About a half-century ago, Louis Marshall, the eminent constitutional lawyer who was also president of the American Jewish Committee, said firmly: “We do not recognize the existence of a Jewish Question in the United States.” That distasteful phrase, “The Jewish Question,” evoked the European model: the political uses of anti-Semitism. Marshall made the statement precisely because he saw that the Jewish Question in the political sense was coming alive in the United States. It did, and preoccupied the domestic Jewish consciousness for the next quarter of a century.
For the past quarter of a century, there has been no serious trace of political anti-Semitism in America. Any suggestion today that “it could happen here,” has had an antique flavor and would be widely branded as phobic, paranoid, and even amusing. There is the old joke about three men who were asked to write an essay about the elephant. The Englishman wrote on “The Elephant and the British Empire,” the Frenchman on “The Elephant and Love-Making,” the Jew on “The Elephant and the Jewish Question.” But we have learned a great deal about the Jewish Question, and if the subject of the essay were Western democracy instead of elephants, the joke would no longer be a joke. The potential for political anti-Semitism, aside from its special interest to Jews, turns out to be a particularly useful vantage point from which to examine the state of the general society. And responsible people are again having to deny nervously that there is a Jewish Question in America. The American Jewish community's concern with its own security may be coming full circle.
From the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II, the American Jew's defense efforts were increasingly keyed to political anti-Semitism, as distinct from garden-variety discrimination. Political anti-Semitism may be defined as the attempt to establish the corporate Jew as a generalized public menace, the implication being that some official public remedy is called for. The same distinction has been made between “objective” and “subjective” anti-Semitism, “concrete” and “abstract” anti-Semitism, and the real Jew and the mythical Jew as target. But by whatever names, and whatever the relationship between the two kinds of anti-Semitism, Jews know the difference. Not getting a particular job is one thing. A pogrom is another.
Political anti-Semitism did not become serious in America until about 1920. In that year the staid Christian Science Monitor carried a lead editorial entitled “The Jewish Peril.” A few years later, a book called The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem had a run of half a million copies. The articles in that book—“The Scope of Jewish Dictatorship in America,” “Rule of Jewish Kehilla Grips New York,” and “How the Jewish Song Trust Makes You Sing”—and many others of a similar bent had already received wide distribution in Henry Ford's national newspaper. And Henry Ford, it must be recalled, was not a Los Angeles mail-order crackpot. In 1923, at the height of his anti-Semitic fulminations, Collier's reported that he led all other possible candidates, including the incumbent President, in its national Presidential preference poll. Other straw polls agreed. William Randolph Hearst announced that he was prepared to back Ford for that office. The KKK during the same period had a membership which blanketed at least a quarter of all white Protestant families in America. And at one point in the 1930's, someone identified about 150 organizations whose primary business was the promotion of political anti-Semitism. Father Coughlin, who reprinted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in his national newspaper, had a regular radio audience of millions.
To these seemingly mass assignations with anti-Semitism, the organized Jewish community responded with a program based on the image-of-the-Jew theory of anti-Semitism. At the national B'nai B'rith convention in 1930, Sigmund Livingston said that the necessity was “to educate the great mass in the truth concerning the Jew and to demolish the foibles and fictions that now are part of the mental picture of the Jew in the public mind.” The Jewish community mounted what must certainly have been one of the most prolific mass educational programs of all time. Yet anti-Semitic activity and popular support of avowed anti-Semites were at their height when summarily cut off by Americas bitter embroilment with the world's arch anti-Semite.
A few short years later, America seemed to emerge from the war as a nation in which the Jewish Question was miraculously dead. American Jews, of course, felt that the war had been fought—and won—around the Jewish Question. Maybe they believed that other Americans felt the same way. Maybe they believed that other Americans were responding en masse to the revelations of the Holocaust. In any case, political anti-Semitism seemed stripped of any respectability; indeed, anti-Semitism became one of the cardinal political sins. The nation was even able to sustain a major red-baiting demagogue who carried Cohn and Schine on his hip and flirted with anti-Semitism not at all. Israel was established. Stalin died. American Jews settled down to a new security.
At the same time something else was happening in the country. The Jewish Question was apparently being supplanted by the Negro Question. And the defensive energies and apparatus of the Jewish community moved from one to the other. At least, that is the way it turned out. A surface theory relating to Jewish security rationalized the move: Equal opportunity for one means equal opportunity for all. But no one examined this dubious axiom very closely. America seemed to be approaching a state of perfectibility: The nation's great flaw, slavery, was being brought to account; democracy was marching to fulfillment, and the Jewish community obviously belonged on such a march, whatever the reasons. Several motivational streams in Jewish life merged at this point, as they never had before: the instinct for self-preservation; the religious ethic, invoking the prophetic tradition; and the political program—liberalism—for which so many Jews had developed a special secular affinity. On this level, the Jewish community found itself with a coherent and organic position.
Of course, this preeminent concern with civil rights swiftly and inevitably became a predominant concern with the needs and aspirations of the Negro community. After the FEPC principle had been established in the North, the laws that were passed and the court cases that were pressed had less and less direct application to the security of the Jews. The Jewish Question became more and more remote. But the Jewish community remained deeply and comfortably involved.
