Commentary Magazine


A Refugee Looks at Anti-Semitism Here:
The Difference between European and American Patterns

Could it happen here? Is America as susceptible to violent anti-Semitism as Central Europe? Or are there certain factors in American life that serve as a bulwark against this particular irrationality? Robert Pick here looks at these perennial questions through the eyes of the refugees who came here fleeing Hitler, and offers some tentative generalizations winnowed from ‘ the hopes, fears, and observations of these newcomers. 

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One day in the late 1930’s, so the story goes, a newly-arrived refugee couple entered the grocery store of a small New England town and asked for oranges.

“For juice?” inquired the clerk.

“Did you hear what he said?” the woman whispered to her husband in German, hustling him out of the store. “For Jews? You see, it’s beginning here, too . . .”

Together with some more of its kind, that sad joke used to be told among refugees in those days, and evoked wan smiles.

Of course Europeans had always known that anti-Jewish feeling was far from negligible in this country. But, at some point or other, this knowledge had been buried under the wishful hope that the bestiality of German anti-Semitism had so aroused the abhorrence of American Gentiles as to purge them of it altogether. In daydreams, the fugitives may even have expected to meet a kind of warm-hearted equality.

But side by side with this fantasy, there was always the uncontrollable anxiety at what the future might bring. They were haunted by a ghost from other shores, which at any moment they feared to see here. To be told that anti-Semitism was only one aspect of American racial prejudice offered no relief whatsoever. (And understandably so!) The hate-sheets of the German-American Bund were read almost eagerly—with a kind of morbid fascination—and the sinister goings-on in Yorkville were a subject for unrelieved brooding. “You see!” At the least touch of reality the daydream turned into a nightmare.

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At the same time, the newcomers’ jitters were soothed by certain special characteristics of American life—taken for granted by any native-born person, but discoveries for them.

Wherever anti-Semitism had become powerful (and consequently violent) in Europe, it had received some encouragement from “above.” I seem to recall that what upset my father most about the rise of Dr. Lueger’s Christian Social party in Austria was the report that the old Emperor Franz Joseph, after some stalling, had confirmed that “Radauantisemit,” Lueger, as the mayor of our Vienna, and by having granted him an audience had made him “respectable.” (Not until about thirty years later, when Hitler’s audience with Hindenburg legalized Jew—baiting in Germany, did I realize how justified was my father’s excitement over that piece of dated court news.) It is futile to speculate whether continental anti-Semitism would have remained on the fringes of public life had it been denied the blessing from “above.” But to a refugee from government-condoned—indeed government-decreed—Jew-killing, this was the fatal sign.

Imagine the relief, therefore, when the refugee observed that political anti-Semitism is not considered respectable in America. He noticed it in the total lack of anti-Semitism on the part of the government and in its absence from the platforms of the two great parties. Even more impressive, such anti-Jewish utterances as occasionally did come from a man in public life exposed that man to protests from other than Jewish quarters, and—more important—to general ridicule. Finally, there was the novel American phenomenon that conservative or even “rightist” political views do not necessarily imply a program of political anti-Semitism.

The refugee’s encounters with the authorities reinforced this favorable impression. In Europe, even when or where anti-Semitism had little political or social sanction, Jews had never been entirely free from the feeling of being kept at arm’s length in their contacts with the machinery of state. The lower ranks of the civil service, traditionally recruited from a social class that had been losing ground ever since the industrial revolution, expressed their malaise through anti-Jewish sentiments. Ranging from “correct” stand-offishness and “jovial” pin-pricks to avowed hostility, their attitude took the form of what might be called “administrative anti-Semitism.” It did not take the immigrant long to realize that no such dissatisfied hereditary bureaucratic caste exists in this country. His contacts with officialdom were necessarily numerous; the variety, ethnic and otherwise, of types he met on these occasions served to reassure him; and, oversensitized though he was, he was never aware in these dealings of any trace of anti-Semitism.

