Commentary Magazine


Fertility, Social Action, Socialism

Population Fizzle

In the latest volume of the American Jewish Year Book Erich Rosenthal shows that American Jews have stood aside from the baby boom. In 1957, when the average American married or formerly-married woman of childbearing age (fifteen to forty-four) had 2.2+ children, the Catholic rate was 2.3-; the Protestant, 2.2+; and the Jewish, 1.75-. With the average woman forty-five and over having had 2.8- children, the Catholic rate was 3+; the Protestant, 2.75+; and the Jewish, 2.2+. Jewish fertility, current and completed, is therefore about 20 per cent less than the Protestant and about 25 per cent less than the Catholic.

Professor Rosenthal explains that Jews rank high in everything that makes for low birth rates: living in or near the largest cities, white-collar occupation of the husband, education of the wife, income, and rapid social and economic advance. Since Jews are similar to Presbyterians in most of these things, the two birth rates are also similar. The completed fertility of the Presbyterians is one per cent less than the Jews’, and the current fertility of the Jews is 11 per cent less than the Presbyterians’. (The Presbyterians have the lowest rate of any Protestant denomination for which we have data.)

Rosenthal dismisses the old idea that there is a specifically Jewish factor at work in lowering the Jewish rate, or more generally a minority factor—discrimination heightening the need for a good education for the children, and a good education being possible only when there are few of them. It is true that the Princeton Fertility Study, trying to account for what a friend of mine calls the contraceptive virtuosity of American Jews, points to the “perceived incompatibility between sending children to college and having large families”; but since Presbyterians apparently perceive the incompatibility too, the Jewish case can be explained without bringing in anti-Semitism.

(I am not sure how seriously we ought to take those Jews’ stated perception of an incompatibility between the number and the education of children. When people justify their behavior, they may be telling the real truth or they may be trying to fool the pollsters, or themselves. I do not know about the Presbyterians, but with the middle-class Jews of America something else is probably there, too. Economizing on luxuries would yield enough to send more children to college, but who wants to economize? Big cars and expensive vacations are fun. Besides, money is not the only cost in raising a third or fourth child. There is also the physical and emotional cost. A generation or two ago the Jews of the Western world—this is not an only-in-America matter—decided to enjoy themselves. For many Jewish women, especially, modernity has meant a kind of consumer feminism, opposed alike to the Victorians’ producer feminism and to the yiddishe mamme’s self-sacrifice ideology.)

According to Donald J. Bogue’s standard Population of the United States (1959), American Jews are “scarcely reproducing themselves.” Rosenthal cites this as well as a Census Bureau finding for 1957 that “on the basis of American fertility and mortality levels, replacement of the white population required 2,100 live births per 1,000 women, single as well as married,” and he observes that “the fertility rate of 1,749 per 1,000 ever-married Jewish women of childbearing age is considerably lower.” Still, he refuses to say that American Jewry will not reproduce itself. He has learned caution from the failure of the low American forecasts of the 1930′s, and he thinks that Jews have reached a point where they may start having more children. Firstly, they are still moving to the suburbs, and it is easier to bring up children in the suburban one-family house than in the city apartment house. Secondly, Americans born into comfortable circumstances have more children than those who had to work to get there. Finally, although high incomes go with few children, at the highest levels of income American families tend to grow larger again.

Sermons continue to be preached from the academy against our immoral recklessness in overcrowding the planet by engendering large families. (The academy does not like early marriages either. It is all so different from when I was in college, and everyone was worried about late marriages and small families in the educated middle class.) On the absurd assumption that people think about demographic policy when they determine how many children they will have, where does a Jew’s obligation lie? Should he absent him from paternity awhile, for the good of the human race? Or should he be of good courage, and play the man for his people?

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Religious Action

The (Reform) Union of American Hebrew Congregations recently came into enough money to move its Commission on Social Action to a Center for Religious Action in Washington in the fall of 1961. A few of the Union’s more than 600 congregations are dissatisfied both with the move and with the Commission itself.

Essentially, the Commission is the institutional embodiment of American Reform Judaism’s understanding of its duty to help establish the Kingdom of God in all that is between man and man. Seen in the light of American religious history, that mission is related to the Social Gospel of liberal Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Reform Judaism, social action was in its most flourishing state in the early 1930′s, and in the past few years has again come to the fore.