However, after little more than a decade, this first stage in postwar developments, the Civil Rights Revolution, began to change character. The second stage reflected the shift from the goal of equal opportunity to the goal of equal achievement, from civil rights to the war against poverty, from the Civil Rights Revolution to the Negro Revolution. The shift should have been quite predictable. Equal opportunity is not equal achievement, except for those who are equally equipped to compete. An enclave population now existed whose cultural and educational “equipment” had been comprehensively stunted for generations. The American society, moreover, had deliberately created this enclave population. For the impoverished and uneducated immigrants to America equal opportunity had been enough, because other societies had depressed them. In their minds, America owed them no more than an opportunity, and the gradualist road to parity which all emerging groups have traveled. But America owed the Negroes more than opportunity. The battle-cry of the Negro Revolution was not opportunity, but parity in the economy as well as in the society, starting with an instant end to poverty. Toward that goal, the demands were not just for equal treatment, but for compensatory treatment on a kind of reparations basis.
For the Negro community, this stage was a logical extension of the Civil Rights Revolution. But for the organized Jewish community some adjustment was required. The apparatus of the Jewish community committed itself to the campaign against poverty, and throwing the slogans about equal-opportunity-under-the-law into the attic, began to look for a role in that campaign. Consideration of Jewish security became even more remote.
There were only a few years of war-against-poverty innocence before the third stage set in. It quickly became apparent that the billion-dollar anti-poverty programs were not suddenly going to turn history on its head; and with that realization, the Negro Revolution began to be overlaid by the Black Revolution. Since New Deal days, at least, Americans have subscribed to the social engineering fallacy: Any problem can be solved if only we devise enough programs and spend enough money. The fallout of the massive anti-poverty programs of the early 1960's created a salaried black bureaucracy in the ghettos and undoubtedly helped a number of individuals up the ladder—but finally these programs were more effective in raising expectations than mass standards of living. The goal of instant parity seemed more desirable and further away than ever. Against the background of such frustrations, and other frustrations provided by society, there has developed a new kind of reactive pattern in the black community, and in the white community as well. It is as a result of these new patterns that the Jewish Question makes an abrupt re-entry on the American scene. Not a matter of searching for anti-Semites under the bed, this perception that the Jewish Question is back comes from what we have, since Louis Marshall's time, learned about the nature of anti-Semitism and about the nature of the conditions under which it flourishes.
The “Vulnerability” of the Population
There are three obvious conditions that coincide to produce a period of political anti-Semitism: the kind of political and social instability which makes anti-Semitism useful; a political leader who is willing to use it; a mass population that is willing to embrace it.
It is the belief in an “unwilling” American population, in the obsolescence of anti-Semitism as a cultural form in America, which gives Jews their greatest sense of security. Yet it is this belief itself which is obsolete.
To begin with, one does not have to be an anti-Semite in order to engage in or support anti-Semitic behavior. This proposition contradicts the “image of the Jew” theory of anti-Semitism. It contradicts the tendency to reify anti-Semitism, to conceive of it as a little mental package tucked away in a corner of the brain, waiting for the proper stimulus to bring it, full-blown, to life.
About six years ago, a Jewish couple in San Francisco was terrorized for over a year by a juvenile gang. The incident was described across the country as a shocking case of anti-Semitism. There were insulting phone calls every night between midnight and dawn. The couple ran their business from their home and could not have an unlisted number. Anti-Semitic slogans and swastikas were painted on their home. Garbage was left at their door. The torments were constant and cruel, and the middle-aged couple lived a year of hysterical fear. Finally the police caught a handful of teenage ringleaders. The investigation of these young men, their background, family, psychology, was thorough. No particular “anti-Semitic” history was discovered. The families were bewildered and provided no clues. There were no anti-Semitic organizations, insignia, pamphlets, or cartoons found hidden in the woodpile. The group had exhibited no special anti-Semitic proclivities.
The story of their year-long sport was further revealing. It had started casually with anonymous phone calls being made rather widely and at random. The game proved to be most fun with this couple because they responded with lively anger and fear. The game became increasingly intense. But for many months these teenagers did not invest their tricks or insults with any suggestion of anti-Semitism. Only well into the year did they discover that anti-Jewish comments added new life to the sport, drew even more heated and fearful responses. It was then that they began to concentrate on anti-Semitic references.
In short, the evidence indicates that these young men did not engage in tormenting activity because they possessed some quality called anti-Semitism. Rather, they committed anti-Semitic acts because they were engaged in tormenting activity. They were not cruel out of anti-Semitism, but anti-Semitic out of cruelty. During the 1930's anti-Semitism was generally understood to be a tool of repressive politics, but it was also thought that the use of this tool was possible only because a large mass of people were anti-Semitic in the first place, held unusually negative attitudes toward Jews and had become ideologically committed to these attitudes. But the behavior of this juvenile gang gives us a different analytical perspective: Willing to engage in a certain type of behavior, they did not reject anti-Semitism as an instrument.
It is possible, of course, to say that if there were no historical or cultural reservoir of differential feelings and images about Jews, anti-Semitism could never be used as an instrument. But that is something like saying that if my grandmother had wheels, she would be a cable car. First of all, it is not very likely that one of the most stubborn cultural conventions of Western civilization for well over a thousand years will erode very quickly, even though a process of erosion may already have started. The French Revolution did not succeed in obliterating the cultural continuum of anti-Semitism, but only invested it with new secular forms. The Russian Revolution did not eliminate anti-Semitism, and neither did a dramatic fresh start in a New World. This generationally-transmitted reservoir of cultural anti-Semitism is, again, not best conceived of as a mass of little dark corners in the minds of individuals, but rather as a common reservoir of beliefs built almost ineradicably into our literature, into our language, into our most general cultural myths. All of us, Jews as well as non-Jews, have some taproots into that common reservoir. It is further sustained by real-world conditions which will not disappear swiftly: Jews as marginal, minority, visible, alien—in the Diaspora, and perhaps even in the Middle East.
