The fact of being a “minority” group often entails certain inconveniences and burdens. This the Jews have always known well and at firsthand. But out of the nettle adversity the Jews once plucked the jewel of an ethic that gave their lives stature and meaning and made a positive contribution to the assertion of human dignity. Has this traditional inner morale crumbled under the impact of recent catastrophe and the social forces of our day? How can we restore for ourselves and our own day the poise and the stamina to confront disability and defeat without failure of nerve? David Riesman here discusses how the Jew—or the member of any minority (even a “minority of one”)—may hope to regain the “nerve of failure.”



The “nerve of failure” is the courage to face aloneness and the possibility of defeat in one’s personal life or one’s work without being morally destroyed. It is, in a larger sense, simply the nerve to be oneself when that self is not approved of by the dominant ethic of a society.

In America, “success” is central; we are provided with a catalogue of what is success and what is failure, and nothing matters except achieving the first and avoiding the second. Whoever accepts the prevailing social standards of our times is not alone, not morally isolated; even if he is a “failure” he remains related, if only in fantasy, to the dominant theme. Such a person has no more need of the “nerve of failure” than a gambler who has had a bad day at roulette: for him life is centered on the wheel, and he remains related, though anxious and miserable, so long as he can go on watching the others who are still in the game. The “nerve of failure” is needed only for really heretical conduct: when one renounces even the company of misery and takes the greater risk of isolation—that is, the risk of never rejoining the company.

The “nerve of failure” is akin to the traditional virtue of “courage in defeat,” praised in a number of ethical systems. But it differs in this sense: it comes into play before defeat is actual, when it is only a possibility. To be sure, one may have a good deal of the “nerve to fail” and still be cowardly in extreme situations. But, on the other hand, while many can find courage in defeat only when others are defeated too, those endowed with the “nerve of failure” have the capacity to go it alone.

A man may maintain a lonely course by other means. He may not realize that he is heretical—Rousseau, the “primitive” painter, seems to have thought he was painting just like everybody else. He may be more or less crazy, constructing an elaborate system to justify himself—as did Fourier and Comte. He may attach himself to nature and to imagined transcendental forces—as did William Blake. He may overestimate his personal influence and the extent to which others are listening to what seems to him self-evident and reasonable—as did Robert Owen, the English manufacturer and utopian socialist, whose later life was on the surface one long series of failures. He may convince himself that history, or science, is inevitably on his side—as did Karl Marx. He may protect himself from aloneness by remaining conventional in many spheres—as Darwin did. He may surround himself with a small body of ardent disciples and limit his contact with contemporaries—this also was Comte’s way. Only very rarely will an individual with enough originality to disturb society be able, without such adventitious aids, to face his situation realistically and yet be unshaken by what the majority considers “failure.”

These moral attitudes in the face of frustration and defeat become even more complicated, enormously more so, in the life of groups lacking material power, whether domestic “minorities” or small nations. Negroes, Jews, intellectuals, and women as domestic “minorities”; Poles, Irishmen, Italians as small nations coping with big powers—all feel the need of protecting themselves in one way or another from the moral impact of power. In different historical periods they develop different means and modes of coping with this problem. If I discuss the fate and problems of the Jews here, it is because despite all differences, they still provide the most suggestive paradigm of the relatively powerless group.



For the last two thousand years the Jews have been a minority; before that, it may be suggested, they were a “small power,” a buffer state.1 But until recent times, many Jews did not have what we might today regard as a typical minority outlook. Their ethical regime was quite defiantly Ptolemaic, revolving about the small group of Jews, not the larger Gentile group—and, accordingly, they learned to remain unimpressed by Gentile temporal power. Being unimpressed did not mean being unafraid—material power might beat or starve one to death; it did mean refusing to surrender moral hegemony to the majority merely because it had the reality of power. Instead the Jews “saw through” power by observing its blindness in comparison with the vision possible to the weak. A saying of Nahman of Bratzlav exemplifies this outlook: “Victory cannot tolerate truth, and if that which is true is spread before your very eyes, you will reject it, because you are a victor. Whoever would have truth itself, must drive hence the spirit of victory; only then may he prepare to behold the truth.”

