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What Can the Jews Do?

ISSUE:  Spring 1939

As is the case with many another Jew, some of my best friends are Gentiles. And these friends keep asking me, “What are you Jews going to do about it?” They refer to the flood of hate which is inundating us. Half a million Jews in Germany and another quarter-million in Austria have already been engulfed. Forty thousand more in Italy seem about to be engulfed. And that, crow the Nazis, is only the beginning. They and their allies are at work in every other country from Ireland to Tasmania, from Chile to Manchukuo. They openly declare that they are going to hound us until we are all back in the ghetto—or else in the grave. So, the question my friends put to me is tragically pertinent: What are we Jews going to do?

I wish I knew. I wish any of us knew, but we don’t. We Jews can’t make up our mind what to do—because, as Jews, we no longer have any mind to make up.

Let me explain. Persecution is far from a novel experience in our history. On the contrary, we have had to cope with it ever since the time of the Pharoahs. But we had begun to think it was waning. For almost a century we had been telling ourselves that Judophobia, like cholera and so many other ancient plagues, was swiftly being blotted out in at least the more civilized parts of the earth. And then came this tidal wave.

It took us off our guard. Not even our wildest alarmists were prepared for such an assault. The rest, lulled by their faith in the world’s growing enlightenment, were prepared for nothing at all.

I remember a conversation with the famous German novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger, in the fall of 1932. Hitler was already on the threshold of power, and I asked what his triumph might portend for the Jews in the Reich. Dr. Feuchtwanger shrugged his shoulders contemptuously. “Ach, that poor madman!” he cried. “He will be able to do nothing. Germany, remember, is a civilized country. If the Nazis attempt to carry out their program, they will not last six months. Perhaps not even six weeks!”

That was the prevailing conviction among the German Jews at that time. Almost all of them counted on the innate sanity of their Gentile fellow countrymen. And much the same was true of the Jews in every other Western land. The last time I met Dr. Feuchtwanger, he was living in exile in France. “How blind I was!” he confessed to me bitterly.

In medieval times we took persecution for granted and knew how to deal with it. We simply huddled behind our ghetto walls and waited for the storm to pass. We drew into the shell of our ancient religion and continued to live our own life in our own way. It was a narrow life, of course, but it had its compensations. It was at least snug. Judaism then was more than a mere cult. It was an all-pervading culture. Moreover, never having tasted of any other culture, we thought it sufficient, and were content.

But all that is gone now—not, of course, in Poland or Persia or Morocco or other such regions. There, the bulk of the Jews can still create a life for themselves out of their own resources. Elsewhere, however, we have lost that ability. Elsewhere, we are not so much voluntary Jews as involuntary non-Gentiles. Millions of us in the advanced parts of the world no longer know the ways of our fathers. And millions more, who retain some recollection of those ways, consider them outworn and unappealing.

We still have the Jewish name, but not the game. The majority of us were reared to play with and among the Gentiles, and now we find ourselves being put off the teams. In some countries we are being kicked off, and in others merely nudged off.

Shall we submit to the ejection and start a team of our own ? But where ? The Zionists tried to do that in Palestine, and see what has come of all their efforts. Within less than twenty years they turned a fever-ridden waste into a center of civilization. They built cities where once there had been barren dunes, and conjured orchards out of stony hillsides. They started farm colonies, created industries, introduced sanitation, established hospitals, and built schools and even a great university. All that required fierce zeal and untiring labor—which they had.

I recall a conversation with a Polish Jewess whom I encountered on my first visit to Palestine in 1925. She was obviously an educated person—I learned later that she had been a student at the Sorbonne in Paris—but she was working as a milkmaid in one of the farm colonies. A British official was with me at the time, and he seemed puzzled. He stared at the girl’s faded smock and torn shoes, and at her raw-skinned face and calloused hands. “Couldn’t she make an easier living in her native country?” he asked me.

I translated his question, and a curious smile came into her large black eyes. “I am afraid he does not understand,” she answered. “I am not interested in a living. I want a life.”

The Zionists went to Palestine because they wanted a free and secure and prideful life in a place they could call their very own. But for more than two years, now, there has been increasing violence in the Holy Land: looting, shooting, arson, and boycott. The Jews blame the Arabs, the Arabs the Jews, and the British blame the Italians. All that, however, is beside the point. What counts is the fact that the Zionist dream has become a nightmare. Instead of finding a new life in Palestine, four hundred thousand Jews there are threatened with sudden death. From all reports, they are not cowed by that threat. They will stand their ground. But that, too, is beside the point. The fact remains that even in Palestine we find ourselves unwanted.