But what about the reported drop in the level of this reservoir of familiar negative stereotypes (or “Folk Anti-Semitism,” as they are collectively called)? Charles Stember has demonstrated what is apparently a spectacular decline in the holding of such stereotypes between the 1930's and the 1960's, as evidenced by poll data.1 The findings are valuable, but as Stember points out, they require some independent evaluation of their actual meaning: “[Our findings] do not always tell us whether [anti-Semitism] has changed in prevalence or only in overtness.” The reservoir may indeed have dropped somewhat, but how much of this reflects the fact that anti-Jewish stereotypes may be less fashionable, or less salient to express at this time?
After all, these attitude changes did not take place over a thirty-year period. They dropped rather suddenly—after, not during, the war. The American people were asked by one poll or another in every year from 1937 on whether they thought anti-Jewish feeling was increasing in the country. About a quarter of the people thought so in 1937. The figure rose steadily until 1946, when over half of the people thought anti-Semitism was increasing. In 1950, a poll recorded that only 16 per cent thought so. The American people certainly didn't seem to undergo any ideological revulsion against anti-Semitism because of their war against Hitler. In 1940, asked what groups are a menace to America, 17 per cent named the Jews; by 1946 the figure had risen to 22 per cent, and by 1950 it had dropped to 5 per cent. Stember suggests that in these recent years the Jews have been less in the consciousness of America, either unfavorably or favorably. To stretch the imagery, this may speak of a quiescent rather than an emptying reservoir.
One of the difficulties in measuring the total level of such feelings at any given time may be the change in their forms of expression. One study found that postwar college graduates had apparently divested themselves to a considerable degree of the traditional and unsophisticated Shylock image of the Jew. But these college graduates were just as likely as others to believe that Jews were “clannish” and “aggressive.” Or again, according to Stember, “the belief that Jewish businessmen are dishonest has become markedly less current during the past 20 or 25 years. It has largely been replaced by the notion that they are merely shrewd or tricky.” He goes on to say: “Even this less extreme image is less widespread than the belief in Jewish dishonesty once was, although only a minority of the population reject it outright.”
The last clause is perhaps all that counts for any reappraisal of the potential of political anti-Semitism. Whether the reservoir of folk anti-Semitism has dropped in fact or only in appearance, it is still immense. Whether it is a matter of Jewish aggressiveness, Jewish clannishness, Jewish shrewdness, or whatever, the great majority of Americans still hold to some pattern of differentiating, and negative, stereotypes about Jews. And there is scarcely an American who does not know what these stereotypes are, even if he does not profess to hold them. The instrument is there, readily available in our culture. The juvenile gang in San Francisco had no difficulty plucking it out when they had use for it, although the level of their folk anti-Semitism had previously been no greater than that of other Americans.
There is a parallel in political anti-Semitism. Father Coughlin's movement, after a certain point, became explicitly and overtly anti-Semitic. Yet the surveys found little difference in anti-Semitic beliefs between his followers and the rest of the American population. A recent comparison between a group of right-wing letter-writers and a sample of the national population found minuscule differences in gross levels of folk anti-Semitism (Jews have faults, are shady, are shrewd and tricky), but significant differences between them when the questions took on political dimensions (Jews are Communists, have too much power, are stirring up the Negroes).
However, it is not just that there is no automatic correspondence between folk anti-Semitism and political anti-Semitism. The point is greater than that: Given our common cultural background, there is not necessarily much of a relationship between anti-Semitism of any kind and support of an anti-Semitic movement. Only 20 per cent of Coughlin's supporters said they would back a campaign against Jews; but the other 80 per cent were in fact openly backing a campaign against Jews in their support of Coughlin. For them anti-Semitism was apparently not a salient reason for supporting Coughlin, but they were willing to support him for other reasons, and his anti-Semitism did not bother them. Similarly, many observers of the German scene before 1933 reported that the Nazis were supported by large numbers who were not anti-Semitic. And today? Asked in a recent poll whether they would support or oppose a congressional candidate who was running on an anti-Jewish platform, one-third of the American population said that they would neither support nor oppose him for that reason; his anti-Jewish program would be a matter of indifference to them. In this way it is possible to be anti-Semitic without being an anti-Semite—at least any more of an anti-Semite than anyone else.
Thus as far as the “vulnerability” of the population is concerned, the key is not the level of anti-Semitic beliefs, but the level of resistance to political anti-Semitism. The question is not whether people dislike Jews more or less, but whether they are against the violation of democratic rights for Jews—or anyone else.
There is much evidence to suggest that the American public's level of commitment to the abstract principles of democratic procedure is not reassuringly high. The democratic commitment in America consists more of loyalty to institutions, groups, and systems which support democratic procedure, than of an internalized set of beliefs. When that loyalty is shaken, so is the democratic commitment.
The work of Philip Converse and others indicates that integrated belief systems are probably restricted to the “talented tenth” of the American population, and disappear rapidly as we move down the educational ladder. Among the mass of people, no comprehensive ideology, good or bad, is operative. Political ideas do not exist in any large scheme of consistency or even of compatibility. The “why” of their connection, one to the other, is missing. The nature of political thinking is geared to the concrete rather than to the abstract. Converse points out that this condition is not “limited to a thin and disoriented bottom layer of the lumpenproletariat [but is] immediately relevant in understanding the bulk of mass political behavior.”
