The Jewish Problem in America

Original 1941 editor's note: In this and successive issues, the Atlantic will open its columns to the discussion of a problem which is of the utmost gravity. We have asked Mr. Nock to begin the enquiry, and we shall invite expressions of opinion from Jew and Gentile alike, in the hope that a free and forthright debate will reduce the pressure, now dangerously high, and leave us with a healthier understanding of the human elements involved. —The Editor
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My readers are entitled to know why I venture to write on a subject which is so distinctly not down my street. Subjects like this are in the province of publicists, not men of letters. I agree; but as far as I know, our publicists are saying nothing on this subject. One reason may very well be that too much is expected of them. The American publicist is expected to be ready with a solution of every problem he presents, which in this case is hard to do. His readers expect him not only to inform and enlighten, but also to pontificate. If he should say, 'Your problem is so-and-so, but I haven't the faintest idea of what to do about it,' they would be dissatisfied with him, and feel that he had let them down.

The case is different with the man of letters. Life passes him by; and therefore his view of life's progress is felt to be clearer and larger, less superficial and perhaps considerably saner, than that of the publicist who is in the thick of things, bearing the burden and heat of the day. But on the other hand, since he is the very antithesis of a man of action, no one ever thinks of asking him for a program of action, and if he offers one, people instinctively resent it and are edgy with him for going beyond his depth.

My chief reason, then, for broaching this particular problem is that, to the best of my knowledge, no one else is saying anything about it. No one is going beyond its local and temporary aspects to show in its entirety what the Jewish problem is, and how serious and pressing it is, and especially to show just what the conditions are which make it so. I have no solution to offer; perhaps there is none—I do not know. All I can say is that if the problem be solvable, it must be solved by abler minds than mine, and before they can solve it they must wake up to its importance and learn what its terms are; therefore I write. This is the whole logic of my attempt.

The problem, stated in the fewest words, is that of maintaining a modus vivendi between the American Jew and his fellow-citizens which is strong enough to stand any shocks of an economic dislocation such as may occur in the years ahead.

Up to two years ago I had no idea that such a problem existed. Never having given it moment's thought to the matter, and having lived for many years abroad, I would have said that the highly satisfactory modus vivendi of my early days was still in force. When I was a boy in a Mid-Western town the few Jews there were regarded as other people equally respectable and personable were regarded. Since their standard of character and manners happened to be uncommonly high, they were much looked up to. As for social discrimination against the Jew qua Jew, there was none even among us children. My own special cronies, for example, were seined out of two large families of Jews and an equally abundant run of French Canadians. As my thoughts turn back to old man M. and his numerous family, the stiffest kind of orthodox Sephardic Jews and the finest kind of people, I so well recall how diligently all our girls used to fish for dances with his grown-up sons Nate and Mose, charming young men, delightfully well-bred, and the best dancers we had. Again in my later youth I saw much the same state of things in another Mid-Western town. One or two Jews there were unpopular because they were swindlers in a petty way, but this did not affect the esteem in which the rest of the town's small Jewry was held.

I distinctly do not mean to say that the mixture of Jews and non-Jews in our society was a chemical mixture. Neither element was in the least concerned to have it so, or wished it so. The reaction on both sides was thoroughly dignified and self-respecting. The Jews regarded us as an Occidental people among whom they had chosen to live, and appreciated whatever merits we were able to show as such; they took us as we were, associated with us in a perfectly free, friendly, and considerate way, with no effort or pretense at Occidentalizing themselves. We saw them as first-class representatives of an Oriental people with a great history and a great tradition, worthy of all respect and cordial good will, which we unfeignedly gave them. The mixture was a mechanical one, but it worked perfectly, with neither element predominating in a prejudicial way, and with the sense of fundamental difference mostly dormant. As I look back on this, it seems as staunch and seaworthy a modus vivendi as could well be devised. In later life I have seen another example of it, in a small way. I belong to an association which includes a number of Jews in its membership, and the same order of spirit and feeling prevails there as prevailed in the community where I first came into contact with Jews.

Two years ago, however, on returning to this country, I discovered quite by accident, and under very painful and humiliating circumstances, that this modus vivendi is no longer in force. This caused me to look into the matter in order to find out, as nearly as possible, how things stood. I read a great deal, and moved about from one centre to another, pestering patient people, Jews and Gentiles alike, with questions. The upshot was a complete assurance that the problem exists precisely as I have stated it. This is beyond any shadow of doubt. Moreover, I do not see how anyone can fail to notice that conditions are rapidly shaping themselves in such a way as must, if let alone, inevitably bring this problem to a head.

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