Commentary Magazine

Are Jews Still Liberals?

For the attention of the linguistic philosophers, a problem having to do with the ethics of words: There is an organization—a department of the civil service, the army, a school, a corporation—in which supervisors periodically submit reports on the people under them. Suppose that in large part this consists of checking one of three ratings on a form: outstanding, satisfactory, unsatisfactory. That is the de jure situation. But suppose also that de facto, by long custom, anyone whose work is not clearly unsatisfactory is marked outstanding, with “satisfactory” commonly understood to mean “unsatisfactory” (as “literally” has come to mean “figuratively”: I was literally petrified with fear). Careers depend on the reports.

If a supervisor, disliking a subordinate, grades as satisfactory work that he would otherwise call outstanding, he cannot justify himself by an appeal to the dictionary’s definitions. It is unethical to apply dictionary definitions exceptionally and maliciously. But what if the supervisor is not malicious or partial? What if he believes that the prevailing custom prevents truly superior work from being recognized and rewarded, and that the de jure system should be restored? In his report he is telling the truth and striking a blow for efficiency. At the same time, his subordinates are going to be penalized merely because they have had the bad fortune to come under his authority, not someone else’s. Is he right or wrong?

All kinds of difficulties can arise from the different meanings words have in different situations and for different people. One should tell the truth, but which truth? The truth people want to hear or the truth they ought to hear? A truthful man can make what seem to be two contradictory speeches on Vietnam, one to American Legionnaires and the other to campus radicals, leading the first to call him unpatriotic and the second an apologist for war criminals. Of course his speeches will not really be contradictory. They will only emphasize different things, different aspects of the truth, according to his estimate of each audience and of his responsibility for shaking up convention and prejudice. His problem is easy. All he needs is a thick skin.

The hard problem arises when the audience is diverse and opaque. What should one say, and how say it, to a mixed audience of Legionnaires and radicals—and perhaps also of people who aren’t sure they know where Vietnam is, or even whether they’re interested? That is hard enough. The speaker need not complicate it by allowing one moral obligation, concern, to make him forget another, the obligation to know what he is talking about.

When Jews spoke a language of their own, they could criticize and admonish each other without worrying about giving ammunition to enemies. They could repeat acerbities like the one attributed to the Gaon R. Elijah, who had impressed upon the notables of Jewish Vilna that they were not to ask him to a meeting of the community council unless they were considering a new ordinance. Once they asked him, he attended, and complained. The chairman was hurt. As the Gaon must have observed, he said, they were in fact considering a new ordinance—to forbid beggars approaching householders directly. “You call that new?” the Gaon asked, rising to leave. “They had that ordinance in Sodom and Gomorrah.” Or Jews could relish what Shemariah Levin was to say, more frivolously and secularly, in our parents’ time: dos yidishe folk iz a kleyn folk, ober a paskudne, the Jews are a small people, but a repulsive one.

Now it is notorious that if you want to gather incriminating evidence about nations or religions, you will find they have done much of your work for you. Most of the documentation of British and French imperialism was published in London and Paris, and most of the basic criticism of American policy is made in the U.S.A. If you want to read informed, hard words about Protestantism, read Protestants, and about Catholicism, read Catholics. In one sense, Jewish criticism of Jews is the same sort of thing, and Jews have no peculiar right to be outraged by it. But only in one sense. The enemies of Englishmen, Frenchmen, Protestants, and Catholics have not usually been intent upon murdering them.

This does not mean that Jews should avoid criticizing themselves except in languages that others do not understand. There are no such languages any more, and besides, translations of Jewish self-critical literature go back a long time. After the rise of Christianity, some of the Rabbis thought the Septuagint a disaster, but the early Christians who cited the Prophets to prove the inveterate wickedness of the Jews did not have to use a Greek (or Aramaic) translation. They were Jews themselves, and read Isaiah and Jeremiah in Hebrew. Still, a Jew is tempted to believe that the standards of truth and uprightness, which should apply to all speech, by anyone about anything, should apply above all to the speech of Jews about Jews.