Along with the absence in the new country of some of the most dangerous anti-Semitic features of the old, there was the relative absence of innuendos in the new language, even for those who understood it. Such anti-Jewish abuse (“kike” or “sheeny”) as an immigrant may have run into—on a bus, in a waiting lineseemed to apply to him in a less personal way than similar profanity in his native tongue (“Saujude”) familiar to his ears since grammar-school days. For a while he could even choose to live in the illusion—shades of the pathetic old Jewish game of West vs. East (and vice versa)—that these insults were not really meant for emancipated Jews from Central and Western Europe anyhow!

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However, at the same time that he made this important discovery, the refugee was confronted with a less agreeable feature of American life: social discrimination. What was especially frightening was its inflexible, formal, and well-nigh formalistic enforcement, with the hopelessness inherent in the situation; there was no chance at all for that typically European escape by means of the personal “exception”—the Jew who was an “exception.” Indeed, it seemed that anti-Jewish “rules” were tightened precisely at the moment when an “exception” threatened to establish a precedent. Gradually the refugee came to feel that there must be more to it than an emotional aversion to “mixing with Jews.”

If one keeps in mind the slow rise of European Jewry, the rigidity of American discrimination might seem to be accounted for primarily by .the comparative speed of individual economic climbing in this country, and by the feeling that social graces and agreeable manners usually lag behind material betterment. It might, after all, be a case of taking no chances. Yet chances are taken all the time with Gentile self-made men, and no such prejudice is placed in their way.

About ten years ago, when refugees began to appear on the streets of London, a tabloid published a short editorial admonishing them to emulate the late Sir Philip Sassoon, who, as was acknowledged everywhere, had been second to no Gentile gentleman in the realm. Surely such nonsense would never invade the pages of an American paper. At the same time, however, the loophole implied in that admonishment is absent from the American kind of social discrimination, which seems to believe that no Jew can ever hope to live up to the standards of a Gentile gentleman.

On the other hand, the refugee also discovered that in certain areas the theory seemed not to obtain. For instance, the American world of letters, music, and the arts generally—and not only its “progressive” sections—was free from discriminatory habits. (Much more so, incidentally, than the corresponding groups in many a pre-1933 European country.) Scientific research proved to be another such oasis. It can hardly be a coincidence that wherever a group’s professional pursuits go beyond the mere struggle for wealth, power, and prestige, discrimination remains a matter of personal taste, and has no need, nor any use, for a code. Apparently social discrimination, as practiced, is intimately allied with the attempt to protect the prerogatives of vested economic power (i.e., power independent of individual talent or capacity) by rigid exclusion of potential competitors.

Having noted the exceptions, the émigré still found social discrimination a serious and ominous phenomenon. All the more surprising, therefore, was the blithe indifference his American co-religionists seemed to display to it—“innocuous social anti-Semitism,” they called it. He did not appreciate that their childhood background, their training, their aspirations, and their ways of life had become adjusted to the prevailing taboos. Few American-born Jews pick “non-Jewish” fields for their careers, or go where they “are not wanted.”

As a matter of fact neither did Europeans. But, as it happened, the occupations traditionally non-Jewish on the Continent did not always coincide with those that are closed to Jews in this country. The émigré industrial engineer or oil expert saw his talents wither in neglect in America, while he watched his fellow-immigrants in non-verboten fields overcome in due time the newcomers’ general handicaps. “I wonder,” such a man said to me, “am I still rejected as a foreigner, or already discriminated against as a Jew?” He found small solace in the fact that some of the occupations least accessible to Jews in most European countries-such as the civil service—here admitted Jews freely. He only saw that the people who dominated business in his own field were the same who excluded him from their social activities and their neighborhoods—as did, on lower levels of income and social life, the people in their employ. To such unlucky migres anti-Semitism could not but seem alarmingly widespread and systematic.

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Many a newcomer, then, found discrimination strange, hard to cope with in everyday life, and boding ill for the future. At the same time the image of his immediate European past grew dimmer, and he would—with a kind of qualified nostalgia (a hypothetical nostalgia not for a place left, but for a time gone)—recall the feeling of certitude which, within the basic discomforts of being a Jew, had characterized his life in Europe before Hitler.

