Although Sidney Hook wrote hundreds of books and articles in the course of his great career as a philosopher and political controversialist, he devoted relatively little attention either to his own Jewishness or to issues of specifically Jewish concern. But about nine months before his death on July 12, 1989, he agreed to be interviewed on these matters for the William E. Wiener Oral History Library of the American Jewish Committee.
The interview was conducted in New York on October 25, 1988 by Norman Podhoretz, the editor of COMMENTARY, and lasted two and one-half hours. What follows is an edited version of the transcript, which Hook, to the best of his family’s knowledge, unfortunately never had a chance to review; it appears here by permission of his family. Both the original tapes and the unedited transcript are on deposit in the Wiener Library.
Sidney Hook’s association with COMMENTARY began in 1946 and lasted until the end of his life. His influence on this magazine over the years was enormous, and his incomparable political and intellectual courage remains an abiding inspiration.
NP: Sidney, most of the basic facts of your life are well known and have been spelled out in your autobiography, Out of Step, so we won’t spend any more time on them than we need to set the stage for this discussion of you as a Jew and of your attitude toward things Jewish. When and where, then, were you born?
SH: I was born on December 20, 1902: it was, I am told, in a building on the corner of Essex and Houston Street. When I was three years old, the family moved to Brooklyn and I was brought up there, in the Williamsburg slum, until I achieved self-consciousness and a professional viability.
NP: So you went from the Lower East Side to Williamsburg: a good American Jewish trajectory. When and where were your parents born?
SH: I don’t know the exact dates of their births, but my mother came from a town called Sambur, which was in Galicia. My father, I infer from his name, which was spelled H-u-k with a little mark over the u, must have come from an area of Austria close to Czechoslovakia, what was known as Bohemia in those days.
NP: And when did they come to America?
SH: My father came here in the second administration of Cleveland, so it must have been in 1890 or thereabouts. But maybe even earlier, because he had memories of the famous snowstorm in New York, which I think took place at the end of the 1880’s. My mother came a few years later. They met here and got married here.
NP: What was your father’s profession or business?
SH: Actually, it was rather unusual. My father was brought up on a farm and he had all the superstitious knowledge of European farmers. He attributed his bowlegs to the fact that he had ridden on horses, but was puzzled that I inherited the same bowlegs without ever having been on a horse.
NP: A Galitzianer cowboy.
SH: But when he came here, there were some relatives in the garment industry and he became a garment worker. So he was a factory worker most of his life, except at one period when he tried to become a contractor, where most of the staff working for him consisted of his brothers and cousins.
NP: Did you have brothers and sisters?
SH: Yes, I had two brothers, one of whom died before I was born, and two sisters.
NP: What order were you?
SH: I was the third surviving child.
NP: Did you receive any religious training as a child? Was the Sabbath observed, holidays, anything like that?
SH: Unfortunately, I received the traditional religious education. I went to a cheder which was taught by a man who, having failed at everything else, tried to make a living teaching the ABC’s. He knew a little more than that, he held some advanced classes in Gemara, but I never reached that stage.
We were rebellious, Americanized Jewish kids who read the Bible and didn’t understand very much because it was translated into Yiddish rather than English. And we were very mischievous and very reluctant to go to cheder. As we grew a little older we made our rabbi’s life miserable by asking him embarrassing questions. I still recall how we would ask him about Cain and Abel, where did they get their wives? He wasn’t able to tell us, so we suggested, maybe from the shiksas around.
I don’t want to put too much emphasis upon this from the point of view of larger ethical issues. We raised these questions really in order to embarrass him. For example, we would make a fuss about Jacob’s stealing Esau’s blessings, and I still remember his indignation when we asked, Isn’t that wrong? He said: You know, Esau was an animal, so what kind of question is that to ask? But what we got really beaten for was when we read about how Moses wanted Pharaoh to let the Jews of Egypt go, but God hardened the heart of Pharaoh to keep them, and then when they were finally released, all the Egyptians were drowned in the Red Sea. So we said—in the imperfect Yiddish that we could muster—after all, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so why then did He punish the Egyptians by drowning them? And he said, We don’t ask questions like that.
It was when I really began to think about this kind of thing, at the age of twelve, that I lost my religious faith. My mother had had a child who was killed in an accident. They had bought a puppy for him at the age of one or two and the puppy overturned some kettle and the baby was scalded to death. That was the first of her children, and whenever she talked about it she was very, very sad. So at the age of twelve already, I had discovered the problem of evil and nobody could give me an adequate answer as to why the innocent suffer and why the guilty prosper.
