Although he scarcely touches on the implications of “affirmative action” for Jews, Paul Seabury’s article (p. 38), especially taken in conjunction with Earl Raab’s “Quotas by Any Other Name” in the January COMMENTARY, has persuaded me that the question, Is it good for the Jews?—a question as old, in all probability, as the Jewish Diaspora itself—has not quite reached the end of its ancient career as a useful guide to thought. Yet there was a time in America, not so long ago, when to many of us, perhaps to most American Jews, the question no longer ever occurred: far from being the first, it was more likely to be the last, consideration that sprang to our minds in relation to any event. And if it were ever asked in our presence, or in anything we happened to read, our response was likely to be one of embarrassment or of anger or of contempt—unless of course we were being exquisite, in which case we might be charmed. Is it good for the Jews? The question bespoke a mentality no broader than the horizons of the tribe, and it carried an odor of alien worlds—of the empire of the Hapsburgs and the Russia of the Czars—which had long since crumbled to dust. To the world of the American Jew, to the situation in which he found himself, to the conditions under which he lived, this ridiculously parochial question, redeemed, if it was redeemed, only by its antiquarian appeal, could, we used to think, have no connection at all.
We had cause to feel this way. During the period running from the end of the Second World War to the middle or late 60’s, Jews had no need to ask whether anything was good for the Jews, for the simple and sufficient reason that in America at least almost everything was good for the Jews. Anti-Semitism still existed, mainly on the political Right, but so discredited had it become through its association with the name of Hitler that no one who aspired to respectable status in American public life dared voice anti-Semitic sentiments openly or dared make any use of anti-Semitism in appealing for the support of others. For the penalty was instant banishment from the world of acceptable opinion. Thus, for example, Joe McCarthy, sensitive to the vulnerability of any right-wing movement to accusations of anti-Semitism and fully aware of the damage such accusations could do, went out of his way to appoint two Jews with markedly Jewish names as his chief assistants, while even the more extreme John Birch Society declared that anti-Semites were unwelcome to its ranks and even went so far as to expel members of the Society who were unable to restrain their frisky anti-Semitic passions when writing or speaking in public. Whether or not, then, the actual level of anti-Semitic feeling declined in America, the sheer number of anti-Semitic statements, or indeed of statements hostile to Jews in any way or to any degree, most certainly did decline in the public prints, on the airways, in political speeches, and probably even in private conversation.
Along with this decline in the open expression of anti-Semitic sentiments and ideas went a precipitous decline in discriminatory practices against Jews. Pockets of discrimination continued, of course, to exist. There were areas in which Jews were prevented from buying homes; there were cooperative apartment buildings—even in New York!—from which Jews were more or less openly barred. There were resorts and private social clubs to which Jews were not admitted. There were business enterprises which kept Jews out of the executive suite. But between 1945 and 1965 most of these practices became illegal, and if this did not cause them to disappear entirely, it certainly made them harder to follow and easier to fight where the will to fight was aroused.
It was this same period that saw the apparent end of quotas restricting the number of Jews who could be admitted into the elite colleges and the better professional schools. Such quotas, often operating under cover of the search for geographical and social balance, had been in existence since the early 1920’s,1 and in an informal way they had also governed the hiring of faculty. By 1960 they seemed to have become almost entirely a thing of the past.
But to say merely that open anti-Semitism virtually disappeared and that discrimination against Jews declined would be to put the case too negatively. The truth is that the American climate of the first two postwar decades was not only less hostile to Jews than it had formerly been; it was also more congenial. Not only were obstacles removed, but invitations were issued. Not only were Jews less and less excluded from more and more places; they were also made to feel more and more welcome, more and more at home. Having, for example, always considered itself—without thinking about the matter very much—a Christian country, the United States suddenly began extending recognition to Judaism as one of the major American religions. The rabbi became an obligatory partner of the minister and the priest on every ceremonial occasion, and though this development was not without its comic side, the fact remained that Jews as Jews were being invited in, no longer alienated to that most literal extent.
Another and perhaps more telling example of how positively congenial the American climate became to the Jew in the period under consideration was the interest which developed in Jewish writers and artists and intellectuals, and the sympathy which began to be shown for their work. Having formerly played only a minor role in American letters, Jews all at once began finding an audience for the things they had to say, and the more Jewish in character they were—the more they wrote about Jewish life in particular and the more they wrote in a style which betrayed its connections with Yiddish and with the contours of immigrant life—the bigger and more appreciative, it remarkably seemed, the audience would turn out to be.
And of course the literary world was not the only world in which Jews were able to benefit from and take advantage of a newly benign environment. Everywhere they seemed to be prospering. Jews without money there continued to be, especially in the bigger cities, but the Jews who lived in poverty were in some ways even more invisible than Michael Harrington said their non-white counterparts had become, if only because the Jewish community as a whole was in so vivid a state of economic bounteousness, with only the Episcopalians—the most aristocratic of the Protestant groups—to rival them in this respect. In business and in all the liberal professions, including of course the profession of teaching, the Jews were doing well, and so were most of their children, so many of whom were going to college that the exceptions came to be looked on as strange, almost, even, as a species of social deviant.
Under such circumstances of security and prosperity, why would anyone ask whether anything was good for the Jews? Surely everything was good for the Jews. But is everything good for the Jews today? There are those who say yes and they can argue with great plausibility that the situation as I have just described it remains in all essential respects the same and in some important respects has even, from the Jewish point of view, improved. A dramatic area of improvement, for example, is political life. As Milton Ellerin of the American Jewish Committee has reminded us, more Jews than ever are running for elective office, including such high offices as Governor and United States Senator, and more of them are getting elected than ever before. Despite the greater visibility of Jews on the political scene, moreover, the taboo on the use of anti-Semitism in electoral campaigns continues to be rigidly observed.
All this is true and it is reassuring and it must be kept in mind. But other things are true as well which are not so reassuring and which must also be kept in mind. If the taboo on the use of anti-Semitism in electoral campaigns continues to be rigidly enforced, it has ceased being rigidly enforced in other areas of American life; and if the anti-Semitism of the Right continues to live underground, the anti-Semitism of the Left has moved in recent years out of the foul-smelling catacombs of the radical tradition and into the common light of day. On the radical Left—despite the fact but also of course because of the fact that so many of its members are Jews—the hostility to Israel often spills over into a hostility to Jews, just as the hatred of middle-class values often spills over into the hatred of Jews. Among blacks, and especially at the extreme edges of the movement for community control where the likes of LeRoi Jones hold sway, there is overt anti-Semitism of the crassest and crudest kind, and white liberal supporters of this movement—again including a number of Jews—have been extraordinarily reticent in their response to it and even more extraordinarily reluctant to penalize black anti-Semites with the loss of sympathy and support.
And finally there is the literary world. For some time now the sound of grumbling has been heard in the English Departments of the land over the prominent position of Jews in the world of American letters, and to those with ears to hear it is a sound with ominous echoes of Berlin and Vienna in the 20’s. To make the echo even more ominous, the Jewish prominence in cultural life is often attributed today, just as it was in the past, neither to accident nor to merit, but rather to a Jewish conspiracy. Thus Truman Capote exposes the existence of a phenomenon he calls “the Jewish Mafia in American letters.” This is, Capote asserts, “a clique of New York-oriented writers and critics who control much of the literary scene through the influence of the quarterlies and intellectual magazines. All these publications are Jewish-dominated and this particular coterie employs them to make or break writers by advancing or withholding attention.” And Capote goes on: “Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and Isaac Bashevis Singer and Norman Mailer are all fine writers but they’re not the only writers in the country as the Jewish Mafia would have us believe. I could give you a list of excellent writers . . .; the odds are you haven’t heard of most of them for the simple reason that the Jewish Mafia has systematically frozen them out of the literary scene.” Now Truman Capote is certainly not an anti-Semite. Nevertheless this statement, with its mixture of half-truths and outright falsifications, with its paranoid view of Jewish power, with its dementedly exaggerated notion of Jewish solidarity, and with its self-pitying and self-exculpating ressentiment, might almost have sprung full-blown from a classical anti-Semitic tract. Is this kind of thinking confined to Capote alone? Not according to him. The sinister workings of the Jewish Mafia are known, he says, to “everyone in the literary world.”
In short, after a period during which the volume of openly expressed hostility to Jews declined to a level so low as to be scarcely perceptible at all, we seem to have entered a period in which the taboo is being weakened and the same restraints no longer obtain. If one made a simple numerical tally of references unfriendly to Jews in the public prints since, say, 1967—the date of the Six-Day War when so many intellectuals of radical stripe or sympathy responded to the victory of Israel with an “anti-Zionism” which was not always easy to distinguish from the anti-Semitism of old, and the date as well which marked the beginning of the terrible struggle over the New York schools, a struggle in the course of which black anti-Semitism, however much or little of it there may be within the black community as a whole, erupted for the first time into widespread public view, and just by diabolical coincidence as the backlash against the Jewish position in the cultural life of the country was gathering enough force to make itself heard with the kind of brazen directness we get in the statement by Truman Capote I quoted above—if one made such a tally, one would certainly find a spectacular increase in the volume of anti-Jewish utterance as compared with any period of similar length in the 50’s or early 60s.