This painful situation explains why the sophisticated concepts of the democratic process cannot stand much of a strain. It also explains how so many people could support Coughlin's anti-Semitic platforms without themselves being anti-Semites. In the light of his findings, and discussing the Nazis, Converse writes: “Under comparable stresses, it is likely that large numbers of citizens in any society (and particularly those without any long-term affective ties to more traditional parties) would gladly support ad hoc promises of change without any great concern about ideological implications.”
To say that the large public does not consist of ideologues is not to say that it is feckless or foolish. The American public demonstrably has a strong sense of its own basic democratic rights, and has no reluctance to assert itself with respect to those rights. This is the strong popular spine on the body of our republic. It serves us well in most situations. But the application of abstract and ideological democratic principles to the matter of balancing these rights under stress calls for conceptual skills, historical perspective, and wide-based integrated belief systems which are very far from being prevalent in this country. Thus, the bulk of the data indicates that massive numbers of Americans who presumably have a ritual attachment to the concept of free speech and would reject any gross attempts to subvert it, do not understand or care much about the fine points of that concept when the crunch comes, when hardcore dissenters intrude upon their sensibilities. The American people would reject any gross attempt to subvert religious freedom, but almost half of them say that if a man doesn't believe in God, he should not be allowed to run for public office. And a majority of them, while jealous of due process, would rather throw away the book and resort to the whip when dealing with sex criminals.
In short, American democratic institutions have flourished because some people understood them, and the rest of the people were loyal to them. This loyalty is based on an inertia of investment in the country, the system, and the traditional political structure. At times mass dislocations of such loyalty have occurred, usually spinning off new and “extremist” political movements.
“Extremism” And the Jewish Question
“Extremism” is a crudely descriptive term for a movement which advocates or engages in undemocratic behavior. Extremist movements are, in fact, movements of disaffection. They are created by and addressed to people who as a group feel that they have just lost or are about to lose their grasp on something important to them; or those who feel that something important they have never had but want is just outside their grasp. In both cases, there is attached to this sense of substantive deprivation, a sense of power deprivation. This felt deprivation, accompanied by major social dislocation, and sharply shifting expectations, succeeds in breaking up many traditional loyalties. Without an attachment to the traditional system, and without an extended ideology, the common democratic commitment is subject to undemocratic subversion.
None of these conditions predestines the emergence of political anti-Semitism; they are just the risk factors, the conditions under which political anti-Semitism is more likely to appear. The final ingredient is a political movement which actually takes this road. As we have seen, modern political anti-Semitism does not rise from a grass-roots demand, nor do most supporters of mass anti-Semitic movements seem to care much one way or another. However, though its followers are not necessarily ideological, a deviant and radical political movement is. Concomitantly, its leaders, and especially its “intellectuals,” are ideologues, and transfer their own integrated belief systems to the movement.
The internal logic of these belief systems typically requires a conspiracy theory, with all its moralistic, absolutist trappings. If the opposition is only wrong, if the “mess” we are in is only the result of mistakes, then a remedy can be found within the traditional political structure. But if the opposition is evil, and the “mess” a result of evil deliberately and conspiratorially done, both a sharp deviation from the political structure and a repressive closing down of the democratic marketplace are morally legitimized.
Again, people may not be primarily attracted to a political movement because of its conspiracy theory, but many have no intellectual barriers to such ideas. About a quarter of our national population, in sample, recently agreed with the classic formulation: Much of our lives is controlled by plots hatched in secret places. The percentage agreeing grows as the educational level drops. And a conspiracy theory does serve an expressive purpose for people caught in frustration.
Conspiracy theories are basically abstract in nature. The conspirators, in order to serve the purpose, must be largely distant, hidden, faceles, kabbalistic: The Elders of Zion, the Kremlin, the Wall Street Bankers. But since most minds are geared to the concrete, it becomes helpful to connect these abstractions to a visible body of people. The development of a conspiracy theory adds yet another risk factor for political anti-Semitism. There is a mountain of literature prescribing the mythical Jew as the ideal target for a well-turned conspiracy theory.
But the initial point is this: in the light of the last half-century of experience and research, it is appropriate to say that the Jewish Question is already being raised again in America. In a malaria-prone country, the malaria question would be said to exist if the familiar breeding swamps were merely building up. Political anti-Semitism, the Jewish Question, does not relate in the short range to folk anti-Semitism, nor to the prevalent state of any set of images or feelings toward Jews. In America, the Jewish Question is substantially the same as the Question of the Democratic Society. Mendele Mocher Seforim wrote: “The Jewish Question—that's the wide canal which drains all the impurities, all the dirt and mud and sewage of man's soul.” The release of democratic restraints, the substitution of jungle for law, of conspiracy theory for reason, of confrontation for negotiation, of hyperbole for politics, of repression for social progress—that is the Jewish Question, as it has come to have special meaning for modern society. These are the issues around which the only effective fight against political anti-Semitism can take place. They are alive again today, and therefore the Jewish Question is coming to life again.
The Black Revolution and the Jewish Question
On one side, there is growing a mass movement of disaffection among the black population: a volatile constituency with a well-justified sense of general deprivation, and of specific power deprivation, characterized by low levels of education, systematic belief, and commitment to abstract democratic principles. “Mass movement” usually denotes some formal cohesion: A structure and a formal system of affiliation, which people can join or around which fellow-travelers can gather; or, alternately, a charismatic leadership with whom a following can identify. As yet the black mass movement of disaffection possesses neither. Indeed, while black people are, of course, distressed, dissatisfied, and have the bitter knowledge that they are relatively deprived, most of them have not yet been jarred loose from traditional loyalties to the political party structure or the system in general. At least so the polls, as well as the recent voting patterns and the repeated failures to organize in the ghetto areas, indicate. Also, all the objective indices testify that the aspirations of the great bulk of black people are primarily instrumental, built around a simple desire to get into the chrome-plated American system. But to be effective a mass movement does not need to be, and never has been, a “majority” of any population. Color and population concentration, in this case, provide a built-in system of affiliation and communication which can substitute for more formal organization. And within that system, there is stirring a genuine movement of disaffection, still disjointed, but with certain common expressive and extremist currents that are swelling, especially among the young.
The theme of the first postwar stage in race relations was equal opportunity. Out of the progress and frustrations of that stage came the theme of the next: anti-poverty. Out of the progress and frustrations of that stage came the third: Black Positiveness. And on the edge of Black Positiveness has emerged the phenomenon of Black Expressivism.
A sharp distinction has to be drawn between Black Expressivism and Black Positiveness. It has become a standard anti-poverty theorem that Negroes have to be given control of their own bootstraps if they are going to be asked to lift them. In order to join the American parade, the Negro community has to find its own identity, and shake itself loose from the degradation and self-degradation of the past. This is Black Positiveness, power, pride, dignity, as preface to economic integration. In addition, an obvious piece of political realism had to come to the fore: The black community was not going to be able to take a serious part in American pluralism until it established its own political strength and instruments. It had to shake loose from the coalitions long enough to do that. The corollary is that the political society would not otherwise respond to the needs of the Negro community. This is Black Positiveness, and Black Power as preface to political integration.
There is another face to Black Positiveness, more symbolic and less clearly instrumental, but still related to an ultimate goal: The black man should feel wholly like a man. The road to that goal in America has always been through the achievement of an instrumental position in the economy and the polity. But America had made a point of depressing the status of the Negro, in itself—and the black community now became interested in elevating that status in itself—especially since the instrumental access to status was obviously not going to be instant. This involved a subtle shift in emphasis. Thus, the demand that black history be taught in the schools was grounded in solid instrumental theory: It has educational utility, not only for the white student, but for the black student, whose sense of confidence and self-worth is related to motivation and achievement. But in the last few years the burden of this demand shifted from well-disposed educators and liberals to the young black people themselves. Educational theory aside, they wanted the symbolic fullness of their identity established here and now, for its own sake.
Expressiveness involves yet another subtle shift, however. All the above demands can, and have been, invested with anger and high emotion, but the passion is goal-directed. When a demand is made, or an act committed primarily to vent anger or frustration, then we enter the realm of expressive behavior. The line is often murky. What about the further demand that black history be written only by blacks and taught only by blacks? At what point is that demand primarily an extension of black pride, and at what point is it primarily an expression of anger and hostility toward the white establishment? In any given situation, the line is often difficult and fruitless to draw. But it is nevertheless a significant line, between politics and anti-politics. In its logical extreme, the pathology of expressive public behavior was revealed in the Old South when lynchings rose as the price of cotton went down, and in Old Europe when massacres of Jews took place in the wake of the Black Plague.
Expressive politics may be defined as the externalization of internal frustrations, bearing little direct relation to the solution of the problems which caused the frustrations. The chief function of such politics is to provide emotional release; and, at its peak, its currency is a kind of hyperbolic, hyper-symbolic language. “Racism” became an affective epithet—with an eager assist from the writers of the Kerner Commission Report—and lost its meaning. The growing use of “pig” as the definitive heart of the language, as in “racist pig” or “fascist pig,” further revealed the exclusively expressive nature of this latest stage in the movement. Impetus came from a black intellectual class, whose orbit grew rather swiftly as many college administrations made extraordinary efforts to bring black faculty members, black students, and special black programs to the campuses.
Recently a black instructor at a state college told 2,000 students at a rally: “We are slaves and the only way to become free is to kill all the slave-masters,” identifying the President, the Chief Justice, and the governor of the state as slavemasters. He also told them: “If you want campus autonomy and student power and the administration won't give it to you, take it from them with guns.” That is expressive talk par excellence. Everyone knows who has most of the guns and all of the tanks. But in urban high schools and ghetto areas around the country, more and more young people are adopting the expressive mode. They are not ideologues, like the state college instructor; they are more often frightened, angry, personally desperate young people for whom the schools and most other social institutions are irrelevant prisons.
In some cases, what was once personally expressive behavior born out of such conditions, has become politically expressive behavior. What would once have been known as delinquency is now invested with political significance. Black expressivism exists on many levels but is now coalescing into an “expressive movement”; this movement is buried and growing within the larger black community, and developing all the appurtenances thereof, including common language, symbols, heroes, and a conspiracy theory.
Expressive politics has always frightened the Jewish community. Before the Civil War Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise warned the Jews against the Abolitionist movement. He approved of its goals, but was afraid of its nature. The same point is currently being made for the Jews by the kinds of expressive anti-Semitism that are emerging from this black expressivism. This is not the folk anti-Semitism which the black population shares with the white population. It is, rather, the abstract and symbolic anti-Semitism which Jews instinctively find more chilling. Negroes trying to reassure Jewish audiences repeatedly and unwittingly make the very point they are trying to refute. “This is not anti-Semitism,” they say. “The hostility is toward the whites. When they say ‘Jew,’ they mean ‘white.’” But that is an exact and acute description of political anti-Semitism: “The enemy” becomes the Jew, “the man” becomes the Jew, the villain is not so much the actual Jewish merchant on the corner as the corporate Jew who stands symbolically for generic evil. “Don't be disturbed,” the Jews are told, “this is just poetic excess.” But the ideology of political anti-Semitism has precisely always been poetic excess, which has not prevented it from becoming murderous.
The surveys which generally show that the reservoir of folk anti-Semitism among Negroes is, if anything, a little lower than that among their fellow Americans, are irrelevant for the reasons given above. The relevant fact is that “the movement” is developing an anti-Semitic ideology. On one coast, there is talk about how the “Jewish establishment” is depressing the education of black students. On the other coast, a black magazine publishes a poem calling, poetically of course, for the crucifying of rabbis. “Jew pig” has become a common variant of the standard expressivist metaphor. On this level, there are daily signals.
Then, too, “Third World” anti-Semitism is becoming more of a staple, at least among the ideologues where it counts most. Jewish schoolteachers in New York were told in one tract that “the Middle East murderers of colored people” could not teach black children. At the last national convention of the Arab students in America, Stokely Carmichael, the main speaker, admitted that he had once been “for the Jews” but had reformed.
Of course, many middle-class blacks are horrified by all this. But on the community level, where the pressure is, they are likely to say that it would not do for them to attack such manifestations, because it would seem to be an attack on the militant movement itself (this reaction throws another light on the ability of a movement to be anti-Semitic without a corps of anti-Semites). They are likely to say that these manifestations are “only symbolic,” without understanding that symbolic anti-Semitism is the most frightening kind. Or they might explain that these attitudes are not widely reflected in the black community—which is, to complete the circle, irrelevant.
But how dangerous, finally, is the anti-Semitic ideology being developed by this growing black movement? If the movement is destined to be relatively powerless, should it be a source of major concern? More particularly, if this movement is pitted so directly against the white majority in the country, does that not render its anti-Semitism still less dangerous? Such questions ignore the fact that this movement has already succeeded in reintroducing political anti-Semitism as a fashionable item in the American public arena—with what consequences no one can yet tell. It would, moreover, be a repetition of old mistakes to think that if a black movement uses political anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism must therefore be rejected by anti-black whites. One propaganda effort during World War II was designed to reduce anti-Semitism among Americans by linking Nazism and anti-Semitism, and then attacking Nazism. An evaluation reported that the campaign increased hostility toward Nazism without reducing hostility toward Jews. And we have seen that the American public fought bitterly against Hitler during the war, without apparently altering its attitudes toward Jews.
However, there is another, more problematical area of concern that might be anticipated if the expressive black movement continues to grow. The black community is on the verge of a major political breakthrough. A good number of cities are soon destined to be numerically controlled or heavily dominated by their Negro populations. These are the cities in or around which most American Jews live, and in which their business and public lives are largely conducted. If the expressive black movement, with attendant political anti-Semitism, continues to grow, its effect on Jewish lives will be incalculable. (Incalculable also might be the effect on American foreign policy in the Middle East of a prevailing anti-Israel sentiment in important political centers.) There will, of course, be an intensification of the upward-mobility conflict that is already becoming a visible part of the Negro-Jewish complex. (As one Jewish teacher plaintively told the New York Times: “We don't deny their equality, but they shouldn't get it by pulling down others who have just come up.”) More generally, the political structure in these cities is going to be under considerable strain. There is the possibility of a classic marriage, a manipulative symbiosis, between the privileged class and the dis-privileged mass—in this case a WASP class and a black mass—in these cities: the kind of symbiosis which existed in the 1920's between respectable Republican leaders and the KKK, and which permitted a temper of repression and bigotry to flourish. The anti-Semitic ideology developing in the black movement would be eminently suited to such purposes. Some have suggested that the edges of this possibility are actually peeking out in New York City. Certainly, whatever the outcome, this face of the black expressive movement is there for the Jewish community to contemplate with justified concern.
The White Backlash and the Jewish Question
Of course, on the other side, there is a white population which exhibits, from its own vantage point, the same dangerous characteristics: a volatility, with broken loyalties; a sense of general deprivation and of power deprivation; relatively low levels of education, systematic belief, and commitment to abstract democratic principles—a population, in short, both extremist and expressive in tendency. This is the more traditional backlash pattern, which has produced America's major anti-Semitic movements of the past.
These movements were involved in preserving something which seemed about to be lost. When successful, they were typically a strange marriage between members of the upper and lower economic strata who were protecting different interests together. Economic concerns were often present, but the decisive bond was a set of symbolic issues. The critical element of the mass support was some kind of status deprivation and alienation: a disappearing way of life, a vanishing power, a diminishing position of group prestige, a scrambling of expectations, a heart-sinking change of social scenery, a lost sense of belongingness. In the 1920's, the backlash of traditional rural Protestantism, losing its hegemony in the nation, provided this element. The census of 1920 reported that for the first time in American history urban dwellers were in the majority. The cities were taking over the nation; new kinds of people were taking over the cities; the small-town dweller, whether staying behind or coming to the big city, was apt to feel in the back-waters. KKK leader Hiram W. Evans complained that the “Nordic American today is a stranger in a large part of the land his father gave him.” In the 1930's, the depression-bound people who supported Coughlin were not only interested in some aspects of social change, but also threatened by other aspects of social change. Coughlin, in the classic mode of fascism, wanted to create a revolution within the symbolic bounds of a traditional way of life. In both decades there were massive dislocations, large sections of the population being torn away from their traditional political loyalties, and therefore from ritualistic democratic constraints to which they had no deep ideological commitment.