It was not that, actually, the images of the recent great tribulations grew dimmer. They changed, as it were, their specific weight within the sum total of the exiles’ reminiscences. (A refugee is both an immigrant and an exile.) Nothing could efface from his mind the tragedy that had marred his life, and kept destroying the lives of relatives and friends overseas. However, at times the ex-European came to look at the events of 1933 as an isolated catastrophe which, intrinsically, had very little to do with his “normal” pre-1933 existence. And that “normalcy” was the handy yardstick by which he measured the “normalcy” of his new surroundings. What often resulted—needless to say, it did not result exclusively from the refugees’ concern with anti-Semitism—was their ill-famed “bei uns” attitude. Bei uns it was better. But that bei uns which so offended Americans really always referred to an earlier, fairer time.

For generations, poets among the Sephardic refugees in free, prosperous Holland continued to extol the beauties of Spanish life, as restored to pre-expulsion “normalcy” in their mental image; and the Inquisition had no place in that image. Apparently this is the way the human memory works. The London of the early 1790’s, for instance, resounded with stories about the eternal “chez nous” comparisons with which the French émigrés annoyed the British. Surely these Frenchmen had not forgotten the guillotine they had slipped away from; they just no longer thought of it as part and parcel of their lost land.

What other way has man of assessing the new than to compare it with what he knows? Some instances exclude comparison: no one can balance the inconveniences produced by American poison ivy against those caused by the European species, for there is no similar plant in Europe. Anti-Semitism there is, and was, on both sides of the Atlantic. The trouble is that one of the two phenomena thus measured is removed from time and space and subjected to the miraculous pranks of the human memory, while the other is a reality that no miracle can change. Let me add that these reminiscences are about as much trouble to the newcomer himself as they may be to his impatient listeners. But you can’t ask thoughts to “go back where they came from.”

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On a trip to Holland shortly after the First World War, I was told that upper-class Amsterdam Gentiles usually picked a Friday night for their social goingsout because they were reasonably certain that Jews would stay in their homes then for the Sabbath observances. Although I took such things as “anti-Semitic resorts” or “places patronized by anti-Semites” for granted in my native Austria, I was rather shocked at such segregation by the clock. Many years later I asked a Dutch Jew in this country about that habit. He declared that my informant had been pulling my leg. “But you, for instance, did you stay in on Friday nights?” Yes, he said, come to think of it, he did. “But if I hadn’t no one would have dreamed of preventing me from entering any place I’d have chosen.”

There is an important point illustrated here. Only the most stubborn diehard will deny that—with all its historical and regional mitigations—anti—Jewish discrimination existed in pre-1933 Europe on public, social, and economic levels. Before the growth of racialist theories, however, it regulated itself almost automatically. The tenacity of traditions on both sides-though not necessarily of religious traditions on the part of the Jews-led to what may be called an incidental and largely unconscious cooperation with the segregatory customs of any particular place and time. The slow emergence of the Jews from self-segregation, as a rule completed in the third post-ghetto generation, went but slightly ahead of the preparedness to accept them on this new plane.

Had they, by and large, arrived at a satisfactory modus vivendi? In answering this question one has of course to keep in mind men’s natural accommodation to even the most estranged environment. Beyond that it may be said that what made the European Jews’ modus vivendi seem satisfactory, in the face of all pressing discomforts, was the hope that they had not yet reached the end of the road on which their 8th-century ancestors had embarked. That road had led from tolerance to emancipation, from emancipation to civic equality, and from civic equality to an appreciably lessened popular prejudice. The path grew narrower from there on, had its ups and downs, and zigzagged considerably. Still, as it appeared to the Jews, it was not cut off. Reverses could not wholly dispirit them. Their modem history had taught them to regard these reverses as temporary. The strength of that optimism was evidenced, pathetically enough, by the fateful reluctance of so many German Jews to open their eyes to the realities of 1933.