Let us not exaggerate. At this time and in this place, no great danger seems to hang over us. Now the chief damage done by wrong speech about us, especially when it is by us, is only that it misleads us. It also makes necessary periodic demonstrations that what everyone—or everyone who is anyone—says is so, is not so. Without the tiresome error there would be no need of the tiresome correction.



These days the error is to complain that the Jews of America are becoming selfishly conservative, above all in how they think and act about Negroes. The most recent complaint is over an alleged Jewish defection from liberalism in the 1966 voting on a civilian review board for the police in New York City.

The total vote for the review board was only about one in three. The white vote was less, one in four or five. The Irish and Italian votes were between one in six and one in eight. Of the Jews, it appears that at least half voted for the board. In tabular form:

All whites 20-25 per cent
Italians 13-17 ” ”
Irish 13-17 ” ”
Jews 50+ ” ”

These figures don’t show Jews behaving like selfish conservatives, they show them behaving with a striking readiness to favor liberal ideology over interest and need. If not for ideology, Jews would have been as opposed as anyone else to the board.

The ostensible issue was police brutality, specifically brutality against Negroes (and Puerto Ricans). The experts kept saying that whether the review board won or lost, actual police brutality would hardly be affected one way or the other, but no one listened. For some it was a battle of liberalism, tolerance, and humanity against reaction, bigotry, and cruelty; for others, of hard-pressed policemen against unfriendly outsiders and innovators; for others still, of law and order against crime, riot, and anarchy. Whatever the civilian review board was supposed to be, for the citizenry it was a Rorschach inkblot.

Knowing something about the Jews of New York—how they earn their livings, where they live, what they hope for and what they are fearful of—we can eliminate any great concern of Jews for cops as cops: conditions of work, pay, prestige, hurt feelings, and the like. The Irish have a concern. There can be few Irish families in New York without at least a cousin on the force, and the image of the police is Irish. Few Jews have cousins who are cops, and the question of image does not arise.

Neither does the question of cruelty arise in any direct or personal way. Nearly all Jews in New York are the sort of people the police don’t trouble, whom they deal with correctly when the need to deal with them arises at all. Most Jews are in the middle class, whether the lower or upper middle class. By now they are part of the old stock of New York City. Even of those Jews who do not speak English well, most are elderly, and no policeman need feel threatened or annoyed by them. The serious complaint that Jews are likely to have about the police is that there aren’t enough of them to do the job of keeping the peace.

Most New Yorkers think there is more violence to be feared now, more crime and disorder, than ever before in their lifetime. Whether or not this is objectively true, what is socially perceived to be a fact becomes a social fact. Routinely, New Yorkers pick up the newspaper and read that a druggist or a jeweler or a cabdriver has been shot in a holdup, or a tenant stabbed in an apartment-house elevator. For Jews, especially, this is threatening, because while few Jewish cousins are policemen, many are druggists, jewelers, cab-drivers, and apartment-house tenants. A Jew who reads such news can’t help thinking, They’re killing people like me, they’re killing people like us. The brutality that makes a personal impression on Jews is not the brutality of policemen but the brutality of criminals.

If the opponents of the civilian review board included numbers of unsavory people uttering unsavory slogans, the advocates of the board included unprepossessing people who said things not calculated to reassure friends of law and order—things like the scrawls you can still see on the façades of buildings: “No police state”; “Stop scum cops.” (Or “slum cops”? The capital letters can be read either way.)

We would expect Jews to dislike the thought of downgrading the police, and therefore of downgrading law and order. We find instead that the Jews—addicts of law and order, not themselves victims of police brutality, with no first-hand knowledge of police brutality, whose families or friends have not personally complained of police brutality—gave at least half of their vote to the review board. Voting for the review board was the liberal thing to do. For elderly Jews the ideology is weaker and the fear and the need stronger; and in fact, most of the elderly voted against the board.

