The Anti-Semitic Problem in America

In his two articles appearing in this magazine entitled 'The Jewish Problem in America,' Albert Jay Nock, describing himself as a man of letters and not a publicist, girds a loin, states a problem, and leaves the solution to 'abler minds than mine' (viz. his). He sets forth the problem as '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.'

The thesis as he expands it is briefly that (1) there is a Jewish problem in America; (2) the Jews are an Oriental people without, apparently, hope of Occidentalization; (3) it is the disability of Occidental and Oriental that they cannot fully understand one another and must remain forever suspicious of each other; (4) '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.'

Nor does Mr. Nock try to do anything about it. After giving currency to the traditional anti-Semitic patter plus some chance remarks of his friends, and assuring his readers that he is above the storm and understands the reasons for the anti-Jewish point of view and sympathizes with the Jewish reaction, he peters out before making any attempt to find a modus vivendi. He keeps his promise and leaves all that to 'abler minds.'

The final page of the articles he devotes to an attempt to draw the teeth of any Jews who, instead of taking what he says, 'take what they think I say, and then add to that a wholly gratuitous string of what they think I mean.' Alas, how human – the Jews are sensitive to what they believe is critical of them. So 'Oriental'! But, of course, Mr. Nock adds: 'The intelligent Occidental perfectly understands this peculiar sensitiveness, and knows how it came about, but the Occidental mass-man does not' (italics mine).

The phrases 'intelligent Occidental' or 'civilized Occidental' and 'Occidental mass-man' are used so often by Mr. Nock and seem so real to him that one suspects he is still a believer in those nineteenth-century weathercocks, 'the economic mail' and 'the social man.' He may even be acquainted with 'the man in the street.'

The problem discussed by Mr. Nock is not a 'Jewish problem in America' at all. It is the problem of American democracy. In part Mr. Nock would agree with me, only he says: 'The problem is not essentially Jewish, not essentially Semitic; it is an Oriental problem.' Let us now pursue this Oriental bogeyman.

Mr. Nock tells a charming little story of the Jewish girl of twenty-three with whom, when he was a young man, he 'was once marooned for eight days on one of society's most arid islands.' No one could help falling in love with her. She was, says he, 'the only girl I ever saw who seemed to me the acme of everything desirable.' There follows a passage redolent with her charms and the names of German philosophers. He never saw or heard of her again - but she became the mother of his bogeyman. He was certain that, with the best will in the world on both sides, a hundred years in her sight would bring him no better knowledge of her than those eight days, for she was 'Oriental.'

Here we have a bad case of Oriental mysticism confused with the normal mystery which women possess for all young men. (He evidently let her go her way in silence, and the mystery grew.) What more natural than that, the Jewish people having hailed from the East, the mystery and the Jews became irretrievably bound to the Orient?

The Jews lived over a thousand years in Germany, but to Mr. Nock they remain Oriental. One would have thought that, in view of the Oriental origin of the German tribes, under the Nock formula the Jewish people and the German people would have worked things out better.

As one would suspect, Mr. Nock, the 'man of letters' (laying no claim to being a 'publicist'), by implication is the intelligent or civilized Occidental - not the mass-man, who participated in 'the revolt of the masses' under Jackson and Roosevelt which '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.' No indeed, he is not the Occidental mass-man who 'accepts this reversion, is pleased with it as a creation of his own, and glorifies it as "democratic." Rather, like Pontius Pilate, Nock stands aloof, wrapped all about in the robes of intellectualism, and regrets that mass-man will have his way – but it just can't be helped.

The intellectual will, of course, not sully his hands with rough stuff. Sometimes he will not even admit his guilt for inspiring violence. It is not true, for example, that ‘persecutions never have originated in an upper-class movement or a governmental movement.' Modern 'scientific' anti-Semitism is the offspring of such men as Count de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain. It was the Tsarist circles that organized the Black Hundreds and employed the pogrom as a mechanism of government. Streicher and Goebbels were no problem. Mobs are at times swayed by blood lust, but it has not been mobs that have made blood lust internal national policy.

