Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Jews in Trouble" (Ludwig Lewisohn, The Atlantic, 1936)

The Atlantic has dug out a very prescient article written by Ludwig Lewisohn in 1936 about the dangers facing the Jews of Europe and the importance of Zionism.

Although his gentile friends were blind to the radicalizing anti-semitism in Europe, Ludwig Lewisohn saw the truth: European Jews were in grave danger. And it wasn't a matter assimilation could solve -- with each year, they were increasingly targeted and discriminated against, regardless of how they felt about their home nations.

In a January 1936 Atlantic piece, succinctly titled "Jews in Trouble," Lewisohn outlined the status of the diaspora. In short, it wasn't good. More than ever before, Jews were being rejected from the societies of Europe. "They are isolated as savages isolate things or persons accursed or sacred, so that in many cities they suffer hunger because no one will sell them food," he writes.

Lewisohn, an outspoken Zionist, had moved to the United States from Germany early in his life and initially tried to shake his Jewish roots. But as he grew and entered academia, he learned that despite assimilating, he could not escape being labeled a Jew and discriminated against as such. Embracing his identity, he divorced his Christian wife and found a new Jewish one, and he preached Zionism wholeheartedly. To him, saving the Jewish people was a matter of saving the Jewish identity, and he believed that "assimilation as a method of adjustment is totally bankrupt."

"The Jew is damned when he abstains from participation in the majority civilization and equally damned when, heart and soul and mind, he seeks to identify himself with it," he writes.
Here is the first part of the Lewisohn article, but the entire thing is worth reading:
ONE of the most excellent of my Christian friends (the greater number of my older friends are such) could finally hold in no longer. 'Your people are in trouble!' There was a tinge of over-eagerness in his tone; there was the faint shadow of something akin to the triumph of one who can say, 'I told you so.' He had, in fact, never told me anything. But an unspoken implication had hung in the air between us (as it has between other Christian friends and me) for years. The implication could be phrased somewhat as follows: 'You had become quite one of ourselves; we never thought of you as different. Did you have, as it were, to leave us and identify yourself so wholly with this people which, whatever its virtues and whatever be the merits of the case, does always create friction and commotion? Where there is so much smoke, there must be some fire. Did you have both to fan that flame and to leap into it?'

I did not answer my friend's unspoken but emphatic implication. For he is the type of American liberal, with slight theoretical radical leanings, who feigns to himself sincerely enough that the historic sources of life have run dry; that we are abstract and unfathered creatures; that the voice of the innumerable generations in our blood the voice of common experience through pain and aspiration can be silenced by a formula invented yesterday and very sure to be outmoded tomorrow.

He lives apparently merrily enough without piety (pietas) or metaphysical hope or God in the world, and he would have dismissed my explanation as mystical or - devastating word -- reactionary.

Hence I limited myself to comment on his spoken words. I pointed out to him that the Jewish people was in much greater trouble than any reader of American newspapers and magazines could possibly suspect. The half million of men and women and children who are left trapped among the sixty million Germans have been rendered taboo, within the strict meaning of the term. They are isolated as savages isolate things or persons accursed or sacred, so that in many cities they suffer hunger because no one will sell them food. They spend the greater part of their time in their houses, for the streets are never safe for them. They pray for drenching rains in order to go comparatively unmolested upon the most necessary errands. All that for centuries they have built up or acquired of scientific skill or practical work or property is being crunched into dust under an iron heel. They are pariahs; the great majority are already paupers; tomorrow they will all be.

In Poland there has been a less spectacular expulsion of the Jews from the social and economic order; it has hardly been less complete. Of the three million Jews in Poland two millions are ravaged by perpetual famine punctuated by suicide and assassination. And in Lithuania and Latvia and Rumania, as well as in Austria, the Jews see the same terror approaching and slowly creeping nearer and nearer as a man in the very agony of fear sees coiling slowly nearer and nearer a monstrous serpent unescapable and sure to strike. These people have not the wherewithal to flee. But their flight, had they the means and courage, would be a flight without aim. The gates of the Western world are closed to them. They are precisely like the man in Poe's tale of 'The Pit and the Pendulum.' Thongs bind them; the merciless knife comes nearer and nearer; the dreadful walls close in.

