Pattern of Integration
A Segment of My Times.
by Joseph M. Proskauer.
Farrar, Straus. 270 pp. $3.00.
A Segment of My Times is almost completely concerned with Judge Proskauer’s career as a public figure. It is written according to an earlier and more modest pattern of autobiography and, with the exception of the initial chapters, his story merges into the events of which his activities have been a part. In the first two chapters, however, he does tell us something about his childhood and boyhood in Mobile, Alabama, and a little about his family. And these chapters are significant not only for what they say, but also for what they suggest as to the influence of the “Old South” upon one with a Jewish background and heritage.
In what manner did this influence show itself? For one thing, Southern regionalism led Judge Proskauer to the conviction that loyalty to a “segment” is not incompatible with loyalty to the whole. So it was not difficult, in later years, as he became acquainted with Jewish needs and problems, for him to realize with equal clarity that interest in the welfare of the Jewish people and devotion to America were not mutually exclusive. Secondly, noblesse oblige, as it prevailed in the South, may not always have been wholesome, but it could provide a governing sense of obligation, the same mandate that was formulated in the “Ethics of the Fathers,” Pirke Abot—“Thou shalt not separate thyself from the community.” Judge Proskauer heeded the mandate and interpreted it to apply to the Jewish community as well as to his city, state, and country. Thirdly, the Aristotelian notion of the “magnanimous man,” of the “cultivated gentleman,” took root on Southern soil as it did nowhere else in this land. If it had its pseudo-aristocratic—indeed, its dangerous—expressions, it could also induce one to care as much about making a life as about making a living; and it could help one to perceive that the values of the mind are a legitimate dimension of human experience. Judge Proskauer still cherishes his love of poetry and has not even given up the temptation of trying his hand at it occasionally, and music, art, and philosophy have continued to be natural elements in his world. One can only guess to what extent this respect for things of the mind—mingled with a high sense of Jewish dignity—has kept him from reducing Judaism to a mere creed, as some extreme Jewish anti-nationalists have done, and to what degree it has prompted him to bring together the concepts of Jewish culture and Jewish religion in his own view.
New York is the capital, so to speak, of America’s Jewish community, but it is not all of that community. The South, to mention just one section, has produced a number of eminent Jews—noted as a group for their integrity and sense of social responsibility—noblesse oblige, in its highest connotation. Brandeis, Baruch, Ochs, Lehman, Gimbel, Lazarus, Straus are some of them, and Proskauer is of their company.
There is much discussion these days among Jews about “integration,” and, if the word has relevance, here is an excellent and vivid illustration of it. Judge Proskauer’s narrative is not divided into parts—one American and the other Jewish. It is a continuous narrative, and the transition from “American” to “Jewish” themes, and then back again, is always easy, natural, and not at all incongruous. No matter what he is writing about—Al Smith’s presidential campaign or the establishment of the State of Israel—he is doing so out of the fullness of his heart and mind as a human being.
Though present odds may seem to be against it, it is not at all unlikely that, in the judgment of history, A Segment of My Times will be accepted as the autobiography of a representative American Jew. For Judge Proskauer’s life is representative of a trend among American Jews, as yet uncrystallized philosophically, which, as it becomes articulated, is bound to play an increasingly significant role in the future. His attitude is that of the majority of ideologically “unaffiliated” Jews who feel and think, without inner conflict, simply as American Jews. Like him, they are eager and glad to do what they can for Israel without subscribing to official Zionism. Like him, they do not, in the name of Israel, renounce the rest of the earth as Galut and they consider America to be their home. Like him, they freely acknowledge their kinship with the Jewish people everywhere and their commitment to Judaism as its religion. Finally, like him, they are beginning to appreciate the enormous task confronting us in shaping a Jewish community in America with resources sufficient for the survival and enrichment of our cultural and spiritual legacy.
It must, however, be repeated and stressed that Judge Proskauer is representative of a trend, of what may come to be (that is, if this trend is correctly appraised and directed), and not of an immediate actuality. It is a sad commentary upon our present condition that Judge Proskauer has been reproached by antagonistic Jewish camps both as a “nationalist” and as an “assimilationist.” His autobiography ought to be required reading for all who lay claim to leadership in America’s Jewish community and recommended reading for all who wish to gain some insight into what may come to be the outlook of tomorrow’s American Jew, once we have outgrown present obsolescent categories.