I believe the distinction between the intelligent or civilized man and the mass-man has led not only to a defective analysis of the 'Jewish problem' (which I shall discuss later on), but also to a failure to find a solution, a modus vivendi. This distinction is the cause of that defeatism which runs through the Nock articles. He refers to the attitude of people on the Western Coast toward the Chinese and adds: 'All this may be deplored as unjust and indefensible, but there it is for our social architects and engineers to deal with as best they may.' He quotes from Bishop Butler: 'Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be; why, then, should we desire to be deceived?' In the mood of Cassandra he says: '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 [viz. economic stringency] 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.' And finally: 'I think it is not impossible that I shall live to see the Nürnberg laws reënacted in this country and enforced with vigor.'

What we have here is a confession by the intellectual that he is impotent in the face of the 'mass-man,' that certain situations are to be deplored as unjust and indefensible, but they are what they are and will be what they will be; that historic patterns will unfailingly catch up with the American Jew and within the lifetime of Mr. Nock engulf the Jews within American Nürnberg laws which would mean, of course, the success of Hitler and the failure of our democratic civilization. Here is defeatism without even the saving grace of recognizing that many Americans identify persecution of Jews with Hitlerism or the revealing admission that the New York demonstrations of 1939 which he mentions were inspired by Nazis and their Coughlinite fellow travelers.

It seems to me that Mr. Nock has drawn a picture of American Junkerism which, like its cousins in pro-Hitler Germany and official France, divided people between the civilized and the masses, the counterpart of the Marxian class war, and saw neither economic hope nor a modus vivendi. Yet, rather than admit that there was no modus vivendi to be found between civilized Junker and mass-man, they proclaimed their failure to discover a bridge between Jew and non-Jew. America will not be saved from the totalitarian Dark Age by the frustration of its Junkers.

There is a further fallacy, dangerous to our country, in the apparent identification of mass-man with mobster. Of course there is no 'mass-man.' Masses are composed of individuals. There are times when some of them become mobs; but they are not ipso facto mobsters. If it be not true that people, intelligent and dull alike, are individuals and to be considered by government and each other as individuals, then the ideology of democracy is false; then Jefferson and Lincoln and all who have quoted them were simple yokels, and Stalin and Hitler are right. It is forgetfulness of the individual and his transmutation into a mass-man' which have made possible the ideological concepts of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the totalitarian state abstractions which have served to screen the tyrannies of party bureaucracy.


Mr. Nock has some strictures on the Jewish manners (evidently all Jews have the same manners except Nate and Mose, his boyhood friends). But as an intellectual he purports, of course, to understand the origins of these manners, and as authority he cites H. L. Mencken to the effect that unpleasant Jewish manners are 'identical' with those of the American frontier, for were not the Jews over centuries herdsmen in Southern Palestine? We have already seen that Mr. Nock finds offensive the frontier manners to which Occidental mass-man has reverted in the 'revolt of the masses' under Jackson and Roosevelt. However, millennia of urban life have evidently not been enough to erase the herdsman from the Jew. But if this be true, how can there be gentlemen in all of Europe?

There is also a serious confusion by Mr. Nock of the psychological relationship of instinct, habit, and inheritance. He talks subjectively without offering any objective evidence of the 'Occidental's disability' to understand the Jew and to find admission 'to regions of his consciousness the gates whereof would open of their own accord if I and mine were von unsere Leute.' Then he adds, 'The reaction is a matter of instinct, of inherited habit.'

Now any modern psychologist would say that habit and instinct are not synonymous; that, though instinct is inherited, habit is not. It is not clear whether, according to Mr. Nock, this inability to enter all the regions of each other's consciousness, which leaves 'Occidental' and Jew helpless to reach the depths of mutual understanding, is to him an instinct born in one. If so, we should have a people possessed of instincts of Oriental secrecy predetermined from birth, and of habits of the herdsman (leading to frontier manners) or 'inherited habits' which thousands of years cannot eradicate. I do not believe that there is any basis in the sciences of psychology, anthropology, or history, or in common sense for any such theory. It is possible that a pseudo-scientist of the Hitler school might develop such a thesis. I am not suggesting that Mr. Nock is such a person or would consciously quote such a person. Rather, his subjective 'science' is stimulated by the sense of mystery, the sense that he could never understand the Jewish girt 0f his youth. It is part of the defeatism which prevents him from finding a modus vivendi. This mysticism, this belief in some kind of mystical bond between Jews on the one hand and 'Occidentals' on the other, is brought out in Mr. Neck's story and statement that when Jews meet each other they salute not only the conquerors of Titus, Torquemada, and Hitler (sic) but also the military genius of Gideon and Joshua, the music of Deborah and David, and so forth.