Almost to a man, the Italians voted against. But not only in 1966 and not only in New York have the Italians shown themselves antagonistic to the demands of Negroes, or what they take to be the demands of Negroes. They have been doing it for years, all over the country.

The New York City police headquarters is in an Italian neighborhood. Last year there was a demonstration, with picket lines, against police brutality and for a civilian review board. People in the neighborhood counter-demonstrated, not altogether peaceably. Immigrants, their children, or at most their grandchildren shouted to Negroes, so long in America, “Why don’t you go back where you came from?” A few years earlier, when CORE was demonstrating for more Negro jobs with a chain of lunchrooms, Italian boys were on hand flying the Confederate flag. At the time of the Civil War their great-grandparents’ hero had been Garibaldi, not Lee or Jackson.

For Jews this is saddening, because most Jews like Italians. If there has not been actual friendship between the Jews and Italians, there has been peaceful coexistence, all the more to be prized because we can’t always say as much about our relations with the Irish or Poles. For many of us it is still hard to forget that a Jewish boy walking home from his public school past an Irish or a Polish Catholic parochial school used to be in danger of a beating. We were not so afraid of Italians, if only because there were no Italian parochial schools. From the Italian side, too, as well as from the Jewish, there seems to have been a feeling of closeness. A social scientist of Italian parentage once told me that when he was a boy in New York, he always thought of Jews and Italians as belonging together, as differing together from the real Americans, the Irish. The Irish were the real Americans because they had the important American and Americanizing jobs: they were the teachers, the principals, the police, the politicians. (For the Italians, they were also the bishops.) And the Irish were the real Americans, too, because they were the only ones we actually knew who came from families in which English was the language that had always been spoken at home.

Probably what Jews feel about the Italians derives from more than American circumstances alone. A few years ago there was a collision between Italian and Scandinavian steamships. I thought first, of course, of the loss of life. My second thought, spontaneous, pre-rational, and pre-logical, was to hope that the fault was not the Italians’. As between the Nordics and the Mediterraneans, I was pro-Mediterranean. When I realized what I was thinking, I was amused and a little embarrassed. Then I remembered that Freud had said something like that about himself. When he was in school in Vienna and studying ancient history, for his teachers and classmates the Romans were the good guys in the Carthaginian wars, while for him the Semitic Carthaginians and their general Hannibal were the good guys. On the other hand, in the wars between Rome and the early Germans, as at the Teutoburger Wald where Arminius-Hermann defeated Varus, Freud’s Gentile teachers and classmates were for the Germans and against the Romans, while he was for the civilized Mediterraneans against the barbarian Teutons of the dark Northern forests.

So I am pro-Italian, and sorry about the Italians’ unsympathetic attitude toward Negroes and their just demands. But because I am pro-Italian, I can’t assume that the Italians are only being wicked. I have to seek a reason that in some measure will mitigate their fault. In seeking that reason, perhaps I will discover something that will help me when I come to think of public policy generally.

We say that every man has a right to live where he wishes (and where he can afford to pay the rent). If you said that to Italians they could hardly disagree, because as an abstract proposition it is hard to deny. What we don’t see is that for Italians, where a man and his wife live is not an individualistic matter. It is a matter of neighborhood, of community—above all, of the extended family.

Few Jewish couples live within walking distance of parents, and almost none within walking distance of grandparents. Many Italians, having grown up near grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins, stay in the same neighborhood when they get married, and bring up their own children there. The neighborhood is their village, their family demesne. They don’t object to the other fellow having a desirable place to live in, they just don’t want him, by moving in, to make their neighborhood less of a home for them. Italians are not guiltless of racism, but racism is not their only reason for objecting to Negroes moving in. Italian family people and non-Italian white single people have been getting on each other’s nerves for years in Greenwich Village. No question of racism there.

