Commentary Magazine

Negroes, Jews, and Muzhiks

Can anything still be said about Negro and Jew in the United States that has not already been said—by Fiedler, Glazer, and Podhoretz; by Baldwin, Clark, and Rustin; in conferences, speeches, books, and articles? The relation between American Jew and American Negro has even been examined in the perspective of Israel and Africa. Let us add the perspective of Belorussia and the Ukraine.

European and European-born scholars, like Yves Simon some time ago and Bruno Bettelheim more recently, have shown that the American relation between white and Negro is similar in some ways to the European relation between bourgeois and proletarian before 1939. Like Negroes and whites here, proletarians and bourgeois there were two nations. Like Negroes here, proletarians there were exploited, alienated, feared, seen as primitive and unclean: George Orwell's shabby-genteel parents used to say, “Workingmen smell.” In Europe the moral and intellectual elite sided with the workers, here it sides with the Negroes.

All this is clearly true, but I think a better comparison might be with the European peasant, especially before 1914. There are psychosexual reasons, among others, for this: Lady Chatterley's lover was a gamekeeper, the personified principle of opposition to the death-in-life of the factory and double-entry bookkeeping, choosing to be neither bourgeois nor proletarian. In European folklore the depraved noblewoman recruits her lovers from among coachmen, grooms, and goatherds. Their closeness to animals gives them an animal potency, they are stallions; and in their primitiveness and social inferiority she gratifies her taste for lowness, the nostalgie de la boue. In the American imagination, of course, the man-stallion is Negro. On the female side, the serf girl was the sexual property of her master and his sons., and so was the Negro slave girl: Edmund Wilson reads Mrs. Chesnut's Diary from Dixie and is reminded of what Tolstoy said about Russia. Like the Negro slaves in America, the muzhik serfs, emancipated at almost the same time, are then perceived as ignorant, improvident, violent, drunken, incontinent—id figures, embodiments of the untamed instincts.

The association of the Jew with the muzhik was older and more intense than that of the Jew with the Negro. With the Negro the association does not go back, essentially, before the memory of men and women still living. For Jews here, the Negro has not been the only Other (though he is most other); and notwithstanding the current Negro talk of the Jewlandlord and Goldberg, proportionately few of us in America deal chiefly with Negroes. By contrast, Jews in numbers had lived and dealt with the Slavic peasantry for the better part of a thousand years—in Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian empire, and finally in the Tsarist Russian Pale of Settlement. Enough time had passed since Khmelnitski led Ukrainian Orthodox peasants in a massacre of the Polish Catholic landowning gentry and their Jewish estate agents and men of business for his name to have become, in the language of our grandparents, a synonym for antiquity. For the Jews of the East European villages and small towns—not the cities, like Warsaw or Odessa—from whom most American Jews are immediately descended, the muzhik was the Other, statistically and psychologically. The muzhik was the Jew's external environment and, more often than not, his livelihood. In the dictionary the Yiddish word for “peasant” is poyer (German, Bauer), but in fact the Russian or Polish Jew was likely to say goy : the muzhik was the consummate Gentile.

When we consider that the history of relations between Jew and muzhik is so old and intense; that muzhik and Negro have been alike, not least in the culture's perception of them; and that even in plural America the Negro is nevertheless most Other—when we consider all this, we may reasonably expect that current Jewish feelings and ways of thinking about Negroes will be affected by older feelings and ways of thinking about muzhiks.


The Jews of the Pale of Settlement thought themselves superior to the muzhiks, feared them, felt guilty about them, pitied them, envied them, and, while distrusting them, wanted to see their lot bettered.

The Jews did not hate the muzhiks. In general, we are poor haters—partly, I suppose, because we have had so many enemies that hatred is pointless. What Jew hates Spain? Of Titus, a traditional Jew will still say, when he has occasion to mention him, “may his name and memory be blotted out” (thus preserving the name and memory), but he does not hate Rome. At most he has a fixed epithet that goes with Rome, “the wicked kingdom.” We do not even hate Germany. I still look twice when I see a Volkswagen or Mercedes in the parking lot of a synagogue, and I will make an effort to avoid buying a German article, but I have not taught that to my children, and when they notice what I am doing they regard it as a cute eccentricity; nor can I altogether blame the Israelis for their heavy imports from Germany. If I do not readily work up enthusiasm for Rumania, Hungary, the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland, that is not hatred. The emotional relations between Jews and East European Gentiles were asymmetrical. Nothing with the Jews corresponded at all closely to the hatred against us felt—and acted on, murderously—by Rumanians, Hungarians, and the rest.