Next to the apparently inherent march of history, personal achievements made significant inroads on the structure of prejudice. Those inroads bore both the mark and the stigma of “exceptions.” If the Jews themselves were not always in full sympathy with their own arrivistes, the latter’s attainments still were a favorable precedent for their hopes. The great role that the first of these inroad-makers had played in the 19th-century fight for civil rights had not fallen into complete oblivion.

An American-born Jew to whom I once mentioned this progress through “exceptions,” referred slightingly to those “Jews who love to be patted on the shoulder by Gentiles,” adding that they had no importance for their co-religionists. On the strength of his experience he was probably right. Social discrimination is taken pretty much for granted as something intrinsic to American “individualism,” and equality did not have to be fought for by the Jews in this country. In the absence of such a struggle behind him, and in the light of his accommodation to some of the uglier facts of life in America, this attitude was a perfectly natural one. The details were, of course, different, but it is clear that the American Jew, too, has made his own adjustment to anti-Semitism.

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Like all earlier immigrants, whether Gentile or Jew, the refugees were, of course, resigned from the first to belonging for the rest of their lives to the minority of the foreign-born. The determination that some few may have had to live down that disadvantage did not survive the test of realities; even the most successful scientists and teachers and the most prosperous businessmen had to remain aware of the natural limits set to an adult’s integration into a foreign, longestablished community.

But whether successful or a failure, prosperous or still living in precarious circumstances, educated or not, the newcomer (like those who came before him) transferred to the lives of his children his never realized hope: to shed his minority status, to belong. So the unkindest cut of all was the discovery of anti-Jewish discrimination in the universities, especially since the actual stain of the “foreign-born” is not his foreign birth, but his foreign education and training—and understandably he wanted his children to rub off that stain and make the grade.

For once his “bei uns” reminiscences did not deceive him when, contemplating these restrictions, he saw in them hardships he had not had to cope with in pre-Hitler Europe. With the exception of Poland, Hungary, and—I think—Rumania, European countries knew no such barriers. In fairness it must be added that since all higher schools were state-supported, they had no means of putting religious or racial restrictions into practice without forcing the issue of civil equality, and that where regulations were lacking, chicaneries of all kinds frequently tried to enforce anti-Jewish tendencies. Yet in spite of such major inconveniences, Jewish students were able to avail themselves of the opportunity to enroll in the university of their choice.

From time to time an “objective” refugee may be heard maintaining that the quota system might serve to check harmful “anomalies” in the occupational stratification of the Jews, which in so many countries have fanned-anti-Semitism. However, the marked concentration of Jews in certain departments of the economic and professional life of America might well be adduced as proof to the contrary.

Be that as it may, educational discrimination—both at the colleges’ gates and on their campuses—is a major problem of refugee adjustment. The students themselves seem to cope with it with much less bitterness than their parents—or with about the same degree of bitterness as is felt by the average American-born student (together with about the same amount of Jewish fierté de gueux—pride of the oppressed). For the child of émigrés, the process of gaining familiarity with the powers that be is completed by college experiences, which show him in microcosm the exclusions and restrictions his life will be subjected to. The emphasis placed on the social part of college life reveals to him the economic and occupational importance of everything “social,” including social segregation. Far from releasing him from his minority status, his full Americanization confirms it.

Belonging to an ethnic minority is a transitory stage for Gentile immigrant families. A particular “racial group” may for generations remain aware of its common stock, or may even (usually for religious reasons) shrink from intermarriage—and yet discrimination against such a group will wane, or at least not be adhered to generally. To all practical effects, such families lose their thinned-out minority status in the second or third generation. The descendants of Jewish immigrants, on the other hand, remain “the Jewish minority.” Considering the present immigration rate, the Jews will remain, in the not too distant future, the only sizable white “minority” in a country whose ethnic plurality—aside from Negro-white-will be narrowed down to a Gentile-Jewish duality.

