Commentary Magazine


Hertzberg's Complaint

The late Gershom Scholem, the magisterial historian of Jewish mysticism, once reproached Hannah Arendt for demonstrating a fundamental lack of ahavat yisrael, love of the Jewish people, in her controversial book Eichmann in Jerusalem. A curious charge for a professional historian to make—and yet according to Scholem it was indeed possible, in writing about one's own people, for a historian both to maintain critical objectivity and to hold fast to an inner perspective, an empathetic understanding of their trials and travails, their passions and ambitions.

When, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, amateur historians began to write the story of the Jews in America, their books were, if anything, flawed by an excess of the virtue of affection which Scholem extolled. By and large new to the craft of history, they set out to defend the Jews by documenting their patriotism and praising their “contributions” to America. After World War II, however, the balance was redressed, as American Jewish scholars joined the expanding ranks of professional historians and the apologetic approach gave way to the practice of critical historiography. Over the past thirty years historians and sociologists—the roster includes Naomi W. Cohen, Henry Feingold, Nathan Glazer, Arthur A. Goren, Bertram W. Korn, Jacob Rader Marcus, Moses Rischin, and Marshall Sklare—have produced a varied crop of works about American Jews and their institutions; the great scholar Salo W. Baron, whose death last November left unfinished his multivolumed global history of the Jews, also contributed impressively to the annals of American Jewish history. The books of all these authors are distinguished both by their objectivity and by the quality of ahavat yisrael.

It is, however, precisely those virtues that are absent from a new book on American Jews by Arthur Hertzberg.1 Indeed, The Jews in America is not so much a history as it is a sermonizing put-down in chronological form. The sermonizing comes naturally, for Hertzberg has combined a lifetime career as a congregational rabbi with part-time careers as a professor of Jewish history, a Jewish communal leader, and a polemical journalist. In the past, he produced two highly respectable works—The Zionist Idea (1959), an anthology of sources with a first-rate historical introduction, and The French Enlightenment and the Jews (1968), a seminal study of the origins of modern secular anti-Semitism. But in writing his new book Hertzberg appears to have abandoned the historian's mode of explaining the past and reverted to the pulpit, except that his is a platform from which to fulminate and not to laud.

Based on secondary sources and lacking footnotes, The Jews in America is a hop, skip, and jump through almost four centuries of history. Starting in 1654 with the arrival from Recife, Brazil, of the first 23 Jews in New Amsterdam, Hertzberg skims along familiar historical tracks. He chronicles—superficially, spottily, and sometimes wrongly—the main highlights, era by era, from the colonial period and the American Revolution to the arrival of German Jews beginning in the 1830's, then on to the Civil War and through the mass immigration of the Russian Jews beginning in 1881, with a pop sociological excursus on the Jewish mother. Thereafter Hertzberg races through World War I into the decades of the Red Scare and the Depression, pausing long enough to trash Franklin Delano Roosevelt for not having rescued the European Jews and to scold American Jews for adoring him. Finally he breezes past the Holocaust, the creation of Israel, John F. Kennedy's presidency, and ends with the events of only yesterday.

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One major refrain and a couple of minor ones run through the book from start to finish. The major refrain is that the Jewish immigrants who came to the United States were not as literate and cultivated as has been advertised, but rather the common herd, the poorest and the least schooled of Europe's Jews. So intent is Hertzberg on demonstrating the ill-breeding of this rabble that he even exaggerates the depth and extent of the social disorders which the traumas of migration and dislocation inflicted on them—crime, prostitution, and desertion.

Thus, for instance, from a mistaken and hyperbolic estimate of 100,000 cases of desertion during the era of mass migration (a figure presumably arrived at by tallying the annual numbers for a cumulative total, without taking into consideration that cases would be carried over from year to year), Hertzberg concludes that “at some point at least one-quarter of the Jewish fathers in America deserted their families.” In fact the rate of Jewish desertion was quite low: during the quarter-century when records were kept by the National Desertion Bureau, such cases accounted for only 10-12 percent of the entire Jewish social-service caseload; the rate of desertion is likely to have been no more than 1 percent of the immigrant Jewish community, and probably even less than that.

