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

There is a large literature, mostly pamphlets, bearing pro and con on what we loosely call anti-Semitism. I have read reams of it without getting anything usefully informative to me or to the type of mind which I am now hoping to interest. For the most part it deals with local aspects of the problem; it is ex parte, controversial, and largely intemperate.* Hence, while this may be all very well in its way for local effect, it should at the very least be supplemented by something better. Father Coughlin's outpourings and the literature put out by the Christian Front do not come into the hands of those best fitted to deal with the question as a whole; nor yet, do the rebuttals put out so plentifully by the Jewish defensive associations. If, moreover, some of this mass of polemics did find its way into their hands, they would give it but scant attention because its information is so meagre and its manner of presentation is so unacceptable.

Readers may remind me that a good many prominent non-Jewish religionists have spoken out against various manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiment, and that the bodies they represent have supported them with official resolutions, declarations, and so on, quite in the regular way.  That is so. Moreover there exists an organization called the Council Against Intolerance in America, formed within the last decade, in which clergymen, professors, civic leaders, and a few publicists, notably my old friend William Allen White, play a leading part. There is also the National Conference of Christians and Jews, likewise engineered chiefly by religionists, as its name implies. The work of these last two groups is in large part educational, spreading the gospel of tolerance in our schools and colleges.

All this is very good, very commendable, but even so one sees at once that it is far from filling the bill. If no emergency were impending, if we were assured of a couple of centuries free for the quiet maturing of a modus vivendi, one might say more for such efforts than can be said now, things being as they are. It is one thing to design a structure proof against ordinary action of the elements, but another thing to design one proof against earthquake.

Speaking only for myself, I am quite persuaded that the well-intentioned people behind these movements either do not know what the basic terms of their problem are, or for some reason are reluctant about putting them frankly before the more thoughtful element in our public. They appear not to approach the matter with the spirit of order and method appropriate to the contemplation of any project in social engineering. The first question is, What exactly do you want to do? The second is, What exactly are the difficulties and complications which have to be overcome? Until these questions are answered satisfactorily and in full, you have simply nothing for your social engineers to go on with; and while the first question is easily answered presumably there is complete general agreement on that—all I know of the work of these conciliatory movements testifies that their spokesmen are merely fumbling with the second.

My own rather anxious view of the consequences of ignoring the terms of this problem may be thought extreme, so I shall state it frankly; not at all wishing to convert anyone to it – never that—but because by so doing I can show more clearly my reasons for writing in this unfamiliar vein. For many years now I have been watching economic theory in this country shift from style to style, as fantastic as the styles in women's hats. Does anyone recall, for instance, the 'new' economics which swept the country in Coolidge's day, whereby it was most learnedly demonstrated not only that we could eat our cake and have it too, but that; the cake might go on and on forever, automatically producing itself, and all free, gratis and for nothing? Looking ahead with a short-time view, I should expect credit inflation, currency inflation, repudiation, and perhaps great civil disturbances.

But though I may be on the extreme Right of present-day economic theory, I meet with no one, whatever his school of thought, who is not haunted by the uneasy suspicion that the United States is heading into a severe economic stringency; perhaps not one so overwhelming as I expect, but bad enough. I can understand this uneasiness. Billions which do not run to two figures are now no more than carfare to the Federal Government. It is estimated that by the end of another year our Federal debt will touch 56 billion dollars, and that if all our governmental enterprises (Federal, state and municipal) are carried out as projected, they will cost about 212 billion dollars per year. I observe with interest that even those of my friends who range themselves on the moderate economic Left apparently have to do a bit of whistling to keep up their courage in the face of the prospect thus held out; and no wonder.

Very well. Now let us assume that when all our chickens have come home to roost the strain on our economic coop is ten per cent of what I believe it will be; nay, as little as ten per cent of what my friends on the Left have an instinctive presentiment that it may be. Let us also assume that by that time the strength of anti-Jewish sentiment in our society is ten per cent of what it appears to be at the moment. With these allowances duly made, let us ask ourselves what prospect awaits the American Jew under those circumstances. An appeal to history, I am afraid, elicits only one answer. Without the least divergence, those circumstances conform to a historical pattern reaching back to Sumer and Akkad; my knowledge of this is what has moved me to take up my position on the economic Right. There is every reason to fear that the prospect awaiting the American Jew will also follow the historic pattern which has persisted with unfailing regularity in those circumstances for more than ten centuries. The sudden flaring-up of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country, to which I have alluded, was coincident with the onset of the depression in 1929, and it was damped down only by the sheer accident of encountering a great wave of sympathy for the mistreated Jews of Europe. It was not extinguished, however; its spread was checked and it was left smouldering, as my own researches show. But for this one accidental happening in Europe, there is no telling how great a destructive force it might have stored up for release.

Much as any well-disposed citizen must dislike to say so, there can be no doubt that if even only the destructive force now latent were released by the circumstances we are postulating, the consequences would be as appalling in their extent and magnitude as anything seen since the Middle Ages. The American mob's grim reputation for sheer anthropoid savagery is equaled only by that of the revolutionary mobs of Paris. At the outset of the German Government's movement against the Jews, an American visitor asked Herr Hitler why he was making it so ruthless. The Reichskanzler replied that he had got the idea from us. Americans, he said, are the great rope and lamppost artists of the world, known of all men as such. He was using the same methods against the Jews that we used against the loyalists of '76, the Indians, the Chinese on our Western Coast, the Negroes, the Mexicans, the Filipinos—every helpless people, in fact, whom we had ever chanced to find underfoot. This may be a rank exaggeration, but the barb in it sticks. I recall another incident which anyone who knows our history will recognize at once as symptomatic. To get the force of it one must bear in mind that its hero was utterly humorless, utterly incapable of expressing himself in a deliberately humorous exaggeration. He was speaking the language of dull, serious, workaday matter-of-fact. Passing through a Missouri village two or three years ago, one of my friends stopped for a chat with a citizen, evidently a man of local mark, who was in a state of mind over the commercial practices of certain Jews who had settled there. 'I tell you, we are going after those people some day,' he said, 'and when we do, we ain't going to be gentlemanly about it, like Hitler.'


*In its scholarly article on anti-Semitism, written by the vice president of the Jewish Historical Society of England, the Encyclopedia Britanica, ed. XI, makes the interesting statement that 'no impartial history of modern anti-Semitism has yet been written.' This still holds true.—Author

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