Oh, the obvious rationalization was that if something happened to an individual and it wasn’t his fault, then his father had done something wrong. But even a bright twelve-year-old could respond, Then why don’t you punish the father? And what about those passages in the Bible where it says, I shall visit the sins of the fathers upon the heads of their children unto the third and fourth generations?
And so just before I was supposed to be bar mitzvah I expressed some reluctance about the whole thing and said that I didn’t want to go to shul, because I didn’t believe in God. The general attitude was, Look, God doesn’t care whether you believe in Him or not. You go to shul anyhow. But not getting bar mitzvah, that was a great social blow, my parents said it would be a shanda, a disgrace, what would the neighbors think? So I became bar mitzvah.
Of course, when I describe the past I’m giving it a sophistication which it didn’t have. As I said, there was more mischief than profundity involved in the kind of questions we asked. But much later, when I used to debate that Orthodox woman, Trude Weiss-Rosmarin, she would end up by saying, What you contend is testimony to the fact that you received a bad Jewish education. The implication being that if I had been properly taught, I would have retained my religious belief.
Now, one thing comes back to me that I’ve never thought of before. This rabbi who taught us, he was a man who himself had probably never faced these questions. He had common sense, but some of the questions we asked him couldn’t be answered with common sense. For instance, we once thought we had him over a barrel. In the daily prayer I recall there is a sentence where you thank God that you weren’t born a woman. Well, we asked him, why is it that you thank God?
NP: Was this premature feminism?
SH: Oh, no, no. We thought there was something involving sex here, we were very curious, and we wanted him to talk about it.
NP: So it was just prurience.
SH: He thought for a moment and he said, Well, you thank God you were not born a woman because every time a person is born a woman’s life is in danger. So men thank God that their lives are not so endangered. I’m sure that’s not an Orthodox answer, he thought it up, but it satisfied us and it silenced us. We knew what women had to endure when they gave birth, because I’m talking about 1912, 1911, when women would have their babies at home.
NP: You’ve already alluded to Yiddish. Was Yiddish spoken at home or English?
SH: Actually, on the whole English, because most of the communication was between us and our mother, who must have had an excellent ear because she spoke English without an accent.
SH: Yes. My father spoke English with an accent. But he left early in the morning, well before we were up, and when he came home at night it was very late, so we didn’t engage in much conversation with him, except when my mother would complain about our behavior. Then he was the disciplinarian, the task-master.
NP: I take it, just to go forward a bit, that you never did satisfactorily resolve the problem of evil that caused you to lose your faith.
SH: I have found that the problem of evil has been a bone on which theologians have choked for thousands of years. It’s been faced by every religion. According to the American philosopher Charles Peirce, the problem of evil is a problem that can’t be solved. The only way I know that it can be answered technically is through the doctrine of reincarnation, as in Hinduism or in Buddhism. If you are suffering, then this is a sign that in a previous incarnation you committed some horrible crime. So what is seen as unjust in this world is punishment for past misbehavior. But this only meets the problem through a series of fantasies.
Now, Einstein ended up believing there’s a God because you cannot explain the organization of the universe in terms of chance.
NP: “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”
SH: Yes, but even if there is a principle of rationality and you call that God, how do you square that with the problem of evil? What good does it do to say we live in a world of order in which the innocent suffer and the guilty often die in bed? And yet, look, there are occasions in my own life when the ships have come in, when my grandchildren achieve their goals, or when I’ve escaped or they have escaped some hazard, when I’m in the mood of thanksgiving, and I would like to thank something . . .
NP: And you look for someone to thank?
SH: . . . but that’s the only time.
NP: I take it that after bar mitzvah you had no further Jewish education of a formal kind, or of any kind really.
SH: None. Unfortunately. Unfortunately, because later on I began to believe that it was a great mistake not to give Jewish children a historical education, so they would have a better appreciation of their roots. When I grew older I recognized that even though I was appalled by some of the things in the Bible, they could be presented in a way that would at least make Jewish children proud of their origins, even if they didn’t believe. Here, for instance, was a people who for the first time in the history of mankind decreed a day of rest, a day of rest not only for humans but for all sentient beings, and this bespoke a consciousness and a sensitivity at a time when the peoples around them were more barbaric. Of course the Jews never condemned slavery, but look at the rules in the Bible which govern slavery, or think of the jubilee, the fact that every fifty years slavery is abolished and you start from scratch.
Now, we weren’t taught that when we were children, and I regret it. I think children of middle-class Jews fare better today. Even the children in the 30’s and 40’s who went to Sholem Aleichem schools, where the Bible was interpreted from a socialist point of view, and Moses was presented as the first trade-union organizer . . .
NP: Moses as Joe Hill?