In other words, since the Jews’ ethical scheme placed no great premium on material power, on material success, the majority was not looked up to with envy and admiration; hence its verdicts, both as to the ends of life and as to the value of the minority itself, did not echo in the Jews’ self-consciousness.

A related attitude was expressed in the belief—which kept the Jews Jews and not Christians-that the Messiah was still to come. To be sure, many Jews during the dark periods between the 11th and 17th centuries were deceived at times into believing that the Messiah had indeed come. But these aberrations were limited in scope and time: Jews in general continued to have faith in the continuance of revelation into the future and to be unimpressed by contemporary events and the would-be Messiahs who, consciously or unconsciously, exploited these events. If we do not take this belief, that the Messiah will come, too literally, we can see that one of its meanings is an attack on the powers that be, and an emphatic statement that justice and peace shall some day—as they do not today—prevail everywhere among men.2

Jewish ethics, though not devoid of authoritarian strains, is, like Greek ethics, based primarily on reason, although reason has sometimes descended to casuistry. It is an ethics of reason both in its ends, which are human and earthly, and in its means, which are argumentative rather than dogmatic. Even the casuistry seems often to have been turned to the humanizing of authoritative texts, as a lawyer might “interpret” a statute or decision in order to reach a more humane and reasonable result.

Such an ethical pattern as the one just described would seem admirably fitted to the psychic situation of a powerless minority which—unlike, let us say, the Republican party during recent years—has no chance of soon becoming a majority. But, as we know, ethical systems are not developed in the abstract; though they have a momentum of their own, Jewish ethical patterns arose in connection with given social and economic conditions; and they were embroildered by complex, demanding rituals and racial myths.

Occasionally, the group’s “nerve of failure” was supported by the notion that its very powerlessness proved the Jews to be in fact the Chosen of God. In this way, defeat itself could strengthen the faith of the “saving remnant” of Jews. On the other hand, we should recognize that the spiritual forces that gave the Jews their immense moral resistance in the ghetto rested on a material base that, though often precarious, had considerably solidity. The Jews were part of the medieval order, which gave them, like everyone else, a relatively fixed psychic place, even though theirs was that of pariah. (See Daniel Bell, “A Parable of Alienation,” Jewish Frontier, November 1946.) Within the medieval order, moreover, the Jews developed a near monopoly of certain skills, in artisanship as well as in trade, which were handed down, as in the guilds, from father to son.

Thus, the ghetto walls buttressed the Jewish ethical walls.



The rise of modem capitalistic society and the levelling of ghetto walls may be said to have started an uneven dialectic of change in the spiritual and material bases of Jewish life. Many Jews in the main Western countries surrendered their inherited ethical system in return for a chance to participate in the wider world, thus losing their special sources of spiritual strength. Sometimes this was done out of opportunism; more often than not this drive was mixed with more idealistic motives. For among the forces that broke down ghetto barriers from the outside was the Enlightenment. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were a set of values with great moral appeal-as well as with many parallels in Jewish ethics.

The Enlightenment was impious towards authority, utopian about the future, and hospitable to reason. What then could have been more attractive to many of the most ethically sensitive Jews, especially at a time when the ghetto tradition itself seems to have become somewhat impoverished in Western Europe? Such Jews could move from a religious to a political minority position with hardly any change in ethical attitude.

The great Jewish intellectual and political leaders of this period represented, in highly individual ways, mergers of Jewish and Enlightenment ethics, and the retention of the “nerve of failure.” At the same time, certain skills and attitudes nurtured by ghetto life became useful and rewarding assets in the modem world. In the expanding era of international finance and international markets, the developed financial and commercial skills of a Rothschild, as later of a Rosenwald, were important: some Jews, that is, had a head-start. Jewish cultivation of a particular type of intelligence, moreover, could be turned to account in modern managerial, professional, and intellectual capacities; while the Jewish view of an open future (the Messiah still to come) was well adapted to leaders of progressive political or labor movements. In sum, many Jews gained personal power and self-confidence during the free capitalism that lasted until the close of the 19th century.