I have written at considerable length about Mr. Neck's bogey, the mysterious Oriental with whom he identifies the Jew, not merely to show the absurdity of Mr. Nock's premise, but because the mystery-creating pattern is a deep psychological pattern, deep in the whole human race, and is the basis for many misunderstandings between groups of people. This investing with mystery and power, and the resultant reactions in feelings of dispossession and fear, stem, as the psychiatrists tell us, from the nursery itself. They arise out of the struggle of brothers and sisters and the fascinated fear of siblings of the other sex. The process of growing up is the process of realizing that one does not have to be all things to all men and women, and from this that one does not have to feel dispossessed because one does not share the same ancestry, or fearful because one has not identical knowledge or capacity or cultural background.

Just as Mr. Nock makes the mistake of talking about Ashkenazic Jews as being all from the ghetto and the Pale (for the Jews of the Rhine Valley, of France and England, were never of the Pale and have been out of the ghetto for centuries), so too in his relegation of the Jew to the role of 'Oriental' he is inaccurate. It is true that he says he is not '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.' But though he does not discuss race doctrines, of which he says ho knows nothing, his Oriental theory has all the indicia of a race theory, so warming to the heart of the Nazis. It would not require much compromise by Goebbels to accept the 'Oriental' doctrine in place of the 'Aryan.'

As a matter of fact, as anthropologists have shown time and again, there is no pure Jewish race. The Jews are a people containing the blood of all peoples with whom they have dwelt for any substantial time. The variations of physical structure, pigmentation, and the color of their eyes and hair bear this out to the most casual observer. And culturally there is as much difference between a Jew of New York City and a Yemenite Jew of the Southern Arabian Peninsula as there is between a member of the University Club and a Bedouin. There is as much difference between a member of a Reformed Jewish congregation in Cincinnati and a Chasidic Jew of Warsaw as between an Episcopal bishop of Boston or New York and a parish priest in Central Siberia. Unfortunately, today religious devotion is not even a bond among all Jews any more than it is among all non-Jews. The term 'Jew' is a catchall for those whose ancestors were of the Jewish faith, just as in the United States the word 'Protestant' has become a catchall for those whose ancestors were Christian but not of the Catholic Church. It is a part of our passion for labels, which, if they are sufficiently vivid and enticing, will sell the patent medicine no matter what is in the bottle.

This variation among the Jews cannot be too strongly emphasized, because it results in antipathetical approaches to life, to politics, to business, and to cultural values among Jews themselves. It is well illustrated in the Jewish saying that when two Jews got together they immediately become three parties.

The story of the Irish immigrant after the potato famine last century contradicts Mr. Nock's argument that the reaction to an Irish refugee would be different from the reaction to a Jewish refugee. It is not merely the 'Ashkenazic Jew with the brand of the ghetto and the Pale burned deep into his body and soul' at whom the intellectual 'takes one look' and 'throws up his hands'; it is not only about him that non-intellectuals (Mr. Nock's mass-man) have meditated savagely - all immigrants to this country of a low economic level have had the same experience. What has been true of the Irish has been true at times of German immigrants; it has been true, in places, of Scandinavian immigrants. The words 'Dago,' 'Greaser,' 'Hunky,' 'Swede,' 'Dutchman,' and 'Shanty Irish' have a history of hatred and discrimination. But there is no literature of hate with respect to these other peoples; there is no tradition such as exists with respect to the Jews. Men do not try to justify their inability to understand them with theories of race or of Orientalism.