SH: . . . Well, it’s better than growing up with a negativism that comes from being taught by illiterate pedagogues.
NP: I take it your mother kept a kosher home?
SH: My mother kept a kosher home, yes.
NP: When did you first violate the laws of kashrut, do you remember? Was it as a little boy, or later?
SH: I never deliberately violated them. I discovered that I had an organic revulsion to eating ham, which I think I did for the first time when I was in college.
NP: Me, too.
SH: I didn’t care for it particularly. Maybe that had something to do with pride, too. You see, I grew up in a community where the elders still had very strong apprehensions of what the Gentiles would do to them. Not that there was any mob violence to fear—but there was a store in Williamsburg in which there was a missionary, himself a convert from Judaism, trying to convert Jews to Christianity. But the interesting thing is that nobody ever went there, and everybody regarded it with open hostility. In other words, although we had no religious faith, we never thought of accepting any other.
And that is terribly important, at least it was for us: we were aware that we were Jewish, and although we didn’t really know too much about it, we were very militant in expressing our Jewishness and defending the Jews against attacks, and we wouldn’t even dream of conversion, or, later on, of leaving the fold for the belly’s sake. We even had a sort of a negative feeling when we read about someone who had been converted, like Karl Marx’s father, or Heinrich Heine, who said that conversion was a way of getting into European society. We had no real faith, but we thought it was inappropriate and undignified to renounce our religion; it was like renouncing yourself.
NP: Despite this militant feeling about the Jews, you weren’t at that stage of your life interested in Zionism. Did you know about it, did you, in your teens, have a reaction to it?
SH: My older sister was a Zionist.
NP: How about your parents?
SH: No. No, they weren’t. I knew the anthem Ha-Tikvah well enough to sing it, but the whole thing didn’t have much of an impact. The idea of going to Palestine—for us, you know, even going to Staten Island was a big thing. . . . You must remember, these were the years just prior to World War I and then during the war, and Zionists didn’t play a role in our particular universe, though of course I learned later on about the Balfour Declaration and so forth.
NP: You were then going to Boys High School in Brooklyn.
SH: Yes, I went to Boys High School beginning in February 1916, and by that time I was a young socialist. I had a friend whose father used to read the Call, the socialist paper, and he and his father would make very sophisticated remarks about the status quo. Then when I was in high school I read Jack London’s novel, Martin Eden, and became a socialist myself.
NP: Did that have any relation to your feelings about Zionism? Did you regard it, from a socialist point of view, as a form of reactionary bourgeois nationalism?
SH: Well, not so much that in particular as the fact that my becoming a socialist absorbed all my political energies. We American socialists were one of the few socialist movements in the world to oppose the entry of the United States into the war, and that unleashed a fury against us.
NP: Was Boys High in those days heavily Jewish? It certainly was later, in the 1940’s, when I went there.
SH: The student body was heavily Jewish, but there were few Jewish teachers. Most of the teachers were rejects from other professions, people who had been clergymen or journalists or what not, and they knew nothing about teaching. We weren’t encouraged to ask questions. Still, by conventional standards, Boys High was an elite institution. For one thing, when you graduated from elementary school only half the class would go on to high school; the rest got working papers. Then, too, a great many students dropped out of high school if their families couldn’t afford to have them not working. But my parents were concerned about education, and wanted me to go to college. Not that they knew what I was studying or why. All the decisions I made were my own, some of them foolish.
NP: I assume you got very good grades in high school.
NP: You didn’t?
SH: No, no, no. Not even in English and history classes, where I knew more than the teachers. I still remember my history teacher was outraged when I said we lost the War of 1812. And I still remember the day the chemistry teacher came to my home class, and said, just point him out to me, I want to see what he looks like. I was considered really a Bolshevik.
NP: You graduated from Boys High in 1919, and then you went to City College to study philosophy. Morris Raphael Cohen was already a professor there, wasn’t he?
SH: He was, but on leave when I got there. It wasn’t until my second year that I studied with him, and he made all the difference in the world. He was the first man I had ever met who was sharper, keener, smarter than I was.
NP: Were you conscious in any salient way of the fact that Morris Raphael Cohen was Jewish? Did it make any difference?
SH: Oh, well, anyone who heard Morris Raphael Cohen speak English couldn’t doubt that he was Jewish. He spoke with a pronounced accent, and occasionally, even in class, he would drop a Yiddish word. Once he told us that he gave a lecture and someone came up to him and asked him, do you speak Yiddish? “In New York,” he answered, “hob ich a breireh?,” do I have any alternative? But we also were aware that Morris Cohen had written an essay in the New Republic on Zionism, “The Fallacy of Tribalism,” and that made quite a difference to us. We weren’t aware that Horace Kallen, then teaching at the New School for Social Research, had responded with a rebuttal.
