Philip Weiss II: Jews as a Component of the American Elite

December 23, 2007

Philip Weiss raises a number of important issues in his comment on my last blog. The one that should be on everyone’s mind is the nature of American elites. He quite rightly points out that the American elite is much more than just Jews. The critical point, however, is that Jews have played a critical role in the American elite, particularly in the construction of culture. This is certainly not surprising. Jews have shown repeatedly that they tend to become an elite. I regard this as more or less inevitable given the characteristics of Jews. But, since Jews in the Diaspora are a small minority, this typically involves making alliances with other elites. This is true throughout Jewish history. Indeed, a common theme of historical anti-Semitism has been that non-Jewish elites — often alien non-Jewish elites — have made alliances with Jews in opposition to the interests of other sectors of the population.  

However, given that Jews compose a significant part of the elite in the United States, Jewish issues and concerns have become part of the consensus among elites. Minimally, this has required a repudiation of anti-Semitism, and at least since WWII, the non-Jewish components of the American elite have indeed done so, at least overtly.

The problem arises because, as Weiss acknowledges, the Jewish component of the elite still perceives itself and therefore acts as outsiders. Weiss notes that the WASPs had a sense of noblesse oblige, which is another way of saying that the WASPs identified to a considerable extent with their country as a whole and their countrymen, and they were willing to contribute to public goods. As Frank Salter and Robert Putnam note, individuals are less willing to contribute to public goods in ethnically diverse societies. But this also implies that Jews as outsiders have been less concerned about the interests of the American majority. And not only do Jews see themselves as outsiders, they are outsiders with a long sense of history — an often tragic history in which people very much like the American majority participated in anti-Jewish movements. They are thus not simply indifferent to the interests of the American majority, they form a hostile elite, as they did in the Soviet Union.

In his 1997 Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment, J. J. Goldberg identified several consensus Jewish issues, including Israel and the welfare of other foreign Jewries, immigration and refugee policy, and church-state separation. All of these carry the potential for conflicts of interest with the American majority. Moreover, immigration policy since 1965 and church-state separation can only be understood as anti-majority because they involve the displacement of the traditional culture and ethnic mix of America. There is no question that Jewish influence was decisive in both the area of church-state separation and immigration policy.

To the extent that non-Jewish elites have been major players in these issues (and I have no doubt that they are, especially in the area of immigration policy), it must be seen as an individualist strategy. That is, elite non-Jews may reasonably believe that the cultural and demographic changes resulting from the transformation of the American elite will not hurt them personally because they can retreat to their gated communities, elite schools, and exclusive country clubs.

And it must be said that American individualism had strong strands of universalism that long preceded Jewish influence. This struck me once again in reading a review of a recent book on the history of American transcendentalism. The reviewer points to the universalist, democratic, and egalitarian impulses of this movement originated by descendants of the Puritans. Divine energy “coursed through the natural world, especially the human heart. … The only thing they would not tolerate was intolerance.” No ethnocentrism here. Indeed, the transcendentalists were very involved in the abolitionist movement, including some who funded John Brown’s violent uprising.

These are powerful currents in Western culture, and they seem to predispose non-Jewish European elites to engage in altruistic punishment against their own people for perceived moral transgressions. Not coincidentally, the Jewish intellectual and political movements I discuss in The Culture of Critique all had strong moral overtones.

Nevertheless, these individualist elites are paying a heavy price in terms of ethnic kinship. The eclipse of European America will certainly result in huge costs for the European majority, but they will be borne mainly by less intelligent and less conscientious whites. Nevertheless, if the transcendentalists tell us anything, European-American elites have done that before. If there is a difference in the current situation, it is perhaps that the transcendentalists may well have implicitly envisioned a morally purified white America rather than the present specter of a non-white America where they themselves are displaced. It is certainly the case that European-American elites are individualistic, but, as noted above, until the rise of the Jewish component of the American elite, there was a sense of noblesse oblige and a connection to the people. That seems to be missing now.

Regarding Weiss’s other points, my comments on contemporary Jewish marriage patterns appear in an earlier blog and Chapter 9 of Separation and Its Discontents. Weiss agrees that Jews tend to be psychologically intense, but seems to think that I mean that all Jews are psychologically intense. Not so. It’s like the bell curve for IQ: There is a higher average IQ among Jews, but there is variation around the mean, with some Jews quite a bit below the mean and even below the white average. In general when dealing with Jewish issues, one has to be aware of the complexity of the Jewish community. Responsible treatments of Jewish involvement in promoting the Iraq war, including that of Mearsheimer and Walt, are careful to distinguish different elements of the American Jewish community. Indeed, a recent poll once again shows the gap between most American Jews and the organized Jewish community, especially on issues related to Israel and the policies of the Bush administration. There is far less of a gap, if indeed there is any at all, on issues such as immigration or church-state separation. Indeed, as James Petras points out:

Given the high salience of being pro-Israel for the majority of American Jews and the fact that the source of their identity stems more from their loyalty to Israel than to the Talmud or religious myths and rituals, then it is clear that both the ‘progressive, majority of Jews and the reactionary minority who head up all the major American Jewish organizations have a fundamental point of agreement and convergence: Support and identity with Israel and its anti-Arab prejudices, its expansion and the dispossession of Palestine. This overriding convergence allows the reactionary Presidents of the Major Jewish Organizations in America to speak for the Jewish community with virtually no opposition from the progressive majority either within or without their organizations.

Weiss dislikes ethnocentrism among Europeans as well as among Jews, but excuses Jewish ethnocentrism because of the Holocaust. But the idea that the Holocaust resulted in Jewish ethnocentrism is demonstrably incorrect. There is ample historical evidence for a deep concern about intermarriage as well as for ethnic networking and ingroup charity among Jews throughout history. One simply can’t read this without coming away with a deep appreciation of the commitment of Jews to their group and their concern about keeping the group’s ethnic integrity. See A People That Shall Dwell Alone. Nevertheless, there is every reason to suppose that Jewish ethnocentrism would be increased as a result of a disaster. This has been noted quite often by Jewish historians and it is consistent with psychological research on people with strong commitment to a group. It is also powerfully woven into the very fabric of the Old Testament where there is a constant drumbeat to the effect that disasters happen because the Jews have strayed from the word of God.