I believe there is a far simpler explanation than the Oriental mystery theory of Mr. Nock for the apparent reserve which Jews express in various circumstances and for the non-Jew's response to that reserve. Suppose a child were not certain whether his parents would welcome him with open arms or drive him from the house when he came home. Suppose time and again when he was going about the business of his household chores, desiring to be accepted as part of the family, he was beaten and thrown out of the front door. Would you expect him to have no reserve? Would you expect the parents to have no sense of guilt? Could you expect that each would for the asking grant admission 'to regions of his consciousness the gates whereof would open of their own accord' if there were mutual confidence and guiltlessness?

In every century the Jew has been welcomed into and booted out of some land. Each generation of Jews and of non-Jews has been conditioned by this. We know from the treatment of children and their parents that such situations can only be cured by time and security and a conscious effort at self-understanding. If the will be there, the light of understanding can penetrate far beyond Mr. Nock's intellectual and reach to his ‘mass-man.'


It would be idle to deny that anti-Semitism exists in America or that it is loose dynamite which may be detonated by appeasers or fifth columnists. But, as I have already suggested, the problem is not correctly stated as 'the Jewish problem in America.' Such a presentation is, in fact, destructive of our American conception of democracy. Only a caste society can result if our problems are distributed into airtight sections of Jewish, Negro, Catholic, Isolationist, employer, employee, and the like.

What concerns Jews is, rather, a part of the problem of American democracy to adjust two dynamic streams. It has already been indicated that the theme of democracy deals with individuals and not masses; it involves the right of individuals to develop their individuality and to fulfill their individual capacities and express their individual beliefs. So here we have one stream the stream of individual freedom. On the other hand we have the stream of discipline, which in a democracy must be selfdiscipline. And that in turn demands respect for others, and appreciation of and reverence for other human beings. It is the core of the Declaration of Independence, of the Civil Rights sections of the Constitution, and its seed lies in the Golden Rule.

We are living in a world in which culture has, for the most part, become destructive, in which destructive forces and negative values that had for a long time been repressed, here by force and there by slogans, have escaped. They will not be tamed by divisive doctrines of race or of mysterious Orientals. They will not be quieted by tolerance, for I believe that minority groups have suffered almost as much from tolerance as from intolerance, for tolerance itself in psychological terms is a mere suppression of animosity rather than an acceptance of differences.

The great problem of democracy today, then, is to find the disciplines of democracy, to find them and to understand them, and I believe that foremost among these disciplines is the recognition that peoples thrive from variety and die in a monolithic society; and secondly, I believe that a democratic people must accept the fact that it cannot be all things to all men and all women. Each individual cannot fully understand the aims or the background or even the hopes of all other individuals. Thirdly, we must recognize that each of us wants both to belong and to be independent, to be a member of the family and to have our privacy, to be a part of society without being uniform or a robot - and that every other normal person wants the same things.

If a democracy is to survive, its people must posit as a discipline the acceptance of each other's good faith and rid themselves of those mutual suspicions which start the inevitable cycle of fear and hate, destruction and guilt. By their acts ye shall know them, not by fears and suspicions. When we talk of knowing people by their acts, when we speak of not trying to base our relations with people on our fears and suspicions, we at once come into the realm of fact, we at once leave the realm of subjective doctrine and enter that of objective appraisal; we inevitably discard theories of Orientalism.

I believe that the modus vivendi for which Mr. Nock sought, and which he failed to find between the American Jew and his fellow-citizens, is the identical modus vivendi which the entire American people must find to assure survival of democratic processes and democratic approaches to life. If with our varying interests, capacities, and backgrounds we cannot have a common faith in democratic aims and make common cause of those ends through democratic procedures and mechanisms, then our American institutions will fall. Then the programless defeatism of our Junkers will leave us nothing but the totalitarian alternative.

Nothing can be so destructive of these values, nothing can play so well into the hands of the totalitarians, as a defeatism which finds it impossible to discover a modus vivendi and escapes into juvenile mysticism, rationalized into terms of 'We cannot understand each other; we cannot escape the history of five thousand years; we cannot find a bridge between our variations.' It is not history that repeats itself, but human patterns. We know now that we can conquer starvation and epidemic; we know now that the ways of democracy can work. It is the patterns of human behavior that must be our next conquest. Men of good will, men of courage, have made possible the conquests of the past. I for one am confident that we can triumph in the future.