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

This is inevitable, invariable. Whether Kipling was right in his dictum that never the twain shall meet on common terms of acceptability, I have no opinion. All I can say is that those who are hopeful that the determining sense of membership may somehow be rubbed out in a generation or two or twenty, or be transformed through some kind of spiritual osmosis, seem to be overconfident. 'I have been an American forty years,' a prominent rabbi is reported to have said lately, 'but I have been a Jew five thousand years.' This utterance was criticized as injudicious, but the man was right. He had been a Jew five thousand years, and could no more help it than he could fly. He spoke of something which runs infinitely deeper than any merely political allegiance-his sense of membership in the world's greatest and most powerful tradition. Man does not improvise himself; certainly not by the accident of having been born in an alien political domain, and least of all by taking out naturalization papers.

When I was a young man of twenty-five or so, I was once marooned for eight days on one of society's most arid islands, in company with a Jewish girl of twenty-three. There being virtually no one else to talk with, we were pretty strictly limited to each other's society, and became very intimate. She was the only girl I ever saw who seemed to me the acme of everything desirable, with no offset that I could discover - everything in nature and disposition, education, beauty and charm, cosmopolitan culture and manners. Such I have always imagined Fanny Mendelssohn must have been or perhaps rather Henriette Herz, at the time when the mighty Schleiermacher was making up to her and the great Wilhelm von Humboldt was writing her his charming and whimsical love letters. What especially interested me was my complete certainty that with the best will in the world on both sides I should know her no better at the end of a hundred years of close companionship than I did at the end of those eight days. I never saw or heard of her afterwards, nor tried to do either. I have often thought, however, of what would happen if some rash and personable young Occidental fell in love with her—no one could help doing that—and married her. If he were sensitive, how distressed and dissatisfied he would be as he became aware of the vast areas of her consciousness from which he was perforce shut out forever; and on the other hand, if he were too insensitive to feel that he was shut out from them, how intolerable her life with him would be.


We may easily see now how fundamental this reciprocal disability is to the secondary complications and difficulties which lie in the way of a durable modus vivendi. Here again as a matter of propriety and good taste, I must speak of these only as they appear from the point of view of an Occidental. But more than this it is above all things necessary that our social architects should consider them not only as they appear to the intelligent and judicious Occidental, but also and chiefly as they appear to the unintelligent and emotion-ridden Occidental masses; for it is here, as I have said, that sentiment against a minority invariably reaches the exploding-point, and it is here, according to every sign, that we may look for it to reach that point again.

Take for example the manifestations commonly lumped off under the prejudicial term 'Jewish manners': manners reflecting a fierce and insensitive arrogance, a flagrant vulgarity, a rude and pushing disregard of decent civility. These are not Jewish manners, and every intelligent Occidental knows it. They are frontiersman's manners, the manners of our own frontier, the manners which accompanied the great irruption of raw Western money into the society of the Eastern seaboard. As Mr. H. L. Mencken acutely observes, nearly all the qualities which the Jews' critics complain of ‘are identical with the harsh, impatient, cocksure, truculent and, alas, somewhat uncouth qualities which won the American West.' For centuries the Jew was a herdsman in Southern Palestine, warlike and violent as all primitive herdsmen are, 'truly indomitable fellows,' as Mr. Mencken says, 'and neither the dull hopelessness of the city proletariat nor the yet more dull helplessness of the tamed yokel was in them.' Their subsequent experiences throughout the Western world have been uniformly of the kind best calculated to confirm and perpetuate in them their primitive qualities, and among these the quality of manners. That is the whole story.

But the Occidental masses do not know all this, and hence do not view the matter in this light. 'The revolt of the masses' which made its first advance under Jackson, and reached its apex of social control under Roosevelt, was naturally and necessarily accompanied by a great general reversion towards the frontiersman's type of manners, the evidences of which are now most offensively observable in all grades of our society. The Occidental mass-man accepts this reversion, is pleased with it as a creation of his own, and glorifies it as 'democratic.' Mr. Sinclair Lewis devoted a whole series of novels to showing how cheerfully the mass-man regards the code of manners expressing this reversion as a bond of solidarity with the rest of the mass. Yet when an Oriental comes along with a code expressing to no greater degree the same reversion, the instinctive reaction set up by the Oriental's obscure but deeply-rooted disability is at once discriminatory. Putting this reaction down to 'prejudice,' of which we hear so much, is the lightest kind of superficial talk. It is due to disability; and as I have tried to show, the disability is reciprocal.

