Commentary Magazine


Jews and Blacks, by Ben Halpern

Groups in Conflict

Jews and Blacks: The Classic American Minorities.
by Ben Halpern.
Herder and Herder. 191 pp. $6.95.

Ben Halpern, a gifted intellectual spokesman in this country for Labor Zionism, has written a book that reads with difficulty, sometimes irritation, but is nevertheless important. It makes few concessions to charm and not enough to lucidity, but it shows something rare at this time, perhaps any time: a keen mind actively struggling with difficult problems.

Trying to present a summary of Halpern’s thought I find myself most uneasy, since the value of the book rests mostly in its gnarled originality of detail. It might be best just to urge intelligent persons to read the book and let it go at that; nevertheless, let me touch on a few of Halpern’s themes and append some criticisms, since my disagreement is almost as large as my admiration.

The Jews and the blacks, writes Halpern, are the two minority groups in America which, despite the official ideology of liberal tolerance, cannot be totally assimilated. The Jews constitute an “ideological minority” splintering the flesh of the dominant culture:

In all Christian countries, and in America too, the basic Christian tradition which still fundamentally affects attitudes regards the Jews as a people rejected of God . . . they exist as people under a ban: they should not be molested, but they remain essentially alien in the Christian world.

The blacks, by contrast, constitute a “social minority” with a history of severe oppression yet without the burden of a millennia-long stigma. A black’s

appeal to be accepted, even to be loved, is solidly founded on the Christian civilization he shares with white Americans.

For as Halpern argues, the enslaved Negroes

became Christians and practically forgot, with rare exceptions, that they were ever anything but American. . . . African reminiscences in the Negro’s subculture chiefly served to ease the discomforts his American values imposed upon him. Jewish traditions, no matter how attenuated, never ceased to set Jews at odds with certain basic values shared by all other Americans.

Taking advantage of the official notion of tolerance—a notion, as Halpern emphasizes, that itself assumes tension and even hostility between Jews and Christians—the Jews have achieved notable social and economic successes; yet insofar as they keep alive a distinctive religio-ethnic community, the Jews remain an unassimilable minority, perhaps comfortable but not quite at home, and with the threat of anti-Semitism always in sight if not in use, since it is a threat intrinsic to the Christian-Jewish relationship itself. Having reached, however, a more-or-less halfway point in their drift toward assimilation, the Jews find themselves badly confused. Most of them now live by the values of universalist liberalism, yet in some situations they find themselves wishing, for positive reasons, that they continue to function as a coherent community, while in other situations they find themselves subject to attacks which require the drawing of defense lines by a community concerned first and foremost with its survival.

A serious conflict is thus perceived by Halpern between the need of the Jews to assert their claims as a still-vulnerable and indeed always-vulnerable group, and their pretensions toward a universalist liberalism that transcends petty interests yet, somehow, is linked with a wish to play a “special role” as the white ethnic group most dedicated to actualizing the values of liberalism. Halpern does not go so far as to call for a retreat from universalist liberalism, but certainly implied in his argument is the belief that in the coming period it would be just as well if the American Jews turned back a little toward their own problems, reknitting their internal fabric, regaining the morale that enables self-assertion, and, above all, dropping the guilty notion that a defense of group interest somehow betrays higher values.

While both Jews and blacks have often been supposed to share common interests, the two groups are now embarked, according to Halpern, on radically different strategies vis-à-vis American society. It is partly this difference in strategy, and partly the bruising frictions that Jews and blacks experience when they jostle one another in our cities, which explains the growing conflict between them:

In his anxiety to be as purely American as the Negro is, the Jew reduces his ideological resistance as nearly as possible to the level of a mythic variant of general American culture. He thus weakens his independent consensus. The Negro, hoping to attain such a rise in status as the Jew has accomplished since immigration, heightens his opposition as nearly as possible to the level of ideology. His new combativeness fosters what Jews avoid: a community organized around its own consensus, independent of the standards of the general American community.

In his partial disenchantment with universalist liberalism as a guideline for Jewish survival, Halpern shows strong sympathies for the efforts of the black community to assert its cultural, even “national” identity. Not that he believes in any Utopia of black separatism. But he does appreciate the realism behind the blacks’ alleged dismissal of universalist liberalism, and still more, he believes a “nationalist” ideology may enable the blacks to gain the necessary morale and aspirations to individual achievement which would equip them for success in American society.

