Commentary Magazine

The Jew: Subject or Object?

Who, Whom?

For Mr. Ben Gurion, the seventeen centuries between Bar Kochba's rebellion (132—35 C.E.) and Zionism are not Jewish history but a cessation of history. In those centuries the Jews are seen as having been objects, not subjects; acted upon, not acting. Having lost their state, and then the will and the capacity for a state, they became slaves. Their prayers for restoration and their messianic dreams were not so much stimulants as tranquilizers, reconciling them to exile and justifying passivity. In this view, they were enslaved by their own slavishness as much as by their masters. Slavish slaves, as we have been told by the philosophers since antiquity, are objects. They have not the stuff of citizenship in them.

Mr. Ben Gurion, therefore, can appeal to a respectable tradition when he says that to turn those slaves and objects into citizens and subjects, a state was needed—and, perhaps more, the will for a state. A merely conferred equality would not do. Even before the First Zionist Congress, Ahad Ha-‘am had told the French Jews that theirs was a psychology of slavishness in the midst of freedom.

But is a state the essential thing? For the Greeks, man is a being of the polis (the famous zoon politikon) not only because the polis is the city-state but also because it is community and society. And my former colleague, Professor Leon J. Goldstein, has told me that we would understand Hegel better if we realized that his “state,” too, can have the social and communal meaning, besides the political.

The Jews never lost community and society, or the feeling for community and society. In their own society and community they were active, not passive; citizens, not slaves. Mr. Ben Gurion came of age when most historians still thought history was past politics. Jewish history, in the centuries he dislikes, is social (and religious) history far more than it is political, but increasingly the study of history, generally, is social. However valid the subject-object distinction, to regard the Jews between Bar Kochba and the 19th century as objects is a 19th-century prejudice.


This must have been the last thing James Q. Wilson and Edward C. Banfield of Harvard had in mind when they wrote their “Public-regardingness as. a Value Premise in Voting Behavior” (American Political Science Review, December 1964). Their purpose was to test a hypothesis: “that some classes of voters (. . . ‘subcultures’ constituted on ethnic and income lines) are more disposed than others to rest their choices on some concept of ‘the public interest’ or ‘the welfare of the community.’” The test was an analysis of the votes in 20 elections, between 1956 and 1963, on 35 proposals in 7 cities—Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit (and their counties), Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, and St. Louis—for things that would cost money, like hospitals, parks, roads, and schools. The authors conclude:

. . . we reject. . . [the] theory . . . [that] the low-income Polish renter who votes against expenditures . . . that would cost him nothing and would confer benefits upon him and the high-income Anglo-Saxon or Jewish home-owner who favors expenditures . . . that will cost him heavily without benefiting him would both behave differently if they thought about the matter more or if their information were better.

. . . voters in some income and ethnic groups are more likely than voters in others to take . . . the welfare . . . of “the community” into account as an aspect of their own welfare. . . . Each sub-cultural group, we think, has a more or less distinctive notion of how much a citizen ought to sacrifice for the sake of the community as well as of what the welfare of the community is constituted; . . . of what justice requires and of the importance of acting justly.

. . . upper-income people tend to be more public-regarding than lower-income people. We do not think that income per se has this effect; rather, it is the ethnic attributes, or culture, empirically associated with it. It happens that most upper-income voters belong . . . to an ethnic group (especially the Anglo-Saxon and the Jewish) that is relatively public-regarding in its outlook. . . .

“The Anglo-Saxon and the Jewish.” There is no mystery about the Anglo-Saxons: people who have long been subjects of history are apt to be civic (“public-regarding”), with a code of stewardship and noblesse oblige. But the Jews, according to Mr. Ben Gurion, were objects. Yet they are civic. How can objects be civic? And it is civicism that is the problem here, not ideology. The issues voted on were this hospital or that park, not liberalism or welfarism. If it were a question of ideology, the Anglo-Saxons and the Jews would not be linked. Most of the Anglo-Saxons were for Eisenhower and Nixon, most of the Jews for Stevenson and Kennedy; a significantly higher proportion of Jews than of Anglo-Saxons favor trade unions; and so on.