That is to say, residential integration or residential racial balance, as an ideal deriving more or less directly from the idea of liberal individualism, means little to Italians. When they object to what they consider to be an attack upon the family coziness of their neighborhoods, from their own point of view they are not being selfish or heartless, they are only trying to protect themselves. The call for a civilian review board they interpreted as the last in a whole series of programs and decisions and policies that they think has done too little for them and too much for the newcomers, Negro or Puerto Rican.

Italians have no great love for Puerto Ricans, but not for the obvious reasons. Like Italians, most Puerto Ricans are Catholic—not very Catholic, to be sure, but then, neither are Italians, especially the older, immigrant men; both Puerto Ricans and Italians have a kind of anticlerical, folk Catholicism. The Caribbean Puerto Ricans are in their way quite Mediterranean. They even speak a language which, though an Italian can’t understand it when it is spoken, he could nevertheless understand reasonably well if he had to read it. Yet in East Harlem Italians have long been resisting Puerto Rican intrusions.

Concessions never made to Italians are being made to Puerto Ricans. The school system and the police are making special efforts to be nice to Puerto Ricans: Spanish is a kind of second language in some public schools, and policemen are urged to learn Spanish so that they can understand Puerto Ricans and make themselves understood to them. If not jealous, an Italian can be resentful. He resents the rules of the game being changed now, after he has had to live with their rigors. When the children of Italian immigrants were going to school in New York, it was sink or swim. If they didn’t learn English on their own, they failed in school. Nobody then told teachers to learn Italian so that they could guide children from Italian-speaking homes into the mainstream of American education; or Irish policemen, so that they could understand Italians and make themselves understood to them.

With jobs, too, the rules of the game have been changed. When the Italians came to this country, the job market and the trades were ethnic. The good jobs belonged to others—in New York to the Irish and Germans—and the Italians did the unskilled labor. Slowly, in the course of years, some industries and trades became theirs, and finally an Italian could bequeath to his son preferential access to a job paying good wages. (Most Italians are not yet able to bequeath to their children the most useful thing of all, the diploma of a good college.)

Now ethnic monopolies and favoritisms have become illegal. Now an Italian father may not put his son at the head of the line for entry into a trade, though the father has been in it for many years and though it is Italian. Now able to benefit from them, Italians find that the old rules have been abolished—to the unfair advantage, as they see it, of Negroes and other newcomers unwilling to pay the price of similar waiting. And it is not only the newcomers who offend. There seems to be a conspiracy between the Negroes at the bottom of the ladder and the educated and liberal at the top of the ladder to take away what Italians have worked so hard to earn.

The Italians are wrong. The rules of the game have had to be changed because the game itself and its conditions have changed. The economy is not what it used to be. The new job market, the new importance of education, the specific disabilities of Negroes and Puerto Ricans, changes in the general conception of justice and what justice requires—these make the new legislation and new outlook necessary and just. But the necessity and justice do not remove the Italians’ sense of grievance, unfairness, being encroached upon. They can demonstrate against civil-rights demonstrations and vote against civilian review boards all the more easily because, unlike Jews, the Italians have no strong tradition of liberal ideology.



Not only for Italians does the very principle of order seem to be endangered. Any society that is not a tyranny rests on order and liberty, but when it thinks there is a clash between the two it will sacrifice liberty to order: not McKinley or Harding suspended habeas corpus, Lincoln did. In the United States today many believe the sacrifice is overdue.

Jews are not becoming illiberal. In Arkansas they voted for Winthrop Rockefeller, not for Jim Johnson. In California they voted for Brown, not for Reagan. In Georgia they voted for Arnall, not for Maddox or Callaway. In Maryland they voted for Agnew, not for Mahoney. In New York many voted for the other Rockefeller, but who will maintain that the clearly liberal thing was to vote for O’Connor? The Jews of New York contributed not at all to the Conservative party’s capture of the third line on the ballot from the Liberals. If even these persistently liberal people gave only half of their votes to the civilian review board, or a little more, we must ask whether the board—or better, whether the agitation for the board—was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing.