In those days, Jewish self-contempt did not exist in its characteristic contemporary forms. While rising Jews often shared the attitudes common to parvenus, they had confidence in their ultimate social acceptance, or that of their progeny; consciously or unconsciously, they felt they had something of particular value to offer. Likewise, those Jews who took a direct share in the struggles of the Enlightenment felt no insecurity or self-belittlement as Jews; they could be wholeheartedly indignant at discrimination since they had confidence in the ultimate triumph of the ideals of the Enlightenment. They, too, felt that they had something to offer—namely, a social program that the majority needed and would learn to want.

During this period, therefore, the consequences of Jewish acceptance of a largely Gentile ethics were positive: both because that ethics was rational and progressive and because the material role and power of Jews were on the increase.



However, historical developments soon began to undermine the material position of the Jews and give a different meaning to their new ethical position. As heavy industry grew in importance, it gradually freed itself from the free market. Jewish family and group “trade secrets” soon became common property. “Fair trade” acts and similar autarchic limitations on the free market came to restrict Jewish merchandising talents (while permitting, however, the marginal survival of many small Jewish shopkeepers). Though Jews shared in the growing managerial and professional openings of the “new” middle class, they began to be faced with increasing competition.

This lessening of the Jew’s sense of economic value, and of his self-confidence in the possession of a special skill, helped lessen his feeling of ethical security, and made him increasingly a psychological victim of the dominant social and economic systems of the modern world.

But this is also a fate that, both in its economic and its psychological aspects, has overtaken vast numbers of the less “successful” classes in our new society, and condemned them to “alienation.” For them, as for Jews, the relative security of a social role fixed by skill, family, age, and sex has vanished. One must now “show one’s stuff” in a competitive market, and one’s stuff is one’s “personality,” an externalized part of the self, and not primarily one’s matter-of-fact skill. (See Erich Fromm, Man for Himself pp. 67-82.) In other words, it is not the genuine self that is put on the market in the race for success, or even economic survival, but the “cosmetic” self, which is as free of any aroma of personal, non-marketable idio-syncracy as it is free of “B. O.” or last year’s waistline. If this artificial self succeeds, then doubts may be temporarily quieted. However, since self-evaluation has been surrendered to the market, failure in the market, or even fear of failure, is translated into self-contempt. (The “market” in this sense includes all spheres of life—business, politics, art, love, friendship.)

For the dominant groups—those that, by birth or temperament or luck, have been able to make the grade—the subjection of all values to the test of the market is convenient. It justifies their own existence in what amounts to moral rather than merely power-political terms. In a market economy pervaded by what Karl Polanyi has termed the “market mentality” (COMMENTARY, February 1947), control of the economy will carry with it, to an unusual degree, control of the ethical regime. And the market, we must remember, has had perhaps a more complete sway in America than elsewhere.

Now, add to this the fact that America happens to have colonials—Negroes and other ethnic minorities—within its borders, and that we have developed a racialism not to be found in Europe. Upon the Jewish minority, this situation operates with special force, as can be seen in the encounter between Jewish traditions and the melting pot.

The melting pot had, especially in its early days, valuable elements: a kind of Whitmanesque equalitarian vigor and a seeming hospitality to cultural diversity—but it increasingly became a form of internal imperialism in the interest of the earlier arrivals. Its aim was narrowed to producing “Americans all” of a starched uniformity, freed of all cultural coloring, “maladjustment,” or deviation. The main burden was on the minorities, while few demands were made by the ethical system of the Protestant majority. (Protestantism and modern capitalism, having grown up together, have always been congenial.)



