Commentary Magazine


I Wish They Wouldn't Do That!

“Dr. Benjamin Fine, Education Editor, New York Times, will direct the first institute on public relations for Jewish community leaders,” a news item in Editor and Publisher states.

Dr. Fine certainly has a great opportunity!

As he reads his morning paper, this writer, a practitioner in the field of public relations, constantly finds himself saying, “I wish they wouldn’t do that!”

To the “outsider,” there has never seemed to be any well-planned or united program of Jewish public relations. (Probably this is because the Jews themselves seem to be split into factions.) On the contrary, Jews—as individuals or in their groups—seem to act unwisely in their public relations problems.

Dr. Fine’s efforts are certainly taking the right point of departure—from community leadership. It is there that training should start. But if the greatest good is to be achieved, training should focus on local leadership for local communities, not on the national level. The Jews appear to have made too few planned efforts to establish good public relations for their faith in their local communities. Instead, their efforts frequently seem to place too much emphasis on big and dramatic events aimed at too broad an audience. A mass meeting in Madison Square Garden, no matter how dramatic, is less likely to have as wide effect on public opinion as a series of meetings with community leaders in Whitestone, Ridgewood, Flatbush, Kingsbridge, Green-point, and other way-stations.

If the most obvious weakness in efforts for better public relations for the Jews has been the lack of consolidated leadership, an equally glaring weakness, it seems to me, is the lack of action on behalf of their faith by that leadership which has public recognition. The Jews of this nation who enjoy the widest respect speak up but infrequently for their co-religionists. One thinks of such men as Bernard Baruch, Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Samuel I. Rosenman, and similar nationally-known figures. They seem to leave the matter of spokesmanship to those who have spoken too frequently and with too little restraint.

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One would advise, too, more cautious employment of emotion and dramatization as a means of achieving better understanding of the Jews. Emotion has been overworked by the Jews, and to such an extent that sometimes they are open to the charge of resorting to scare strategy. Naturally, there is every excuse for emotional action and reaction by those who have suffered long and intensely. It is of course much easier for those who have never been subjected to persecution to counsel rational action than those who have suffered themselves, and seen their families and friends liquidated physically and socially. The death through war and extermination of six million of their brothers in Europe has given American Jews every reason for overwrought feelings. However, the impact of catastrophe makes unsound action understandable; it does not entirely excuse it. The test of leadership is sober judgment in dire emergency. Perhaps, paradoxically, the relative security of American Jews accounts for their violence of emotion. As a group, they have reached a position which always seems to put them just within reach of freedom from discrimination. Perhaps it is the sense of that last home-stretch effort that explains their resort to emotion.

However, psychologists tell us that responses to the emotions are apt to be transitory, and there is an emotional recoil which often brings an end result exactly opposite to that desired. Certainly, conflict ends where understanding begins, and emotion is not always a sound approach to understanding. “The competence of the public to decide wisely depends largely on the degree to which pressure groups enlighten the public mind,” says Dr. Harwood Childs of Princeton University, “not upon the extent to which they arouse our emotions.” Every practitioner in public relations knows that the weapons of emotion are dangerous for a long pull.

Anger begets anger rather than understanding.

Denunciation arouses anger.

Undignified action is costly in respect.

Yet hardly a day goes by now but that newspaper readers in New York are confronted by full-page or half-page advertisements connected with some phase or other of Jewish issues, usually worded vehemently, too many of them denunciatory, and a great many of them undignified. Do these editorial advertisements actually create understanding? You cannot discuss an issue in a full-page advertisement. This writer, as he reads these advertisements, finds himself saying, “I wish they wouldn’t do that.”

Variety is the spice of life, and also of public relations. It would be a pleasant change and perhaps an effective one if occasionally some of the statements or advertisements in behalf of the Jewish cause were written with more good nature and less plaintive hurt. It would be a welcome change of pace if these presentations more often indicated faith that plain simple facts would bring fair-minded response from the public. Some of the fine Jewish sense of humor and irony—as displayed by so many Jewish writers in the films, radio, advertising, and in other fields—could be used with good effect to replace mere vehemence and emotion, and arouse greater conviction. As presented today, most arguments are so couched as to stimulate combativeness on the part of the reader. They disregard entirely the old adage about the relative merits of honey and vinegar in catching flies.

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Occasionally the problem of anti-Semitism, which like many social evils is avoided in open discussion by both Jews and Christians, comes to the surface. How do the Jews meet it? Not always in the most effective manner, in the writer’s opinion.

Let us consider one case that has been open to public view in New York—the Affaire O’Donnell. I have no private knowledge of the affair—the evidence presented here is based solely on newspaper and trade-paper reports as to what happened. By and large, therefore, my reaction is that of the “average reader”—the man in the street whom Jewish efforts presumably seek to persuade.