My friend, who has a truly humane and feeling heart, had completely lost his slightly challenging air. Yet I had spared him horrors: the pogroms in North Africa suddenly fomented by German agents; the fierce Arab oppression of the group in Yemen. He was stirred. He abandoned at last the glib common superficial view of the situation and asked with impassioned insistence, 'But why? Why?' I was grateful for his question. For the trouble with so many of one's gentile friends is that they never ask. They turn up with a readymade theory accompanied by a readymade nostrum. Both are commonly empty of any exact knowledge of the problem; both are always by at least a quarter of a century too late. Thus a small group of American writers (Mencken, Dreiser, Boyd) have recently raised the cry that American Jewry must assimilate. Do they not know that the German Jews were the most assimilated group in all history, and that their penetration into German life and culture, the inevitable result of assimilation, was the immediate occasion, if not the ultimate cause, of their tragic martyrdom? We have in America, so far as I know, not a single highly articulate friend, like the late Lord Balfour and Josiah Wedgwood in England or Justin Godard in France or Jan Smuts in South Africa, who thoroughly understands our plight. We must be glad enough when someone, like my friend, is impelled to make a sincere inquiry.

Well, the reasons for our persecution are evidently not the reasons which our persecutors give. For their reasons are all mythic or fantastic. We are, except on one point of which more presently, a wretchedly disunited people. Far from being capable of conspiring together, we are not capable (to the constant despair of every Jewish leader) of rational cooperation for purely defensive ends. We are an unbelievably povertystricken people. Of our approximately sixteen millions in the world, the vast majority are in a state of desperate need. Our bourgeoisie has felt the world crisis as keenly as any other and has, in addition, suffered expropriation through persecution not only in Russia but in Poland and Germany. Nevertheless we are, as astute Communists know, a bourgeoisminded, an essentially conservative people. Our Communists are noisy. True. But many of our young Communists are merely lost Jews who go in for proletarian assimilation after they have been rejected by the bourgeoisie of their countries. Nor can it have escaped observation that nearly all Communists are noisy, since they consider the decencies and amenities of life as part of the rottenness of bourgeois ideology. Numerically, Jewish Communists are a negligible group.

Shall I go on, I asked my friend, and assure you that we don't use Christian blood to bake the unleavened bread for Passover? He laughed and shook his head. Very well. Beyond myth and fantasy it may be said that the occurrence of highly ethical characters among Jews (as among one or two other groups) is rather frequent, but that we have and are humanly entitled to our proportion of asocial and antisocial elements. We are a unique people, as ultimately every people or historic culture group is unique, but certain denominators are common. Then why this unending and forever recurrent persecution?
His later description of Jewish life in Palestine is also noteworthy, as he neatly shows the difference between modern Zionism and the still-fashionable colonialism:
Jews have turned immemorial deserts into rich farming communities by the work of their hands; Jews have built a city, TelAviv, the Hill of Spring, which today has 125,000 inhabitants; Jews have made their ancient Hebrew speech into the current vernacular of a highly cultured community and have begun to create in it a new and autochthonous literature. They have done more: they have raised the wage scale and standard of living of the Arab peasant and worker in the land, to the annoyance of the Arab feudal aristocracy; they have upon the whole made a genuine effort to build both a polity and an economy of justice, cooperation, peace.

A polity and an economy of justice! All previous colonization has been a colonization by conquest. Every people originally colonized the land that later became its historic homeland by force. The Greeks did that, and the Angles and the Saxons, and in a late age those who were to become Americans. The Jews, impelled to return to their historic homeland both by an inextinguishable yearning and by an unanswerable need, have used no force. They have bought every unit of land that they possess from its Arab owners. Next, they have earned that land a second time by reclaiming it from desert and wilderness. With that reclamation of lost land as a foundation, they have built up for all the inhabitants of Palestine a higher civilization. Wherever there is a Jewish colony the Arabs flourish both economically and socially. A new thing has occurred in recent years: an immigration of Arabs from Egypt, Iraq, Transjordania, and the Hauran into Palestine to share in the new civilization which the Jews have built. Beyond these incontrovertible facts, the Jews quite understand imaginatively that the Arab aristocracy would rather have been left to its own devices, and that the impact of our colonization, despite its benefits both lower and higher, disturbs these gallant but medievalminded men. The Jews have no answer to that except to double their scrupulous regard for Arab needs and sensibilities, to continue to alleviate the indescribable poverty of the Arab peasantry, to exterminate by their medical service the immemorial endemic diseases that ravage the Near East.

They have not been unrewarded. Over 350,000 Jews live and work in Palestine today; 30,000 souls from the 'fiery furnace' of Germany have already found life and hope there; the immigration has steadily risen to over 50,000 a year. Yet such is the prosperity created by Jewish thrift and Jewish intelligence that the members of the Mandate Commission of the League of Nations, headed by Professor Lange of Norway, recommended strongly that Britain pursue a more generous policy of Palestinian immigration, not only for the sake of the Jewish people, but for the sake of all mankind. Cisjordania, West Palestine today, Transjordania, East Palestine tomorrow, can liquidate the intolerable exile of Israel in the lands of oppression and reestablish that people among the peoples of the earth.
You can see a nice overview of Lewisohn's life in this Tablet article.