The protesters are the Washington Hebrew Congregation and Temple Emanu-El in New York, supported by a Chicago near-equivalent of Emanu-El and two Southern congregations. They argue that the Commission’s statements on controversial matters can give the wrong and dangerous impression that the Jews of America, or at least Reform Jews, are something like a political bloc; that the Union should not represent itself as speaking for all its people, since many disagree with its positions; and that in any event, the members of Reform congregations look to their religious teachers for guidance and instruction on the moral implications of social issues, rather than for specific solutions to particular social problems.

The Union answers, and nearly all its constituents seem to agree, that the Washington headquarters will change nothing in principle in the long-established program of the Commission on Social Action; that Christian bodies have for many years done the same thing without creating the impression that their members are a bloc, and without injury to those who disagree; and that prophetic Judaism must reject the prudential advice of the old deacon to the young ordinand: “You must magnify, you must glorify, but you must never, never specify.” (Orthodox rabbis like the story about the president of a congregation who advised his rabbi not to preach about the Sabbath, forbidden foods, and prayer: “Just talk about Judaism,” he said. In the Reform version the rabbi is warned off health insurance and racial discrimination.)

The opposition to a Washington headquarters for the Commission on Social Action is not a cloak for conservative dislike of the Commission’s liberalism. (The wives of the officers and trustees of the protesting congregations have traditionally been leaders of the equally liberal and articulate National Council of Jewish Women.) Nevertheless, it is unlikely that questions would now be raised about the Commission if it were not for the new headquarters. The Southern congregations are afraid that from Washington the Commission’s pronouncements on Negro rights will attract more attention than from New York; the Washington congregation, which has thought of itself as being a kind of national institution, probably looks upon the Commission in its city, the capital, as a competitor; and Emanu-El, New York’s “cathedral synagogue,” which has never been fervid for the Union since the days when David Einhorn battled Isaac Mayer Wise, does not want a more prominent Union and Commission.

In a number of congregations there is also some feeling about the permanent president of the Union. He is a rabbi, in a post that seems to call for a layman, and most of his department heads are rabbis. (Reform Judaism, whose name suggests its kinship to the Protestant Reformation, can be rather more clerical than “catholic” Orthodoxy.) Moreover, in Jewish ideology and sociology their president represents something that the birthright Reformers dislike. That in the dispute over the Commission on Social Action, it is he who stands for their tradition of Reform does not mollify them at all.

The Washington congregation has issued a closely-reasoned argument against the Commission’s taking a stand on specific issues, which, while it can hardly win, has merit. Take the minimum wage. The Washington people want rabbis to say that Judaism requires employers to pay their workers a living wage, not that Congress should establish the minimum at $1.25 an hour. Why $1.25? Why not $1? Or $3? Or $5? Or $7? Especially in that congregation there must be men with a broad and sophisticated experience in government, or public affairs generally, who realize how closely technical questions—in this instance, questions of economic analysis—are knitted together with questions of right and wrong, and how unhelpful it is to approach such problems with moralistic good will and little else. (I have heard of an authority on international affairs, in another city, whose rabbi likes to preach on disarmament.) The lawyers, economists, and authorities on international affairs are not being hypocritical or reactionary when they say that they want their rabbis to tell them about Judaism.

The argument would be irresistible if we could forget that Amos and Jeremiah may also have been told by the experts not to talk about economics and international affairs, of which they were ignorant, but about Judaism.

In the old days, when rabbis were really rabbis, one of them told a plaintiff he was right. Then, having heard the defendant, he told him he was right. When the rabbi’s wife objected that both could not be right, he told her she was right.

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Universalist Elite, Parochial Mass

The Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society for March had a first-rate paper by Arthur Gorenstein on the Socialist campaigns for Congressman in the Lower East Side of New York fifty years ago. (In the same number a close study by Rabbi Bertram W. Korn of the Jews and slavery in the Old South concludes that the “history of slavery would not have differed . . . if no single Jew had been resident in the South. . . . But whether so many Jews would have achieved so high a level of . . . status and recognition, without the . . . slave, is indeed dubious.”)

