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 readers are entitled to know why I venture to write on a subject which is so distinctly not down my street. Subjects like this are in the province of publicists, not men of letters. I agree; but as far as I know, our publicists are saying nothing on this subject. One reason may very well be that too much is expected of them. The American publicist is expected to be ready with a solution of every problem he presents, which in this case is hard to do. His readers expect him not only to inform and enlighten, but also to pontificate. If he should say, 'Your problem is so-and-so, but I haven't the faintest idea of what to do about it,' they would be dissatisfied with him, and feel that he had let them down.

The case is different with the man of letters. Life passes him by; and therefore his view of life's progress is felt to be clearer and larger, less superficial and perhaps considerably saner, than that of the publicist who is in the thick of things, bearing the burden and heat of the day. But on the other hand, since he is the very antithesis of a man of action, no one ever thinks of asking him for a program of action, and if he offers one, people instinctively resent it and are edgy with him for going beyond his depth.

My chief reason, then, for broaching this particular problem is that, to the best of my knowledge, no one else is saying anything about it. No one is going beyond its local and temporary aspects to show in its entirety what the Jewish problem is, and how serious and pressing it is, and especially to show just what the conditions are which make it so. I have no solution to offer; perhaps there is none—I do not know. All I can say is that if the problem be solvable, it must be solved by abler minds than mine, and before they can solve it they must wake up to its importance and learn what its terms are; therefore I write. This is the whole logic of my attempt.

The problem, stated in the fewest words, is that 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.

Up to two years ago I had no idea that such a problem existed. Never having given it moment's thought to the matter, and having lived for many years abroad, I would have said that the highly satisfactory modus vivendi of my early days was still in force. When I was a boy in a Mid-Western town the few Jews there were regarded as other people equally respectable and personable were regarded. Since their standard of character and manners happened to be uncommonly high, they were much looked up to. As for social discrimination against the Jew qua Jew, there was none even among us children. My own special cronies, for example, were seined out of two large families of Jews and an equally abundant run of French Canadians. As my thoughts turn back to old man M. and his numerous family, the stiffest kind of orthodox Sephardic Jews and the finest kind of people, I so well recall how diligently all our girls used to fish for dances with his grown-up sons Nate and Mose, charming young men, delightfully well-bred, and the best dancers we had. Again in my later youth I saw much the same state of things in another Mid-Western town. One or two Jews there were unpopular because they were swindlers in a petty way, but this did not affect the esteem in which the rest of the town's small Jewry was held.

I distinctly do not mean to say that the mixture of Jews and non-Jews in our society was a chemical mixture. Neither element was in the least concerned to have it so, or wished it so. The reaction on both sides was thoroughly dignified and self-respecting. The Jews regarded us as an Occidental people among whom they had chosen to live, and appreciated whatever merits we were able to show as such; they took us as we were, associated with us in a perfectly free, friendly, and considerate way, with no effort or pretense at Occidentalizing themselves. We saw them as first-class representatives of an Oriental people with a great history and a great tradition, worthy of all respect and cordial good will, which we unfeignedly gave them. The mixture was a mechanical one, but it worked perfectly, with neither element predominating in a prejudicial way, and with the sense of fundamental difference mostly dormant. As I look back on this, it seems as staunch and seaworthy a modus vivendi as could well be devised. In later life I have seen another example of it, in a small way. I belong to an association which includes a number of Jews in its membership, and the same order of spirit and feeling prevails there as prevailed in the community where I first came into contact with Jews.

Two years ago, however, on returning to this country, I discovered quite by accident, and under very painful and humiliating circumstances, that this modus vivendi is no longer in force. This caused me to look into the matter in order to find out, as nearly as possible, how things stood. I read a great deal, and moved about from one centre to another, pestering patient people, Jews and Gentiles alike, with questions. The upshot was a complete assurance that the problem exists precisely as I have stated it. This is beyond any shadow of doubt. Moreover, I do not see how anyone can fail to notice that conditions are rapidly shaping themselves in such a way as must, if let alone, inevitably bring this problem to a head.


Representative Jews are thoroughly well aware of all this. One of them told me that their discovery of the strength and volume of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country had taken all Jewry as much by surprise as it had taken me. There is furthermore some evidence that their discovery came almost as late in the day as mine. The Jews now have eighteen national organizations devoted to defensive and protective purposes, and thirteen of them were established within the last ten years. There are also local organizations in our ten largest cities serving the same purposes, all of which are of as recent date. I do not know how many such there are in other cities; they are not officially reported, nor could they well be, probably, because many of them would naturally be of an impermanent character, extemporized as occasion required, and dissolving when the occasion passed. Many more, no doubt, regularly serve other purposes—religious, social, charitable—and take on defensive function only occasionally as need arises.