To return from this digression—I have said that Jews thought themselves superior to muzhiks. On the Jewish scale of values, Jews ranked high and muzhiks low. As between shabbat and hol, ruhaniyut and gashmiyut—sabbath and weekday, spirituality-intellectuality and corporeality—the Jews, in their own eyes, stood for the first term of each set, and the muzhiks for the second. Typically, Jews could read and muzhiks could not, and literacy and illiteracy have their distinctive corollaries.

Jews feared muzhiks—for the same reason, basically. The muzhiks were so physical, so patently the sons of Esau. Jews remembered that their ancestor Jacob had feared his brother Esau and that only a blind man could be persuaded that the hands of Jacob were the hands of Esau. Muzhiks could kill you—either individually, in a passion or for gain, or collectively, in a pogrom. More than most, Jews have cause for fearing violence.

Jews felt guilty. When a merchant (the word is much too grand) is almost as poor as his very poor customer and when he has the upper hand in such things as simple arithmetic, he is apt to take advantage. He shouldn't, but sometimes he does. The rabbis' insistence on the biblical commandment of just weights and measures and on the sacrilege of violating this commandment in dealings with Gentiles is proof that there were violations. The violators rationalized their conduct: “The muzhik steals me blind, but even when I catch him at it I have to make believe I don't see anything because I'm afraid of him, so the only way I can get my own back is to juggle the figures a little.” Or else they took their ability to fool the muzhik as further proof of their cleverness and his stupidity. But they also felt guilty. They knew that what they were doing was not right.

An Israeli joke: Jews from a Polish village have survived Hitler and have established themselves as an egg-and-poultry cooperative in Israel. They are grateful to their friend, the peasant elder, for helping to save them from the Nazis, and they are proud of having made themselves into productive, progressive agriculturists. As the Zionist song has it, they came to Israel to build and to be built, and they have succeeded. So they pool their money and send a ticket to the old peasant, who eventually comes from Poland to visit them. They show him their modern equipment and methods, and he is impressed. Then they show him how artificial light twenty-four hours a day keeps the hens laying without interruption. He shakes his head and says, “Ah, Zhidy, Zhidy ! You have no honest Poles to trick any more, so you trick chickens.”


Jews pitied the muzhik: he had to bear on his back the weight of the gentry, the bureaucracy, the army, the church, the absolute monarchy. He labored and suffered so that these need not, and so that they could lord it over him. He was a man, by definition created in the image of God, and they had made him less than a man.

Jews envied the muzhik: the other side of revulsion is attraction, even fascination. People under the firm rule of the superego must hanker, whether they know it or not, for instinctual anarchy. As soon as the sovereignty of Torah and the rabbinocracy had been breached, the attraction could express itself: Isaac Babel rides with the Red Cavalry Cossacks, for reasons that Lionel Trilling has finely explained, and the Second and Third Aliyot bring with them to Palestine a Tolstoyan peasant-and-soil romanticism. In I. B. Singer's The Slave, when the peasant Wanda becomes the Jewish Sarah, she is more admirable than the homeborn Jewesses. What all modern Jews in Eastern Europe had in common, transcending any difference of formal ideology, was that they valued action, forcefulness, masculinity, and saw the old Judaism as passive, weak, feminine. They liked Esau more than their parents did, and Jacob less. (See Mary Catherine Bateson's analysis of this theme, and of the reconciliation of masculine and feminine in Bialik's poetry, in Daedalus for Summer 1966.)

As the Jews did not hate the muzhik, so they did not blame him. They blamed the system, or the authorities—priests, government. I remember the late Hayim Greenberg writing that the ordinary Jew would say, “The peasant is really a good fellow, if he's left alone and if he doesn't get drunk”—exactly what I used to hear at home when my parents spoke of the old country. If only the priests and officials didn't incite the muzhik, if only they cared enough to make him educate his children, if only the social and political system were decent, all would be well, for muzhik and Jew alike.

But Jews believed that the muzhik needed help and guidance and could not be trusted to do things for himself. Without guidance, his childishness, impulsiveness, and propensity to violence would spoil everything. In the 1870's and early 1880's some young Jewish revolutionaries joined the narodnik (populist) movement and “went to the people,” that is, to the peasant masses. Then came the pogroms. Some Jewish narodniks tried to excuse these as the first stirrings of the revolutionary spirit in a formerly inert mass, but most Jews were strengthened in their conviction that while to do something for the people was just and necessary, to trust them to do it was folly. In the Jacobin formula, the people were to be compelled to be virtuous.