We are now faced with more massive dislocations than we have experienced since the 1930's, and perhaps since the Civil War. Just as there once was a nativist (Protestant) backlash against the emergence of immigrant (Catholic and Jewish) economic advancement, cultural imperialism, and political power in the cities, so we now have a white backlash against similar Negro advances in the cities. The breakdown of “law and order” that is attendant upon such periods is itself a status-shaking, power-dwindling experience. Policemen have consistently been the most conspicuous vocational presence in every major backlash movement in American history. It is not that they differ all that much psychologically or otherwise from the rest of the non-elite American population, but that they are on the front lines of the conflict. Many white citizens feel that they are getting short shrift in schools, law enforcement, and city hall generally because of black power. Certainly, they don't approve of the concept of “compensatory” treatment for blacks. And they can expressively wrap around this issue all of their angry feelings about the frustrating decline of American status in a new world, and the apparently losing battle of the citizen against bureaucracy and taxes.
The Birch Society, more Liberty League than Coughlin, has never seriously attempted to exploit the white backlash, or to get in touch with mass America at all. McCarthyism was a kind of false pregnancy, although serving fleetingly to reveal the potential for undemocratic repression which lies in a large mass of the American public. George Wallace was, at least for a time, the Pied Piper of repression, tuned into the large and ideologically soft underbelly of white America. His low November vote outside the South was comparable to the low vote that Coughlin's candidate Lemke received at a time when Coughlin's movement was booming. Many blue-collar people who had given their genuine expressive approval to Wallace when the pollsters came around, or when he came to town, voted instrumentally when they went, hand on pocketbook, into the booths.
Of course, Wallace has shown no evidence of raising the Jewish Question, but some parallels have been drawn between him and Huey Long. Huey Long never raised the Jewish Question either, although it was not that unrespectable in his time to do so. But Huey Long never quite made the transition from Louisiana demagogue to national ideologue before he was killed. And among his top staff people was Gerald L. K. Smith, one of the nation's most committed ideological anti-Semites. Coughlin's full belief system, his conspiracy theory, his political anti-Semitism, emerged fully only midway in his career, after bitter disappointments. What might have developed in the Long movement, with Smith at his elbow, is of course incalculable. It is a matter of record that George Wallace similarly had in the background of his campaign last year speech writers, advisers, and organizers who have openly engaged in political anti-Semitism. This did not make George Wallace an anti-Semite, nor destine him to be one, but it made a number of Jews uneasy. And, Wallace aside, it is only reasonable for the uneasiness to accumulate as the risk factors do. History often finds its own man. Even Coughlin has begun to publish a magazine again, after twenty-six years of silence.
The Jewish Community and the Jewish Question
Between those two forces, between those two harbingers of the Jewish Question, lies an increasingly bewildered and fragmented Jewish community. A few short years ago, there was a kind of coalescence of religious, political, and defense impulses among the Jewish leaders, who were massed on the civil-rights front, with their constituency trailing securely and benignly behind. Today, a different situation is suggested by recurrent vignettes such as one described in a recent JTA news dispatch, dateline New York:
The rabbi of the East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn sharply rebuked a crowd who booed and jeered Mayor John V. Lindsay this week as the mayor attempted to address an audience in the temple on the dispute between the teacher's union and the largely Negro Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district. . . . The mayor was shouted down when he said that both sides in the dispute were guilty of “acts of vigilantism.” Rabbi Harry Halpern took the microphone and declared, “As Jews you have no right to be in this synagogue acting the way you are acting. Is this the exemplification of the Jewish faith?” Shouts of “yes, yes” were the answer. Some members of the audience belonged to the congregation, and others were members of the community at large which is white, middle class, and predominantly Jewish.
In the same dispatch, the JTA reported that “the national body of Conservative Jewish Congregations expressed concern this week that recent statements by some Jewish groups and individuals have tended to equate the entire Negro community with anti-Semitic slurs voiced by a few black militants. . . . The board also urged Jews ‘not to react to limited extremism with our own extremism.’”
In the conglomerate, the Jews of America seem to be in a new ambivalent position. No one in his right mind has ever called the Jewish community monolithic. But with all its formlessness, the Jewish community has in recent memory always had a prevailing public stance—in the parlors as well as in the agency offices—with respect to certain kinds of issues: the Birch Society, fair employment practices laws, fair housing laws. Today it is symptomatically difficult to find a prevailing public stance with respect to such current issues as police review boards, neighborhood-controlled schools, Black Student Unions.
It would be a misreading of the situation to suggest that all the Jewish community needs is to pull up its moral socks. The Jewish involvement with the plight of black America cannot simply be seen as the religious or liberal imperative for social justice. There is, more clearly than ever before, the legitimate and independent Jewish imperative for self-survival. Of course, this self-survival, given the nature of the Jewish Question, could be seen validly—if somewhat remotely—as identical with the survival of the democratic social order. And this period may be another perilous episode in that recurrent dilemma of modern society: The problem of separately pursuing social (economic) justice and a democratic social order without despoiling either. Western history has a long record of failures in that quest, and, not surprisingly, the Jewish Question has more often than not been in attendance.