If we wish, we may interpret Wilson and Banfield's findings as showing that some groups have a tradition (a living past) of subjecthood and others a tradition of objecthood, and that those traditions affect outlook and behavior. For instance, in Cleveland proper there was

a negative correlation . . . between the percentage of voters . . . of foreign stock and the percentage of the total vote . . . that is “Yes.” . . . the Poles and Czechs have the strongest distaste for expenditures. [The Italians' distaste is less strong.] . . . the percentage of Poles and Czechs is . . . more important . . . than median family income. . . .

And in a note:

A person is of “foreign stock” if he was born abroad or . . . one or both of his parents. . . . We believe that the reason why a significant [negative] relationship does not appear for the suburbs is that there is a considerable number of Jews among the foreign stock of the suburbs. In the central city, there are practically no Jews. Like other Jews, Jews of East European origin tend to favor expenditures proposals of all kinds.

But those Poles and Czechs are of East European origin, too—East European peasant origin. As nations, they were oppressed by alien Romanoffs, Hapsburgs, and Hohenzollerns; as a class and as men, by the nobility and squirearchy, native or foreign. So far, not much difference between them (or the Italians, essentially) and the Jews. The crucial difference is that in the old country the Jews had a community, and with it a sense of community.

The historians and sociologists of American immigration—notably the immigration of the Poles and the Irish—have had to reckon with peasant pessimism, or mistrust. For pessimistic peasants, government is a racket, society is a racket, taxes are extortion, social institutions are a fraud and a cloak for graft, you can depend only on your own family—a little.

The Jews, also oppressed, had no such racket theory of society. Living in the midst of hostile nations and empires, among themselves they lived in a community. The governments they knew were rackets and worse, but society was not a racket. Jewish society, Jewish community, was what made it possible for a man to live a Jewish life—which is to say, a human life. It was because of community that you had synagogues to pray in, a rabbi to adjudicate your disputes and tell your wife whether her egg or chicken was kosher, opportunities and incentives to study; above all, fellowships for good works to help you in your need and—almost as important—to allow you to give and work, so that you might win honor on earth and merit in heaven.

All that was no racket. To a Jew it was as necessary as the polis had been to a freeman of Periclean Athens. The Jew complained about the leaders of the official community, their subservience to the government and their unjust distribution of the tax burden; but he also taxed himself. He could hardly tell where discipline left off and his own sense of obligation began. One Passover, Levi Isaac of Berdichev, addressing himself to God, told Him: “The nations of the world have kings and ministers, generals and armies, but the land is full of violence and theft. Thy people Israel have neither kings nor ministers, generals nor armies, but no leaven will be found these eight days in all their habitations.” (That was when he was speaking for the Jews. Another Passover, having seen labor conditions in the communal matzah bakery, he spoke to the Jews: “The nations of the world accuse us of baking our matzot with Christian blood. That is a lie. We bake our matzot with Jewish blood.”)

Psychologists believe that the infant's experience determines whether trust or mistrust will be the man's basic attitude toward life. By analogy, we may say that Polish and Czech peasants brought with them to America, from their experience of life in Europe, a tradition about how to understand the world, a prevalent attitude of basic mistrust. Jews brought a tradition or attitude of basic trust.


Emigrants are not usually the old country's elite, and neither were the Jews who came to America. Yet even these carried in their baggage habits and ways of thinking that made it easy for them, without hierarchy or authority, to create an unbelievable number and variety of institutions, from synagogues and free-loan societies to hometown relief and family circles. As before, the Jew who asked another for money or participation was not turned away and told that it was all a racket; the burden of justification was on the refuser, not on the asker—who, more often than not, was a demander. That has not disappeared. A few years ago the University of Michigan Survey Research Center reported that a higher proportion of Jews than of others give to persons and institutions, and give more, even when differences in income are taken into account. (Perhaps this ought to be put negatively: fewer do not give and fewer give little.) They could save a lot of money by saying that philanthropy is a racket or by voting against a county hospital they are unlikely to use.