It is highly desirable that representative non-Jews should be as well-informed about the status of anti-Jewish sentiment as the Jews themselves are. I have reason to believe that they are not; I think most of them are as ignorant as I was. For example, one of my friends, the head of a thriving business, had a letter from a correspondent on the Pacific Coast who said he was much worried about anti-Jewish demonstrations out there, but supposed they must be a great deal worse in New York. My friend replied that this was a mistake, that he knew nothing of any trouble of that sort in New York, and was sure there was none. This was in the late summer of 1939, when anti-Jewish street demonstrations - however provoked were going on in Brooklyn, Jackson Heights, the Bronx, and Yorkville at the rate of fifty or sixty a week. * My friend was by no means exceptional in his ignorance. It must be constantly kept in mind that a general resentment against any minority is always of proletarian or sub-proletarian origin; and therefore the evidences of it are slow in coming to the notice of society's more reflective element. I shall have more to say about this later.

It is this reflective element that I wish to approach and impress with a sense of the Jewish problem's urgency, for it is the element likeliest to find a solution of it if one is ever to be found. It is also the likeliest to see that, in spite of Goethe's fine saying, our civilization has not all the time in the world to devise one before the problem is taken over and dealt with by methods which none of us cares to contemplate. Die Ziet ist unendlich lang is an admonition that can be profitably invoked upon human enterprise in general far oftener than it is, but the time for this particular enterprise is very closely limited by circumstances.

Of this fact also a great many representative Jews are keenly aware, while representative non-Jews seem hardly aware of it at all. The last report of the American Jewish Committee, one of the most powerful and influential of the national organizations for defense against anti-Semitism, speaks very guardedly, even vaguely, but with obvious awareness. Emphasizing 'the need for continuous vigilance,' the report says, 'We should not lose sight of the fact that, there exist in this country economic and social factors which, in time of stress and strain, inspire individuals and groups which for their own selfish interests exploit ignorance, bigotry and prejudice in order to promote distrust and hostility among American citizens.'

This is putting it as forcibly as is consistent with the proprieties which an official report must respect. As a matter of good taste, also, it is put as forcibly as a member of a minority would probably care to put it when the interests of his own particular minority are under consideration. The trouble is that efforts like these do virtually nothing towards properly informing the non-Jewish majority either about the actual state of affairs or about the ensuing probabilities which the future holds.

** These were assaults, baitings, intimidations, picketings, soapbox speeches, incitements to boycott, and the like. —Author

There is a large literature, mostly pamphlets, bearing pro and con on what we loosely call anti-Semitism. I have read reams of it without getting anything usefully informative to me or to the type of mind which I am now hoping to interest. For the most part it deals with local aspects of the problem; it is ex parte, controversial, and largely intemperate.* Hence, while this may be all very well in its way for local effect, it should at the very least be supplemented by something better. Father Coughlin's outpourings and the literature put out by the Christian Front do not come into the hands of those best fitted to deal with the question as a whole; nor yet, do the rebuttals put out so plentifully by the Jewish defensive associations. If, moreover, some of this mass of polemics did find its way into their hands, they would give it but scant attention because its information is so meagre and its manner of presentation is so unacceptable.

Readers may remind me that a good many prominent non-Jewish religionists have spoken out against various manifestations of anti-Jewish sentiment, and that the bodies they represent have supported them with official resolutions, declarations, and so on, quite in the regular way.  That is so. Moreover there exists an organization called the Council Against Intolerance in America, formed within the last decade, in which clergymen, professors, civic leaders, and a few publicists, notably my old friend William Allen White, play a leading part. There is also the National Conference of Christians and Jews, likewise engineered chiefly by religionists, as its name implies. The work of these last two groups is in large part educational, spreading the gospel of tolerance in our schools and colleges.

All this is very good, very commendable, but even so one sees at once that it is far from filling the bill. If no emergency were impending, if we were assured of a couple of centuries free for the quiet maturing of a modus vivendi, one might say more for such efforts than can be said now, things being as they are. It is one thing to design a structure proof against ordinary action of the elements, but another thing to design one proof against earthquake.