But what about discrimination against Jews? In the days when anti-Semitic sentiments and ideas were banished from the spectrum of respectable opinion in America, discriminatory practices against Jews also showed a corresponding decline. Of course, it was not in every case for the sake of the Jews alone, or even primarily for the sake of the Jews at all, that such practices were made illegal or voluntarily suspended. The measures which outlawed discrimination in employment and housing—which established that an applicant must be judged as an individual without reference (in a phrase which is itself coming to have an antiquarian charm) to “race, creed, or color”—were instituted with the Negro more directly in mind than the Jew, although the Jew benefited too. When a system based, in principle and also very largely in practice, on merit as measured by anonymous examination results was put into operation in the field of government service, the purpose was not to help Jews become schoolteachers or principals or social workers or hospital administrators, although this was certainly a result; the purpose was to do away as far as possible with the spoils system, with nepotism and politically-controlled appointments. When, as recently as 1957—only, as historical time is measured, a little minute ago—the quota system was dropped by many American colleges and replaced by an admissions policy almost exclusively geared to college-board scores, the intention was not to rectify the injustice which had been done to qualified Jewish applicants who, simply because they were Jewish, had once been passed over in favor of less qualified applicants; the intention was to upgrade the academic and intellectual standards of higher education in America lest the Russians outstrip us in technological advance, as their launching of Sputnik at a time when we were still unable to do the same, seemed to suggest they might. Still, whatever the purpose of these measures was, they did benefit the Jews and the fact that they did could only have been considered in a climate as friendly to Jews as the climate was then, a climate which was thoroughly anti-anti-Semitic, so to speak, an additional and most welcome bonus.
And today? Do we see an increase in discriminatory practices against Jews today? I am very much afraid that we do. The two principal areas are civil-service employment and university admissions and hiring practices, in both of which the idea of judging an individual without reference to “race, creed, or color” has lost considerable ground in favor of the idea of proportional representation according to race and, increasingly, according to sex, and very lately according also to ethnic group. But the same idea also seems to be gaining ground in areas besides the public sector and the universities. One example which comes to mind is the so-called Minority Advancement Plan, put forward in an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (August 22, 1971) by John Kenneth Galbraith, Edwin Kuh, and Lester C. Thurow. By the terms of this plan all firms of a certain size would be required by law to put a stated percentage of people drawn from “minority groups” into jobs paying $15,000 per year or more. Jews, although some might consider them a minority group, since they after all add up to a mere 3 per cent of the population, are not defined as such in the Galbraith Plan; nor are Italians or Poles or any other of the predominantly Catholic ethnic groups: only non-whites and women are minorities in this quaint and original conception. For Jews, like the other white ethnic groups, are, as Galbraith and his colleagues put it, already in the club, which is to say that they already have more than their fair share of the better-paying jobs. Now there are substantial reasons for disagreeing with this complacent view of the economic situation of the major ethnic groups. But let us acknowledge that Jews are more than proportionately represented among those in this country who earn $15,000 or more. Are they then to be fired under the Galbraith Plan? Or will they simply be phased out gradually by the adoption of an anti-Jewish quota in hiring and promotion? Galbraith and his colleagues do not say. Perhaps their idea is to replace the Jews in question with their wives, thereby killing at least two birds with one stone, and maybe even one or two more.
The extent to which this new idea of proportional representation is already being put into practice can be gauged from the cases described by Earl Raab in last month’s COMMENTARY and by Paul Seabury in the current issue. Clearly it is not the primary purpose of those who support this tendency to discriminate against Jews—though it may be that in a climate in which Jews are commonly said to be over represented almost everywhere they are represented at all, the idea of putting the Jews in their place is considered by some a welcome bonus—just as, conversely, the opposite development was considered a welcome bonus in the more benevolent climate of the past. Putting such considerations aside, however, what is at stake here is a certain conception of social justice and a certain conception of prudence both of which in my opinion are seriously and even fatally flawed by errors of thought, of judgment, and of moral understanding. And whatever the motivations involved, the move toward proportional representation, even if it is not fanatically pursued to its logical conclusion of apportioning everything in the world only by group and in strict accordance with the size of the group, can no more avoid hurting the Jews than the abolition of the quota system—whatever the political considerations which may have led to its abolition—could in the past have avoided helping the Jews. For constituting only 3 per cent of the population, the Jews must inevitably be harmed by any move in the direction of a system of proportional representation according to group—and by a vigorous move in that direction, very seriously damaged.
Discussing some of these tendencies on another occasion, I said that they warranted neither panic nor hysteria but “a certain anxiety.”2 Indeed I think they do. But I also think they warrant something else by way of a healthy Jewish response. I think they warrant a revival among Jews of that ancient and prematurely laughed-off question, Is it good for the Jews? That is to say, I think that Jews must once again begin to look at proposals and policies from the point of view of the Jewish interest, and must once again begin to ask what the consequences, if any, of any proposal or policy are likely to be so far as the Jewish position is concerned.