Fascism is not around the corner. Neither is simple reaction. We should compare the election of 1966 not with the altogether exceptional one of 1964 but with 1960 and 1962. The 1966 election was one more expression of a desire to remain within the American consensus—for which we should be grateful. Movement was a little right-ward, but well within the consensus. In California Reagan was careful not to sound like an extremist in his campaign oratory.

Still, the contest over the civilian review board in New York can teach us two things. (That we still need to be taught shows we have been unwilling to learn what we should have known all along.) The first is that to call something liberal and to have it advocated by indisputably liberal people does not mean that the electorate will want it—even elements of the electorate who normally can be counted upon for loyal service in the liberal army. The second is that we must respect people’s anxieties about symbols of order and try to allay people’s fears that order is being overthrown.

Take the cash and let the credit go: let us leave the symbols of order undisturbed and unthreatened, concerning ourselves with the substance of liberty and justice. The fight about the civilian review board was a fight about symbols. We did not understand sufficiently that for many the board was a symbol of disorder.

Television, with all its immediacy, shows us police brutality in Selma. In the North it shows us something unintended by the people who shout police brutality.

Some little time ago, in New York, there was a demonstration against the building unions for refusing to admit Negroes to their membership, and for a while picketing stopped the construction of a public project. On television we saw and heard not brutality by the police but psychological brutality against the police, accompanied by cries that the police were being brutal. The mode of demonstrating was illegal, blocking traffic, and it could not be permitted to continue for long. Repeatedly the picketers were asked to get off the streets and not to compel the police to arrest them. The picketers refused. That was their moral if not their legal right, since they were prepared to pay the price of imprisonment or a fine for their defiance. But then they also refused to walk into the police wagon. Husky men went limp and made the police carry them.

How great an act of provocation that was, I realized when I found myself admiring the police for their ability to resist the temptation that anyone in their place would have felt—to hit out at those people who were making things so needlessly hard for them. The police resisted the temptation because they had discipline, and no doubt their knowledge that the television cameras were trained on them helped, too. Yet, when the police started carrying those husky men to the wagons, the other picketers raised a cry of police brutality. They were making it harder to believe any future accusations of police brutality. One might almost say they were preparing the way for an election in 1966 when the average white voter of New York would find it easy to dismiss the accusations as so much malevolent nonsense.

More recently television showed us the picketing of Girard College. Cecil Moore of the Philadelphia NAACP, haranguing his followers, recalled newsreels of sinister harangues in Rome and Nuremberg thirty years ago, though Moore is neither Mussolini nor Hitler, and couldn’t be even if he wished to be. With such scenes on television, you don’t have to be a racist to be upset. You only have to be committed to the Negro with somewhat less than all your emotions and energy; which is to say, you only have to be practically any white man or woman.

Since what was at work here was not exclusively a matter of race—though it was in great measure a matter of race—the antics of the New Left from Berkeley, California, to Cambridge, Massachusetts, did not help very much, either. It was not so much the decision of most of the New Leftists in California to vote neither for Brown nor for Reagan. It was not even the decision of some to vote for Reagan, though I could find that disquieting if I were so minded. That sort of thing is even more extreme than what was common on the Left just before Hitler came into power, in the so-called Third Period in Communist history. Then the Communists’ name for a Social Democrat was Social Fascist, and their attitude toward the imminent victory of Hitler was “after Hitler, our turn”—with the death of liberalism, the revolution will triumph; so let’s hasten the death. The lapidary expression of this logic goes: worse is better. (It seems to have been more or less contemporary with a similar phrasing of Bauhaus aesthetic doctrine: less is more.) The New Left in California helped to turn people to Reagan by threatening their sense of order and by making them feel they were besieged on both sides, from below by the Negro poor, as in Watts, and from above by the highly educated.

