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

During the last twenty years we have had plenty of opportunities to see with or own eyes what governmental protection of a minority amounts to in the face of a strong popular prejudice and agitation; and history testifies that it has never amounted to any more than it now does.  Governmental protection of the Negroes and the Indians has been notoriously inadequate in our country, and still is.  In cases where the ‘forces of law and order’ were in active sympathy with the oppressors, as in California against the Chinese, it has only worsened the minority’s condition.  In Roughing It, published in 1872, Mark Twain put the matter exactly as it is when any emergency affects any minority in any country.  Praising the Chinese as ‘a kindly disposed, well-meaning race,’ as we all know they are, he says that they were invariably respected and well-treated by the upper classes all over the Pacific Coast.  Only the scum of the population abused them, ‘they and their children; they and, naturally and consistently, the policemen and politicians likewise, for these are the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum, there as elsewhere in America.’*

It is easy to see, then, that in a nationwide agitation even remotely comparable to that which we have been contemplating an unacceptable minority which relied on governmental protection would find itself leaning on a broken reed.  Mark Twain’s excellent observation epitomizes the whole history of Jewry’s persecutions.  In studying their history, one is struck with the fact that persecutions never have originated in an upper-class movement or a governmental movement; and one also takes note of the further fact that governments moved slowly and for some time indecisively in dealing with them.  This latter fact is understood when one remembers that a government always moves in its own interest, and moves in its people’s interest only when the two interests happen to coincide.  The Russian persecutions did not originate with the State; they were of popular origin.  Once they were got under way, however, the Russian State saw, or thought it saw, that its interest lay in taking them over, abetting and floor-managing them, which it accordingly did.  Statesmen like the brilliant and all-powerful idealist premier Speransky, and the liberal autocrat Alexander II, tried to give a better turn to State policy, but found that insuperable ‘reasons of State’ were in the way.  When the power and prestige of the State are at issue there is a limit to what good an all-powerful minister can do to an unpopular minority, or even to what an autocratic despot can do.  Needs must when the devil drives.

On the other side of the border Prince von Bismarck discovered that this was so.  With respect to eh German Jews he was personally in favor of an undeclared informal policy of assimilation and mixed marriages.  A good deal had been done in these ways since the middle of the eighteenth century, and Bismarck, surveying the results, thought they were fairly good for Germany, on the whole.  If only sleeping dogs could be let lie, such a policy might work itself out.  But the dogs would not sleep.  They had quieted down since the great anti-Jewish agitation following the Napoleonic Wars, but had not slept.  They broke out again after the post-war boom of 1871 had crashed, just as they did with us after 1929; and Bismarck could do nothing with policies either of reconciliation or of repression.  ‘Reasons of State’ were against them; in plainer language, his government would have gone on the rocks, carrying with it all his plans for the newly formed German Reich.

But it is to Spain of the fifteenth century that one must look for the most convincing example of what may be expected from a government under such circumstances. The situation of the Jews in Spain presents more points of resemblance to their situation here than can be found in any other age or country. There as here they were legally free to organize their religious, social, and cultural life as they saw fit, and also to take whatever part they chose in the non-Jewish life around them. For seven centuries the Jews had done extremely well in Spain, as they have here for two centuries. There as here they had made magnificent contributions to the national industry, commerce, and finance. There as here they had made superb contributions to the nation's progress in culture, in the arts and sciences. There as here they wielded immense influence in politics and civil administration. Jews held the highest positions at court, and Jews were the closest confidential advisers of the king and queen.

Hence we may understand that nothing could have been more acutely objectionable to the royal couple than the idea of yielding to popular pressure and establishing the Inquisition. They showed great reluctance, finally instituting a sort of halfway measure, on which they backed and filled for two years in hope that the agitation would weaken, perhaps die out. But the forces evoked by popular demagoguery were too powerful for them; 'reasons of State' compelled them to go along. They established the Inquisition in 1479, and thirteen years later the Jews were expelled from Spain.

If the reader chooses to look for them, a very cursory examination of history will show him a multitude of instances like these where inexorable 'reasons of State' have forced reluctant rulers to conclude (from the point of view of State interest, which they must regard as paramount) that summary treatment of a minority is the less of two evils. Such an examination might cause the reader to take a more historic view than is commonly taken of the treatment dealt out to various minorities at the present time. He will see, for example, that however much the farsighted Hadrian, the mild and sensible Trojan, the high-minded Antoninus Pius, and the incomparable Marcus Aurelius—however much these may have wished the Roman populace were wiser than it was, they knew they could not make it so by risking the prestige of the Empire in a direct counter-attack on its pet fanaticisms. Perceiving this, the reader may be led to perceive also that the modern ruler is not always exempt from facing this difficult choice, and is to be judged, as history will judge him, with due allowance for his circumstances.

The foregoing instances are enough to give a very good idea of what may be expected from any government whose only political asset lies in the intensive exploitation of proletarian and sub-proletarian class interest. The incident of the sit-down strikes afforded a fair sample of what 'the forces of law and order' amount to in a political pinch, under a government thus committed. When our economic reckoning comes due; when the bilked and necessitous proletariat and the equally necessitous middle class feel the squeeze forcing them together in a demonstration against anything that can be made to look like a common enemy; when the upper class remains sullen and apathetic; when proletarian demagogues throughout the country raise the old cry, Der Jud ist schuld—the government will then be under an unprecedented temptation to use the ensuing agitation as a lightning rod. If I keep up to my family's record of longevity, I think it is not impossible that I shall live to see the Nurnberg laws reenacted in this country and enforced with vigor.


The policy of not crossing bridges until one comes to them is a sound one, and I am a staunch believer in it. I believe that most of our problems, especially those over which our politicians agonize most vehemently, would best be solved by a firm course of patient neglect. But one must discriminate. This belief is not to be confused with an indolent trust in the uncovenanted good will of an overruling Providence, nor yet with an unintelligent notion that 'it can't happen here.' In 1910 what Hungarian could believe he would ever live to see a most appalling pogrom rage throughout his country?  Nothing was ever more unpredictable.  There must be a rational ground for optimism; otherwise optimism is mere idleness. Whatever may have been the case at an earlier period, I am convinced that there is now no rational ground whatever for an optimistic persuasion that the Jewish problem may be safely trusted to settle itself if let alone. The element of time is against this notion, as I have tried to show; and the aggregate of certain specific difficulties and complications is also against it. In a succeeding paper I shall endeavor to show what these difficulties and complications are.

* Those who wish to freshen up on the history of this episode in the fulfillment of our ‘manifest destiny’ can hardly do better than read Mr. C. C. Dobie’s San Francisco’s Chinatown, published in 1936.—Author

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