According to Hertzberg, these unlettered immigrants were guilty of two unforgivable sins. First, their only ambition was to get rich quick. Second, in trying to get rich quick, generation after generation of American Jews abandoned their faith. The pre-Civil War immigrants from Germany, Hertzberg tells us, “had been coming to succeed, and many had been willing to travel as light as possible on the way to that success by abandoning much or even all of their religious and cultural distinctiveness.” So, too, the East European Jewish immigrants in their turn: “They knew that they had to learn American manners, and that the observances of the Jewish religion, and especially of the Sabbath, were obstacles to success.” Then, in one grand sweep, he indicts all branches of Judaism—Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform—declaring that “in none of them, not even the Orthodox, was there any serious expectation that the laity would be trained in Jewish learning.”

All that the immigrants and their native-born children have retained of their Jewish identity, writes Hertzberg, is “an ethnic culture,” little more than traces of their “folk religion” in the old country and memories of anti-Semitism long past. He closes his book with a lament that “American Jewish history will soon end and become a part of American memory as a whole” because American Jews have failed to fashion a “spiritual revival” of “the classic Jewish faith.”

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Is any of this true? The masses of young Jewish immigrants whom Hertzberg disdains for their poverty and ignorance of the Talmud brought to this country assets of which he takes no note—energy, initiative, intelligence, entrepreneurial talent, a zest for adventure, a readiness to face risks. With those assets they succeeded in making a life for themselves and their children on this continent. With those assets they also participated in the social and economic development of the United States, helping to knit the country together as they fashioned new trades and industries.

Moreover, nearly all these Jewish immigrants, from Central Europe as well as from Eastern Europe, were endowed with that vital core of Jewish identity which Yiddish speaking Jews used to call dos pintele yid—the essence of the Jew. This commitment enabled them to shape viable forms of Judaism for the new community in the new world. They established synagogues and rabbinical seminaries. They created new forms of worship as they sought to accommodate their faith and traditions to a modernity they had not known in Europe. In time, they covered the expanse of the United States with a dense network of religious, philanthropic, and cultural institutions and extended their communal obligations to Jews abroad.

Hertzberg has overlooked something the immigrant Jews knew in their bones—that Judaism has always been the religion of the Jewish people, and that the nexus between people and faith is inseparable. As early as the 1850's, Hertzberg informs us in unmistakably derisive tones, American Jews had made a “theology” out of helping “their brethren all over the world.” Further along he complains that American Jews turned their passion for Israel into their “religion,” and that they have converted the remembrance of the Holocaust into a substitute for Judaism. Yet in chiding the Jews for the intensity of their commemorations of the Holocaust, Hertzberg seems to have forgotten that the commandment to remember Amalek, whether it be the destruction of the Temple or the murder of the six million European Jews, is as legitimately a part of Judaism as is the mourner's Kaddish. Similarly, the concern for endangered Jews everywhere in the world and the passion for Israel are as essential to Judaism as is the Hallel, the Psalms of praise expressing joy in redemption.

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As for Hertzberg's ideas about America, they are similarly muddled and seem, indeed, to owe more to today's politics than to yesterday's history. Thus, Hertzberg endows James Madison's concept of faction with a present-day meaning, enlisting Madison as an advocate of group interests. From Hertzberg one would never learn that Madison held a negative view of the role of political faction, which he defined as a group of citizens “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Madison put his trust in the ability of a representative form of government (rather than a direct democracy) to protect the rights of individuals from the “mischief of factions.” He also hoped that a large state, with its diverse parties, interests, and classes of citizens, would be more likely than a small one to secure the individual's liberties from the “tyranny” of “interested combinations of the majority.”

