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

My former paper began by stating the problem thus: It is the problem 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.' I went on to give reasons why this must be done if we are to avoid extremely damaging consequences; and I then proposed to show in this present paper the specific difficulties and complications which lie in the way of doing it.

First and foremost in point of difficultly, we must guard against becoming victims of a misnomer. The problem is not essentially Jewish, not essentially Semitic; it is an Oriental problem, Jewish only in so far as the Oriental people concerned in it happen to be Jews rather than Syrians, East Indians, Persians or some other. The moment this is understood, one perceives the degree to which it differentiates this particular problem of population from others which are superficially similar. For example, in the period following the Civil War great hordes of poverty-stricken Irish arrived on our shores, and the economic effect of their presence, coupled with their extraordinary genius for petty politics, set up a terrific commotion which raged from coast to coast. 'No Irish need apply' was a phrase so common that it degenerated into irrelevant slang as a mere expression of strong feeling directed at anything or nothing. The reader will find what is perhaps the classic example of this usage if he looks up Mark Twain's account of Buck Fanshaw's funeral, in Roughing It. We had a full-sized Irish problem in those days, but it was Irish, pure and simple; it was an Occidental problem. Therefore when in course of time, perhaps twenty years or so, the economic aggravations got themselves ironed out in one way or another, the Irish promptly became acceptable as Occidental people living among Occidentals, and they have remained so ever since.

The conditions of our problem become clearer when we fix in our minds the fact that the Jews are the only Oriental people who ever settled in an Occidental civilization in any large numbers and took any active part in Occidental life. The common saying that Jews are strangers everywhere is not quite correct. As a refugee people they were everywhere strangers in a sense, but not everywhere in the same sense. They were strangers among other Oriental peoples only in the sense that the refugee Irish and Huguenots were, and British, Scandinavian or French refugees might be, strangers among us.

A Jewish writer says that towards the end of the Middle Ages 'the Jew became a European.' He did, but only by residence; by nature he did not become an Occidental; he could not possibly have done so. Hence, while he became acceptable in various parts of the Occident, it was not on the same terms of acceptability as would have been accorded to another Occidental people. The terms might have been as good, as satisfactory, even in certain circumstances perhaps more so; but they were not, and in the nature of things could not have been, the same terms. In my opinion this is all there is to the point of universal 'difference' whereof many non-Jewish writers, notably M. de Madariaga,—and some Jewish writers as well,—make so much in discussing the historical position of the Jews.

I am not here venturing on any stark anthropological doctrine of 'race,' first because I know nothing about such matters, and second, because they appear not to be particularly concerned in the circumstances which I am discussing.  I take it that our problem has to do only with ordinary, regular, easily discernible social reactions between one set of human beings and another. Whether the two sets can ever coalesce in a chemical mixture or whether the mixture must always remain mechanical, and if either, why; whether certain lines of reciprocal reaction are permanent, or whether ultimately they can be faded out by association, miscegenation, or other means of composition, and if either, why—of all this I have no idea. This is for the consideration of those who shall attempt a solution of the problem, and I leave it to them. All that is pertinent to this discussion is that the mixture has always been mechanical and is so at present, and that the lines of reaction have always existed and still exist; and these two facts are so clearly observable as to need no demonstration.

That the problem of establishing a satisfactory modus vivendi is Oriental rather than Jewish may be easily shown by imagining the appearance here of another Oriental people in equal numbers and in the same circumstances. We have a small implantation of Armenians, excellent people who have done well, mostly as urban dwellers and in small businesses, and are well thought of. They do not mix much, keeping largely to a social life of their own, and they do not put themselves forward in our public life. The Armenian's trading instinct is said to be much keener than the Jew's; we have all heard the saying current in the Levant, 'Two Jews, one Greek; two Greeks, one Persian; two Persians, one Armenian.' Their position among us is thus roughly comparable to that of the Jews, say, seventy years ago.

Now suppose that instead of this small implantation we had nearly five million Armenians in this country, and that New York was the centre of the whole Armenian world, culturally, commercially, financially. Suppose that in the period l88l-1929 there had arrived here 2,314,668 Armenians (in the one year 1906 more than 150,000),* virtually all of them refugees from a most hideous oppression and persecution; hunted and driven; poor, desperate, degraded by having been for years condemned to modes of life to which no decent person would subject a worthless dog; ready with a bloodthirsty eagerness to face any conditions, to compete with anyone and everyone on any terms, in order to get a living. Suppose that where fifty years ago you saw one Armenian you now see twenty, and most of them, by force of circumstances, no very personable specimens, Suppose you saw a steady infiltration of Armenians into positions of the highest prominence in our public life. Would the ensuing problem be essentially Armenian or Oriental? Would the general instinctive reaction between the two peoples be the same as it would be if the Armenians were an Occidental people? Would the resultant mixture be chemical? The parallel case of the Irish gives pretty substantial evidence that it would not; and, to a significant extent, so does the case of the Chinese.

Significant also is the difference between the Jews' historical experience in Oriental and Occidental countries hitherto. During the Exile, when the Jews were herded up in Babylon, after a turn or two at the rough treatment usually accorded to captives they were well treated, and many of them rose to prominence and high favor. Some Jews who escaped Nebuchadnezzar's clutches went down into Egypt. There too they seem to have done well. A Jewish historian says that in the great city of Alexandria 'the Jews held high official posts, had absorbed Hellenic as well as Jewish culture, and at the same time were evidently troublesome rivals of the Greek merchants.' It is true that the Alexandrian Jews did get themselves disliked on account of their vehement partisanship for the Romans as against the Greeks, but this was quite as Americans, whether Jews or Gentiles, might today get themselves disliked in some quarters on account of their partisanship for England as against Germany, if they were noisy enough about it. As another Jewish writer says, 'There was nothing in common between this and European anti-Semitism as it subsequently developed.' The implantations of Jews in China and India, which were probably formed at the same time, still persist with no record of unacceptability against them. In the Islamic domain, while on religious grounds the Jew may not have been exactly a popular idol, he quite clearly did not suffer from Moslem fanaticism as an Occidental Christian would have done. When the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, the Sultan said he wondered what was the matter with Ferdinand that he should be sending him so many of his best subjects.

* I use Jewish statistics and cite Jewish authorities throughout this article except where otherwise noted.—Author

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