Understanding My Jewish Grandfather and Antisemitism

My grandfather, Lucien Napleon Brunswig (1854-1943) was a Jewish boy who emigrated to the US with his family in his parents and siblings in 1871 and already encountered antisemitism when his family arrived as immigrants at Ells Island and found it expedient to alter both their names and their professions in order to be admitted into the United States. Irving Howe has written extensively about this immigration experience, so I won’t try to describe it right now, but I want to look at the nature of antisemitism in America then and now. (Irving Howe. World of Our Fathers. The Journey of East European Jews to America and the Life they Found and Made. (New York, Viking Press, 1975)

Although I was brought up as a Catholic, I’ve been told that I look much like my grandfather. When I compare my head to a bust of his head, crafted by his daughter, my mother, a sculptor circa 1920, I see that I have his pronounced nose, and I feel close to him and share many of his personality traits and values, especially his ambition, perseverance, courage, creativity, and love of art, music, literature, and ideas.

I often asked my mother about our Jewish heritage, but she couldn’t–or wouldn’t–tell me much. She acted like it was weird of me to dredge up something which she classified as wholly irrelevant and possibly even to be ashamed of. When I asked a Jewish woman how I might get more understanding of my Jewish heritage, she urged me to fly to Israel and immerse myself in a Kibbutz. That idea appealed to me, but I couldn’t scrape together the fare to go; so I found the second best solution I could think of was to read some novels by popular Jewish-American authors like Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint Saul Bellow’s novels, like Humboldt’s Gift. I made a point of reading the complete Lavette Family Series by Howard Fast, Lillian Hellman’s autobiographical play, The Little Foxes, Bernard Malmud’s New York novel, The Assistant, and his Collected Short Stories and Marjorie Morningstar by Herman Wouk, which was about a Jewish-American Princess, who reminded me of my amazing mother.

Who/What is a Jew?

Being a Jew means being descended from a Jew or converted to Judaism from another spiritual tradition. Originally the term “Jew” was applied only to a descendent from Judah. Later in Bible history it came to signify a member of the tribe of Judah, and still later following the division of the kingdom of Israel, when Judah and Benjamin were the only two tribes of Israel which remained faithful to God, it designated one from either of these tribes. Originally the group was a religious sect, but since it was also a firmly knit pastoral people it had simultaneously a cultural (ethnic) homogeneity. It is wrong to think of the Jews as a race. Such physical identifiability as they have is due to the fact that in the region of the world where Judaism began an Armenoid type was common.

“A Jew is a person who, by and large, can be socially identified by certain physical characteristics (gestures, speech, manners, posture, expression of face, etc.); who has grow up in a Jewish family, characterized by a specific ‘Jewish atmosphere’; who consequently possesses certain specific, if often elusive, emotional and intellectual characteristics; who is considered by others as being a ‘Jew’ and whose personality is significantly shaped by that fact; and who, strange as it may seem, is not clear himself whether his being Jewish means a religious, national, racial, or cultural classification…” G. Ishheiser.”Diagnosis of Antisemitism: Two Essays” Sociometry Monographs, 1946, vol. 8, p, 21

“The Jews are scapegoats of great  antiquity and only  by taking a long historical view, aided by psychological insights, can we hope to understand the nature and causes  of the perennial phenomenon of antisemitism.”–Gordon Allort, The Nature of Prejudice (New York, Addison Weseley,1954)

Anti-Semitism is thought to reach back at least to the fall of Judea in 586 B.C. When the Jews were dispersed, they took with them their relatively rigid and unbending customs. Dietary laws prohibited them from eating with others; intermarriage was forbidden. They were even considered ‘stiff-necked’ by heir own prophet, Jerimiah. Wherever they went, their rigid othodoxy presented them with a problem, making it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for them to integrate into their host communities.

In Greece and Rome new ideas were welcomed. The Jewish minorities were welcomed as interesting strangers. But the cosmopolitan cultures which they entered could not understand why Jews did not reciprocate the meals, games, and gaiety of their own pagan life. Jehovah could easily be fitted into the galaxy of gods who were worshipped. Why couldn’t the Jews be accommodating and accept the pagan pantheon ruled by Jupiter in Rome or Zeus in Greece? Judaism seemed too absolute in its theology and in its tribal ethnic customs and rites.

Among these rites that of circumcision probably caused the most worry and consternation. The symbolism of circumcision of the spirit was not well understood. The butchery of a male child’s foreskin seemed cruel and a dangerous and totally unnecessary threat to one’s manhood. How much unconscious fear this rite has aroused in the minds of non-Jewish people throughout the centuries is impossible to say. The intimacy of this castration threat may play a large part in people’s rejection of things Jewish.

Since the early Christians were themselves Jews, it took several centuries until the differences between these related but different spiritual traditions became clear and Christians began to persecute Jews as Christ-killers. By the time of St. John Chryssostom (4th century) elaborate antisemitic homilies were preached accusing Jews not only of the Crucifixion but of many other conceivable crimes as well.

Since the Hebrews did not accept the Messiah, they were not bound by his laws and by the peculiarly exacting moral teachings of the New Testament. Many Christians secretly or unconsciously desire to escape from the stringent morality enjoined by the Gospels and the Epistles. This evil impulse may, according to psychoanalytic reasoning, create severe conflict and hated of oneself for having such unholy desires. Symbolically, therefore, sinful Christians are also “Christ killers.” But this thought is so painful that it must be repressed. Behold: here is the Jew who openly repudiates New Testament teaching. I shall therefore hate him because I hate this tendency in myself. My guilt is laid upon the Jew, just as the ancient Hebrew guilt was laid upon the sacrificial scapegoat.