Even today, the typical Protestant businessman still makes money as a by-product of his devotion to his work and his organization; the money, as Max Weber pointed out, serves as a proof of fulfilment of ethical duty, of having found one’s “calling,” one’s proper—and therefore prosperous—social niche. But there is no such compatibility between non-Protestant ethics and modern capitalism; hence the moral disorientation worked by the latter among Mexicans and South Americans generally, Eastern and Southern Europeans, and Treaty-Port Chinese. The same moral disorientation was produced among these people when they emigrated to America, affecting not only Jews from pre-capitalist Eastern Europe, but also Italians, Greeks, Mexicans. For these non-Protestants, business was not originally the expression of their religion, but a by-product of the need for money, status, or family security. For the dominant groups, the Protestant—or, more accurately, the Puritan—strain in our culture permitted a development of a kind of ethics intertwined with business. “Mere” money-making, for example, was open to criticism when not accompanied by an ethos of business as “calling” or as “service.” The non-Protestant, on the other hand, was often led, both by the special pressures of modern capitalism upon him and the strangeness of the Protestant market ethic to his own, to discard his own values without assimilating prevailing values. As a result he often became a caricature of the American careerist.



In this process, certain elements in Jewish ethics—the attitude towards power, towards the future, and towards reason—often tend to become distorted. The irreverent attitude towards power becomes contempt for what remains of the Puritan ethics of business and professional enterprise, which is interpreted as softness or hypocrisy. Irreverence towards authority degenerates into an indiscriminate disrespect for convention, whether that convention is an exploitative device or a crystallization of decent standards of personal intercourse. This Jewish irreverence may also appear as a cynicism that seeks money and power without the conviction that they represent the fruits of virtue, or even without any real belief in them as ends.

Similarly, the Jewish attitude towards the future, with its Messianic devaluation of present reality, can be fitted, by distortion, all too nicely into the American success tradition, where—as the Lynds have remarked—people live “at” the future, eternally “on the make,” either awaiting a lucky break for themselves, or planning for one for their offspring.

Finally, the Jewish attitude towards reason can also suffer a change. “Pure” reason for its own sake, what we might call Talmudic intelligence, is at a discount in America: it is not “practical.” On the other hand, manipulative intelligence is exceedingly useful; in fact, the entire Jewish constellation of intelligence, humor, and charm is often humiliatingly exploited—for instance, by so many Jewish comedians—as entertainment and self-ingratiation.

Jews in America, like other Americans, go in for hero-worship; and it is possible to trace, in the types they frequently select for admiration, patterns of compromise between the American Protestant tradition and their own. Though they can afford to admire the “impractical” Einstein because he has been such a world-famous success, they tend more to bestow their medals on intelligent operators like Brandeis and Baruch. Though these men have the ear of presidents, they are not mere “court Jews”: they are quite outspoken; moreover, they are old and white-haired, appropriate to the Jewish reverence for aged wisdom-yet they are also energetic and eupeptic, in keeping with the American worship of dynamic youth.

It goes without saying that—like Jewish ethics—American Protestant ethics contains many divergent themes, and that the Enlightenment still lives in its best representatives. However, the Jew emerging from the European ghetto was not met at Ellis Island by the representatives of enlightenment. At most, he was given a choice between accepting the melting pot and the ethics of success-as interpreted by earlier immigrants often bent on. exploiting him economically or psychically—or trying to retain his traditions as a transient in a voluntary ghetto. If he took the latter course, he was seldom stimulated towards any effort to reinterpret the meaning of his ethical background in terms of the American context; rather he tended to freeze defensively in his memories and rituals. If he took the former—perhaps more typical—course, he altered his ethical and intellectual inheritance so that it could be turned to account in the struggle for success, just as a neurotic makes use of his illness, or a cripple his misery, for fragmentary advantages.



However, the same recent social and economic changes that have weakened the material position of Jews have also tended to alter the meaning of success as such. The mere matter-of-fact achievement of high economic or even political position no longer satisfies. Since we market our personalities, it is imperative that we be “popular,” accepted; and handicapped ethnic minorities are not popular. The Jew who plays the power and success game can hardly help viewing himself through the eyes of the more successful players.