Take, again, the uneasiness and dissatisfaction so often displayed at the part which Jews are playing in our public life. The Civil Service Commission reports 959,146 civil employees in the Federal executive departments. It is impossible to say how many of these are Jews. The highest Jewish estimate I have heard made is 40 per cent, the highest non-Jewish estimate is 63 per cent. To the intelligent Occidental no estimate counts for anything; all he is interested in is that public affairs should be in the hands of the most capable persons, whether they be Jews, Turks, infidels or heretics. But what I wish to insist on is that for the purposes of our social architects who may be trying to arrange a modus vivendi the intelligent Occidental's view hardly counts. It is the view of the masses which counts, for the reason I have already stated. The reaction of the mass-man in this matter of Federal employment was well put to me by a man who said, speaking of a certain executive department, 'You can't find an official in the whole place who hasn't got a damned Jew lawyer sitting by him at his desk.' The reaction prompting this remark is not essentially anti-Jewish; it would be exactly the same if (let us say), 25 per cent of the Federal personnel were Syrian and if Mr. Cohen, Mr. Frankfurter, Mr. Henderson, Mr. Morgenthau, Mr. Hillman and Mr. Jerome Frank were all Syrians. It would not be the same if this percentage were Irish and these officeholders were Irishmen. There might be in that case, perhaps would be, some slight unfavorable reaction due in part to envy, political partisanship, or some such cause, though I doubt it; but, granting that, it would not be at all the same reaction. And finally, the motive power behind that specific reaction is furnished not by 'prejudice,' but by a disability which would be operative to precisely the same effect in the case of any other Oriental people in the same circumstances.

Again, consider the geographical distribution of the American Jews. Of the 4,770,647 officially reported, 4,096,220 are clustered in cities of 100,000 or over. This distribution is most unfortunate; the Jews know it, and those who direct their institutional life are doing their best to bring about a readjustment. The intelligent Occidental knows that this task of breaking up an enforced secondary habit is virtually impossible short of no one knows how many generations. He takes one look at the Ashkenazic Jew with the brand of the ghetto and the Pale burned deep into his body and soul, and simply throws up his hands. Potash and Perlmutter, Polatkin and Scheikowitz, Maisener and Finkman, would be a complete washout in American rural life, as much of a washout as the early immigrant Quaker, and for the same reason. The Occidental mass-man sees the thing differently.  He faces the thousand and one petty economic disarrangements and social annoyances resulting from this bad distribution, and meditates savagely on the chances that a merciful Providence may some day send him a couple of sotnias of Cossacks to help straighten things out.

Then there is the matter of immigration for our social engineers to think of. Today as I write this I read a disclosure from the State Department that 4000 refugees a month are coming here, that 600,000 more have applied for visas, half of them, 'including many Jews,' in Germany and German-occupied countries. I also read that 'thousands of Viennese Jews are cabling relatives here to deposit the cost of their passage over.' However the intelligent Occidental may regard this prospect, the Occidental mass-man does not regard it as he would that of a similar irruption of Occidental refugees. In the latter case it would be only the economic side of the matter that would concern him, while in the former it would be more than that, as it would be in the case of any other Oriental people.'* Furthermore, he has collateral beliefs which operate as an aggravation. He believes that every Jew in the world who can find his way here will do so by hook or by crook; also that Jews have better organized facilities for getting here than other refugees have; also that in this direction, despite the letter of our immigration laws, our government is distinctly and specially and reprehensibly squeezable. Whether or not he is right in believing all this is not to the point. The point is that he believes it firmly, and that our architects must take due notice of his belief.

* One of my friends told me that in a delicatessen store one evening lately he heard a well-dressed young Jewish woman, slightly tipsy, holding forth on the iniquity of 'letting all these damned refugees in to take jobs away from us native Hebrews.' I tell this only as an amusing incident, though I have sometimes wondered how far, if at all, this view has penetrated among American Jews of the baser sort.—Author

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