So, our most obvious course is blocked. Before we could ever become a nation again we would have to possess Palestine—where else could we possibly claim any historic right to nationhood?—and we know now that we won’t be allowed to possess it.

Even if we could have Palestine — all of it, including Transjordania — we would still be unable to become a real nation, for two reasons. First, because most of the Jews in the world would never be able to crowd in there. And second, because most Jews would not even care to try.

Most of us want to stay where we are, because that is where we feel we belong. I am not saying that this is right or wrong. I am merely stating a fact. If over a hundred thousand Jews have left Germany during the past five years, it is only because they were forced to do so. Granted the right, ninety per cent of the refugees would probably return to Germany tomorrow. For, despite all of Hitler’s ranting, Germany is still home to them.

And much the same feeling animates the native Jews in every other Western land. Leon Blum is first and last a Frenchman, Viscount Samuel is an Englishman, Guido Jung is an Italian, Henry Morgenthau is an American.

Only simple-witted people imagine that Jews are all united. Actually, we form hardly more cohesive a group than do the vegetarians or the mathematicians or the stamp-collectors of the world. It has well been said that there is only one thing two Jews will agree upon, and that is how much a third should give to charity.

Consider us physically: Some Jews are as dark as Tartars, some are as fair as Swedes, some are full-blooded Negroes, and some are real Hindus. Think of Edward G. Robinson and Melvyn Douglas. One is short, swarthy, and typically a Mongol in appearance, while the other is tall, blond, and as typically North European. Yet, both are called Jews. Racially they are no more akin than the Shah of Persia and the Duke of Windsor. Think of petite Luise Rainer and angular Fanny Brice. All these are known to be Jews, yet, so far as “blood” is concerned, the most one can say is that they are “Caucasians.”

What is true of us racially is equally true, as I have already tried to show, with regard to nationality. The average American Jew may stand out—if you point him out—in a crowd of American Gentiles. Yet he has immeasurably more in common with those Gentiles than he has, for example, with the average French Jew. When he visits Paris, it never occurs to him to make friends among his French coreligionists. Instead, he will usually hang around Napoleon’s Tomb or Notre Dame, where he can hope to run into other Americans. It makes no difference to him whether these are Methodists, Mennonites, or Mormons. So long as they are Americans he feels they are his own kind.

That being the case, how in the world are we ever to form a team of our own? All of us couldn’t if we would, and most of us wouldn’t if we could. It is too late to unscramble the omelet. For better or for worse, we have got to remain a scattered people.

The only alternatives left for us are quiet or torment in the world at large. Naturally, we want quiet. But, again, how are we to get it?

If there were any logic in the whole situation, that question would be easy to answer. First, we would discover the reasons for discrimination, and then proceed to eradicate them. We would determine what is “wrong” with us, and straightway take measures to set ourselves right. But logic is not involved here. Instead, we are confronted with a thick muck of irrationality—with prejudices, suspicions, and silly generalizations. Here are a few selected at random:

“Jews are arrogant and clannish. They are sycophants and climbers. Jews are the richest capitalists. They are the leading Communists. Jews are fanatically superstitious. They are cynically atheistic. Jews are parasitic middlemen. They are dangerous labor agitators.”

With such conflicting charges, how can we set ourselves right? You may argue that such charges are made only by fools and knaves. The trouble is, that fools and knaves are setting the tone of thought these days. It was once possible — even though tragically mistaken — to ignore them. But not any more.

I should be the last to suggest that we are beyond improvement. On the contrary, when I look at my people I am filled with shame. I know then why a noted rabbi once defined an anti-Semite as a person who condemns the Jews more than is absolutely necessary. For we do justly deserve plenty of condemnation. After all that we have lived through during the past three thousand years, we ought to be incomparably better than we are. With all the prophets we have brought forth, and all our poets and philosophers and artists and scientists, we ought really to amount to something by this time. Instead, we too have our quota of fools and knaves; we, too, when given the chance, can be mean and savage. Some Jews will deny that; but in doing so they merely prove what I am saying. There is absolutely no denying the indictment that we Jews are—human beings.