Bernard Marx, a character in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, despises himself because he is short. The majority, stunted lower-caste people, are also short, but he compares himself with the tall top-caste to which in other respects he “belongs,” and to which, though with some ambivalence, he surrenders his ethical judgment. That is, he accepts from them the same cultural emphasis on height that sells Adler Elevator Shoes (the sexual reward being, as so often, a symbol for the reward of status). Since his society puts a high value on science, Bernard Marx’s shortness is explained in seemingly rational terms by the rumor that some alcohol accidentally got into his feeding solution when he was a bottled embryo (alcohol being intentionally used only to stunt the lower castes). In any rational ethics, of course, there would be no correlation between height and human value. Yet Bernard does not quite dare look behind the “scientific” social judgment, and so must turn the blame upon himself. Among Jews, this relation between physical appearance and ethical valuation is seldom quite so obvious (there is more of this among Negroes, who tend to rate each other according to lightness of skin and other white characteristics); nevertheless, the Jewish devaluation of Jewish physiognomy is not confined to Hollywood, as the flourishing state of plastic surgery in Manhattan would testify.

If a minority accepts the majority’s definition of good looks, we would expect that the majority’s definition of good conduct would be likewise accepted. And so it turns out. But is the Jew who sharply criticizes the behavior of his fellow-Jews accepting the majority’s standards, or is he not simply exercising his human privilege—from which it would be anti-Semitic to exclude him—of disliking certain kinds of behavior? We cannot tell at first glance, though we may wonder why, amid all the evil in the world and all the examples of vicious and mean conduct, he fastens on the Jews. Moreover, even when the traits he selects for attention are not so obviously differentiated according to race—where, for instance, a Jew claims to despise Italian and Greek as well as Jewish manners—we may ask the same sort of question: why is he preoccupied with differences in manners and not, let us say, with differences in coldness and warmth, gloominess and wit? Has he not accepted the majority’s judgments as to what is important and the majority’s criteria of good and evil?3

However, the Jew whose focus of criticism is the poor behavior of his fellow-Jews may urge that, far from accepting the majority’s standards, he feels merely threatened by them: he is worried by the menace of anti-Semitism if Jews do not conform, and is being “realistic.” Here we may ask why, among the many “causes” of anti-Semitism, he selects primarily those over which Jews themselves seem to have some control. Perhaps better manners on the subway would mitigate anti-Jewish feeling; perhaps if Jews did not appear in public at all—no Frankfurter on the Supreme Court, no Dubinsky in the labor movement—they would not be noticed. But in advocating such things, has this timorous Jew done anything more than accept the majority’s anti-Semitic stereotype, as well as their rationalizations for refusing to accept Jews as individuals on their own merits? Is this Jew really concerned about the daily quality of direct personal contacts between Jews and non-Jews, which might, in the long run, have some marginal effect on anti-Semitism? Perhaps.

But ordinarily I think it can be shown that the threat such a Jew feels is that of being himself caught, in his own deeper consciousness, in the majority stereotype of “the Jew.” This involves not only contempt for “the other Jews,” but his own self-belittlement. The real cause of his concern with the behavior of his fellow Jews is the moral retreat he has made in servilely accepting the majority’s ethics, not the so-called undesirable Jewish traits that provoked his anxiety. And if he wanted to do something about anti-Semitism, he might begin with his own moral subservience, where he has at least a real chance to change things, instead of trying to reform the manners or career choices of his fellow-Jews.



If we confined our attention to such instances of the acceptance of majority judgments as these (and of course we are selecting a particular segment of majority opinion and not the entire spectrum), we might underestimate the extent of present-day Jewish ethical bondage. However, since many Jews, especially in recent years, have tried to repress their tendencies towards group-belittlement of themselves, we must now look more sharply for evidence of this self-belittlement—where not covertly released in gibe or gesture—in reactions that are seldom fully conscious.

