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The Militant, 11 April 1942

M. Stein

Controversy over the Jewish Question

The Case Against Milton Mayer and His Critics, Ingersoll and Hook


From The Militant, Vol. 6 No. 15, 11 April 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


When people are under a strain, sighing sometimes sounds to them like jeering and the faint sound of a distant fire cracker can create the alarm that would be caused by an exploding bomb. This is why one must be particularly careful with provocative noises in an atmosphere charged with great tension, such as the atmosphere surrounding the Jewish question.

The tension of close to sixteen million Jews the world over is far from imaginary. The wrecked lives, the shattered homes of half their number who had lived in the countries overrun by the fascists, is only too real. Real also is the relentless Nazi drive to throw the surviving Jews into medieval ghettos, to cut them off from contact with the outside world. There they live crowded together, deprived of proper sanitary facilities, starved, dying a slow death at a rapidly mounting rate.

Very real indeed is the spread of anti-Semitism in this country too. Is there anyone who is bold enough to say that “it cannot happen here”? The Jew feels that the last refuge of his people is threatened. He is losing hope!

Incidents like the sinking of the Struma in the Black Sea with the loss of 765 Jewish men, women and children, only serves to emphasize the hopeless plight of the Jews. The story of these Jews – fleeing the Nazi terror machine, denied refuge by the British administration in Palestine – epitomizes the treatment afforded to the Jews by the fascists on the one hand, and by the “humanitarian democracies” on the other.

The Case Against Mayer

Milton Mayer’s article in the March 28 issue of the Saturday Evening Post under the provocative title, The Case Against the Jew, falls into the category of a sigh that sounds like a jeer, of a firecracker set off by a mischievous lad in a very tense atmosphere. The Case Against the Jew is no more than a case against Milton Mayer and his group of petty bourgeois Jewish intellectuals who see the world which they had taken for granted, the world of bourgeois democracy, collapsing before their very eyes and dragging down with it the democratic rights of the Jews and their chance for equality with other citizens. We shall presently return to Milton Mayer, his diagnosis and proposed remedy. But first a word about some of his critics.

The editor of PM, Ralph Ingersoll, belated Don Quixote of bourgeois democracy, donned his suit of armor, mounted his horse and, brandishing his lance, set out the morning after the Mayer article appeared, to tilt at it. At least that’s what he thought he was doing. The trouble with Mr. Ingersoll must be that he suffers from faulty vision. He cannot distinguish between the front of bourgeois democracy and its rear.

He rises solemnly to the defense of Nathan Hale and Abraham Lincoln; he sounds as profound as my little niece returning from a history lesson in Junior high school when he speaks about the constitution, equal opportunity, etc. But what of the heart of the question, the fact that the same system which was so progressive only yesteryear breeds war and fascism in its death agony, and cannot any longer find a place for the Jew, cannot assimilate him, cannot tolerate him and tries to disgorge him?

Sidney Hook, the not unknown professor of philosophy, leads the assault on Mayer's article for the New Leader. But he fails to display the zeal one would expect of a new convert when he comes to the defense of bourgeois democracy – his most recent creed.

Hook confines his jabs to Mayers’ manner of presenting the problem, which feeds the Coughlinite arguments, and to Mayer’s conclusions, which propose a withdrawal of the Jew into a religious shell. But Hook has little to say about his own proposed solution to the Jewish problem. He begs the real issue, just as Ingersoll does.

Both Ingersoll and Hook are exercised over the idea, implicit throughout Mayer’s article, that this “war for democracy” is not going to solve the Jewish question. It angers them, it infuriates them – but it does not draw from them any arguments to show that the Jewish problem will be solved if the “United Nations” win the war, or to demonstrate that the defeat of Hitler in Germany will eradicate anti-Semitism in the United States.

A Distorted Picture

Mayer’s article presents a thoroughly distorted view of the American Jew. Not altogether because of commission, but also because of his omission of an extremely important and weighty element in the Jewish community. Mayer makes no mention whatever of the Jewish worker.

Even if we weren’t informed by the Saturday Evening Post that he is a former Chicago reporter, or by the New Leader, that he is at present an assistant to the President of the University of Chicago, one could have surmised this or something similar. His writing is reportorial. His style is that of a yellow journalist interested in a sensational presentation of the problem rather than the truth. His subject matter is the immediate circle of his bourgeois friends, Jewish intellectuals and business men. The result is a caricature of the Jews.