Yet, somehow, we remain set apart. Despite that we are as faulty as our neighbors, we continue to be regarded as different. Is it because we have a different religion? That is no longer true of many of us. Like a proportionate number of non-Jews, many of us have drifted out into a sea of irreligion. In part we have not drifted so much as deliberately steered out into that sea. We hoped thus to escape the hostility which remained our lot so long as we clung to our Mosaic moorings. As a result, millions of Jews today have virtually abandoned Judaism—not in any formal fashion, perhaps. They have simply grown neglectful of the ancient rites, and ceased to revere what their forefathers called the “Holy Law.” Here in America, for example, not one Jew in ten belongs to a synagogue, not one in a hundred adheres strictly to the kosher diet, not one in a thousand observes the Mosaic Sabbath. But that has not saved us from discrimination.

In Germany many Jews went further. They actually forswore Judaism and entered the Church. True, their conduct may not always have been motivated by sincere conviction. The world-renowned poet, Heinrich Heine, is a case in point. As a young man he wanted to become a lawyer, and, at the time, only professing Christians could follow that calling in Germany. So, he became a Christian. But, as he confessed with characteristic bitterness : “I was merely baptized, not converted. No Jew can ever be converted to Christianity, for no Jew can bring himself to believe in the divinity of another Jew!”

Heine was exaggerating, of course. But that is neither here nor there. It makes little difference why so many German Jews went over to the Church. Enough that they did. They became Christians, married Christians, and reared their children to be Christians.

But they were not spared when Hitler took power. If anything, their plight today is actually worse than that of the professing Jews. As one of them told me—a few days before he took his life—”I am a doomed man. To the Christians I am a Jew, and to the Jews I am a Christian. I belong nowhere!”

Wherever I have traveled during these past five years, in Turkey, Sweden, Fiji, or Honduras, I have encountered such doomed creatures. I recall one whom I found literally “on the beach” at Port Said. “What are you?” I asked him. “I am a nonner,” he replied grimly. And then he went on to explain: “At home I am a non-Aryan. In Palestine I am a non-Jew. And here I am a non-resident.”

The point is clear: changing our religion cannot help us. Even if all of us could bring ourselves to take that step, it would bring few, if any, of us nearer to you. The day is past when the door of the Church was the gateway out of the ghetto. Apostasy, at most, can make us Christians. It cannot make us Gentiles.

And with religion ruled out, what else can we change in the hope of attaining quiet? Our ancestors? That is impossible. Our descendants? That is being made impossible. In Germany and Italy we are legally forbidden to intermarry. And elsewhere — save, apparently, in the Soviet Union—we are reluctant to do so. All statistics prove that intermarriage was steadily on the increase in the Western lands until these last few years. But the curve seems to be flattening now. Some observers say it has actually turned. You can understand why, We are afraid to intermarry nowadays. Intermarriage, even in happier days, was a hazardous venture. Under present circumstances it seems perilous in the extreme. We have seen what has happened in the Fascist countries, and the sight has revived all our ancient terrors. We feel ourselves besieged. How natural, therefore, that we should tend to close our ranks.

Then, shall we change our means of livelihood? But what good would that do? It is often held against us that we are not farmers. But are there not already enough farmers in the world? If we seem better fitted to function in urban pursuits, we ought to be encouraged to follow them. A good bookkeeper is surely of more use to society than a bad plow-hand, and a bright stenographer than a clumsy milkmaid.

It is true that Jews are peculiarly drawn to certain occupations. For example, here in America we are disproportionately active in the motion-picture industry. But, in the same way, the Basques in this country are disproportionately active in sheep herding, the Italians dominate in wine making, the Germans in brewing, the Armenians in rug dealing, and the Greeks in the restaurant business. Is there anything wicked in that?

There might be valid objection if it could be shown that Jews use their influence in Hollywood to propagandize in their own behalf. You will frequently see films which depict a pastor or a priest in an heroic role. But have you ever seen one shedding glory on a rabbi? For that matter, have you ever seen one depicting any Jewish character save in a blatantly comic role?

Of course, you might argue that Jews are directly responsible for the poor quality of most American films. But can you point to any country which produces better ones? The German cinema has been purged of all “non-Aryan” influence, and look at the result. The current productions there are technically so inferior and theatrically so dull that even the Storm Troopers stay away from them in hordes. There is only one reason why Hollywood is the film capital of the world. It is because the products of Hollywood are the best—or, if you insist—the least bad in the field. And for that the Jews there should be given due credit. Apparently, they have a knack for showmanship — just as the Swedes have a knack for navigation, and the Dutch for gardening.