So far from the Jews being objects, from one point of view they excelled all others as subjects. The individual Jew felt personally responsible for the collective future. An Italian could become something else without worrying about the life-expectancy of Italy and Italian culture; the land and the people would always be there. Only rarely could a Jew leave without feeling guilty about his failure to honor an obligation that he could not entirely deny. Marshall Sklare recently noted that feeling in the work of a social scientist who thought he was writing impersonally, about a subject larger than the Jews: “. . . the individual who consciously wishes to . . . ‘move away’ feels . . . personal guilt. . . .”1

A widely shared, internalized responsibility is not the mark of an object people; yet it was the very absence of a state that caused the Jews to internalize responsibility.


Where did the Jews get their favorable attitude toward government, if not toward particular governments?

The system of Jewish law incorporates Mar Samuel's principle (Babylonia, about 250 C.E.; Bava Qamma [113b]): dina de-malkhuta dina, a civil law of the state (or government; lit., kingdom) is the law for Jews, taking precedence over the corresponding Jewish civil law. (Especially in the Middle Ages, the rabbis and the communities they led made it clear that an oppressor's edict was not dina. This was good medieval political theory, much like Bracton's rex est sub Deo et lege, the king is under God and the law. The divine right of the absolute monarch came later.) Again, if there was one part of rabbinical literature that the ordinary Jew knew, that was Pirqe Avot, and there (3: 2) he read an echo of Jeremiah (29: 7): “R. Hanina the Vice-High Priest said: Pray for the welfare of the government [malkhut], for if not for the fear it inspires, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.”

A digression: modern scholars are likely to see in R. Hanina's dictum the conservative outlook normal in troubled times, especially for a man of his class; or a justification of the sacrifices on behalf of Rome in the Temple, perhaps polemically against the Zealots' ideology, “No king but God”—as Jesus may have been arguing against the Zealots with his “render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's.” Two centuries later the Rabbis are preaching patience under the foreign yoke in a manner that we can understand, given the circumstances, but that also lets us understand Mr. Ben Gurion's displeasure. In Ketubbot (111a) a political interpretation is made of the three occurrences, in the Song of Songs, of “I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, /by the gazelles or the hinds of the field,/ that you stir not up nor awaken love,/until it please” (2: 7, 3: 5, and, without the gazelles and hinds, 8: 4):

. . . in accordance with R. Yose the son of [another] R. Hanina [Palestine, about 250 C.E.], who said: Why these three adjurations? One refers to an oath that Israel would not mount upon the wall [in Palestine, to take arms against Rome]; one refers to the oath that the Holy one, blessed be He, made Israel [in the Diaspora] swear, that they would not rebel against the nations of the world; and one refers to the oath that the Holy One, blessed be He, made the nations of the world swear, that they would not subjugate Israel too much [shello' yishta'bedu bahen beYisrael yoter middai] .

“Not subjugate Israel too much”!


Jews came to the United States, then, with an actively positive attitude toward society and community, growing out of their life in their own society and community; and a potentially positive attitude toward government, growing out of a Jewish tradition that affirmed the worth of government and out of their strong feeling for the social and communal. Already civic, they wanted to be citizens. They had been waiting for a chance to find a legitimate state, whose law would be their law, and it is as if they had also been waiting for a chance to enlarge the boundaries of the society that was society for them. Happy to have found those chances here, Jews from Europe behave in a major respect much like Anglo-Saxons and little like others who came here at the same time from the same places.

If these Jews had not had the capacity for civicism in the United States, other Jews would not have had the capacity for state-building in Israel. The two capacities may actually be one. Whether one or two, they grew from traditions and institutions that go back to the centuries Mr. Ben Gurion would like to forget.



In 1950, Chandler Brossard's “Plaint of a Gentile Intellectual”2 opened with a plaintive assertion: “There is a new Alienated Man around. He is the Gentile intellectual in New York City.” For Brossard, the Gentile intellectual was more cut off from community, family, and even his own childhood than the Jewish intellectual. The Gentile had been harshly taught that you can't go home again, while the Jew regularly took the subway from Greenwich Village—this was some time ago—back to his parents and the old apartment. Hard to be a Jew? It was harder to be a Gentile.