After Hitler and all that the Nazis had done to the Poles, there was a pogrom in the Polish town of Kielce against the handful of Jews who had escaped the crematoria and returned. Most Jews took the pogrom as the signal to leave forever, chiefly for Israel. Those who chose to remain—above all, the polonized and assimilated—were tempted to rely on Stalin and the Red Army to implant virtue in the Poles, and some became agents of the Stalinist Polish Communist police. That suited Stalin and the Stalinists: let the Poles hate the Jews instead, as always.


Usually, the Jewish distrust of the masses has included a distrust of the leader who comes from the masses, and who is all too likely to share their prejudices and weaknesses, including anti-Semitism. Better by far the patrician liberal, cultured, above plebeian uncouthness. Whether a Jew is modern or traditional, if he has any political theory at all it is apt to be classical: the state must have a monopoly of violence, it should be just, and it should be in the hands of enlightened men. Rule by an establishment can be bad, but in the Jewish experience it is generally less bad than rule by men from the masses, appealing to their emotions.

Raw anti-Semitism is more a plebeian and populist phenomenon than an establishment one. Lueger, the late-19th-century anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, was the populace's man. Between him and the Jews, protecting them, stood the Emperor Francis Joseph; and the Jews of the Hapsburg empire loved their emperor. Hitler was a kind of tribune of the plebs. (In literature, Céline speaks their rancor, with their voice.) Centuries earlier, in the late Middle Ages and the early modern period, expulsions of the Jews had accompanied the nationalisms and the formation of the national states of Western Europe, in England, France, and Spain; and the impulse for both the nationalisms and the expulsions had come more from the rising new men than from the established old ones. The Spanish Inquisition was populist in its origins, and normally Jews had more to fear from the lower clergy than from the higher.

In the United States, Tom Watson was a Populist, and he helped to lynch Leo Frank. The historians debate whether the Populist movement was really anti-Semitic or only seemed so, but Jews can be forgiven for uneasiness about several things associated with the Populists, including the frenzy aroused by a speech against crucifying mankind upon a cross of gold. For Christians, crucifixion was the Jewish crime; and about the time when Bryan was declaiming, the Tsarist secret police was forging the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, according to which there was a gold power out to conquer the world, and that power was Jewish.

McCarthyism was populist and popular. Its target was the establishment—Harvard, the State Department, the Supreme Court, even the Army—and it could be defeated only by the establishment. Civil liberties and the rights of minorities are not characteristically cherished by any populism, which tends toward an intolerant majoritarianism: the Soviet prosecutors of the intellectuals who failed to think wholesome thoughts were able to appeal to popular sentiment. Early in this century American populism won a great victory for democracy, the initiative and the referendum. Today, from coast to coast, these are used with almost invariable success against the civil rights of Negroes. In California, where a large majority voted to put racial discrimination in housing beyond the reach of law, it has been left to the courts, elitist by their nature, to uphold decency against the electorate speaking through the polls. In New York City everybody expects that if the people are allowed to vote on a civilian review board for the police, they will turn it down, and civil libertarians have been hoping that the courts will prevent the people from voting.

On the whole, therefore, we have had some justification for our distrust of populism and men from the people and our preference for the cultivated, liberal, patrician leader. Sometimes, though, we overdo it. We gave and still give to Franklin D. Roosevelt more devotion than he earned, by any cool, political measure of favors done and benefits conferred. But at least Roosevelt was a President, and a great one. What can explain our infatuation with Adlai Stevenson? (I am entitled to ask the question. I voted for him twice.) He was not especially favorable to Jewish causes or interests, nor was he even much of a New Dealer. It was enough for us that he seemed to incarnate all that is enlightened, cultured, and well-bred. (Another good sign: he was obviously no athlete.) To most other Americans, he was not nearly the man Eisenhower was. We were a little tardy in getting to like President Kennedy, because Stevenson was in the way, but when we could perceive Kennedy, too, as enlightened, cultivated, and patrician, we were his—again, a little more than his objective merits or accomplishments warranted.

On the other hand, we have consistently underestimated Truman, and fewer of us voted for him than for any other Democratic Presidential candidate since 1932. Nothing patrician about him. Rather, something folksy-populist, and so a bit disquieting. Twenty years from now, someone may write that we underestimated Johnson, for similar reasons.