We seem to have a knack for other things as well: for instance, garment making, diamond dealing, medicine, law, and music. If that makes us appear extraordinarily versatile, it may be for the reason I have already indicated: namely, that we are a highly variegated folk.

But, you may say, the real objection is not to our occupations. Instead, it is to the manner in which we follow them. We are too aggressive. We scheme too much and work too hard and push with too great ardor. In a word, we aren’t gracious.

There, I grant, you have a point. It is impossible to deny that, by and large, we are inordinately intense and ambitious. But there are reasons. We know that the odds are against us. It has well been said there is only one occupation in which a Jew feels himself at no disadvantage because of his origin—and that is the rabbinate. In all others we either know or imagine ourselves to be handicapped. Many banking establishments, not a few great industries, innumerable law firms, and any number of universities exercise quite obvious discrimination against Jews. True, that discrimination is rarely absolute, and an especially able Jew can almost always break his way in. But he has to be especially able.

That’s why we are so aggressive. We realize that we must be twice as good as the non- Jews, or else work twice as hard, to get even half as far. No one can deny that this makes us a trial to the majority of the people around us. But, in all fairness, are we to blame for that? We are caught in a vicious cycle. Obviously, something should be done to break that cycle. But just as obviously we can’t do it.

The fact is, we Jews, as Jews, can’t do anything. That is the whole point of this article. Working by ourselves, we are utterly impotent. For, being a minority, we cannot act; we can only react. All of which means simply this: if the Jewish problem is ever to be solved, it will have to be done by the Gentiles.

How? Simply by forgetting that we are Jews and remembering only that we are human beings. Quit riding us, and we will cease to balk. Let us be, and in time we shall actually cease to be. Our history proves that. Wherever we have been least hounded, there we have been most prone to disappear.

It is commonly imagined that we never assimilate with the people among whom we dwell. But this is simply not true. One proof of it is the wide variety of physical types among us. Apparently, even where we were unable or unwilling to intermarry, we have always indulged in considerable inter-mating. And at different times and places this tendency has ended by breeding us out completely. That seems to have been the case in Egypt during the relatively enlightened Roman era. In the time of Jesus there were at least a million Jews in the Nile country. Three centuries later hardly a sign of them remained. Similarly, a large settlement became absorbed in China during the late Middle Ages. To come closer home, consider what occurred in Italy. At one time it was a great center of Jewish population. Today, not forty thousand survive in the entire land. What happened to the rest? Were they expelled or massacred? On the contrary. Thanks to Papal influence, Italy was relatively tolerant to the Jews throughout medieval times. The result? Most of them became assimilated and vanished from sight. They simply got lost in the shuffle. And, but for the recent recrudescence of intolerance forced on Italy by a desperate government, the entire Jewish community there might have been absorbed before long.

One can see the process of absorption at work right now in Russia. The Jews there suffered unutterably at the hands of Lenin’s regime—but solely because they were prevailingly bourgeois. Once they reconciled themselves to becoming proletarians, they were accorded complete comradeship. The result is that they are intermarrying now at an unprecedented rate. All over Russia I found Jews who, just because they were no longer finding their identity a handicap, were sloughing it off even without conscious effort.

Yes, our problem can be solved only on the initiative of Gentiles. One thing is plain: persecution cannot destroy us. It can only bring out the worst in us—and in you. The need is for positive comradeship, not mere tolerance. By this I mean a readiness to regard a Jew as another human being: neither better, nor worse, nor really in any fundamental way even different from yourself. I realize that that is asking a good deal, with all the prejudices, dislikes, and misgivings to which all men are heir. But anything less will not do as a final solution. If some men want to bully and beat and murder us, they can get away with it—that is, temporarily. In the long run, it will get away with them. It will set them preying on one another: Protestant on Catholic, native on foreigner, man on man.

What will happen in the long run is neither here nor there. The real issue is what is going to happen right now. In the United States we are outnumbered thirty to one. In the whole world the ratio is, perhaps, a hundred and twenty to one. So, why ask what we Jews are going to do about it? The proper question is: What do you Gentiles have in mind?


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