations of success, and is based on blindness to the nobility of the effort is vulgar.

I hear the argument that the country is run by labor unions. I believe that it is a gross exaggeration to say that the country is run by labor unions. But even if it were true, a conservative, I take it, is a man who knows that the same arrangement may have very different meanings in different circumstances.

The men who are governing Israel at present came from Russia at the beginning of the century.

They are much more properly described as pioneers than as labor unionists. They were the 45 men who laid the foundations under hopelessly difficult conditions. They are justly looked up to by all non-doctrinaires as the natural aristocracy of the country, for the same reasons for which Americans look up to the Pilgrim fathers. They came from Russia, the country of Nicolai the Second and Rasputin; hence they could not have had any experience of constitutional life and of the true liberalism which is only the reverse side of constitutional democracy adorned by an exemplary judiciary.

On Page 16 of the November 17 issue of the REVIEW, Israel is called a racist state. The author does not say what he understands by a “racist state,” nor does he offer any proof for the assertion that Israel is a racist state. Would he by any chance have in mind the fact that in the state of Israel there is no civil marriage, but only Jewish, Christian and Moslem marriages, and therefore that mixed marriages in the non-racist sense of the term are impossible in Israel? I am not so certain that civil marriage is under all circumstances an unmitigated blessing, as to disapprove of this particular feature of the State of Israel.

Finally, I wish to say that the founder of Zionism, Herzl, was fundamentally a conservative man, guided in his Zionism by conservative considerations. The moral spine of the Jews was in danger of being broken by the so-called emancipation which in many cases had alienated them from their heritage, and yet not given them anything more than merely formal equality; it had brought about a condition which has been called “external freedom and inner servitude”; political Zionism was the attempt to restore that inner freedom, that simple dignity, of which only people who remember their heritage and are loyal to their fate, are capable.

Political Zionism is problematic for obvious reasons. But I can never forget what it achieved as a moral force in an era of complete dissolution. It helped to stem the tide of “progressive” leveling of venerable, ancestral differences; it fulfilled a conservative function.

LEO STRAUSS Chicago, Ill.

- end of initial entry -

An Indian living in the West writes:

I have copies of Leo Strauss’ lectures on Nietzsche and Cicero (among others) that were given at the University of Chicago in the 1950s. Worth their weight in gold. As far as I know, these cannot be purchased from the market because they were never published as a book.

There is a lot of slander directed at Leo Strauss. He is hated by the left (as expected) because he taught his students to read the great writers of Antiquity without any liberal pre-conceptions. And he is hated by the paleoconservative right who see him as the founder of neoconservatism. And then there are ignorant journalists like Steve Sailer who have heaped scorn on him in the crassest and stupidest ways.

Strauss was not a neoconservative, because he was too educated a man to believe in the things the neocons believe in these days. One should also not forget that neoconservatives started out as anti-Communists and were not therefore seen as a negative influence in their early days because they stood for something that almost defined the American right—staunch opposition to Communist ideology.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at June 28, 2006 07:29 PM | Send

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