Judge Proskauer’s non-Zionism was not the result of an involvement in “ideology”—anti-nationalist, assimilationist, or anything else; it was a response rather to the impact of historical events and realities. Zionism was not in the mainstream of Jewish life in America until this recent decade. In 1943, on assuming the presidency of the American Jewish Committee, he was compelled to face the issue and to sift the wheat from the chaff. He deals with Zionism in a part of one chapter and with the establishment of the State of Israel in another chapter. These chapters are a model of lucidity and compactness. As a non-Zionist (but not an anti-Zionist) he scans briefly—and with meticulous fairness—the history of Zionism, the factors that called it into existence, the political status of the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe as contrasted with that of America’s Jewish community (and how the differences affected their respective attitudes toward Zionism). In simple and precise language he points out the distinction between willingness to share in the building of Israel as a refuge and a home for Jews (out of need or choice), and extreme Zionism as a Weltanschauung, openly or tacitly proclaiming on principle Jewish homelessness outside Israel. He tells the story of the American Jewish Conference, presumably convoked to unite American Jews on a broad common program (such as overseas relief and opposition to the British White Paper), and how the Zionists imposed upon it their own program, thus making its subsequent dissolution inevitable.
Despite all this, Judge Proskauer’s non-Zionism did not go over into anti-Zionism, and few American Jews, if any, did as much to win American approval for partition and for the State of Israel. Ben Gurion’s assurance that Israel will never forget his “noble efforts” is definitive testimony. The narrative of these “noble efforts” is an exciting one, and it reveals far-sighted statesmanship and deep devotion to a cause and to a people.
Law and politics have been Judge Proskauer’s central preoccupations, and there is nothing dull about the seven chapters in which he tells of his varied experiences as lawyer, judge, and politician (and friend of politicians), and there is solidity in his observations on some aspects of the courts, on crime and punishment, on the judicial process. These observations indicate a sort of concrete thinking, always pertinent to a specific goal or issue, and classificatory rather than analytical. It is the thinking of one who is not an anti-intellectualist, or contemptuous of ideas, but whose own preference is for what might be called “applied” rather than “reflective” thinking. These chapters—as well as others—contain short statements on policies and principles with regard to vital matters; they are of the nature of affirmations, and their value is primarily moral. As statements, their merit is clarity and consistency, and Judge Proskauer would be the first one to grant that their theoretical foundation is to be sought elsewhere.
There is here one chapter that has undoubted historic importance. Judge Proskauer was among Al Smith’s closest friends and advisers and he knew Franklin Roosevelt long before he became president. (It was Judge Proskauer who prepared the draft of Smith’s famous reply to a Protestant lawyer who held that as a Roman Catholic Smith could not, if elected president, abide by his oath to obey the Constitution, and it was at a conference with Judge Proskauer and Herbert B. Swope at Hyde Park that Roosevelt arrived at his decision to accept the gubernatorial nomination.) Judge Proskauer recounts here the “inside” story of the rift between Smith and Roosevelt, and although his sympathy and allegiance were all with Smith, he tells it with considerable detachment and balance.
It was not only loyalty that allied Proskauer with Smith. It was also the identity of their political beliefs. Judge Proskauer, too, feared that the New Deal was moving beyond reasonable limits and was weakening, in effect, America’s economic system. The favorite conservative terms of that day reappear here, such as “dole,” “boondoggling,” and, indeed, Judge Proskauer is perilously near, at times, to those who would bracket any kind of large-scale planning with totalitarianism. And he cannot see how the “closed shop” fits into any political structure based on individual liberty. Here one is impelled to enter a demurrer. If the “closed shop,” for example, is a violation of individual liberty, why then so are traffic laws. In both instances, the lesson to be learned—regardless of the particular instance—is that majorities too have rights, and there is no valid reason, logical and moral, why these hard-earned rights should be jeopardized by a negligible minority that has nothing to lose by complying and much to gain.
What some may miss in Judge Proskauer’s book is a more intimate awareness of Jewish life as seen from within, as a culture. “By the Waters of Babylon”—this phrase seems to haunt Judge Proskauer’s memory, so it is possible that he misses it, too. Yet, on the whole, there is in this autobiography, written in the seventy-second year of its author’s life, neither bitterness nor regret. There is abundant evidence that the life it portrays has been a good and useful life, according to the wise counsel in the “Ethics of the Fathers”: “It is not for you to finish the whole task, nor, on the other hand, is it for you to shirk your portion of it.”