Characteristics or Traits of Jews

  1. Jews are an Urban People.

Some facts to consider: 40% of all the Jews in the US live in New York City and most of the remainder live in large cities. Many factors contribute to this urban trend. Most immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe came to work in factories and still live in cities. Jews seem to show this urban centering more than other groups. Rarely, in the countries where Jews came from were they allowed to own land, and their traditions and skills were therefore not often agricultural. Orthodox Jews were not allowed to travel on the Sabbath and therefore needed to live in cities near synagogues.

Urbanism as a way of life is enormously important for understanding antisemitism. History shows that individuals cannot help but unconsciously adopt the values and judgments of their ancestors, viewing each outgroup through the screen of tradition. 

Although in principle people desire to have peaceful relations with their neighbors, this desire has been badly blocked by the urban, mechanical and technological culture of our day—especially by the culture of our cities,  that arouses so much insecurity and uncertainty in people’s minds, as was already noted by the turn of the century German sociologist Georg Simmel in his famous  essay, “The Metropolis and Urban Life.” (1900) 

Simmel observes that in the modern world no longer do personal thrift, private effort, or face-to-face negotiations amount to much. Big city life expresses to us what is dangerous, inhuman, impersonal, and alienating us from our remembered [or imagined] pre-urban roots. In the city, disturbing inexplicable relentless forces like the assembly-line and national advertising campaigns seem to determine our lives. We both fear and hate our subservience to the inexorable rhythms of urban life. 

What does this irrational fear and hate have to do with prejudice and antisemitism? For one thing, as mass-men we follow the conventions of the times. The snob-appeals of advertising effects us deeply.  We are encouraged to want more luxury goods and ever greater status through conspicuous consumption. Also, there’s the other side to consider–the influence of advertising on our attitude to other human beings. The high standards imposed upon us by advertising incline us to look down on, and to feel contempt for, people who can’t afford to maintain the lifestyle that we can. Impressed with the luxuries, cars, and other material things, TV constantly trusts before our irrepressibly hungry eyeballs, in mass society we tend to look down upon people economically and socially below us, such as immigrants, rustics,  and people of color.

But while we yield to the materialistic urban values that surround us, paradoxically, we often come to hate the very city that engenders them. We hate the dominance of financial markets and corrupt politics. We despise our own unwanted shadowy personality traits that are exacerbated by urban pressures, such as jealousy, aggressiveness, greediness and rudeness. We dislike those people, like Jews, who we perceive as being too clever, too ambitious, sneaky, dishonest, greedy, vulgar, noisy, and different, and on the “fringe” of WASP values. For many non-Jewish people these disagreeable urban traits have been personified and crystallized in the Jew. “The Jews are hated today,” writes social psychologist Erich Fromm, primarily because they serve as a symbol of city life.” Especially New York, which many urbanites feel has been ruined by the dominance of Jews in the media and in the entertainment industry in general. Therefore, they hate the symbol of the city, the Jew.

(2) Jews tend to be concentrated in certain occupations

In 1900  60% of the Jews in cities were engaged in manufacturing, chiefly in the garment trades, but in 1934 only 12% were so employed. Meanwhile the percent engaged in trade jumped from 20 to about 43%. Many families that had originally engaged as factory workers later opened their own businesses (often tailoring or retail clothing).

In the professions  one finds about 14% of the Jewish population, but only about 6% of the general population. In New York City, whose population is about 28 % Jewish, about 56% of physicians are Jewish, likewise 64% of dentists, and 66% of lawyers. Contrary to popular opinion, Jews seem be under-represented in finance. Only a small percent are bankers. As international bankers they are virtually non-existent. On the other hand, there has been a rise in the number of Jews engaged in government service and in service industries.                

One theory of anti-Semitism, the “fringe of conservative values” theory,  is that Jews tend to collect in upwardly-mobile and conspicuous or risky occupations. Cautious people do not approve of so much risk-taking. Jews are conspicuous deviants from sound Christian conservative values, and accordingly distrusted. But not only from religion, likewise from mediocrity: conscience pricking , intellectual aspiration and spiritual ferment. The Jews are regarded as being just enough off center (slightly above, slightly below, slightly  outside) to disturb non-Jews in many different ways. The “fringe” is perceived by conservative people to constitute a threat. This might be called “the narcissism of slight differences.”

(3) Jews are ambitious and work hard.

(4) Jews have high intelligence. Fairly often the IQ scores of Jewish children are higher than those for Gentile children, but is this due to genes? We don’t know for sure yet. Such slight differences can easily be explained by family incentives and socialization and the value placed on learning  and good performance within the Jewish cultural tradition.

(5) Jews have great love of and respect for learning.It’s not difficult to point to an army of Jewish geniuses represented by the example of Einstein. Many more Jews attend colleges and universities than ever before, now that most restrictions against Jewish students have been dropped.

(6) Jews have marked family devotion. There is some evidence that, like Italians, Jewish families possess more solidarity than other families, although the weakening of family ties today is felt among both Jews and gentiles.

(7) Jews have concerns for social justice and sympathy with the oppressed                 

Some negative characteristics attributed to Jews by Antisemites:

(1) Jews are more impulsive and emotionally expressive than gentiles 

(2) Jews are money-minded they engage in sharp business practices and are dishonest.

(3) Jews are ostentatious and conspicuous in their consumption of luxuries and of expensive foreign traveling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: