On Being Taken Up by “Society”
To The Editor:
I have read with great interest the article “A Refugee Looks at Anti-Semitism Here,” by my friend Robert Pick, in the September COMMENTARY. Nobody regrets more than I do the fact that in this country, where every loyal citizen subscribes to the doctrine that all men are created equal, there nevertheless exists discrimination against Jews. But the nature of American discrimination is not so simple as Robert Pick assumes.
There is indeed a lunatic political fringe that once dreamed it could ride into power, like Hitler, on anti-Semitism. This fringe, always thin, has grown thinner since the fall of Hitler. There has been discrimination against Jewish scholars in the university world. This has greatly abated since the time when I first sat on a faculty. I have played an active part, and am still playing an active part, in placing Jewish scholars in colleges and universities. I am often surprised to find how completely shattered are the barriers against Jews.
There has been discrimination against Jewish students, New York State being the chief offender. Such discrimination has been prohibited by a law enacted last year, a law with sufficient teeth and a good administrative set-up. Since the great majority of college teachers hate discrimination, there is every reason for believing that we shall hear no more of it in New York, and little elsewhere.
There is discrimination in the civil-engineering profession; and the great law firms exclude Jewish lawyers, except perhaps for one or two promising men, serving to lift the charge of intolerance. Granted that such discrimination is hard on a few individuals, the range of professional and business opportunities open to Jews is wide. On the level of the manual trades and farming there is no discrimination that amounts to anything.
A Jewish friend of mine refuses to have children because he thinks it wrong to bring a child into the world to face discrimination. But when I see a Jewish baby I reflect that its chances in life, in America, are better than those of a baby born into a Gentile household of the same class. The Jewish baby has the great advantage of a family system focusing attention upon the child and approving and encouraging every advance it makes.
In these essentials I see no prospect of a worsening situation.
Social anti-Semitism is another matter. No individual merit can break down the barriers against the Jew in “society.” But “society” excludes also most Gentiles. In a college town, for example, downtown society finds very few, if any, professors acceptable. Here and there a man of the right origin and relations happens into a university faculty and enjoys the great privilege of occasionally playing with the snobs, almost invariably the stupidest circle in town. But I have known professors, otherwise intelligent, sadly bitten by the sense of social exclusion.
But it may be said, a Gentile professor, if he could be born again and born right, may be taken up by “society.” No rebirth or succession of rebirths would make the Jew a welcome recruit to “society,” unless he were completely successful in de-Jewing himself.
“The Jew,” a “society” authority will say, “is not one of us.” And is he? Was it not the Jews themselves who set their people apart, wherever they might sojourn? And do they not mean to keep their people apart, till the expiry of time? There are, to be sure, many Jews who do not relish this apartness. But they are a minority. Some of them, as Robert Pick points out, change their names and perhaps their religion, meaning to merge their blood with the majority, as do successful members of other immigrant groups. This is a way out that few Jews will take.
For the most part the Jewish American will remain a Jew, retaining enough of the Jewish religion and Jewish customs for group identification. For all that, he may be completely integrated in American life, as are the older families in many of our cities, like the Brandeises and Flexners in Louisville. Yet he will not be accepted by “society.”
Is that a dreary prospect? It has been my good fortune to be admitted occasionally to groups of both kinds, the intellectual fringe of “society” and Jewish intellectual groups. I can testify that for wide-ranging interest in literature, philosophy, political science, music, and the other arts, the Jewish groups are overwhelmingly superior. I can’t bring it over my heart to be very sorry for anyone who is confined to them.
The New School
New York City