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Irving Howe

The Saturday Evening Post Slanders
the Jewish People

(April 1942)

From Labor Action, Vol. 6 No. 14, 5 April 1942, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A national sensation has been created by the publication of Milton Mayer’s article, The Case Against the Jew, in the Saturday Evening Post of March 28.

If nothing else, it has served to bring into the open a national discussion of the subterranean anti-Semitic currents swelling at the base of the American social structure. The very title is so dangerously sensational, the writing is so skillful that one is certain that this article will be discussed everywhere for weeks.

Mayer begins with a bitter indictment of those Jews who attempt to “assimilate” themselves into the prevalent social structure.

“In his unstinting effort to adjust, he [the Jew] had moved away from the ‘kikes’ ... He changed his name in New York and his nose in Los Angeles ... He reformed his ancient ritual and then abandoned it altogether, just like the gentiles, for the movies, the rumba and night clubs ... He changed his day of rest and contemplation from Saturday to Sunday and gave up the rest for golf and the contemplation for fried chicken, just like the Gentiles ...”

And again,

“There was nothing that a Gentile would stoop to that a Jew wouldn’t if he could ... Jews in the South exploited Negroes as callously as gentiles did. In New York’s Harlem and Chicago’s Bronzeville, tremendous anti-Semitism has developed in the past decade because of the Jew’s tenement profiteering ... There are few employers as conscienceless as the Jewish sweatshop operator …”

Is Their Number Finally Up?

And now, Mayer tells us, the farce is over.

“The Jews of America are afraid that their number is up – if not today, then tomorrow or the next. They know that war breeds chauvinism and that chauvinism breeds bigotry ... they know that the post-war collapse will remind a bitter and bewildered nation that ‘the Jews got us into the war.’

“And they are not fooled by the lull in anti-Semitic activity since the beginning of the war ... They know that there is something tentative and temporary in the notion that ‘we are all Americans now’ ...”

This, then, is Mayer’s description. Let us consider it before we discuss his “solution.”

First of all, who are “the Jews” of whom Mayer writes? The growing number of Jewish factory workers? The hundreds of thousands of Jewish garment workers? The Jewish lower middle class at the very brink of the poverty in which the Jewish workers find themselves?

Of course not! These Jewish people – the great mass of the Jewish population in America which is composed of ordinary workers or lower middle class elements – have never been bothered about “assimilating into country clubs.” They have never exploited Negroes in the South or anywhere else. On the contrary, they have themselves been exploited – exactly like the rest of the American workers.

How Many Jews Can Afford to Play Golf?

How many Jews in this country can afford to play golf? How many own sweatshops? How many could afford to spend $50 to change their names, even if they wanted to?

To merely ask these questions is to show the vicious character of Mayer’s assertions. To speak of “the Jew” as synonymous with that small section of the Jewish people who are members of the capitalist class is a slander against the Jewish people as a whole. To charge against the Jewish people the practices of those Jews who are capitalists – practices which they commit in their capacity of being capitalists and not as adherents to any race or religion – is vile.

Of course, there are some Jews who behave as Mayer describes. (And so are there Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Mohammedans Parsees, Seventh Day Adventists, Buddhists who are also capitalists.) They are the tiny minority of capitalists and upper class merchants whose class role, economic methods, ethics and habits are exactly the same as those of other capitalists and merchants, no matter what their religious affiliations may be.

Most Capitalists Aren’t Even Jewish

But as a matter of fact the basic capitalist strength in this country happens to be non-Jewish. The most important trust, the steel trust; the most important banks, the Chase National and National City; the most important financial oligarchies, the Morgan and Rockefeller – all non-Jewish.

But whether the percentage of Jews who are capitalists be 2 per cent or 3 per cent is of no real importance. What is important is that Jews who are capitalists exploit workers in their capacity of being capitalists (their religion plays absolutely no role in the process of production) and that non-Jews who are capitalists behave in exactly the same way. There is no such thing as “the Jew”; there are rich Jews and poor Jews, Jewish workers and Jewish bosses.

It is true of course that in America even a Jewish capitalist may occasionally suffer from anti-Semitism; but it is quite a different thing to be black-balled in an exclusive Palm Beach country club and to be discriminated against in a war industry when one’s livelihood is at stake.

Mayer’s description might have a grain of validity – IF he were to say which class section of the Jewish population he is writing about. But then he would have to admit that it is a tiny minority (insignificant as compared with the capitalist class as a whole).