I realize, of course, that Jews will find this a very difficult thing to do. As Nathan Glazer has pointed out,3 everyone nowadays is uncomfortable with the idea of self-interest and Jews are perhaps, in the usual fashion of Jews, even more uncomfortable than everyone else. Nevertheless we have to face the fact that no one is likely so much as to recognize the presence of a Jewish interest in a particular issue, let alone concern himself with or speak for it, if the Jews do not do so themselves. And if the Jews fail to speak for the Jewish interest, we can be sure that measures will be taken without regard for whatever evil consequences they might inexorably, even if inadvertently, carry for the Jews. But the Jews can only speak effectively for their own interest if they accept the fact that they have an interest which may differ or conflict with the interests of others. More than that, they must also accept the fact that they have what I do not hesitate to call an inalienable human right—a right which is acknowledged and indeed honored as such by the most fundamental traditions of the American Republic—to pursue and defend that interest as energetically as they can within the limits of prudence and the restraints of the positive law.
There will, of course, be differences as to what precisely the Jewish interest is and where precisely it lies and how precisely it can best be defended or pursued. Some will wish to define it so narrowly as to include nothing beyond the immediate preoccupations of a xenophobic fringe. Some will see a Jewish interest wherever they turn their eyes; others will see one only where it most blatantly asserts itself. Some will wish to pursue the Jewish interest as they see it with singleminded zeal; others will wish to balance and weigh and navigate in circuitous lanes and paths. I do not say these differences will be easy to settle, but I do say they can be resolved in individual cases and in terms of concrete instances, so long as they are honestly discussed with a view toward answering the question, Is it good for the Jews? And so long as the aim is honestly to protect and defend the Jewish interest within the limits of prudence and the restraints of law, intelligent bargains can be struck, tactics can be developed, strategy can be designed.4
I am not, then, counseling the Jews to withdraw into a self-regarding parochialism. Nothing I say here is intended to imply that Jews have or should have no interests other than the strictly Jewish interest. I do not say that Jews should begin and end with the Jewish interest; I only say that they should begin with it, that it should be the first rather than the last consideration that enters their minds, and that they should bethink themselves long and hard before agreeing to see it compromised or altogether bargained away—though, of course, even if they do not agree, they may for lack of power be forced to see it compromised.
If a concern with the Jewish interest need not entail a sacrifice of concern with issues in which Jews have an interest along with other Americans and along with other members of the human race, neither need it entail the transformation of the American-Jewish community into a merely selfish and self-seeking group. For as it happens the Jews are at this moment in an extremely good position to serve the best interests of the country as a whole by attempting to serve their own. I believe that a powerful case can be made (of which the outlines are present in Earl Raab and Paul Seabury) for the proposition that a system of proportional representation would in the not-so-long run do great harm to the quality of life in the United States and would even end by harming the very groups for whose short-range benefit this change was originally proposed and is already in some places being implemented. Now wherever the Jewish interest may or may not lie, there can be no question that it lies in the maintenance of the merit system and that the Jews, as a tiny ethnic group, would inevitably be damaged by a system of proportional representation according to group. The fact that the Jews have such an obvious interest in the maintenance of the merit system ought, in the opinion of some, to disqualify them from defending it: they are not, after all, disinterested. I, on the contrary, believe that it is just the urgency of their own interest, their own stake, in the merit system that ought to sensitize Jews to its virtues and mobilize them in its defense. They have a duty to themselves to persuade as many people as they can that the principles of the merit system are sound even if some of its practices have to be reformed in the name of the principles themselves; that such a system is neither a racket nor a Jewish invention but a way of realizing certain precious personal and social values which cannot be realized as well under any other set of arrangements. In discharging this duty to themselves, the Jews have an opportunity to perform a service to the country that no one else under present circumstances seems likely to perform.
Looking back on the 1950’s and the early 1960’s we can now see that being absolved of the need to worry about and press for the Jewish interest—the need to face the world with the humiliating question, Is it good for the Jews? perpetually on one’s nagging lips—was itself one of the more luxurious perquisites of what may some day come to be considered the Golden Age of Jewish security in America. The Golden Age, as golden ages must, now seems to be reaching an end, and nothing is to be gained by Jews or anyone else from denying the signs in the air. In the brassier age aborning, Jews will either ask, Is it good for the Jews? and act on the answers, or else they may wake up one day to find themselves diminished, degraded, discriminated against, and alone.
1 See “How Jewish Quotas Began,” by Stephen Steinberg, in the September 1971 COMMENTARY.
2 COMMENTARY, August 1971.
3 “Jewish Interests and the New Left,” Midstream, January 1971.
4 A brilliant beginning is made by Ben Halpern in his recent book, Blacks and Jews, and in his article, “A Program for American Jews,” in the November 1971 Jewish Frontier.