Apologetics as a reaction formation hardly needs discussion in these pages. It surrenders the ethical initiative, for it permits the anti-Semite to frame the issue of debate and the norms of criticism. Denials that Jews are rich, radical, or rude concede to the anti-Semites that it is a crime to be rich, radical, or rude.

Another reaction is a kind of self-denial, in which Jews deny that there are such things as Jews. Sometimes this self-denial is a “liberal” reaction, an insistence that there are no anthropological (“racial”) differences, out of fear that such differences would be exploited. Sometimes this self-denial is rationalized as a “radical” reaction, by the insistence that there is no “Jewish question” whatsoever, but only some other question, such as the question of capitalism. Jews who take this latter course do at least identify themselves with a submerged group larger than their own, but they run the risk of carrying the position to extremes in believing that the Jewish problem, despite cultural and historical differences, is in all respects similar to—let us say—the Negro problem, or the problem of the working class as a whole. In this way, the specifically Jewish overtones are lost; but indeed this is precisely what the self-denier wants.

Still a third reaction occurs as a revulsion against all traits associated with the majority stereotype of “the Jew.” Are Jews pushing? Very well, we will be retiring. Are Jews over-critical? Very well, we will swallow our protest.4 The minority group actually expects more from itself than from the rest of the population; that is, it applies the majority ethics but with a double standard.

It is evident that this timid double standard is very different from the feeling of noblesse oblige of certain ruling classes. These classes have no doubts of their right to rule, even when they are far from perfect; in contrast, the “double-standard” Jews seem to say that Jewish claims for full equality are invalid if Jews are merely human.

In all these instances Jews try to cope with American anti-Semitism in terms of majority stereotypes, which by their very irrationality prevent both minority and majority from making any fresh approaches to reality.



Recent events have brought still another aspect of Jewish self-doubt to light. I think that exaggeration of the uniqueness of the crime committed by the Nazis against the Jews may sometimes be read as betraying an unconscious doubt as to the ethical justification of the Jewish case. When some Jews claim that no injustice was ever so great, nor any dictator the peer of Hitler, they are not always simply venting an understandable grief. They are afraid that the very enormity, the irretrievable quality, of the killing of the Jews must prove something about them, something in fact against them. For there is no way that a success ethics can cope with unavenged material defeat. Some may try to still the doubt—whether, after all, Hitler was not right—by “racial” vindictiveness against the German people. What seems to be lingering in the minds of so many is the notion that Hitler somehow won a “victory” over the Jews.

On the other hand, a Jew who has found his way to an independent ethics would say with Rabbi Johanan: “All distress that Israel and the world bear in common is distress; the distress confined to Israel alone is not distress” (In Time and Eternity). On the ethical side, he would find little to choose between the Nazi murder of Jews and of Poles, or between the concentration camps of Hitler and Stalin; on the political side, he would be free to perceive that the slaughter of the European Jews was to some extent a historical accident in which they happened to become material game and spiritual symbol for a congeries of reactionary forces.

Victory and defeat, success and failure, are facts. But they are facts in the world of power, subject to an evaluative judgment in which defeat may become victory and victory defeat. Who “really” won in the war between Athens and Sparta? It is conventional today to decide in favor of Athens. What, for example, about Weimar Germany? Are many of its critics, who attack its experimentalism, its pacifism, its artistic and intellectual “irresponsibility” and lack of “consensus” only disapproving of these tendencies because they did not ward off political defeat? Many generations hence, may not people look back with admiration on the cultural and even some of the political and social achievements of that brief period between 1919 and 1933, and pay little attention to all our elaborate explanations for its “failure,” explanations which, as in the case of the slaughtered Jews, consciously or unconsciously subordinate ourselves to an ethics of success pure and simple, and overemphasize what was wrong with the victim?

Even such devastating defeats as those of the last decade the truly moral man must find the courage and the capacity to face with the nerve of failure.



Of course, it would be applying a double standard to expect Jews to have the nerve of failure when other groups do not. Moreover, it would be as unfair to blame Jews for losing their traditional ethics in the melting pot, as to blame them for not emerging from it as Anglo-Saxon gentlemen. But the opposite error, which tolerantly “understands” all minority behavior as the inevitable consequence of persecution, is not helpful either. The real question is, what choices do the Jews now have to clothe their ethical nakedness?

There is no want of proposed solutions, many of which seem to me to repeat or exacerbate the circular problems in which a minority is so often caught. One is a plea for a return to the ritual and religious elements historically linked to the ethical resources of Jewish life. It is not surprising that this same plea for what amounts to a medieval revival is also being made at this time by many non-Jews as a general therapy for modem “alienation.”

The usual criticism of such efforts to restore psychic security and dignity is that they are impractical, since the change from medieval to modem times cannot be reversed. But another criticism can be made from the standpoint of the very Jewish ethics which one wants to recapture. That ethics contains a fervent claim for a more decent future, a claim that takes the form of Messianic hope. Though the glories of biblical Palestine are looked back upon with pride and sorrow, utopia lies in the future, not in the nostalgic past. To seek restoration of an earlier time is to confess intellectual and ethical impoverishment. The “nerve of failure” implies the ability to face the possibility of failure, but it is not rooted in the assumption that past and present failures mark the limits of human powers. To be satisfied with something no better than that which medieval Jewry had—assuming, in defiance of all reason, that this could be attained—is a surrender of that typically Jewish demand for a more decent future for Jews and non-Jews alike.



The surrender of utopian claims is one of the most revealing symptoms of the current state of minority ethics. Despite differences in shading, such claims are a part of Judaic, Christian, and Enlightenment ethical systems. But they are very much at a discount in 20th-century America. The powerful do not need visions; they either fear or scorn them. Their response to such claims is: “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back where you came from?” Some minority representatives aggressively propose to do just that, to go back—in time. Whereas the older success game permitted many minorities to be easily satisfied with petty gains in the American scene, the newer religious revival would satisfy them with petty dreams from the past.

Political Zionism is another suggestion proposed as a means of obtaining psychic as well as physical security for Jews. Jewish nationalists seem to be even more impressed by worldly power than Jews who urge a religious revival; they have given up the success game on the domestic scene only to transfer it to the international sphere; this entails a complete acceptance of majority attitudes towards force and raison d’état. Thus they abandon those attitudes of subjection of power and loyalty to reason which, in our analysis, appeared among the significant contributions of Jewish ethics to the general problem of the powerless minority and the small nation.

If Jews are to avoid self-defeating courses of action, it would seem necessary to clarify the themes in their ethical tradition that fit the problem of the powerless, and then to separate these from their cultist and ritualistic trappings. The way food is prepared or the style of beards are locally various and ethically quite indifferent matters—questions of taste and not of value. To attach one’s love and admiration to them is to risk putting the superficial or parochial aspects of Jewish culture in the center of affection, rather than its ethically significant elements. And it is this sort of love that so easily runs over into fondness for, or defensiveness about, even the weaker sides of Jewish life in America. This sort of chauvinism is particularly easy to rationalize today, just because the Jews seem at the moment a defeated people on the world’s stage. It would be well, however, to recall Nietzsche’s advice not to love a defeated nation. (Nietzsche seems to have meant that an honorable person finds it harder in defeat than in victory to detach himself from his nation—witness German nationalism after the First World War.)

The concept of minority ethics suggested here is not meant as an invitation to minority fanaticism or as a condemnation of all majority ethics as such; the minority position in itself is no guarantee of ethical superiority. Rather, it points out that the Jewish minority in America must discover what are the ethically significant themes relevant to its present situation, which in turn requires reinterpretation of Jewish tradition.