But there are more concrete implications. The Black Revolution is spurring the Jewish community—and America—into a renewed understanding of pluralistic politics. The fresh Jewish stirrings are not primarily a backlash reaction, although there is some of that. There is most significantly a turning inward; in a real sense, a regrouping. There is a new tendency to ask seriously a question which has only been asked jokingly for a number of decades: “Is it good for the Jews?”
Alfred de Grazia has well described the spirit of the age of rationalistic mass democracy which was set in motion by the Enlightenment, and which came to a certain rhetorical fruition in America:
Beginning in the nineteenth century there might be no interests apart from the interests of the mass of people, however cloudy such a concept might be. An equally accepted but opposite belief was that the individual, a solitary wayfarer in life and politics, could govern himself without belonging to any cohesive groups. The two beliefs might be simultaneously held, for they are psychologically, if not politically, consistent. In the individualism and utilitarianism of Benthamism, all interests break down. Little thought goes to the mass authoritarianism or majoritarianism that was the inevitable denouement. Whereas the mass public had never before been seriously regarded as the active agent in legislative processes, the People was now sculpted into a massive monolithic interest group.
Official segments of the Jewish community seemed to embrace precisely this concept when the Golden Age set in after World War II. Negroes were to pursue a just society not primarily as Negroes, which they merely happened to be, but as Americans along with fellow-Americans. Jews were to pursue a just society not primarily as Jews, which they happened to be, but as Americans along with fellow-Americans. And so forth: A salvation army of Americans with identical moral concerns was marching together. The language was not all that clear, of course. Jews were told that “civil rights” was good for them, which indeed it was. But it was told in passing, as a corollary to the main image of all-Americans-marching-morally-together. The image became increasingly fuzzy as the 1950's yielded to the 1960's, and many Jews suffered traumatic shock when the Negroes detached themselves from the marching army and said, “Wait a minute, we've got a different interest here, a different drummer and a different pace.”
There was the religious language also: The prophetic traditions and the Jewish moral imperatives were invoked. The Christian clergy invoked their own, as did, no less fiercely, the humanist liberals. But there has always been a certain uneasy ring of truth in the pejorative use of the term “do-gooder.” If a do-gooder is someone who is primarily and exclusively motivated by moral concerns in the political arena, he is more often than not a mischief maker. Politics is not identical with morality, which does not mean that politics need be immoral. To be sure, politics at its best is the negotiation of conflicting group interests within the constraint of rules which are morally based. But the distinction between morality as a political constraint, and morality as a central engine of political action, is a crucial distinction. To put it another way, the do-gooder is the evangelist who knows what is best for everybody. When the Negroes, seizing their own identity, said: “It is only we who really know what is best for us,” they brought everyone up short, and they brought the Jews back for yet another look at their own group identity in America.
In 1927, in the middle of the debate as to whether Jewish Welfare Federations should merge with general Community Chests, Morris D. Waldman told a national conference: “I am constrained to believe that the existence of separate Protestant, Jewish, and Catholic Federations . . . is not going to retard brotherhood. Because I am thoroughly convinced that if the universal brotherhood will ever come, it will not come in the form of a fraternity of individuals, but as a brotherhood of groups. . . . The group will-to-live is at least as strong as the individual will-to-live. . . .”
The Jewish Community's independent group will-to-live is being reasserted in response to the reemergence of the Jewish Question in America—as well as in Eastern Europe and in the Middle East. Less and less, as one consequence, will the public affairs agenda of the Jewish community be the same as that of the black community. This is not a matter of withdrawing support from those generic items on the black agenda which must be on the common American agenda and in which the Jewish community has a strong derivative stake—most notably, the rapid reduction of ghetto poverty. There may, however, develop sharper differences as to the point at which the rate of reduction is to be increased “at any cost” or “by any means whatsoever.” The maintenance of a democratic rule of law is essential to Jewish survival. Nor is it just a defense against extremism which will finally protect that social order. If the Jewish community has in the past had a special concern with greater participation by the ghetto population in civic affairs, as a means of strengthening the democratic fiber, it must also now have a special concern with greater participation by the white lower-middle-class population still in and around our cities. These are people of the “common democratic commitment” who are not horned and leprous bigots, but who have troubles of their own, a dignity of their own to maintain, and a growing sense that they are being left out. As Irving M. Levine has said: “Our rightful transfixion on Negroes has developed into a ‘no-win’ policy, hardening the lines of polarization between white and black into a reality that could blow the country apart. To change this white reaction, some of the brilliance which articulated Negro demands will have to be similarly developed to speak to and for lower-class America.”
But there are other items which may more poignantly illustrate the temper of a new agenda. For example, there is a liberal movement toward the public-funded privatization of the public school system, starting with neighborhood control and ending with any group of parents—or an institution of their choice—being able to set up a school to which their children can go at public expense. The consequences of such a development, with its potential for racial, ethnic, and religious separatism, may call for independent evaluation by the Jewish community. In most cities new ethnic and racial competition for various public boards and posts is developing. Eventually, the Jewish community may be required to act more politically as a community if it is to hold its own in such competition. The point is not the abandonment of universal values, but the development of a more self-conscious focus of group interest.
The Jewish Question is alive again because the American political structure and its traditional coalitions are in naked transition. The common democratic commitment trembles within both the white and black populations. New kinds of political configurations are in the making. The past quarter century turns out not to have been, as some envisioned, the passageway to some terminal American Dream. It has been the staging-ground for some as yet indistinct future American design. The Jews, somehow in trouble again, need to make their own particular sighting on that future.
1 See Jews in the Mind of America, Basic Books, 1966.