The 'Other' America

From The Atlantic’s archive: Two stories that emphasize how far we’ve come since writers talked about “the Jewish problem”

Today is the first day of the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah is being celebrated not only by the faithful across the world, but also by the media—in the form of, among other things, informational guides, explainers, and recipe round-ups. These stories, trivial as they may seem, serve a second, important role: They take it for granted that Jewish life is, in a direct and meaningful sense, a crucial component of American life.

It wasn’t always that way. It used to be that anti-Semitism was also one of American life’s standard features. It used to be that the Jewish citizens of the U.S. were considered, if not less than everybody else, then at least simply other. In 1941—a year that found Europe in the throes of war and the American economy gasping for air—Alfred Jay Nock wrote an article for The Atlantic. Its title? “The Jewish Problem in America.”

Nock expressly confined the scope of “the Jewish problem” to American borders. As he did so, he also made apologies for fellow Americans who routinely made comments like, “I tell you, we are going after those people some day, and when we do, we ain’t going to be gentlemanly about it, like Hitler.” Ultimately, Nock acknowledged that “those people,” as Americans, had the same inalienable rights he enjoyed as a virtue of his citizenship. But those people were also, he believed, distant from him, not just in terms of religion, but in terms of culture. They were also, he believed, “other.”

Later that summer, in response to Nock, James Marshall wrote another piece about a “problem” pervading American life. He called it, appropriately, “The Anti-Semitic Problem in America.” In it, Marshall explores otherness as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: A status quo that relegates people to “otherness,” he argued, will create social divisions. “The problem discussed by Mr. Nock is not a ‘Jewish problem in America’ at all,” Marshall writes. “It is the problem of American democracy.”

The “other,” in other words, is everyone. It is in some sense America itself. After the Nock/Marshall exchange, Jews—many of them escaping the Holocaust—would prove instrumental in American society, shaping entertainment, politics, and every other field in a way that has defined the American experience. And their story is not unique, of course: “Other” groups have been key to creating a sense of what it means to be American, largely by virtue of their not fitting in anywhere else.

We shouldn’t, as Marshall says, accept the assumption that “other” is a de-facto derogatory term. The “other” is, on top of everything else, often responsible for wide-scale historic social change, from Jesus of Nazareth to Susan B. Anthony to Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Harvey Milk. The “other” is, in fact, a celebration of the human spirit and the triumph of what makes the U.S. a country—not to mention a democracy in the truest sense of the word. “Men of good will, men of courage, have made possible the conquests of the past,” Marshall writes. “I for one am confident that we can triumph in the future.”