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

I have no observations to make on the purely economic features of our problem, because I see nothing peculiar or special about them, except, of course, that the Occidental mass-man's view of the Jew's economic successes and economic practices is liable to the special coloration which it would have in the case of another Oriental in the same circumstances. He is inclined to be more resentful of the Oriental as a competitor than of another Occidental, and his resentment has a qualitative difference marked by a vague sense of cosmic injustice, a sense of being unduly and intolerably 'put upon.'  He is also more inclined to bring an indictment against a whole Oriental people on the strength of the occasional roguery or swinery which he has encountered in individuals. Where the Oriental is concerned he is quicker to generalize, to take omne ignotum pro magnifico, as on our Western coast when he evolved the maxim that 'for ways that are dark and for tricks that are vain the heathen Chinese is peculiar.' All this may be deplored as unjust and indefeasible, but there it is for our social architects and engineers to deal with as best they may. The civilized Occidental knows that an Oriental people, like any other, must be granted its fair proportion of rogues and swine, and he makes his general estimate accordingly; but here again it is not the view of the civilized Occidental which counts, but the view of the Occidental mass-man.

As my space is running out, I shall mention only one more complication which is seriously disabling; it arises from the peculiar and suspicious sensitiveness which the Jew has developed, whereby he is prone to see enmity where there is none, and even more regularly to attribute dislike or distrust to a cause which does not exist. As a Jewish writer says of his people, 'They tend to nurse the obsession that the only reason for the slightest rebuff from which they may suffer in business, social life, or any other activity, is a causeless anti-Jewish prejudice, quite unjustified by anything in their personal behavior as individuals.' Or as an acquaintance once put it to me in more colloquial terms, 'A Jew always thinks you dislike him because he is a Jew. It never seems to occur to him that you might possibly dislike him because he's offensive.'

In my own case, in discussing Jewish affairs with Jews, I have often observed that instead of taking what I say they take what they think I say, and then add to that a wholly gratuitous string of what they think I mean, so that the total product has no resemblance whatever to anything that is, or has been, in my mind. The intelligent Occidental perfectly understands this peculiar sensitiveness, and knows how it came about, but the Occidental mass-man does not; and this puts innumerable exasperating difficulties, usually trifling in themselves, in the course of his relations with Jews.* By consequence, therefore, it makes uphill work for the social architect who undertakes to design a durable modus vivendi between the two peoples.


Wishful thinkers, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, may be dissatisfied with the matter-of-fact character of what I have said in this paper, and take it amiss that I have done no moralizing and indulged in no sentiment. This failure may impress them as unsympathetic and antisocial, perhaps even as irreligious and against God. If so, they mistake my function. My job is not with them, but with the social architect and engineer; and my function is only that of charting quicksands and rock formations so that the piers of the structure they build may be secure. A humble cartographer, which is all I am, must resolutely keep his sympathies corked down during business hours, and those who wish to see them in action should come around after closing time.

I wish, though, that something better than an amateur cartographer might have been found for the job, for it is one that calls for the best professional skill. As I hinted at the outset, the thing I find most disquieting is the thick fog of silence which has settled over this grave question. It bodes no good; there is every evidence that the lamentable antipathies which are simmering and festering beneath it are increasing in volume at a rate which I find as terrifying as it is distressing. The thing should not be left to ex parte pleaders, sentimentalists, propagandists, disseminators of idle and vicious blackguardism. It demands able, well-informed, and disinterested thought expressed with the utmost candor and calmness. I have done my best to break the ominous silence - not at all a good best, I know, for I am so distinctly not the one to make the attempt; but what I could do I have done.

* 'In one of New York's clubs the other day I heard a man put this point very well. He said, ‘When we are playing Kelly pool downstairs, if A (an Irishman] wins a big pot on an awful fluke, I can say, "Isn't that a dirty Irish trick?" If B does it, I can say, "Isn't that just what you'd expect from a conniving, swindling Massachusetts Yankee?" But if C does it, I can't say, "That's a dirty Jewish trick," for it would hurt him -it really would - and everybody in the room would feel uncomfortable and a little bit shocked to hear me say it.'—Author

Presented by

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In