The Social Disability of the Jew

"You cannot do the Jews and the community at large a greater service than by excluding the undesirable members of their race."
“Wer darf das Kind beim rechten Namen nennen?” – Goethe

In the great carnal trinity of Hunger, Sex, and Hate, Hate has forever been the goad of race against race. The pages of history drip with the blood of nations. Religions destined to calm the surge of passions, but added new incentives to destruction. From this hideous nightmare of suffering, stronger than race, stronger than creed, must come an ultimate awakening – the awakening of the moral nature in man. The gospel of righteousness, calling more insistently than ever, must finally lift the burden of bigotry and dogma weighing on the earth.

The share of the Jewish race in this suffering we do not wish to magnify in order to bolster an argument. All nations have had, their martyrdom and many have succumbed. The Jewish race has survived, denationalized, heterogeneous in composition, homogeneous in fellowship, modern in its aspirations.

Wherever scattered, it is confronted with the problem of adaptation.  Its civil liberty in Europe dates from the French Revolution, but its mean average of emancipation ranges over considerably less than a century. Within that incredibly short space of time, the Jewish race has been transformed from an immured tribe of aliens into a people of cosmopolitan citizenship.  It has found a safe anchorage and a definite opportunity to work out its own salvation, with its problem of assimilation largely dependent on the intelligence of the various nations within whose borders it makes its home.

In Russia, Rumania, Spain, and Portugal the struggle is carried on in the spirit of medievalism. In the other countries of Europe, racial and religious acerbity is intensified by economic and political agitation. These factors, although impotent to alienate the civil rights of the Jew, persist in the form of social intolerance. The liberated Jew of Europe, secure from persecution by church and state, is still exposed to the game laws of the social chase. England and France probably rank highest in point of tolerance; while intellectual Germany and the restless kingdom of Austro-Hungary offer the spectacle of a clashing of classes, in which the baiting of Jews is an eruptive phenomenon. We therefore perceive that civilized Europe, although shamed into the granting of civil rights, has not yet humanized itself above social persecution.

Gauged by European standards, we have no Jewish question in the United States. There is no open revolt, no persecution in masses, no partisan propaganda. The Jews in this Republic have never, as a class, suffered from civil disabilities. Our political, economic, and religious freedom is absolute. And still our equivalence is not established. We realize, smouldering under an apparently calm surface, a general antagonism against our race. The problem is usually regarded as a skeleton in the closet. Among the Jews it is treated strictly as a family affair; among our Christian population, either with open offensiveness, or with a show of discretion supposed to pass for delicacy. We see in this aloofness an example of the same pernicious prudery which educators have recognized in the suppression of a scientific understanding of the sex relation. It is, therefore, the writer's belief that an open discussion of the situation not only is permissible, but will be helpful to a better understanding.*

We have two groups of Jews in America: the orthodox and the liberal. The former are steeped in the ritualism of the past, and cling to race and religion with a tenacity which stamps them voluntary aliens. Whatever education the orthodox Jew has, expresses itself in Talmudic lore, an object of almost as much curious interest to the liberal Jew as it would be to Christians. The offspring of these ancient Jews, influenced by environment, gradually drift into the liberal ranks, although filial loyalty often delays the flowering of conviction into action. But the Jew who really counts in America, who comes into intimate contact with his American countrymen, is the liberal Jew -and when we speak of Jews in this essay, we have this group in mind.

It is this group, too, which is most alertly cognizant of the social restrictions of the race. For though present conditions, compared with the persecutions of history, might be considered almost ideal, the Jewish people, having within an incredibly short period of emancipation risen to the level of modern nations, are almost as sensitive to the finer

disabilities under which they labor as were their forbears to ancient and mediaeval torture.

But this same ascent, which has rendered the organism of the Jew more finely sensitive, has also given him perspective. For fifteen centuries the civil and canonical law of the Talmud cemented the people into a homeless nation, cohesive and stationary through its religion. It was of necessity a religious tribe, separated by the Gentile and separating itself from the Gentile in order to insure its salvation and to protect its life. But to-day, the solidarity of the Jews as a racial and particularly as a religious entity is undergoing a tremendous change. And the American Jew of to-day can look beyond self-preservation and his tribe and leisurely and hopefully review his situation.

So looking, he can see that competition is one cause of the conditions under which his people labor. An expatriated race, the Jews are forced to adapt themselves to the character of the people among whom they are scattered, coerced into a constant struggle for assimilation and amalgamation. The French Jews must be Frenchmen; the German Jews, Germans; the American Jews, Americans. In every country they are obliged to grope for their place in the commonwealth, and they ardently strive to find it.  Thus, as the Jewish people make themselves numerically felt in all civilized communities, and as their intellectual endowment raises them, not only above the submerged citizens, but into the active class of competitors in commerce, science, art, and the professions, friction is unavoidable. Yet the source of the Jews' tribulations lies much deeper than competition.

*"As to the Jewish element in ‘Deronda,’ I expected from first to last, in writing it, that it would create much stronger resistance, and even repulsion, than it has actually met with. But precisely because I felt that the usual attitude of Christians toward Jews is -I hardly know whether to say more impious or stupid, when viewed in the light of their professed principles, I therefore felt urged to treat Jews with such sympathy and understanding as my nature and knowledge would attain to. Moreover, not only towards the Jews, but towards all Oriental peoples with whom we English come in contact, a spirit of arrogance and contemptuous dictatorialness is observable which has become a national disgrace to us. There is nothing I should care more to do, if it were possible, than to rouse the imagination of men and women to a vision of human claims in those races of their fellow-men who most differ from them in customs and beliefs. But towards the Hebrews we Western people, who have been reared in Christianity, have a peculiar debt, and, whether we acknowledge it or not, a peculiar thoroughness of fellowship in religious and moral sentiment. Can anything be more disgusting than to hear people called 'educated' making small jokes about eating ham, and showing themselves empty of any real knowledge as to the relation of their own social and religious life, to the history of time people they think themselves witty in insulting?  They hardly know that Christ was a Jew. And I find men, educated, supposing that Christ spoke Greek. To my feeling, this deadness to the history which has prepared half our world for us, this inability to find interest in any form of life that is not clad in the same coat-tails and flounces as our own, lies very close to the worst kind of irreligion. The best that can be said of it is that it is a sign of the intellectual narrowness -in plain English, the stupidity - which is still the average mark of our culture." - (Life and Letters of George Eliot.)

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