We know of a different type of Jew. We know of Jewish workers who have built powerful unions, who have been in the vanguard of the struggle for higher wages and shorter hours. We know of the Jewish workers and intellectuals who have been among the most sacrificing soldiers of the movement for a better world built on the foundations of socialism. But Mayer’s beat as a reporter did not include this territory – it lay on the other side of the tracks. Another omission which is likewise typical of a reporter who does not care to look below the surface, is the total lack of reference to the economic basis of anti-Semitism. This by the way, applies also to the other reporter and interviewer, Ralph Ingersoll, and even to the professor who used to call himself a Marxist. This is one thing they share in common. Even the most casual reference to the economic basis underlying anti-Semitism would expose the decaying capitalist system as the cause of this evil, as well as the evil of fascism and wars.

An analysis of the economic roots of anti-Semitism, might furthermore suggest the solution. But that would not suit the Jewish bourgeois of Mayer’s circle, nor the Gentile bourgeois of Ingersoll’s circle, and it would not even suit Hook, who finds himself perfectly at home in the petty-bourgeois social democratic circle.

Product of Reactionary Period

Mayer, the superficial reporter, has strung together for the Saturday Evening Post a whole series of anecdotes about Jews, all of them obviously wealthy who have tried in every way possible to look like Gentiles. He says:

“They tried to adjust, this pitiful people who once were so proud. They tried to look like, talk like, be like everyone else. They tried to lose themselves in the crowd, like men who have picked a pocket on a busy street. They resorted to every dodge known to fugitive criminals, from changing their names to changing their faces. And for all their trying, they were strangers in Egypt still.”

And then he concludes;

“Running away hasn’t saved him. Resettlement hasn’t saved him. Changing his name, his face, his clothes and his faith hasn’t saved him. And the suddenly crowded temples won’t save him. Denouncing Coughlin won’t save him. The destruction of Hitler won’t save him. All these fallacious faiths are based on the grand fallacy of adjustment. The Jew will be saved when he saves his own soul.”

Here you have in two paragraphs his complete line of argument. All the rest are mere trimmings.

Every crisis in history, every period of defeats, has produced schools of Godseekers, those who sought escape in the supernatural; those who sought salvation in the purification of their own souls. These were particularly numerous in Russia after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution. Many radical intellectuals, having no real roots among the masses, saw in the defeat of the revolution a lasting triumph of Czarism. The revolutionists were persecuted mercilessly by the Czarist police, everything looked dark, hopeless. In this atmosphere the God-seekers and soul searchers got a hearing. Even mass suicide theorists had a following.

The arguments of Mayer have an importance insofar as they emphasize the disorientation that flows from the present dark picture on a world scale, and show to what fantastic lengths this disorientation can go.

His attack against Jewish assimilation might just as well have been leveled against the steam engine and electricity or general human progress and development. His arguments are reactionary through and through. The Jew could no more continue a ghetto existence once the gates of the ghetto were flung open, than could the Negro be held on the plantation once slavery was abolished. The whole process of assimilation isn’t something that somebody had wished, it was part and parcel of the general capitalist development. There is no return. The road lies before and not behind. A fascist triumph might for a while drive the Jews into a ghetto, but the Jew will never go there voluntarily, regardless of Mayer’s counsel.

Mayer, were he to get a following, would do a great service to fascism. He is trying to get the Jew to voluntarily pin upon himself the yellow star of David which Hitler is trying to force upon him. He is trying to get him to submit when he should stand up and fight.

The Russian Revolution

There is no single reference in the article of Mayer or his critic Hook to the Russian revolution. And yet that great movement of liberation is very germane to the discussion. How can anyone consider the Jewish problem and the problem of national minorities in general in this day and age without a mention of the country where this problem was once most acute – the country of pogroms and the “Black Hundreds,” the forerunners of the fascists whose slogan was “Kill the Jews and save Russia.” Doesn’t the Russian Revolution suggest an answer to the Jewish problem?

Mayer thinks that “The Jew will be saved when he saves his own soul.” But what will save the worker? Every worker, black, white, Jew, Catholic, Protestant – what will save their standard of living, their democratic rights, their trades unions, their parties? The fascists are pushing the Jew away from the Gentile for their own purposes. Mr. Mayer is pulling the Jew away from the Gentile, may we ask for what purpose? There seems to be a division of labor there.

As for us, the Russian Revolution is a good enough model for the solution of the problem of national minorities. In fact, it is so good, that all the years of Stalinist distortions and abominations haven’t undone the basic job accomplished by the October Revolution. And if Mayer ever has the reporter’s assignment of covering our political party rather than some exclusive Palm Beach club, he will find that the relations between Jew and Gentile, black and white bear even today the characteristics of the free society of tomorrow.

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