What are the differences between our present attitude toward Negroes and the older attitude toward muzhiks? Negroes are not so exclusively the Other as the muzhiks used to be: Negroes are ten per cent or so of the population of America, muzhiks were probably ninety per cent in old Eastern Europe. If there had been psychoanalysts in Zhitomir or Grodno, they would have found that the id figures of their Jewish patients' dreams and fantasies were muzhiks, and only muzhiks. Here psychoanalysts no doubt find their Jewish patients dreaming and fantasizing about Negroes, but not only about Negroes. Our society and our culture offer additional possibilities for representing the id.

We also feel less guilty about Negroes, I think. For the sake of argument, let us concede what should not be conceded: to deal with = to exploit. But even of the so-called Goldbergs, even of the Jewlandlords, not all are Jews. Some are actually Negroes. They are called Jewlandlords because they are landlords.

In what way are the two attitudes the same? About Negroes, Jews fear what our grandparents feared about muzhiks, violence. We know in our bones that the civil peace is always fragile, that a habitude of violence is easily established, and that then Jews and people like Jews had better watch out.

In our distaste for violence we differ hardly at all from our grandparents. When they were displeased they did not hit, they acted broygez (Yiddish, “offended” or “sulky,” from Hebrew berogez, “in wrath”): they did not speak to the person who had offended them, they avoided his—often her—company. (In his wife's presence, a man would say to his child, “Tell your mother the soup is cold.”) The characteristic response of Jews to an unpleasant situation is still avoidance, flight not fight. If a Jew does not like Negroes moving into his neighborhood, he moves out. He does not band together with his neighbors to burn a cross—of course not—or to throw bricks and bottles. That may be why Jewish neighborhoods turn into Negro neighborhoods fairly easily. It was not where Jews live that Dr. King's marchers for integrated housing needed massive police protection, this past summer in Chicago. It was where Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Italians live—the children and grandchildren of muzhiks (and other peasants).

If I were a Negro I would resent a Jew's acting broygez, but I would surely prefer it to someone else's violence. Still, that may only prove I am unable to rise above my Jewish thinking. A few years ago the late Malcolm X said on television—publicly, emphatically, to many thousands—that he liked Sheriff Clark of Selma, Alabama, the man with the dogs and the electric prods, better than Jewish liberals and supporters of the civil-rights movement. Malcolm said: Clark is a wolf but the Jewish liberal is a fox, and the wolf is better because with him you know where you are. Now it appears that Malcolm is a great man in his death, and not only among the young generation of Negroes. A university journal has published a rhetorician's effusion about his rhetoric, which purports to demonstrate—le style c'est l'homme même—that Malcolm was good and noble and honest, attacking only those people and things that were wicked and base and false. The rhetoric of the wolf and the fox was not mentioned.


As for populism, we like it in Negroes no more than in muzhiks or in white Americans. Once more, it is violence or the aura of violence that worries us, as well as the encouragement to indulge prejudice and dislike of outsiders and the encouragement to suspect and resent elites, whether good or bad. Dr. King and many others say harsh things about “the power structure,” but the non-power structure is usually worse. Most judges are better than most citizens, most mayors than most voters, most union leaders than most of their members, most presidents of chambers of commerce than most businessmen; Goldwater is better than most Goldwater zealots. I do not say intrinsically good, but relatively better. A dozen or so years ago, a close study of American thinking about civil liberties showed that the average chairwoman of a DAR chapter and the average commander of an American Legion post were usually better than their rank and file.

Black power? For what it represents of violence-populism, no. But it also represents something that modern Jewish history knows, favorably, as self-emancipation (Pinsker's auto-emancipation). Emancipated Jews know self-hate, though it seems to be our good fortune now to know less about it at first hand than only a generation ago. We know or knew enough about it for the books on it to be written by Jews, about Jewish examples. (Who can forget the case of Otto Weininger?) In some form, black power has to precede or accompany black self-acceptance and self-esteem. Otherwise, there will be black self-hate.

When Negroes demand better education for their children, it must be intolerable for them to hear themselves saying that a predominantly Negro school is necessarily an inferior school. Negroes must feel better when they say that white is not better than black, white is only richer than black; with money, Negro schools can be as good as white schools, and better. This may be a myth now, but if so, it is of that species of myth which, by transforming men, transforms itself into reality. Herzl's Jewish state was a myth of the same species—about which he prophesied, truly: “If you will it, this need not be a myth.”

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