O’Donnell wrote an offending column in the New York Daily News charging that prominent Jews had sought to have General Patton punished for slapping a soldier who, O’Donnell said, was Jewish.

How much effect O’Donnell’s column had on public opinion is unknown, but within twenty-four hours, those who had been falsely accused by O’Donnell issued denials. These denials were carried by newspapers that had not carried the original O’Donnell story, and came from men of such standing as to discredit O’Donnell and his allegations. Although denial never catches up with the original statement, the fact that the denials had much wider circulation than the original statement may well have cancelled most of the injury done by that statement.

However, Jewish leaders, apparently emotionally aroused, decided further action was required. They demanded an apology. Just how the apology was demanded is not a matter of public record. From a public relations point of view, it would have seemed wise for Jewish leaders to have enlisted the support of their Christian friends when they approached the publisher of O’Donnell’s newspaper asking for an apology.

Reliable reports, however, indicate that quite the opposite tack was taken. Instead, it is reported economic pressure was used—the same sort of pressure that Jews rightfully complain is too often used against them. A big advertiser is understood to have backed up his demand for the apology from O’Donnell’s publisher with a threat of cancellation of advertising. Some Jewish advertisers actually withdrew their advertising; others wrote letters threatening to cancel their advertising in the absence of an apology. Thus the field of editorial freedom was invaded by advertising influence and economic pressure. Does the average American like that?

The desired result—an apology—was obtained. But the end was not yet. O’Donnell’s apology, probably written by his publishers’ attorneys, did not satisfy some Jewish groups. Pickets appeared before the offices of O’Donnell’s newspaper. They marched up and down, jitterbugging and chanting such choruses as:

If you want to get
The Fascist views
Read O’Donnell
In the
Daily News

This action, it seems to me, constituted poor public relations, offending on two counts. In the first place, it was undignified. In the second place, it resorted to name-calling, a practice from which the Jews have suffered endlessly.

The picketing was not a passing incident, however. It had further consequences. It aroused sympathizers of O’Donnell, some of them claiming to be of his religious faith, and counter-picketing began. There were threats and occasional scuffles between pickets and sympathizers of both. Gradually emotions cooled, dramatics dwindled, and the affair finally ended.

The Jewish cause perhaps won a momentary “moral victory” in the Affaire O’Donnell. But certainly there is reasonable doubt as to whether it had won any better understanding or any additional favorable opinion. As a case study in public relations, one would write down the Affaire O’Donnell as “public relations mishandled.”

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Let us consider another case study—again based only on what appeared in the newspapers. This is the Affaire Bevin. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Bevin made a statement that the United States was pressing for entry of 100,000 Jews into Palestine because “they do not want too many of them in New York.” To many people, this statement seemed to be an attack directed more at the government of the United States than at the Jews in America. However, it was immediately seized upon by some Jews, chiefly those who are continually articulate and who issue statements at the drop of a hat, and made the basis for condemnatory statements against the British.

For the most part, the reaction of the Jews was denunciatory, but some proponents, such as Winchell, resorted to ridicule. The underground in Palestine shortly thereafter went into action. The Affaire Bevin took on a broader scope. What has been described as a “smear Britain” campaign assumed shape and finally entered the field of domestic, as well as international, politics. In his newspaper, the writer saw headlined a story to the effect that the British loan might be defeated in the House because the New York delegation had been subjected to pressure by the Jewish vote in New York to defeat the loan. The same newspaper carried a statement from an organization of Jewish leaders urging that the loan be granted to Great Britain—a sound action, but unlikely to offset the damage done by those who earlier had urged withholding the loan.

What the full result of this maneuvering may be no one knows. It is reasonably safe to bet, however, that the Jewish cause in general has been done no lasting good by the manner in which the Affaire Bevin was handled. It is highly probable that many persons who had no anti-Semitic sentiments, but who had some regard for Britain, were aroused to antagonism by the interference of sectarian interests in American politics.

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Public relations practitioners usually agree that public opinion is favorably affected by universality. Any idea or cause presented as having universal backing is more likely to get public support than the cause which is apparently the child of a single group. There are evidences that the Jews, in their enthusiasm to prove themselves worthy, over-extend their claims of credit.

For instance, during the war, a national Jewish organization, usually sound in its leadership and operations, issued a booklet on Jewish heroes in the war. This immediately gave the enemies of the Jews the opportunity to charge that “the Jews are claiming they are winning the war.” Most of us like to think that the war was won by American men, and most of us are pretty proud that they were men of all faiths and races. Many are amazed when any group seems to put itself forward. Friends of the Jewish people said, “I wish they wouldn’t do that.” For they knew, as the vast majority of average Americans know, that with Selective Service working as efficiently as it did, the armies of the United States were formed without discrimination as to classes, races, and creeds.