Gorenstein explains why Morris Hillquit, a Russian Jew and a leading figure in American and even international socialism, was not elected to Congress in 1906 and 1908, while Meyer London, the later Socialist nominee, a man without much prestige beyond the East Side, was elected three times between 1914 and 1920. As a national figure, Hillquit could not accommodate himself to the demands of the East Side. For many Socialists, Hillquit lost—honorably—because the East Side refused to prefer the general goals of the American Socialist party to its own special interests. Those Socialists felt better about his defeat than about London’s victory; Louis Boudin, writing in their newspaper, was unhappy about the “racial and subracial prejudices of voters. . . . The Russian Jews were appealed to because Comrade London was also a Russian Jew.”

The Socialist party was against immigration, agreeing with the American Federation of Labor that the bosses were using immigrants to lower wages and fight the unions. For their part, the Jews of the East Side understood only that to stop immigration would mean to close the gate of the Russian prison on their families. Hillquit, though in his campaigns he tried to make distinctions, was identified with the Socialists’ anti-immigration plank, while London was able to dissociate himself from that plank because his record on the East Side made it impossible for his enemies to persuade the people that he lacked sympathy with them.

Besides immigration, the East Siders were worried about their reputation and their security. General Bingham, the police commissioner of New York, had said that half the criminals in the city were Russian Jews, and Julia Richman, a school superintendent on the East Side for whom a high school was later named, wanted to deport immigrants who violated the pushcart ordinance. In Hillquit’s speeches the East Side was painted as a repulsive example of the suffering and the social disorganization caused by capitalism. For the East Siders, that made him the Socialist Bingham. They also remembered, if only because his opponents kept reminding them, that he had changed his name (from Hilkowitz) and that his opposition to nationalist prejudice was so pure that he had refused to take part in their giant parade of protest against the Russian pogroms in 1905, organized by Judah Magnes. The voters agreed with the anti-Hillquit press that if he were elected, the Jews of the United States, and particularly those of the East Side, would have no representative or protector in Congress.

The man who defeated Hillquit was Henry M. Goldfogle, a Tammany Congressman. Goldfogle denounced Russian pogroms and Russian discrimination against Jewish holders of American passports. More generally, he let the East Siders see that they had a representative and defender.

They knew what they were doing when they chose Goldfogle over Hillquit and Tammany over Hillquit’s self-righteous, abstract, insensitive socialism. Tammany was corrupt, but it respected people’s needs. (There is a remarkable similarity here between the Socialists and the Progressive Republicans of Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform.) The Socialists were against immigration because organized labor was against it, while their rhetoric was that they were struggling for a world in which the disappearance of capitalism would make mass migration unnecessary. When in the 1920′s the old free immigration was outlawed, that was mostly a victory for the Ku Klux Klan spirit abroad in the land (not least in the Brahmin class), but labor and the Socialists had done their part. The Jews, fighting to keep immigration going because their own families needed it, were also fighting for a decent and generous principle. More than fifty years later, the Socialists remain less attractive than the Tammany voters they called parochial and given to nationalist prejudice.

After finishing Gorenstein’s paper, I picked up the New Leader for July 3—10 and read “Eichmann and Jewish Identity,” by my friend Paul Jacobs. It is not one of the better things he has written, but it has its value. Jacobs is a younger member of that generation of radicals whom so many participants in the COMMENTARY symposium in April looked back to with respect and affection. His article registers, among other things, the discomfort aroused in him by his five-week attendance at Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and the questions it made him ask himself.

Why did the radicals disregard or play down Nazism’s persecution and murder of Jews? Why was it so important for them to insist that Nazism was merely capitalism in extremis? (In 1940 a splinter from a Trotskyite splinter produced a pamphlet which demonstrated, marxicologically, that the Battle of Britain, then being waged over burning London, was a put-up job by the British and German branches of world capitalism to fool the proletariat.)

Ordinary Jews were anti-Nazi because they understood that Hitler was out to murder Jews, and they were actively for his defeat because they understood that such a man and such a system must be bad for everybody. Then and later, they did what they could for the Nazis’ victims.

They were the children of the East Side Tammany voters, and the radical intellectuals were the children of the Hillquit Socialists. Again, the parochials’ self-interest and the awareness it bred had more worth and truth than the pretensions of the elite.

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