Speaking only for myself, I am quite persuaded that the well-intentioned people behind these movements either do not know what the basic terms of their problem are, or for some reason are reluctant about putting them frankly before the more thoughtful element in our public. They appear not to approach the matter with the spirit of order and method appropriate to the contemplation of any project in social engineering. The first question is, What exactly do you want to do? The second is, What exactly are the difficulties and complications which have to be overcome? Until these questions are answered satisfactorily and in full, you have simply nothing for your social engineers to go on with; and while the first question is easily answered presumably there is complete general agreement on that—all I know of the work of these conciliatory movements testifies that their spokesmen are merely fumbling with the second.

My own rather anxious view of the consequences of ignoring the terms of this problem may be thought extreme, so I shall state it frankly; not at all wishing to convert anyone to it – never that—but because by so doing I can show more clearly my reasons for writing in this unfamiliar vein. For many years now I have been watching economic theory in this country shift from style to style, as fantastic as the styles in women's hats. Does anyone recall, for instance, the 'new' economics which swept the country in Coolidge's day, whereby it was most learnedly demonstrated not only that we could eat our cake and have it too, but that; the cake might go on and on forever, automatically producing itself, and all free, gratis and for nothing? Looking ahead with a short-time view, I should expect credit inflation, currency inflation, repudiation, and perhaps great civil disturbances.

But though I may be on the extreme Right of present-day economic theory, I meet with no one, whatever his school of thought, who is not haunted by the uneasy suspicion that the United States is heading into a severe economic stringency; perhaps not one so overwhelming as I expect, but bad enough. I can understand this uneasiness. Billions which do not run to two figures are now no more than carfare to the Federal Government. It is estimated that by the end of another year our Federal debt will touch 56 billion dollars, and that if all our governmental enterprises (Federal, state and municipal) are carried out as projected, they will cost about 212 billion dollars per year. I observe with interest that even those of my friends who range themselves on the moderate economic Left apparently have to do a bit of whistling to keep up their courage in the face of the prospect thus held out; and no wonder.

Very well. Now let us assume that when all our chickens have come home to roost the strain on our economic coop is ten per cent of what I believe it will be; nay, as little as ten per cent of what my friends on the Left have an instinctive presentiment that it may be. Let us also assume that by that time the strength of anti-Jewish sentiment in our society is ten per cent of what it appears to be at the moment. With these allowances duly made, let us ask ourselves what prospect awaits the American Jew under those circumstances. An appeal to history, I am afraid, elicits only one answer. Without the least divergence, those circumstances conform to a historical pattern reaching back to Sumer and Akkad; my knowledge of this is what has moved me to take up my position on the economic Right. There is every reason to fear that the prospect awaiting the American Jew will also follow the historic pattern which has persisted with unfailing regularity in those circumstances for more than ten centuries. The sudden flaring-up of anti-Jewish sentiment in this country, to which I have alluded, was coincident with the onset of the depression in 1929, and it was damped down only by the sheer accident of encountering a great wave of sympathy for the mistreated Jews of Europe. It was not extinguished, however; its spread was checked and it was left smouldering, as my own researches show. But for this one accidental happening in Europe, there is no telling how great a destructive force it might have stored up for release.

Much as any well-disposed citizen must dislike to say so, there can be no doubt that if even only the destructive force now latent were released by the circumstances we are postulating, the consequences would be as appalling in their extent and magnitude as anything seen since the Middle Ages. The American mob's grim reputation for sheer anthropoid savagery is equaled only by that of the revolutionary mobs of Paris. At the outset of the German Government's movement against the Jews, an American visitor asked Herr Hitler why he was making it so ruthless. The Reichskanzler replied that he had got the idea from us. Americans, he said, are the great rope and lamppost artists of the world, known of all men as such. He was using the same methods against the Jews that we used against the loyalists of '76, the Indians, the Chinese on our Western Coast, the Negroes, the Mexicans, the Filipinos—every helpless people, in fact, whom we had ever chanced to find underfoot. This may be a rank exaggeration, but the barb in it sticks. I recall another incident which anyone who knows our history will recognize at once as symptomatic. To get the force of it one must bear in mind that its hero was utterly humorless, utterly incapable of expressing himself in a deliberately humorous exaggeration. He was speaking the language of dull, serious, workaday matter-of-fact. Passing through a Missouri village two or three years ago, one of my friends stopped for a chat with a citizen, evidently a man of local mark, who was in a state of mind over the commercial practices of certain Jews who had settled there. 'I tell you, we are going after those people some day,' he said, 'and when we do, we ain't going to be gentlemanly about it, like Hitler.'

*In its scholarly article on anti-Semitism, written by the vice president of the Jewish Historical Society of England, the Encyclopedia Britanica, ed. XI, makes the interesting statement that 'no impartial history of modern anti-Semitism has yet been written.' This still holds true.—Author


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