Now, Cohen—I’ve written about him at length and I won’t repeat—was a remarkably critical mind and I owe him a great deal, even though we ended up disagreeing with each other in fierce ways. He was a very disappointed man. He should have been teaching at a university, but it was almost impossible for Jews at that time.
Cohen had studied at Columbia with F.J.E. Woodbridge, then he took his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he roomed with Felix Frankfurter. But he originally got his job at the College of the City of New York not in philosophy but at the College’s elite high school, Townsend Harris, teaching mathematics. Finally, through some fluke he was able to transfer to the philosophy department.
If Cohen had taught at a university, he would have met people of his own caliber and would have perhaps softened the rough edges of his personality. But in his classrooms he was an intellectual tyrant, and excellent for people like me. I became a very formidable logician—anybody coming out of Cohen’s classes would go around correcting people’s inferences, so that after a while it used to be said that you could see the mark of Cain on them. The mark of Cohen.
NP: His essay on Zionism as tribalism, did you agree with it?
SH: At that time, yes, because it reinforced the very strong feeling that I had against nationalism. We were all impressed with his argument, everybody was reacting then against the excesses of nationalism, which the war had illustrated. And we were young, idealistic socialists, we were universalists, although we were also prepared to defend the right of any nation to self-determination. We just never thought of the Jews in the same way.
Of course, the case against nationalism in the abstract is unanswerable, but if you take your point of departure not from abstract principles but from the historic situation which you find yourself in, then these abstractions are often irrelevant.
NP: In 1917 Rosa Luxemburg, speaking as a socialist revolutionary, said to a fellow Jew, Don’t come to me with your special Jewish sorrows. I care more about the troubles of the Indians in Putamayo than about the ghetto. Would that have been your attitude at the age of nineteen?
SH: No, I would never have put it that way. No, I was too close to the Jews and too much aware of what they were suffering, and I was also too much aware of the fact that most of the obstacles in my life arose from the fact that I was Jewish, much more than from the fact that I was a radical.
NP: Did you yourself experience anti-Semitism?
SH: Yes. When I got my Ph.D. at Columbia with John Dewey and I was looking for a job, I was told by Woodbridge, who was then dean of the Graduate School at Columbia, that there had been seven requests for candidates for teaching positions, and that he had recommended me for them. Five were withdrawn when it was discovered that I was not Anglo-Saxon as my name implied. But you must remember that at that time, in the late 20’s, philosophy was taught in departments of religion-and-philosophy. There were two offers: one came from someone at an experimental college in Wisconsin who admired Cohen, and the other from the University of Chicago. As for Columbia, Irwin Edman was teaching there, and he was Jewish, but he was an albino and very, very correct. And James Guttman, a Jew by name but certainly not by interests, was also a member of the philosophy department. Then there was Felix Adler of the Ethical Culture Society, who taught philosophy, and a few others in Semitic languages where some chairs had been endowed by rich German Jews.
Cohen, who wanted to teach at Columbia, always assumed that Dewey had stopped him. I once asked Dewey why Cohen wasn’t at Columbia. He said Woodbridge had stopped him. Woodbridge was a friend of Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia, who was a friend of J. P. Morgan—Butler mixed in the highest company, and he was not exactly a philo-Semite. Gail Kennedy, a good friend of mine and a devoted follower of Dewey, told me that in 1932 or 1933, on a ship coming back from Europe, Woodbridge, who had just been at the University of Berlin, said to him, Well, you can understand why Hitler will come to power; all the department stores are owned by Jews, the professions are full of them. It wasn’t a racial thing, it was social and cultural.
The only Jew Woodbridge was kind to was Ernest Nagel. Woodbridge had a passion for geometry, but he was not very good at it, and Nagel, who was the soul of patience, would work out the demonstrations for him. Of course Nagel was not yet a professor at Columbia but was teaching philosophy at City College. That was practically the only place a Jew could get a position in those days.
NP: As for you, you went to Europe.
SH: Yes, on a Guggenheim. That was in ’29. But in 1927, the year I got my degree, Philip Wheelwright had an opening at Washington Square College of New York University, and he came up to J.J. Coss, a former clergyman who was secretary of the Columbia department, and he asked for help in finding someone. Coss used to say to Jewish students, Why do you want to study philosophy, why do a silly thing like that, you’re not going to get a job. Now he was fearful that Dewey was going to ask for a job for me at Columbia, as he had once done for Joseph Ratner, who was also Jewish, and so Coss said, Oh, I’ve got just the man for you, Sidney Hook.
