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

When the Jews' national independence was broken up in A.D. 70 by the legions of Vespasian and Titus, they moved steadily westward along the Mediterranean coast to the Atlantic seaboard, spreading northward until by the end of the Middle Ages they had covered the whole of Europe. As I have said, they are the only Oriental people who ever did this. Here their experience was not what it was in Oriental countries, with the significant exception of those who settled in the Iberian peninsula, which had always, and still has, the strong Oriental cast that led Victor Hugo to say, 'Europe stops at the Spanish border.' From the days of the adventurous Phoenician traders, who, by the way, were much sharper and more enterprising traders than ever the Jews were, Oriental peoples had found themselves spiritually at home in Spain—Arabs, gypsies, Jews, all sorts and kinds. Of the six civilizations which have flourished along the Iberian littoral, two were Oriental. I have already spoken, in my first paper, of the position attained by the Jews in Spain, so I shall say no more about it here.

The first Jewish immigration to America was a small one of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, known as Sephardim and speaking Ladino. The Russian and Polish Jews, known as Ashkenazim and speaking judisch-deutsch, orYiddish, came later and in enormous numbers. It is interesting to observe the rather deep social cleavage between these two branches of the same people. Coming comparatively lately out of a civilization so largely their own, in which they had figured with such high distinction, the Sephardic Jews in Europe have a benevolent but prideful feeling of superiority towards the more unfortunate Ashkenazim, regarding them somewhat, though not precisely, as the cultivated Southerner of earlier days might regard poor white trash. The Ashkenazim, especially those who have become prosperous, repay this disfavor with interest, even to the extent that marriages between the two groups are discouraged on both sides, and by both are termed 'mixed marriages.'* Descendants of the original Sephardic families still exist in this country, but are vastly outnumbered by the Ashkenazim.


Thus it appears that in virtue of his special position in Occidental society the Jew is under a disability whereby the Occidental has never been, and is not, able to meet him except on special terms of acceptability. This does not make him an Untermensch, however, as is sometimes asserted, because the Occidental is under a disability precisely similar, whereby the Jew has never been, and is not, able to meet him on the same terms as those accorded to one who is 'von unsere Leute.' The existence of this reciprocal disability is the fundamental thing that any effort to arrange a durable modus vivendi between the two peoples must take into account. Failure to do this is mainly responsible for the very puny results attained by such efforts hitherto—efforts like those of Mr. Asch, of the National Conference, of Mr. White's Council Against Intolerance. They overlook the fact that Jew and Occidental are each the product of a distinct and special history. They fail to heed the austere saying of Ernest Renan, that 'man does not improvise himself.' Not being a Jew, I have not presumed to analyze the Jew's disability, but as an Occidental I am on safe ground in analyzing the disability which I share in common with my kind.

In discussing these matters with one of my friends not long ago, a very learned rabbi finally said, 'You are right. What it comes to is that you are a fine man and I like you, but I don't trust you, and you don't trust me.' My friend thought this over for a moment, and said, 'That is so.' Now, this did not imply that their word was not good, or that their pocketbooks were not safe; it carried no ethical implications whatever. It meant that in each there were great areas of consciousness which the other could not possibly enter upon, let alone explore; therefore no satisfactory presumptions could be made upon the content of those areas or upon the reactions which the motion of that content might set up. My friend, speaking of the Jews, put the whole matter admirably in a single sentence: ''They have got something which they don't need to tell one another, and they can't tell us.' In all probability (though on this I must speak provisionally and under correction) the Jew finds this as true of us as we of him.

Here precisely, at all events, is the Occidental's disability. Try as the Jew may with every concession in his power, intimate and cordial as may be the relations on which we stand, it is impossible for him to admit me and mine to regions of his consciousness the gates whereof would open of their own accord if I and mine were von unsere Leute. This does not make me an Untermensch, any more than the Jew's disability, whatever his analysis of it may be, makes him one. There is no question of superiority or inferiority, one way or the other. Nevertheless, there the disability is, and there seems nothing I or mine can do about it. The reaction is a matter of instinct, of inherited habit. Jews have told me that I his is all moonshine, that the Occidental is under no such disability; but they are no more competent judges of my disability and the reaction it provokes in them than I am of theirs and the reaction it provokes in me. A starchy cat named Thomas, owner of the house I five in, is much aggrieved when I jostle him in the dark, because he thinks I can see in the dark as well as he can; he is not, a competent judge of my disability or of the reaction which my behavior has set up in him.

When one thinks of the inherited stock of experience which goes into the content of the Hebraic consciousness, one's conception of the Occidental's disability becomes clearer. The Jew, every Jew, bears the mark of a continuator of the world's most august tradition, and possibly also its oldest. Beside it the whole sum of independent Occidental tradition is extremely frail and small. The dominant Occidental civilization's secular tradition—Ebbsfleet, the Conquest, the Mayflower, 1776—is a thing of yesterday; while its philosophical and religious tradition, when disentangled from a clutter of miscellaneous borrowings, is most insignificant. Intending architects of a modus vivendi must surely see that any sentimental notion of blinking the effects of this disparity or wishing them out of existence had best be put aside as a piece of egregious intellectual dishonesty. Things and actions are what they are,' said Bishop Butler, 'and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why, then, should we desire to be deceived?'

The mark of the world's greatest tradition is on the inner self of every Jew, distinct, well-defined, indelible. He may not be aware of it, often is not, but the Occidental eye makes no mistake about it. A sensible Jewish apologist says, 'When I meet a Jew, and he meets me, we salute in each other, without knowing it, the conqueror of Titus, Torquemada and Hitler.' Far more than this, they salute in each other, without knowing it, the military genius of Gideon and Joshua, the scourges of the Palestinian tribes in the dawn of Jewish history. When two Jews hear music, they apply, without knowing it, a common consciousness determined by a tradition running from Deborah and David down to Mendelssohn, Halevy, Offenbach. So of poetry, so of history, so of every department of spiritual activity. The content of consciousness determined by membership in an age-long tradition responds automatically to another similarly determined. It is the sense of membership inherent in this automatic response that limits the terms of acceptability which the Jew can extend to me and mine.

* Cf. the story called 'Request the Pleasure,' by Montague Glass. As a matter of long-belated justice I wish to say that Mr. Glass's books, barring three, have a priceless documentary value to the non-Jewish reader. As a delineator of character Mr. Glass had hardly an equal in American literature, and his presentation of the first-generation Ashkenazic immigrant Jew is complete and perfect. His fellow-Jews of his own day, thirty years ago, understood him with all the appreciation that his ability deserved, but non-Jews saw in him little more than a teller of more or less amusing stories. Aside from its merit as a study of character, his work preserves an authentic English rendering of the judisch-deutsch idiom, and is valuable to the student on that account, as this usage has now virtually disappeared from among us. I remember that when Brand Whitlock asked him how he managed such inimitable idiom, Glass laughed at his naiveté, and said, 'Why, don't you notice that it is all I can do to keep from talking that way myself?' His three books which centre on the war of 1914 are a labored and worthless tour de force, but his seven books remaining should be made the subject of a critical essay in the hope of securing for them the respect they deserve. The story I have cited above is in the volume entitled You Can't Learn 'Em Nothin'.—Author

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