In another part of the forest, we find rootless Gentiles of quite another sort—business executives. A doctor who lives in a rich suburb said to me not long ago, in passing: “Of course, my street is mostly Jewish, so nearly all the houses are still owned by the people who owned them when I moved here, ten years ago. The big turnover is in the Gentile neighborhoods.” Jews of his class typically work for themselves, or for a family firm. If they are doctors or lawyers, they cannot move any real distance without losing the clienteles they have slowly acquired. If they are businessmen, they may sell afar, but their base is close to home. By contrast, the Gentiles are likely to be executives of corporations like General Electric or Standard Oil. Seven years ago they were in the Chicago office and lived on the North Shore, four years ago they were transferred to San Francisco and lived on the Peninsula, and last year they were sent to New York, to live where New York executives live. They will be shifted again, and again: IBM, for its employees, stands for I've Been Moved.

Which means, for wives, a constant change of houses and neighbors, and for children a constant change of schools and friends. Jewish wives and children are likely to have more stability in their lives. We are told, and it seems reasonable, that stability is good for a family.

What has happened to the Wandering Jew? In Europe, from the Right or the Left, anti-Semites have denounced the Jews as rootless and homeless—Barrès: déraciné's (about the time of Dreyfus); Stalin: cosmopolitans, passportless wanderers. In America one hears rather less of this, because in the end traditional imagery cannot avoid contamination by reality. The wayfaring stranger on this side of the Atlantic has not been conspicuously or usually a Jew.


If the man who works for a big organization moves a lot, it is because the organization tells him to. The organization tells him many things. He is dominated by apparatuses that make decisions about him, and it makes little difference to him whether those decisions spring from bureaucratic rationality or bureaucratic arbitrariness. Even his skills may not be able to sustain or satisfy him when he is on his own, but may be useful and valued only when brought together with those of many other men in a large enterprise. A carpenter or a teacher or a pants manufacturer or a doctor has no difficulty explaining to his young children what he does; an employee morale analysis coordinator—organization English, an isolating language, hates prepositions and loves nouns, the more abstract the better—can hardly explain to himself what he does.

Now, the alienation of such a man is not apt to be of the kind that moralists and social critics like—a refusal of commitment to the prejudices of the tribe. Rather, it is apt to be of the kind that they deplore—estrangement from the self, lack of authenticity, anxiety that seeks relief in conventionality. Here, too, the organization man has to pay a high price for being upper-middle-class. Why envy him? Yet on my train I observe that a middle-level Union Carbide executive outranks a partner in a small accountants' firm (though, on top of everything else, I suspect the accountant earns more). This may be an aspect of the new feudalism, where, as in the old, the retainer of a great baron lords it over the freeholder. A sensible man will take the cash and let the credit go.


What about the enforced absence of Jews from the executive ranks of the great corporations? Jews have a right not to be excluded, and we should insist that our names shall appear on the invitation lists. Omission from the lists is a bad sign. Who do they think they are, and what do they think we are, to leave our names off?

But the right to an equal chance at living the organization life does not necessarily mean that it would be wise to exercise that right. For Jews, would it require becoming rootless again, in obedience to a corporation's orders? Would our politics move to the Right as we made the corporation team? William James said that it took a long time for him to realize that he could not be both a preacher and a pirate. He had discovered what economics knows as opportunity cost: the cost of being a preacher is having to forgo the opportunity of being a pirate, the cost of being a pirate is having to forgo the opportunity of being a preacher. What would be the opportunity cost to us of executive careers in big business?

In the 1920's, during the turmoil in the Soviet Union over Socialism in One Country, the Russian Jews told this story. Uncertain whether to believe Stalin that socialism could be built in one country or Trotsky that it could not, one man did what anyone would do: he asked the specialist in hard questions, a rabbi. The rabbi thought and then delivered his judgment: “It is possible to have socialism in one country, but it is better to live in another country.”

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