NP: In other words, the main reason you got an offer to teach at NYU was that the department secretary was trying to prevent Dewey from getting you a job at Columbia.
SH: Yes, although you could never prove it in court.
NP: Because you were Jewish.
SH: Oh yes, probably. But also, see, I’d had the nerve to conduct a meeting on the steps of Low Library at Columbia on behalf of Sacco and Vanzetti, and J.H. Randall, who taught in the philosophy department and also believed they were innocent, said to me, that’s in very bad taste. And I answered, the hell with taste, men’s lives are at stake. So things conspired. But when I got to Washington Square in 1927, I was the only known Jew on the faculty. There was another, but he was passing. His name was Gamzu, a Hebrew name of some kind. He had red hair, so people didn’t recognize him as a Jew, only his friends.
I’ll tell you something which is testimony to the state of fraud at the time. William Phillips, one of the founding editors, later the co-editor and then the editor of Partisan Review, wrote in the manuscript of his autobiography that when he was a student at NYU he heard that I was able to get the appointment there only because Wheelwright had asked a Princeton friend, who was tall, blond, and Anglo-Saxon, to say he was Sidney Hook and be introduced to the dean under that name. Phillips’s publisher asked me if this was true and I told him that’s what people believed then, but it wasn’t true.
NP: Let me move forward a little bit. In the early 30’s you were not a member of the Communist party, but ideologically you were a Communist. And your book, Towards the Understanding of Karl Marx, came out in 1933. Hitler came to power in 1933, and you have the beginnings of anti-Semitic legislation in Germany soon thereafter. What kind of impression did the specifically anti-Semitic aspect of Hitler’s program make on you as a young radical?
SH: Well, in ’28 and ’29 I had been in Germany on my Guggenheim, and because I spent time in Munich and went to the Nazi meetings, I had already discovered the real threat posed by Hitler to the peace of the world. I also knew all about Hitler’s anti-Semitism, I had read Mein Kampf. But, to my surprise, in 1928 and ’29 there was less public expression of anti-Semitism in the streets and in the air in Germany than existed in the United States, especially in New York State. When I told some of my German friends about signs at hotels in the Catskills and the Adirondacks, “No Jews Allowed,” they were astounded.
The only anti-Semitism I encountered in Germany was what came out of romantic nationalism. Among the students, I met a group who were followers of Stefan George, and they were anti-Semitic because Jews were culturally foreign. But it wasn’t racial; that came later. There used to be a joke: Who’s responsible for Germany’s troubles? Answer: The Jews and the bicycle riders. Question: What do the bicycle riders have to do with it? Answer: What do the Jews have to do with it? This was supposed to show the absurdity of the thing. Even in Bavaria, which was traditionally anti-Semitic, the only thing I heard was about peasants who didn’t like doing business with Jewish cattle dealers. But the overwhelming feeling in Germany, shared from the Communists all the way through to the extreme right wing, was resentment not against Jews but against the Versailles Treaty.
NP: What about later, after the Nuremberg Laws were promulgated? I gather from what you’re saying that the anti-Semitic component of the Nazi program, which you were aware of, and obviously repelled by, was nevertheless not the most salient feature for you.
SH: Neither for me nor for the whole radical movement, at least among students. Of course the Left was opposed to anti-Semitism, but it understood and used the anti-Semitism of the Nazis as evidence of the unfitness of National Socialism altogether. If the Communists took over, then anti-Semitism would disappear.
NP: Well, that leads me to another question. As a student of Marx and Marxism, were you aware of the anti-Semitic elements not just in Marx himself, but in the socialist movement? Many books have since been written about this.
SH: I was not aware of it and what has been written has been ex post facto. Edmund Silberner wrote about it earlier, but his was a lonely voice, addressed only to Jewish circles. The radical groups didn’t read Silberner. Anyway, he went back over Marx’s life and discovered that Marx personally was an anti-Semite. I was aware of that. I thought it was just a personal defect. I was also aware of Marx’s terrible essay on “The Jewish Question.” But I stressed the fact that Marx was treating Jews in the same way as non-Jews. His “Der Judenfrage” came out in English under the title, “A World Without Jews,” but it should have been “A World Without Jews or Christians.” Marx was consistent, he was really a fiery anti-religious. He did hold the Jews responsible for the shift in the German economy, and he believed that if the Jews had not been engaged in business or in the professions but in agriculture, things would have been different.
But the real discovery we made about anti-Semitism in connection with radicalism came later, and had to do with Stalin’s anti-Jewish policies in the Soviet Union.
NP: You’ve said that your radical friends in the 30’s thought that if the Communists took over there would be no anti-Semitism. Did you agree with that?