Halpern also believes that there are and will continue to be conflicts between Jews and blacks. Negotiations between two distinctly-formed minorities are more likely to contain such conflicts within moderate limits than are rhetorical invocations of liberalism which often blur the actual issues. Halpern cites the 1968-69 conflict at Brandeis University where black students demonstrated for a black-studies program that would be autonomous in the sense that both personnel and curriculum would be chosen by the blacks themselves. In responding to this demand, the Jewish members of the faculty, in Halpern’s judgment, failed to speak with equal frankness in behalf of Jewish interests. Had they done so, they would have had to insist, at a minimum, that no black-studies program at Brandeis could under any circumstances recruit anti-Semitic personnel or foster an anti-Semitic curriculum.

With a bracing candor Halpern then proceeds to contrast the difficulties faced by blacks and Jews in their current relationship to American society. As for the blacks,

the great hold of the nationalist mood upon American Negroes today reflects the fact that they are in a quasi-revolution; and collective uprisings always create broad, powerful currents of collective solidarity. What they do not immediately create, except for the cadres of the completely committed activists, are profoundly regenerating values which decisively form identities. . . . The ordinary American Negro could be personally motivated to achieve as the ordinary Jew was only if his whole people, and not an activist minority, became permanently . . . cast in the mold of an ideological minority.

How unlikely such a transformation of the black community is, even its recent turmoil indicates. For the effort to create among the blacks an “ideological minority” along nationalist quasi-Maoist lines—apart from the fact that it has never touched more than a tiny minority—has also resulted in conflicts with white authorities that are simply suicidal. And whatever else, the majority of blacks have no appetite for the fantasy of “revolutionary suicide” with which some Panthers have recently been consoling themselves. On the other hand, any effort to create a black “ideological minority” along more moderate lines seems equally doomed to failure, if only because it would be unable to provide that discharge of collective anger which young blacks strongly need when they consider the humiliation of their people over the last few centuries. Added to all this are objective circumstances to which Halpern does not pay enough attention—such as the fact that our economy is not nearly as receptive to a minority still largely confined to unskilled labor as it was sixty or seventy years ago. In short, what must be faced is that we will have with us for some time “a black lumpenproletariat of disproportionate size.” This deprived and wretched mass, which some sociologists idyllicize as “the culture of poverty,” Halpern sees as a possible source of desperado revolutionary outbursts and—especially when it falls under the sway of certain black intellectuals—as a group peculiarly open to anti-Semitic incitement.

As for the Jews, they must now confront a new situation of discomfort, caused in part by the rupture of their friendly relations with the blacks and in part by such political circumstances as a slowly gathering backlash against “too close” a relationship with Israel. How can the Jews cope with these discomforts? Only, says Halpern, if they reexamine their devotion to a universalist liberalism which tends to leave them without defense against close-quarter attacks. And here, if only in passing, a word should be said about some excellent pages in which Halpern destroys the notion that there is in the Jewish religious or historical tradition some incontrovertible bias toward liberalism, let alone radicalism, such as young Jewish leftists claim. The current attachment of American Jews to liberalism is, in part, a watered-down residue of the socialism that East European Jews brought to this country; but Jewish socialism itself, or any other Jewish secular activism, is a very recent development within Jewish history and in fact is a deviation from what had been the major tradition over the centuries, namely, that “the safest Jewish response was to steer clear of goyish politics. Like history, politics was a Gentile game.” A tradition as rich and tormented as that of the Jews must be seen, in reality, as a complex of linked but competing traditions, so that if one can find within the. Jewish past a warrant for almost any politics, the intelligent and respectful course is to argue for one’s current convictions in terms of their intrinsic merits, without invoking the Prophets, Bar Kokhba, Maimonides, or anyone else.

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My summary of Halpern’s argument has been longer than I intended, but quite as unjust to the frequent richness of his book as I had feared. In any case, a few critical remarks.

The central weakness of Jews and Blacks is that it accepts too uncritically the model of the United States as a pluralist consensus of uneasily-balanced religious communities and thereby overestimates the continuing magnitude and significance of Christian-Jewish tensions. Not, of course, that such tensions aren’t real enough and pervasive too; nor that they aren’t likely to persist as long as Christianity holds to its mythos and the Jews to their refusal. But Halpern doesn’t take into sufficient account that the internal corrosion of belief and solidarity he finds among the Jews is also spreading rapidly among the Christians. Even as they adhere to their rituals and symbols, most Christians today are not likely to feel so strongly about the myth of Judas as did Christians at any point in previous Western history. I say this, of course, without being able to offer “proof,” but on such matters we really have no choice but to fall back upon our common experience and the impressions we gain from it.