But Hertzberg has turned Madison upside down, and has him arguing that “social disharmony, the continuing warfare between many, often dissimilar subgroups, was the surest guarantee of liberty.” He recasts Madison's America in the image of the Hapsburg empire, or perhaps rather of American group politics in the present, Balkanized age of affirmative action and quotas, wherein ethnic and religious groups engage in contentious competition for “rights” and entitlements.

Hertzberg is just as confused in explaining the place of Jews in America and their relations with Christian society. In one passage, he tells us that “the Jews were a sui generis minority; . . . this was not a multireligious or multiethnic country; it was a Jew/Gentile country.” Some fifty pages later, he has changed his mind: “But America was not simply a Jew-Gentile country. There were Catholics and blacks, major ‘outsiders’ like the Jews, who represented one-third of the American population.” Such absent-mindedness on fundamental questions—the book is in fact riddled with inconsistencies of this sort—reminds me of letters I sometimes get from Very Important Persons, bearing the secretarial notation, “Dictated but not read.”

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Hertzberg makes no attempt systematically to explain Christian attitudes toward Jews, which have always been marked, though one would hardly know it from his book, by philo-Semitism as well as by anti-Semitism. Nor has he coherently addressed the complexities of American anti-Semitism, associated as they are with recurrent cycles of xenophobia. He is spotty in dealing with the most important anti-Semitic episodes in American history, making no mention, for instance, of the Leo Frank case of 1913. And when he comes to the 1920's and 30's he is at a loss to distinguish the sporadic and haphazard anti-Semitic events in the United States from full-blown anti-Semitic persecution in Eastern Europe, orchestrated by national governments.

Here is his caricature of Jewish experience on both sides of the Atlantic:

In the 1920's and 1930's, American-born Jews in New York and Chicago were almost as much in the ghetto as Polish-speaking Jews in Warsaw or Rumanian-speaking Jews in Bucharest. To be sure, there were no pogroms in America and little physical violence, but many occupations excluded Jews entirely.

As Hertzberg tells it, things were so bad in the United States before World War II that “almost no Jew could make a free, personal decision about his education and career. . . . There was a fence around Jews.”

That fence was not quite the obstacle Hertzberg would have one believe. Restricted in their admission to Yale and Harvard (even if they could have afforded the tuition during the Depression), Jews flocked into America's free public colleges and universities. Turned away from certain sectors of the economy, they used their entrepreneurial skills to create their own businesses or entered the public sector, becoming part of the civil-service bureaucracy as clerks, postmen, teachers, and social workers. The children of the sweatshop immigrants became white-collar workers and professionals. They began to make their way into the political system, mainly through the Democratic party. No other religious or ethnic group before them so rapidly attained to so high a level of educational achievement or enjoyed such dramatic social mobility.

Hertzberg is obsessed with economic or class anti-Semitism—this is one of the minor refrains of his book—which he says has plagued the Jews in America since the days of Peter Stuyvesant. He even invents an episode in which he converts the violence of the New York draft riots of 1863 into a war on the part of Irish laborers against the Jewish middle class. In fact things did not happen that way. Enraged by a recently enacted draft law that would compel them to fight—and perhaps die—for the blacks they hated, mobs of Irish longshoremen and factory hands indiscriminately set fire to business and residential sections of New York, plundering houses and businesses, murdering more than 150 blacks, beating to death an Army colonel, fighting the police, the militia, and federal troops.