Such a reinterpretation of tradition would in itself do something to overcome Jewish self-belittlement by giving the past meaning without mystery. But the more direct function of this reinterpretation would be to foster a Jewish self-image independent of the majority ethics. Adherence to majority ethics may be a help in social climbing, or in rationalizing one’s acceptance of the values of the culture that happens to be dominant. But the experience of many Jews in America must be that this adherence is emotionally precarious, and that it easily becomes self-destructive once things do not go well for oneself or one’s group. There are more ways of acquiring a feeling of “belonging” in the American scene than the alternatives of melting pot or parochial separation.



Yet is it not merely wishful to ask that Jews today, of all people, be reasonable men looking for guidance in their personal and political lives to a rational, and therefore experimental and tentative, ethics? No matter how ethically inadequate the ritualist, racialist, and nationalist therapies may be, does not their very existence prove that the vast bulk of Jews cannot be expected to defend themselves morally against power without the encompassing support of daily ritual observances, or without the ersatz program of Palestinian terrorism? Is not one of my own arguments—that Jewish ethics has been closely related to Jewish material circumstance—proof of the impracticality of any therapy that begins with ethics and not with environment? I would answer that movements of thought among a people are never entirely determined by the material setting. On the contrary, an ethical and intellectual feature—such, for instance, as an eloquent tradition of utopian thought-may itself become one of the institutional forces of the environment. In the case of the Diaspora history of the Jews, utopian thought was even a decisive force. Of course, such a program does not pretend to “save” the Jews; its goal is moral independence from the majority, not physical survival or a solution of “the Jewish problem.” Its gains would largely be in the happier lives of Jews and other powerless folk. Nevertheless, a reduction of Jewish self-contempt and an increase in the Jewish “nerve of failure” is bound to make for more realistic, as well as attractive, behavior by individual Jews and Jewish agencies, and so reduce those minor, pointless tensions and self-defeating patterns that Jews themselves may create.

Specific groups of Jews in America are meeting widely different problems and experiences. There is room for research into the intricate relations between their ethics and their attitudes toward themselves, research that would test and refine such hypotheses as those suggested here. Such work has meaning for minority groups in general. At the same time American Jews have much to learn from other minority experiences and traditions-from Negroes in America and South Africa; from anti-fascists in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina; from intellectual and cultural dissenters from modem capitalism and Stalinist Communism; and so on. Moreover, the utopian traditions of Christian sects, of the Enlightenment, of America itself—these have contributions to make to the development of a minority ethics. In fact, is not such development enjoined on almost all of us by our human situation? For who does not face at some time—at least as a child—a conflict between his own values and those of a stronger and oppressive power? Until a time when power is no longer used oppressively, minorities will have a compelling need of the nerve of failure to defend an independent view of the self and of what life holds.



1 I am indebted to Dr. Erich Fromm for calling my attention to the relations between Jewish power and ethics in their historical changes. One recognizes, of course, how difficult it is to generalize about Jewish ethics, as about anything else concerning “Jews”—or indeed any group.

2 There are many Messianic, or as we should say, utopian elements in Christianity, of course; but the established institutionalized churches have always tended to play down these disturbing notions and to treat revelation as a completed or at least a centralized process. Dissenting sects have tended to restore the Messianic faith.

3 I don’t mean to enter here upon complicated questions of national character and to examine whether Jewish manners are characteristically undignified, or British behavior is really lacking in warmth; I am raising the problem rather of the way in which majority ethics gives rise to a process of stereotyping and selection in which certain traits are valued, others devalued, still others ignored.

4 Some Jews indulge in what looks on the surface like just the opposite reaction. They aggressively play up what they accept as Jewish traits; sometimes they select the very ones that are detested in the majority stereotype; sometimes they indiscriminately fasten their affection on those traits, good or bad. Are Jews pushing? Very well, pushing is nice, and we will push. Are Jews critical? Very well, let us exploit this fine cultural resource. Some young Negroes, too, play this pathetic game, accepting the whites’ judgments in the very act of making an issue with them. Likewise, many middle-class intellectuals spend their lives reacting against middle-class standards and values, for instance in bohemianism, as if this were the only ethical contrast to what they conceive as the middle class.

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