If I am at all correct in these impressions, the disabilities of being an “ideological minority,” while still felt, are not nearly so pressing as they have been in the past—just as the advantages of being such a minority are also slipping away. But Halpern does not pay nearly enough attention to that process of creeping skepticism—a skepticism rather weary and passive—which eats into the substance of all religious life and is a major cause for the much-discussed “crisis” of the Christian churches. Consider the new wave of social consciousness among Catholics and Protestants alike: whatever its political value, isn’t it clear that many of its adherents are people who have lost the religious substance yet retain a religious yearning? Isn’t it clear, as well, that for many of these people, good and sincere as they may be, the religious symbols and vocabularies have become little more than enabling cues for the secular passions which are their real concern? In any case, are we to suppose that either the great mass of drowsy churchgoers or the small minority of aroused dissidents still experience Judeophobia with the vehemence, the fanaticism, that their fathers and grandfathers did?

Saying this could be a dangerous first step toward a dreadful complacence among Jews; but it is not necessarily to suggest that anti-Semitism may not again become a significant problem. For anti-Semitic sentiments seem able to outlive the religious myths which, to some indeterminate extent, are their source. What I am proposing is a partial, but only partial, challenge to the model Halpern seems to have taken over from Will Herberg, the model of a pluralist America whose values are uneasily balanced among, yet largely determined by, the three major churches. It would be foolish to deny the continuing usefulness of this model, but I think it no longer accounts for significant portions of American experience, even of religious or quasi-religious experience. For while it’s true, as Halpern says, that we are still very far from the liberal Utopia of a society that has achieved neutrality toward religion, what we are confronting is the spread of skepticism, even nihilism, within the existing religious institutions. That skepticism didn’t, of course, start yesterday, but it does seem in recent years to have become intensified. The result is that the impact of the traditional Christian phobia concerning the Jews as a pariah people is likely to weaken. Ordinary Jews sense this—which may be a reason for that “complacence” which writers so frequently decry.

In the midst of this growth of skepticism, and perhaps because of it, there appear among the young, both Jewish and Christian, some fervent but ill-founded religious tendencies, sectarian impulses battling against fixed theologies and institutions, exotic syncretisms refusing traditional demarcations, antinomian and even Sabbatian communities transposing religious desire into vocabularies of secular salvation. Say what you wish about these religious offshoots, the one thing not likely to be true of them is that they will perpetuate traditional Christian myths about the Jews.

On the other hand, in writing about the blacks, Halpern gravely underestimates the sheer irrational power of color prejudice. True, Negroes as Christians don’t suffer the status of religious pariah in the way Jews have, and to some extent still do, but Negroes suffer the effects of another phobia so deeply ingrained in American life that thinking about it can leave one with sheer despair. Blacks suffer from blackness, or more accurately, from what the dominant society makes of blackness. And where the heritage of Christian enmity toward the Jews seems gradually to have weakened over the decades, more or less in accordance with the weakening of Christianity itself, I don’t see how anyone could speak of an equivalent weakening of the phobias held in regard to the blacks—except, happily, among a portion of white students.

If, then, one accepts the criticisms I have thus far made of Halpern’s thesis, one must also modify his view of where the two minorities stand in relation to each other. I share his distaste for those Jewish “radicals” who behave as if only through ethnic self-hatred can they prove their solidarity with the blacks, but I see no reason to doubt the view which sometimes triggers or rationalizes this self-hatred, namely, that the situation of the blacks in the United States is not really comprehensible through the analytic categories used in discussing ethnic minorities. Again, to say this doesn’t at all minimize the validity of self-defense when Jewish interests or values are seriously attacked. But there has to be some sense of proportion as to the relation between their agonies and our discomforts. Where, as in our fears for the survival of Israel, we have agonies too, then (as in Shlomo Katz’s recent “Open Letter to James Baldwin”) we have the right and duty to insist upon our needs and measures.

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It is in light of my qualifications of Halpern’s argument that I’d propose that his tacit plea for a strengthening of Jewish communal identity be—not dismissed, but—modulated. Most Jews do not feel themselves radically ill-treated or radically ill-at-ease in the United States, and insofar as this refers to their condition as Jews rather than as workers or professionals or women or draftees, I think they are right. Yet neither do they feel themselves completely at ease in the United States, and again this feeling seems justified. Their inclination toward liberalism, no matter what criticisms may be offered of one or another practical consequence, results from a collective apprehension of where they stand in the United States. They believe that, by and large, their security and well-being is best served by liberal advance, and apart from the fact that such a belief does them some moral credit, I think it rests on a reasonably accurate perception of social realities. Let us also remember that this attachment to liberalism is not only a mark of Jewish consolidation within the society, it is also a historical conquest, a sign of readiness to think in terms of fraternity and compassion. Much as socialists like myself would wish to see this commitment made more vital through an infusion of radical content, it continues to be, when all is said and done, a contribution to American life. We should not hurry to abandon it.