Then he couldn’t call his article The Case Against the Jew. At best he would have to call it The Case Against Some Jewish Members of the Capitalist Class. And the Saturday Evening Post wouldn’t like that; it is very sensitive about capitalists – even Jewish capitalists.

Who Will Read This Article?

And it is this monstrous attempt to identify a national grouping with its capitalist section which makes Mayer’s article so vile. Doesn’t he know where he is writing? Doesn’t he know that his article appears in a magazine which is read by every Babbitt in the country, by the mass of middle class elements, many of whose latent anti-Semitic prejudices will be stimulated by this description of “the Jew”? (“After all,” they will think to themselves, “even a Jew says these things about his own people ...”)

When we reach Mayer’s proposed “solution” we can first see how bankrupt and false his article is. The Jews, he tells us, are neither worse nor better than anyone else. And it is in this that their downfall lies. The Jews, Mayer says, must return to the faith of their fathers to the “radical righteousness” of Isaiah so that they may prepare for the suffering ahead by having something worth suffering for.

There is something positively vile about this argument. Why SHOULD the Jew be any “better” than anyone else? Why should he necessarily have an ounce of righteousness more than anyone else? Here is where Meyer’s REAL surrender to the anti-Semites takes place, a thousand times more than in his libelous descriptions of “the Jew.”

The Double Standard of Mayer

For Mayer is reconciled to the victory of the fascists and the anti-Semites. Mayer accepts the race-haters DOUBLE STANDARD. The Jews, in order to exist, Mayer says, and in order to have an ennobling faith, must really prove themselves the “chosen people.” This is the doctrine of Goebbels in a peculiarly inverted form. It is not enough that they are ordinary folk, as all others. They must all be little Isaiahs – otherwise they won’t even be “better” and won’t have spiritual solace when they fall under the stormtrooper’s blows.

Mayer’s counsel is the counsel of despair and surrender. He does not suggest how to fight anti-Semitism. He merely offers a guaranteed solace for future persecutions. But why should we assume that the victory of anti-Semitism (that is, of fascism) is inevitable?

Nor do we have much confidence in the value of Mayer’s solace for those Jews in Europe who today suffer under the heel of anti-Semitism. The problem is not how to bear anti-Semitism; the problem is how to destroy it.

Mayer does not touch on this question because he does not know the answer. Only once does he even hint at a possible cause of anti-Semitism and that is when he tells the anecdote of how, after Hitler had started his national boycott against the Jews, a mayor of a North Sea town telegraphed: “Send us a Jew to boycott.”

There is more to be learned from that anecdote than from all the rest of Mayer’s article.

Anti-Semitism, as any other racial hatred, is a deliberately and consciously provoked prejudice, utilized always by reactionary societies desperately trying to deflect mass discontent away from themselves and towards some chosen scapegoat.

In the development of capitalist society, anti-Semitism has taken its most severe and virulent form at precisely the time when the world revolutionary movement is at its lowest ebb and has sustained the greatest number of defeats; at precisely the time when capitalist decay takes its most cruel and brutal form: fascism. And that is not accidental.

For the future of the great mass of Jews – as the future of all national minorities – is inextricably bound up with the fate of the working class. Anti-Semitism is a symptom of a society in decay; only by the replacement of that society by a new, healthy, rational society can anti-Semitism be wiped out.

How to Remove Anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism is a blind, irrational and desperate attempt on the part of those who sincerely believe in it to blame their ills on another section of society (“The Jews are responsible for this evil or that difficulty”). But it becomes dangerous only when it is deliberately fostered by capitalism (or its fascistic section) in order to turn the masses of non-Jewish workers-away from their real enemy – the capitalist system – and have them vent their anger on the Jews.

The only way to remove anti-Semitism is to remove the conditions which make people so desperate as to practice it.

Remove class exploitation; end wars; remove the inequality of wealth; abolish unemployment; substitute instead a socialist society of democracy and freedom, peace and security. Then; even if there were an anti-Semite left, his talk would fall on deaf ears.

Socialism makes possible a society where there are no national prejudices or racial antagonisms or religious persecutions. It removes the CAUSE of these poisons. It makes possible a free society of human beings – all with equal rights and opportunities. Anti-Semitism is only possible when men are looked upon as slaves to exploit or cannon fodder with which to gain imperialist conquest. It receives its deathknell once humanity as a whole gains socialist liberation.

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