SH: No. I had begun to think about anti-Semitism. I came to the conclusion that anti-Semitism was not merely residual in Western society but that it was implicated in the whole Christian myth, in a culture which believes that the god it worships was killed by a group to which the concept of collective guilt was hereinafter applied. This is one of the reasons I intensified my anti-religious outlook, and began to argue that so long as you had a Christian civilization the Jews would suffer. Now, people disagreed with me and for a while I wondered whether I was wrong. They pointed out to me that there was anti-Semitism in Roman times, before Christianity, and even earlier. Well, I still believed that if you’re told every Easter that Jews killed God, you’re going to have a certain feeling against them.
About this time I moved back to Brooklyn. I was in Prospect Park one Easter Sunday, and after the church services people came streaming into the park. On the bench next to me there was a woman with a child, a little angelic child, maybe about five or six years old, so radiant, curls down to her shoulders. She turned to her mother and I heard her say, Mommy, I love everybody, even the Jews. And I thought, that five-year-old, what has she heard? What has she heard? And she had heard.
It was a great mistake we made, moving there. It was a pious Catholic neighborhood and my son was called a Christ-killer. One day I found him—he was about seven years old—sitting on the steps wrapped in thought, and I said, Ben, what’s the matter? And he said, but how can they call me a Christ-killer? Christ was a Jew! And that’s when I realized that the kids had been harassing him, making his life miserable.
So I said to myself, all right, there are many factors that enter into anti-Semitism, social, historical; besides, people just don’t like foreigners. But when you bring children up with traditional Christian doctrine, even if they emancipate themselves from it, I can’t believe they will ever emancipate themselves from the feeling that the Jews are deicides. I never thought that Communism would wipe that out—only if it wiped out religion altogether.
NP: Speaking of children, how did you raise your own with respect to their Jewish origins?
SH: I made a terrible mistake with respect to my own kids. I sent them to the Ethical Culture Society school and tried not to influence them. I’d seen so many people indoctrinate their children and I said, I’m not going to. I didn’t even talk to them about atrocities that happened in the world—not just against Jews—atrocities that made my blood run cold. So that my passion for human freedom was not communicated to them in the same way, although my son did develop it himself.
It was a great mistake not to impart all this to them, even though I don’t know how I could have justified doing it, because on educational grounds I don’t think one should condition children. After all, no one conditioned me and I came to my own conclusions; why couldn’t my children do the same? But when it’s your own children you feel differently.
NP: Would you give them a different kind of Jewish upbringing now?
SH: I would insist that the Ethical Culture Society give them more. They were told about the Jews, but they were told about the Phoenicians, too, and about the Buddhists. The Jews didn’t get any special treatment.
When the Zionist educator Shlomo Bardin came from Israel we got to know him. He was involved with a school in Brooklyn, and we sent the kids there a few times, but it wasn’t systematic, wasn’t sustained. My daughter married an Armenian, so her children are in a wonderful position, being members of the two most persecuted minorities in the world.
NP: How many grandchildren do you have?
SH: Four. They have no Jewish consciousness.
NP: And you regret this?
SH: Very much. But I don’t know how I could have done anything about it, because it would have been foreign to their experience. But you know for a while I did get interested in Jewish education. That was in the 40’s when I conducted a survey and wrote a report for the National Association of Jewish Women. There I also went into great detail on my experiences with Jewish college students.
In the tenth book of Plato’s Republic, there’s the story of Er, who is left for dead on the battlefield and by mistake is transported to the Greek version of the underworld, or rather the intermediate world, where he discovers—Plato believed in reincarnation—that those who depart this world are given an opportunity, when someone else dies, to rejoin the human community and choose the kind of life they will lead. Now I used to say to my students, year after year, I want you to make out these charts. Don’t sign them. On one side put down your nationality, your sex, your religion. On the other side write, if you could choose to be reborn, what selection you would make. What country do you want to be born in? What sex? What religion? And so on. And year after year, the country they wanted to be born in was the United States, nowhere else. Sex? Most of them wanted to be born with the same sex, except a few girls whose vocational ambition was engineering or physics or something. But when it came to religion, I very rarely met a Jewish student, and my students were predominantly Jewish, who wanted to be born into the Jewish religion. Many of them said, any religion that is not discriminated against. Or no religion.
Well, to me, this was a sign. What is a test of a person’s happiness in life? You ask him, if you had a chance to relive your life, with all of its ambiguities and possibilities, would you accept that chance? My mother used to say that she would not want to be reborn, because the memory of the loss of her first child was so deep within her, and she had other problems and troubles. She said, No, I’ve had enough, I don’t want to be reborn. My friend, Ernest Nagel, for other reasons, said, No, he wouldn’t want to be born again. I think that’s a sign of an unhappy life. I have a feeling that you, though, would take another chance at life. I would, too, and my wife would.