Perhaps we should proceed to qualify it. There are situations, mostly local ones, in which the Jews ought to act once again as a coherent community, fairly well-disciplined and striking back very hard against anyone who dares whisper anti-Semitism. In some sense, hasn’t this sort of on-again, off-again strategy begun to be improvised—that in our roles as citizens who are Jews we act as best we can by our individual perceptions of political need and that in our roles as Jews who are citizens we try to defend our distinctive interests? No doubt, it is easier to say than do this; but the same would hold for a proposed reversion to a strategy that stresses ethnic discipline. (I leave aside the fact that any attempt at such a strategy is almost certain to fail.)

To clarify what has just been said, let us come back to the Brandeis incident. Halpern is right in saying that a university like Brandeis—one that is Jewish-sponsored—has an obligation to insist that no department, autonomous or not, become a focus for anti-Semitism. But then the same is or should be true for any university, so that Jewish professors were justified in stressing the general argument as to academic propriety, quite apart from a distinctive Jewish interest. My guess is that Halpern’s dismay is directed against those faculty members who hesitated to make the argument on either Jewish interest or academic propriety, because they wished to show their sympathies for the black students.

In his valid argument that there was a distinct Jewish interest at Brandeis, and his equally valid implication that the Brandeis affair was merely a small instance of a large problem, Halpern underestimates the significance of the universalist case against the proposals of the black students. Or, to be more fair, he is just not as interested in that matter. Yet precisely because Brandeis is a Jewish-sponsored school, and a new one at that, some of its faculty must have felt a special need—I think they were right—for presenting their views not merely in terms of the Jewish interest but also out of a wish to make clear that they wanted Brandeis to be a university.

Halpern writes that once “a black-studies department had been worked out to the satisfaction of Negroes and Jews, the question of formulating the agreement in terms consonant with existing academic procedures would never have become an issue dividing them.” Can he be certain? Were there not also at stake general academic values, far more important than his phrase “existing academic procedures” can indicate? And might not such an agreement have caused distress to some non-Jewish faculty members at Brandeis who, despite the terms worked out by the two minorities, could have felt that a major academic interest was being sacrificed? Conflicts between minorities often cannot be separated, nor should they be, from a concern for the values of universalist liberalism.

Finally, I think that Halpern accepts too readily certain stereotypes of the American black community, pretty much those advanced by the New Left intellectuals he dislikes. Such stereotypes, to be sure, can more readily be accepted if one spends one’s time on the campus than if one gets around in the outer world, for the notion that the black community is onto a nationalist-revolutionary phase makes more sense in regard to student groups than it does to the masses of Harlem or the South Side of Chicago. And at this point Halpern’s sharpness of insight deserts him, for he seems simply to assume that we must expect a continued upsurge of anti-Semitism from mass movements of nationalist-revolutionary blacks. Perhaps that will turn out to be the case, but so far the instances of black anti-Semitism, painful as they have been, seem largely to have been confined to small sects. Those of us alert to the divisions within the Jewish world ought to be ready to suppose that there are at least as many divisions within the black world. The image of a unified black community, charged with nationalist-revolutionary passion, simply does not correspond to reality. And if Ben Halpern were to deny holding any such image, I could only say in reply that it does frequently appear in his book.

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Conflicts between Jews and blacks there surely will be, and these conflicts may be expected to worsen as the conditions of our cities worsen. We may suppose that Jews and blacks in some local situations will have to go their separate ways, and sometimes come head-on in collision. Yet on a national scale the case for a limited but sustained cooperation still makes a lot of sense. If Halpern is right in saying that a major problem for the blacks will be the persistence of a lumpenproletariat, then the idea of restitution, advanced rather fecklessly by some groups but meriting a more serious expression, must come into play. The social demoralization among portions of the black community is surely due, in one or another part, to the historical traumas to which blacks have been subjected in this country, and it therefore becomes not merely a social necessity but also a moral obligation for the society at large, which in practice means the federal government, to provide generously the means for coping with this problem. For the blacks, support for large-scale federal aid to the cities is a matter of self-interest; for the Jews, it is both a token of their commitment to liberalism and partly a matter of self-interest. Here, to an extent overshadowing probable local conflicts, is the place where a persistent Jewish devotion to universalist liberalism, given a new and more combative edge, could allow for both self-assertion and at least a partial alliance with the blacks.

It would even be good for the country.

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