Is Antisemitism Dead?
The selection of Senator Lieberman as Al Gore's running mate let loose a flood of self-congratulatory prose about how the U.S. has now risen above antisemitism. Jonathan Alter's upbeat piece in Newsweek (8/21/00) was representative. Alter consulted with his rabbi, who told him that the fact of Jews reaching positions of political power is "no big deal anymore." You can, Alter further pointed out, get a bagel anywhere in the country nowadays. He "passed" as a gentile in conversation with gentiles, and was surprised to find that most people "in my very unscientific survey" didn't care about the Jewish angle. "Jewish entertainers are everywhere, and they don't hide their heritage as the old stars and their studio bosses did." The willingness of late night comedians to make Jewish jokes about Lieberman shows, according to Alter, that Jews have attained full acceptance because "it's kosher to joke about the powerful."
Well, far be it from me to rain on anybody's parade, but I think we are all being much too sanguine about the decline of antisemitism. My own impression (just as unscientific as Alter's, I am sure) is that Jews are widely, though very mildly, disliked in America. It may indeed be kosher to joke about the powerful; but it is all too human to resent them. In the circles I move in — working- and middle-class Americans — antisemitic comments are quite common between intimates, though everybody understands they are de trop in any less restricted circles. One friend of mine, a successful man of great intelligence and taste, whom I love dearly, grumbled in a conversation about the Lieberman candidacy that: "I am resigned to the fact that I shall be hearing about the expletive Holocaust for the rest of my life … The Chosen have won, they run everything … They're even doing Nabucco at the Met this season." (Nabucco is an opera by Verdi, set among the Jews in the time of the Babylonian captivity.) I have heard half a dozen similar, though less articulate, comments from various quarters. None of the speakers was a lunatic, or a heartless or particularly unkind person.
In fact a close reading of Alter's piece reveals some wishful thinking showing through the optimistic varnish. "Passing as gentile"? I can spot a Jewish person with about 80 per cent accuracy, and I think most gentiles (and surely most Jews, too) have some similar power of detection. I have never met Mr. Alter, and have no idea what he looks like, but I take his "passing" with a grain of salt. As for those Jewish entertainers and their bosses not hiding their heritage: well, perhaps Mr. Alter should have a chat with William Cash of the London Spectator, who brought great thunderclaps of wrath down on his head six years ago by pointing out mildly in that very intelligent journal that most Hollywood bosses were Jewish. Oh, and which episode of Seinfeld was that in which the four lead characters were sitting at a table assuring each other earnestly that none of them was Jewish?
Alter touches on the subject of black anti-Semitism, but only very lightly. "Most African American leaders are genuinely enthusiastic about Lieberman." Yes, and most of them are genuinely enthusiastic about other articles of Democratic faith: easy immigration, for example, and the public-school monopoly. Actual African Americans feel differently in large numbers, and the "leadership" of those "leaders" seems unable to change the minds of the led. Just ten years ago in New York City, blacks staged a classic antisemitic pogrom, with loss of life and destruction of property. One young man was hacked to death by a mob of screaming blacks shouting "Kill the Jew!" When the murderer was acquitted at trial by a black jury, the jurors went out to a riotous party afterwards. Nothing I have heard from Jesse Jackson or Kweisi Mfume has cancelled out that appalling memory.
Even setting aside blacks and fringe lunatics, I repeat my impression that there is much anti-Semitism around, though of a very diluted sort. It would be surprising if this were not so. Jews are, as a group, very successful. Newsweek gives the percentage of Jews in the U.S. population as two. (Though the magazine seem a little confused on the point. In another place in that same issue we read that "4 per cent of American voters are Jewish.") Does anybody think that only two per cent of professionals — doctors, lawyers, architects, academics — are Jewish? There are 11 Jews in the U.S. Senate, which of course is 11 per cent. I am not going to mention Hollywood studio bosses. Newsweek gives the median annual income of American Jews as $53,300, against a gentile median of $39,500. All of this arises from a simple fact known to everyone, however much it may repulse Mr. Leon Wieseltier, and confirmed by every psychometric test yet devised: that Jews are, on average, more intelligent than the rest of us. It is very natural that many gentiles should feel a slight and occasional resentment against Jews.
I am not sounding any alarms here. Slight and occasional is all this stuff is, generating nothing but an ill-tempered remark, an off-color joke, and no doubt, here and there, an occasional act of personal rudeness or meanness. I think Jews are as safe in America as Mr. Alter believes them to be. The general, but very low, level of antisemitism around is regrettable, no doubt, but it is no kind of institutional threat. In any case, this is America, and there are other groups in the same situation. We are now a meritocracy; and the downside of meritocracy is that different groups will settle in different niches, some much better-paid than others. The name of the Jewish niche is something like "verbal agility": lawyering, deal-making, wise-cracking. Our Asian minority is finding its own niche, in the technical and technical-entrepreneurial fields. Blacks have a niche of their own, perhaps called "physical and verbal display" — sports, dance, music, entertainment — at which a few can make a great deal of money, but in which, alas, a few is all that society currently requires. All these successes and part-successes generates some level of resentment in the unsuccessful. That's human nature.
I don't believe Jews are in any danger. It is difficult to imagine any circumstances in which current American antisemitism might turn bad. Jews are not a lone minority in an otherwise-homogenous society. They are one group among many jostling for place in the Great Meritocracy, while, like other groups (but more so, I think) shedding members at the edges through intermarriage. As a certain irreducible minimum level of quantum energy is said to pervade even "empty" space, so there is a certain minimum level of inter-group hostility that a society as mixed as ours must endure. My own belief is that non-black Americans are at or near that minimum, and that blacks are heading in the right direction. But there is no use denying the fact of inter-group hostility, or the probable fact that it will always be with us, and will rise or fall according to circumstances (economic, international) beyond my or Mr. Alter's control. A cold-eyed view of human nature is always wisest, and my own cold eye tells me that anti-Semitism will be with us for as long as the Jews themselves.