That is exactly the situation which European Jews fear. By and large, they come from ethnically homogeneous countries in which they represented the only minority. Whether or not that “homogeneousness” stood the test of history did not matter. As they rationalize the persecutions they were exposed to, they are tempted to assume that their mere minority status was as much to be blamed for their sufferings as was the fact that they were Jews. In short, the term “minority” has very unpleasant connotations to the Continental Jew.

No wonder that some of them come to feel they have to give their children a better start. They adopt a non-Jewishsounding family name, or even join a Protestant church. (I need hardly add that I am not talking of genuine religious conversions, or, on the other hand, of the antics that a handful of wealthy snobs and social climbers among refugees are known to engage in for the sole purpose of being admitted to restricted hotels or resorts.)

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This is not the place to discuss the adaptability of refugees, or their alleged lack of it. It may be that the number of refugees who have felt the full impact of business discrimination is small. But however heterogeneous refugees are as a group, and however weak their sense of belonging together may be, all eventually learn the lessons taught to some.

They are likely to generalize. But generalization is not entirely unwarranted in the case of so general a phenomenon. Not that anti-Semitism is universal among American Gentiles; far from it. But the diffused effects of the segregatory code seem to the refugee so widespread as to have a marked general influence on the life of every Jew in the country. The whole of anti-Semitism is greater than the sum of its parts.

The picture which matures in the newcomer’s mind looks something like this:

  1. Political anti-Semitism is an affair of the lunatic fringe of public life. Weltanschauung anti-Semitism is the exception rather than the rule.
  2. The rigidity of anti-Jewish discrimination is part (but only part) of the many-pronged struggle of the ruling classes to keep late-comers from rising to genteel wealth, power, and prestige—an aim common to ruling classes anywhere. The racial element infused into that struggle is not altogether accidental, but neither is it its core. The reason why that fight is nowhere, except against the Negroes, carried on with the same tenacity as against the Jews is the latter’s age-old inclination toward progress through education, material betterment, and competitive business-ideals they happen to share with American society.
  3. The effects of discrimination are indivisible: semi-consciously and unconsciously, social, economic, and political anti-Semitism work in a continuous interplay.
  4. On the whole, American anti-Semitism is less violent than the characteristically American lack of inhibitions would lead one to expect. It may well be that the petrified and petrifying inflexibility of the segregatory code, by reducing the number of Gentile-Jewish contacts, reduces the number of possible frictions and thereby vouchsafes a lasting safety-valve “harmlessness” to anti-Jewish feelings.

Some European immigrants feel that way. A very well educated friend of mine is wont to sum up our frequent talks on the subject by calling himself a “second-class” citizen, and in the same breath quoting Madame Mere’s famous exclamation: “Pourvu que a dure! (If only it lasts!).”

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This kind of ironic resignation may account for the refugee’s lack of interest in an open, organized struggle against prejudice. Like most continentals, the continental Jew is an individualist and a sceptic. Therefore much of the organized fight against discrimination—whether carried on from a purely pro-Jewish basis, or within the framework of the fight against every kind of prejudice—is likely to appear to him naive, “unrealistic,” or purely rhetorical. Even in the face of insuperable barriers he may prefer to fight alone, to rely on his personal gifts to overcome bias or secure a haven for himself.

As a former victim of the violence of the streets, he often wishes that the “whole question” would not be aired in public or even the word “Jew” pronounced in the marketplace. His own experiences have led him to the conviction that rational arguments have little power to destroy the mystical notions behind Jew-hatred.

But, after all, he forgets that that was in another country. America, when all is said and done, is not Germany. So he is apt to underrate the effect which, in the long run, rational arguments may have on that vast region of emotion, superstition, and semi-conscious pragmatism which is the hunting-ground of anti-Semitism in the United States where it is still an unthoughtful and casual phenomenon—neither intense, politically organized, nor respectable. It takes a European a very long time to understand that both indefatigable public discussion, including the voice of naive equalitarian faith, and the upholding of—and the struggle for—as yet unattained and seemingly unattainable ideals belong to the essence of American democracy.

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