To add further weight to this transgression of a public relations principle, an art gallery was taken over for an exhibition of photographs of Jewish war heroes.

Both these ventures were probably as costly in favorable public opinion as they were financially.

The basic idea of honoring heroes was handled much more sensibly by a campaign committee for the USO. This committee arranged for the showing in Fifth Avenue windows of pictures of service men who had been given awards for heroism. The men were selected so that there was fair representation for all races and creeds. It is safe to venture that this exhibit did more to gain favorable opinion for the Jewish people than the two events arranged to center attention on Jewish heroes and only Jewish heroes.

Recently, on the authority of a national Jewish organization, a New York columnist published complete figures—and impressive ones—on the total number of Jews who served in the war, the number killed, the number wounded, and the number decorated. I wish they hadn’t done that.

There has been no responsible evidence that any considerable portion of the American public believes the Jews evaded their responsibilities in the armed services. To give publicity to the Jewish participation in the services at this time seems to me to be taking a defensive attitude that can only arouse suspicion. Anything that even hinges on seeming competition for credit for any group takes some of the glow out of our pride. I wish they hadn’t done that.

Sometimes one wonders if it would not be wise for Jewish leaders to appeal to some of their publishing friends to restrain themselves. On dull news days, there are some newspapers in New York which seem to give an inordinate amount of space and colorful writing to relatively minor anti-Semitic incidents. Some hostile critics seize upon such inflammatory articles to charge the Jews with inflating anti-Semitism. Others, more friendly, wonder if newspaper circulation hasn’t something to do with it.

Anti-Semitic incidents of a minor nature have been going on for years. Most Jews realize this, and many of them have found that by ignoring minor incidents and minor-league hate-mongers they gain the most in the long run.

No one can measure accurately the extent of anti-Semitism today. To many Christians it is little evident. To most Jews it is far more apparent than to Christians. Naturally, Jews who have seen anti-Semitism in Europe grow from minor difficulties to an appalling catastrophe have every right to be worried. But they cannot achieve an antidote through hysteria or highly emotional action. Emotions breed emotions—not always pleasant emotions. Anger is apt to breed anger. Suspicion breeds suspicion.

If—this observer believes—the Jews would only “take it easy,” they would gain more in public opinion than they do by emotional demonstrations and dramatics.

If the Jews protested less often they would have a wider listening audience.

If the Jews were less extreme in their reactions, as serene and dignified as in their religion, they would gain increasing respect.

What is the answer to all this?

_____________

 

The ideal answer would be for the Jewish leaders to unite in one common effort to promote sound public relations for their faith.

Having united, Jewish leadership should then undertake the proper studies to properly gauge public opinion regarding the Jews, and to determine in what areas there was need for greater understanding.

Aware of this situation with regard to public opinion, then the united Jewish leadership might call for a plan of public relations, prepared by competent practitioners—and there are many in their own faith—who would know what to do and what not to do.

Such a plan could only work if the leadership were strong, and if all groups were united under a single banner.

Obviously, such an ideal is not capable of accomplishment at the present time. As Jews continue to suffer wrongs in some areas, some will suffer in silence and some will fight back, and many of those who fight back will not do so in the wisest manner. The militant and the readily articulate will attract the greatest attention, a situation which is not peculiar to the Jews—regardez Bilbo who attracts far more attention (and adverse public opinion) than others held in much higher public regard.

But if the ideal is not achievable, surely we can make a start toward sounder methods. Sound training of sound leaders will serve the Jewish people well. Exercising this training and this leadership in the local community will accomplish much more in the long run than trying to exercise such training and leadership on a national scale—we should look for that later when the solid community relations between Jews and Christians have built from the “grass roots” upward.

In organizing group leadership to promote better public relations for the Jews in a community, it would seem to be of prime importance to make sure the leadership represents a cross-section of the Jewish citizenry. Too often such leadership is placed entirely in the hands of local Jewish business men, providing opportunity for hostile opinion to charge good deeds up to self-interest. School teachers, lawyers, musicians, housewives, workmen, doctors, students, and others should be enlisted for such leadership.

And it is essential that such leadership develop a history of participation and cooperation with non-Jews for purposes other than inter-faith or inter-group relations. Not merely the important civic causes, either, but the informal, even trivial, neighborhood activities that interest the average man.