But here were these Jews living in a world where they didn’t want to be reborn as Jews. That is perhaps the most powerful argument for Zionism. I’m sure that children born in kibbutzim have had no such problem accepting themselves.
NP: And you think this is also a good argument for Jewish education?
SH: Well, a reason for Jewish education I would stress is to be able to accept yourself as a Jew and try to build a life of dignity on that basis. That’s a great difficulty many people have with my position. I’m not a religious Jew, I’m not a political Zionist, though I’ve been a strong believer in supporting Israel ever since it was established by the United Nations—they have the same right to their existence as any other people. I’m not a scholar in Hebrew or in Aramaic. And yet I’m a Jew and I feel that I’m a Jew.
Some people ask, What makes you a Jew? I say, a Jew is anyone who calls himself such or is called such and lives in a community which acts on the distinction between Jew and non-Jew. That’s a purely nominal definition, but it’s the only one that does justice to the way the term “Jew” is used throughout the world. People who’ve given up their Judaism are still called Jews, people who have no belief at all. A Jewish atheist, is that an oxymoron? It’s not, because he’s still Jewish. Well, that’s my view.
I had a great debate with Rabbi Leo Jung on the existence of God. I said, It’s very difficult for Jews to believe in God after the Holocaust. And I still remember, he bounded to the front of the podium and he said, Just listen to the man! He’s blaming the Holocaust on God. That wasn’t God’s fault, that was Roosevelt’s fault! He was referring to the fact that during the war Jews couldn’t get into the country, and Roosevelt prevented them. The audience burst into applause. And I murmured, God is not stronger than Roosevelt?
NP: You’ve anticipated my next two questions, which concern the Holocaust and the founding of the state of Israel.
SH: On the subject of Israel I have to be perfectly frank with you. In 1931, at a meeting called by Elliot Cohen, who was then managing editor of the Menorah Journal and who of course later became your predecessor as editor of COMMENTARY, there was a talk by Shmarya Levin, who was a great Zionist orator. He made a very eloquent speech, in German. It’s interesting that most of us understood German better than Yiddish. Well, when he got through we had a discussion. I asked a simple question about die Araben. I said, What about the Arabs? And Levin denounced me as a child, and later on Elliot Cohen said, What kind of question was that? I had spoiled the meeting by saying the Arabs would be a problem. But it’s on the record that I felt that way, and I did feel that way until the state of Israel was proclaimed.
A lot of us used to be followers of Judah Magnes: we didn’t want a state, we wanted some kind of cultural binationalism. But obviously that’s a utopian notion. After the state was proclaimed, I said that there are some situations in which decisions have to be made, and this was a decision taken by the entire international community; the Soviet Union voted for it, the United States voted for it. . . . Even Morris Raphael Cohen reconciled himself to it.
NP: Did he?
SH: After a while he played his anti-Zionism down—really after Hitler came to power. I was present in the mid-30’s at the organizational meeting of the Conference on Jewish Relations, with him and Salo Baron, the great Jewish historian at Columbia University. I still remember blushing with embarrassment. I said to myself then, all those meetings I have gone to for radical causes and sectarian causes, why not for Jewish causes? It was a turning point in my awareness. Cohen became interested in resisting anti-Semitism in this country, and I did, too. I took the field against Father Coughlin and also against Mortimer Adler at the University of Chicago, who at that time was converting Jewish boys to Catholicism, and I worked with the Jewish Frontier group and the Reconstructionists.
But the point is that when it comes to the political issue raised by Zionism, it seems to me that the problem was settled with the UN partition plan and the declaration of the state.
NP: Now, the Holocaust.
SH: Look, like everybody else, when the news of the Holocaust first came, I was skeptical. I remembered my days as a student in Boys High School during World War I. We were told that German soldiers were cutting off the hands of Belgian children, and I would deny it; I’d been reading Bertrand Russell’s Justice in Wartime. Then after the war the British boasted that they had taken in the American public with these atrocity tales about German soldiers and pictures of factories rendering corpses into fat. And when I went to Germany in ’28, where memories of the war and the inflation were still strong, I spoke to people who had fought in the German army who said that the bitterest feeling they had was when they read how they had been accused of cutting off the hands of children.