On the other side of the continent, the day before the election some Harvard students almost manhandled the Secretary of Defense. As far as most people are concerned, you have a right to disagree with the Secretary of Defense, but he has a right to a certain amount of respect. If you treat him with contempt, you probably have contempt for the country in which he holds his high office. The McNamara affair must have confirmed people in their suspicious fear of Harvard students, or of Harvard generally, or of everything that Harvard symbolizes. Many New Yorkers must have felt that in voting against a civilian review board they would be voting against rioters in Harvard as well as in Harlem. Those students in Cambridge did a fine job of propaganda for the Right in New York. The sugar daddies of the Right would have paid well for it, and they got it for nothing.



A painful irony in all this is that the Negroes themselves, and the Puerto Ricans, and the poor generally did not want the anti-police symbolism. At least as much as the middle class, the poor want police protection. In polls among the poor before the election, their anxiety about police brutality ranked well below their anxiety about crime and drug addiction and too few police on the streets. In the middle class only the sociologists know, but among the poor everyone knows that crime hurts the poor more than anyone else.

Who, then, is opposed to the police—not brutal police, but the police as such? Those mural inscriptions yield a clue. “Stop scum [or slum] cops” could be anyone’s, but “No police state” is educated, ideological. It means “No police.” At a guess, it is the sort of thing that would be written by a young radical from an educated, upper-middle-class family—the inner circle of conscientious and enlightened liberalism. The educated and prosperous are generally more optimistic about human nature than the uneducated and poor. Optimistic about human nature, some—especially their avant-garde—can think the police unnecessary. Besides looking down on the police function, they tend to look down on policemen. Authoritarian personalities, they say; lower-middle-class rigidity. The snobbish bias is evident. They don’t use such categories against lawyers (orality) or surgeons (sublimated sadism)—though a century or two ago, before the surgeon had reached his present eminence, they wouldn’t have let him forget that etymologically he was only a manual worker.

The poor are more pessimistic and—who knows?—more realistic. Subjected to unpleasantness and danger, they do not look down on the police function; low in social status, they do not look down upon the policeman.

In deciding how to vote, many Negroes and Puerto Ricans suffered uncomfortable cross-pressures. On the one hand, they didn’t want their votes to be interpreted as an anti-police gesture. On the other, the issue had become racial: not all the opponents of the board were racists, but all the racists were opponents of the board. In the event, most Negroes and Puerto Ricans voted for the civilian review board, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. (If I had lived in New York, I would have voted for the board, for that reason.) But the choice was unnecessary in the first place. It was the strategists, the leaders, who made the mistake of choosing this fight on this terrain, with humiliating defeat for the liberals, for liberalism, and for any chance to accomplish something substantive. Naturally, the leaders blame everyone else. Some even blame the Jews—their most dependable troops. After the East German Communist party suppressed the workers’ uprising in 1953, Brecht said that the masses had lost the confidence of the government. The mass of Jews seem to have lost the confidence of a part of the liberal leadership.



There are two kinds of politics: substantive or instrumental, and symbolic or expressive. The first has to do with getting something done, the equivalent of cash in the bank; the second with the gratification of emotions. Since liberty and order can conflict with each other, in a given case to decide for liberty may mean to decide for a diminution of order. It will be hard to win the voters’ approval for such a decision, and impossible if you also make them needlessly anxious. Why go out of your way to frighten people who are already frightened enough by what seems to them, sometimes with cause, the erosion of order?

Once there was a football coach in a college that denied him the normal latitude and resources, but whose alumni demanded occasional victories. Asked how he managed, he answered that his policy was to keep the alumni surly but not mutinous. The insolence of office weighs heavily on the poor. They have a tale to tell about the police, but also about welfare departments, clinics, housing authorities, schools. If liberals had proposed measures to protect citizens against bureaucrats, everyone would have cheered. Instead, they singled out the police; and the white voters mutinied.



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