Obviously Jewish leadership should give its support to all general community ventures. This should involve no problem, for the Jews have excellent records as supporters and participants in most community endeavors. It too often happens, however, that a Jewish sub-committee undertakes—or is given the assignment—to enlist the Jewish support. It would be better for their own relations if the Jews served on general committees, and Jews were asked to aid on the basis of their community interest rather than on the basis of religious groupings.

_____________

 

There would seem to be opportunity for Jewish leaders to improve relations by going beyond the usual boundaries of community effort. In one community I am familiar with, there is a fine synagogue, with an excellent entertainment hall attached. Not long ago a small Episcopal church in the same community staged a campaign to raise funds for a parish house. The campaign struck trouble in the last lap. No one asked the Jews to contribute, nor should anyone have done so. However, if there had been an effective Jewish group leadership which had offered help, it would have been happily accepted, with, my guess is, resultant better relations all around.

In the same community, Jewish welfare work is well and effectively organized. In the Christian community, welfare work is almost non-existent, and not because there is no need. If there were imaginative Jewish group leadership here, I am certain they would be willing to suggest that the Jewish welfare workers share their services when urgently needed, or help set up parallel services. Maybe not. Maybe that is expecting too much.

Community group leadership might do a great deal to head off activities by the Jews which can’t help but seem clannish to “outsiders.” Why should there be a small Jewish veterans’ organization and an equally small American Legion post in the same community? These men are veterans of the same cause and ought to be brought together easily, particularly since up to now there has been no evidence of competition or rivalry between them.

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Community public relations for the Jews might intrude even on personal grounds, if right leadership gave the cue. Again I turn to the one small community with which I am familiar. A Jew purchased a fine home on a residential street of which the community was proud. He was the first Jewish resident on the street. His arrival was the occasion for nothing more than aloof courtesy by his neighbors, until after a few weeks it became apparent he was not the sort of person who took much pride in the outward appearance of his home. Lawns and hedges went uncared for. Sagging blinds were left to sag. The residents of the street began showing their resentment towards their new neighbor, and in that resentment came the usual overtones of anti-Semitism. It was not until a war effort brought the home-owner in close contact with his neighbors that someone felt they could mention the fact that he was not keeping up the standard of the street. His reaction was immediate. It was just one of those things that had never occurred to him. He was not a gardener or a carpenter. He had lived in apartments where every outward appearance of his home was the responsibility of the superintendent. Immediately the man went to work on his property. Today it is the show-place of the street and he has the respect and friendship of his neighbors.

Similarly, Jewish leaders might help maintain community standards even in personal areas. Jews often have special talents and often are leaders in attainments which cross the boundaries of faith. Once more let us turn to my small community. A Jew, who was a fine musician, began holding small gatherings of music lovers in his home, at first only of Jewish friends. The word began to pass through the community that fine music was made in this home twice every week. There were evidences of interest on the part of non-Jewish members of the community who were music lovers. Cautiously the musician invited non-Jewish neighbors in, until before long the Jewish people at the gatherings were in the minority. Today those gatherings have grown into a focal point for much of the cultural life of the community. Group leadership could encourage such efforts. Jews, of course, do not bear the initial responsibility for clannishness. Granted. But one has a feeling that if at this stage Jews indicated their readiness to go part of the way to break the vicious circle, they would meet more responsiveness in many areas of local community life than they suppose. Of course, one respects the man who doesn’t want to go where he isn’t wanted. But I dare to say that our Jewish neighbors are wanted—and would find welcome much more widely than they seem to think. America is basically a decent country. And it is today a more decent and thoughtful country—as far as “minorities” are concerned—than before the war. Hitler taught Americans to be more American.

If in these last paragraphs I have seemed to deal with trivial matters and possibly to invade personal areas, let us remember that it is small matters, trivial matters and personal activities, that set the bases and the pattern for public relations, good or bad.

_____________

 

Well, the writer has had his say, and exposed himself as an old scold, at the very least. He hopes that he will escape being exposed as something worse—perhaps an anti-Semite, no less. That can happen. He has seen it happen to others who have ventured criticism or appraisal—however friendly or well-intentioned—of Jewish action or opinion.

I think of myself as reasonably courageous. But my Jewish readers might find it worth pondering why I should feel the need of writing this piece, mildly critical as it is, anonymously. (Most Gentiles, however moved they might have felt to discuss the subject, wouldn’t have written it at all. Why take the risks?)

The risks are very real. And that, too, points to one of the gravest phases of the whole problem of the public relations of the Jews and their neighbors.

Surely, one of the first steps toward better understanding is to create the possibility of discussing inter-faith and inter-group problems freely and easily in the public light—without fear of personal attack and vilification in a “minority” press, and elsewhere.

Does the possibility exist today? I think not. One of the very first jobs, it seems to me, is to build—and safeguard—the means and the atmosphere for such meeting of minds.

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