So now, when the first news came out about the death camps, I was disinclined to accept it. Then gradually it became more believable. In fact I believed it before others, because at that time I was a friend of Oskar Lange, the Polish economist, before we broke and he went back to Poland. When the war started he would bring to my office at NYU Poles who had made their way across Russia or Siberia, and who had begun to hear rumors that the Jews were being destroyed. Once it all became known, I think there should have been more public agitation. It is a scandal that the camps were not bombed. Whoever it was, Roosevelt or others, who said for strategic reasons we couldn’t bomb these camps—
NP: It was John J. McCloy, who was Assistant Secretary of War.
SH: Yes, well, that’s absurd. But here is a final point on which I differ with people about the Holocaust. A certain myth has grown up that the Holocaust was so unique you can’t compare it with anything. But when Jewish communities used to be persecuted in the Middle Ages, when there was an auto-da-fé, for those people it was a holocaust. I go further. This may have been the most monstrous holocaust in human history, but I think any people are capable of conducting a holocaust. I know the polls show that there’s less bigotry in relation to the Jews in this country than at any time in the past, but I’m still uncomfortable when I read about someone like Farrakhan and the huge audiences he attracts.
This may be a purely subjective reaction, but over the last two years, since the intifada began and Israel has had to respond with force, I think many non-Jews who have been uncomfortable about the Holocaust or felt a sort of indirect, not responsibility but a sort of involvement, now feel absolved. In fact, some of them liken what Israel is doing to the abominations of the Nazis. Now, what the hell are Jews doing in Israel as compared with that? The comparison is an infamy. But all this has made me very pessimistic about the future and reinforced my view that if conditions became desperate enough, it could happen again. I haven’t dared actually say this openly, but I can even conceive of a holocaust in the United States. I’m exaggerating, but I think the Farrakhans are capable of carrying one out.
NP: Have you ever been to Israel?
SH: No. I’ve been invited recently, but the doctors have forbidden me to travel.
NP: But you’ve supported Israel since ’48, and you overcame whatever residual anti-nationalist or anti-Zionist feeling you might have had. What would be your general assessment of the state of Israel now, looking back?
SH: Well, of course, I’m so much more aware of the complexities, even though I’ve never been a part of any Zionist group, and don’t even know what they are. All I know is this, that I would never try to tell the Israelis what they should do, since it’s their necks, their lives. Only if I were prepared to go to Israel and live there could I tell them wholeheartedly. It’s easy to say, trade land for peace, but how much, under what conditions? What I feel in my bones, in my bones, is that the Arabs, the intransigent ones among them, will start a war as soon as they can. But you can’t develop a program on the basis of what’s in your bones.
NP: Why not?
SH: I’ll tell you why not. Because Israel can’t survive without the United States. If they lose public opinion in the United States, where else are they going to get support? The people who are running Israel have got to take into account where they’re going to get support, unless their psychology is just to go down fighting. Again, I’m not sure whether . . . is this going to be published?
NP: It’s up to you.
SH: Well, this part I don’t want published until I’m dead. Sometimes, when I have read the history of Jewish suffering over the ages, and the indignities that Jews have endured, I’ve found myself thinking about the crazy Zealots at the time of the Second Temple who thought they could win against the might of the Romans. They believed, literally, that the angels would come down to fight on their side. Now what if the whole Palestinian Jewish population of that time had gone down fighting? Just think what we would have been spared, two thousand years of anti-Semitic excesses.
Well, it’s a melancholy thought, that you go out in a blaze of glory. But those who say, No, survival is everything—I don’t know. To me, survival is not the be-all and end-all. Under some circumstances I think it’s better not to be than to be. I argued that with Bertrand Russell once. For instance, if I were confronted with the prospect of insanity, or if mankind was about to eat some bitter root which would turn it permanently insane, I’d say it’s better not to be. And even the Greeks, in their tragic mood, would sometimes say that it’s better never to have been born.
In short, I am very, very pessimistic about the Jewish future, especially as I read about what’s happening in Chicago between blacks and Jews, or observe the student bodies in the United States shifting their loyalties and allegiances and enthusiasms from Israel to the Arabs, without any understanding of history and not regarding what took place last year or the year before, going back to ’48 when the massed armies of the Arab countries tried to prevent the state from coming into being. The Arabs have now learned the advertising techniques of the West and they’re dong a job in the universities which unfortunately the Jews are not combating effectively.
However, there’s one consoling thought. We all have been made liars on the basis of predictions we’ve made in the past. You know, if someone had tried to predict in 1900 what was going to be by 1914, he might have predicted a war but not that kind of a war, and not those results, which left Germany prostrate and then so successful. Or Japan: from the ashes of empire, now an economic threat to the United States. Who could have predicted that? So let’s hope that my pessimism about Israel and about the Jewish future will turn out not to be warranted by events.
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