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Hertzberg's obsession has led him to misread the most famous (and infamous) anti-Semitic episode in all American history—the expulsion of Jews from the area under the jurisdiction of the Union Army's Department of Tennessee during the Civil War. The reason given for the expulsion order, signed by General Ulysses S. Grant, was that “the Jews, as a class,” were violating the Treasury Department's regulations attempting to halt the vast illegal trade between North and South in arms, gold, and especially cotton. Jews were, in fact, a relatively small proportion of those engaged in the “nightmare of profiteering” (in one historian's words), in contrast to the dominant role of officers and men of the Union Army, including Grant's own father and father-in-law. Civil War historians today hypothesize that Grant deliberately used the Jews as a scapegoat to divert attention from the misdeeds of his family. But Hertzberg insists on a contrary view, maintaining that the Jews were more or less guilty as charged—what else, one supposes, could be expected of such low, uneducated types?—and even intimating that Jewish historians before him have suppressed the true facts because of their “apologetic fervor.”

Apart from thus blaming the Jews for their own victimization, Hertzberg skips lightly over the suffering and degradation of the men, women, and children forcibly expelled from at least three communities (Paducah, Kentucky; Holly Springs and Oxford, Mississippi), and, more importantly, he fails to consider the implications of a government agency's singling out Jews “as a class” for persecution.

Happily, because this is an American story, the suffering and the persecution were soon ended. Several Jews in the affected area hurried to Washington to see President Lincoln. As soon as he heard their story he instructed the General-in-Chief of the Army to have Grant rescind the order. A few days later, another Jewish delegation, come to thank the President for his intervention, reported that he said: “I do not like to hear a class or nationality condemned on account of a few sinners.” In writing the history of this period Hertzberg, who may be immune from “apologetic fervor,” could have used a dose of Abraham Lincoln's medicine.

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Throughout, in still another refrain, Hertzberg emphasizes the importance of power to the Jews in America. By “power” he presumably means the effect of the Jewish vote in elections and of Jewish pressure on issues of particular concern. According to him, it was after Roosevelt's death that American Jews discovered that “it is power that really counts,” and they spent the next two decades “making sure that power in America was not the monopoly of Gentiles.” Finally, in 1960, learning from the “black revolution,” Jews concluded that they “could rise in America only to the degree that they, like all other groups, acquired and held onto some power in the continuing jostle of American society.”

Hertzberg's illustration of Jewish political clout in 1960 is, however, scarcely convincing:

It was particularly significant to Jews that the election was so close that Kennedy could not have been elected without them. . . . Jews were proud that they had been so crucial to helping the first Catholic into the presidency and that they had thus helped reshape America . . .

Actually, Richard Daley's Democratic machine in Chicago is widely credited with having helped to elect Kennedy, who won Illinois by fewer than 10,000 votes. A similar story has been told about the Democratic machine in Texas.

Despite his frequent references to the Jewish need for, and achievement of, political power, Hertzberg never explains precisely what this power is, how it is acquired, or how it is exercised. Since the Jews are a tiny minority in the United States, no longer even 3 percent of the population, they are hardly in a position to exercise power either through coercive force or even through legitimating authority. Jews have had some influence in political life, but clearly they have never had the power to do whatever they liked nor have they ever enjoyed sufficient influence to make others do what they wanted them to do.

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Even in the one area which Hertzberg refers to as to the most enduring and successful example of Jewish influence on public opinion and politics—namely, the effort to win support for Israel—American Jews have succeeded not only because of the skills and resources which their organizations have brought to the task but because most Americans regard support of Israel to be in the best interests of the United States. The peaceable, noncoercive exercise of this sort of “power” over other people requires, at the least, a minimum of acquiescence, consent, or cooperation.

Nowadays American Jews are confident enough of their place in society to speak out vigorously on behalf of Israel, even though they do not exercise real political power. At home in America, Jews are in every respect still in the process of learning to live in a pluralist society and to balance their Jewish identity with their Americanness. The drama of this three-centuries-old balancing act is a fascinating, even an inspiring, one. If Arthur Hertzberg had approached it more in the spirit of Gershom Scholem than in that of Hannah Arendt, he would have found that it yields more than a touch of nobility, despite the fact that its principal actors, only plain people, have been neither saints nor scholars.

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Footnotes

1 The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter. Simon & Schuster, 428 pp., $22.95.

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