Subversives Jews & American Culture

When Jews write about their race’s tradition of subversion, separatism, and attempts to undermine the Christian morality prevalent in the host countries they live in, they usually do so with a mark of pride. When a Gentile makes the same argument about Jews, however, pointing out the very same facts is deemed ‘anti-Semitism’.

In “Subversive Jews and American Culture”, Jonathan Sarna discusses items from the Leonard Milberg collection of early American Judaica, currently on display at Princeton:

Leonard Milberg’s collection of early American Judaica highlights American Jewish contributions to culture of every sort: prose, poetry, drama, music, art, science, medicine, journalism, publishing, pedagogy, religion, and more. The collection encourages a shift away from the all-too-prevalent focus upon the “image of the Jew”—meaning the study of the Jew as object—and underscores the agency of Jews, their role as creators and shapers of the nascent national culture. Much of the impressive collection is currently on view through June at the Princeton University Art Museum, in Princeton, New Jersey.

Considering that as late as 1840 Jews formed less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the national population—about 15,000 in all—and that they would not reach even 1 percent of the population before the end of the century, the extent of Jews’ cultural creativity in the ante-Bellum period seems astonishing. The quantity of the material, however, is no indicator of its quality. As the pioneering American Jewish historian Jacob Rader Marcus observed years ago in writing about the early national period, “Jews…do not stand out as belletrists, as poets, historians, great journalists, technologists, inventors, scientists.” Instead, he described them as being “culturally aware and productive.”

Those last two sentences above point to a phenomenon not unique to the United States. I am reminded of the following passage from Frenchman Edouard Drumont’s La France Juive (1886), as quoted in The French Right: From de Maistre to Maurras, pp. 92-93:

The two races are doomed to come into conflict, because of both their quality and their shortcomings. The Semite is mercantile, covetous, scheming, subtle and cunning. The Aryan is enthusiastic, heroic, chivalrous, disinterested, frank and trusting to the point of naivety. The Semite is earth-bound with scarcely any concern for the life hereafter; the Aryan is a child of heaven who is constantly preoccupied by higher aspirations. One lives in the world of reality, the other in the world of the ideal.

The Semite is a businessman by instinct; he is a born trader, dealing in everything imaginable, seizing every opportunity to get the better of the next man. The Aryan on the other hand is a peasant, a poet, a monk and, above all, a soldier. On the battlefield he is really in his element, he happily affronts danger and braves death.

The Semite has no creative ability, whereas the Aryan is an inventor. Not a single invention has been the work of a Semite. He exploits, organizes and produces whatever the creative Aryan has invented, and, needless to say, retains the profits for himself.

The Aryan is an adventurer, and discovered America. The Semite then has an admirable opportunity to leave Europe behind and escape persecution, and, in so doing, to show he was capable of doing something on his own, but he waited until all the pioneer exploration had been accomplished, until the land was under cultivation, before going off to get rich at the expense of others.

To sum up, anything which takes man on to unfamiliar paths, anything which involves an effort to extend man’s knowledge of this earthly sphere, is quite beyond the Semite, and above all, the Jew. He can live only at the common esxpense, within a society which he did not help build.

In his Tablet piece, Sarna continues:

…[I]t seems to me that where Jews did impact upon early American culture is where they cast themselves as critics, subversives and dissenters. As non-Christians, Jews at that time in the United States, however white and wealthy they may have been, were by their very existence cultural outsiders and religious non-conformists. If, following the Oxford English Dictionary, to be culturally subversive means to challenge and undermine “a conventional idea, form, genre, etc., especially by using or presenting it in a new or unorthodox way,” then Jews of that time were disproportionately subversive. Indeed, some of the most important works in the Milberg collection reflect precisely that kind of oppositional stance.

Sarna cites many examples, too numerous to go into here. One example is that of Isaac Gomez Jr., “scion of one of the oldest and most distinguished Sephardic Jewish families in New York City”. Sarna writes:

In private, however, Gomez was much more critical—at least of the religious world that surrounded him. His unpublished manuscript, “God is One and His Name One: Quotations from Scripture etc. to Prove God to be One And the Truth of the Jewish Faith,” lovingly handwritten for the benefit of his only son, Moses Emanuel (1804-1878), was explicitly designed to buttress the views of a small Jewish minority seeking to maintain its distinctive religious identity amid a sea of Protestants eager to convert them. Inwardly and within the protective bosom of his own family, Gomez revealed his true feelings about the merits of his neighbors’ beliefs. His purpose, he disclosed in his preface, was nothing less than “to shew, and to know that we are the chosen people of God …  as well as that God is one without addition or subtraction … that there never was nor never will be but One God.” This was, of course, an utterly subversive idea in the face of overwhelming Christian trinitarianism, and Gomez, whose ancestors had been Crypto-Jews in Portugal, explicitly warned his son to keep the critique to himself: not “to be a religious disputant” and not to share the volume with anyone else, “never part with it, either by lending or otherwise.” At the same time, the whole point of producing the handwritten book was to arm his son with the necessary texts and arguments for “when it becomes necessary for you to defend your religion.” Gomez made clear that he “put no credence” in the New Testament, which he described as replete with “many alterations, false quotations and misrepresentations.” Nor did he respect Christianity as a whole, having determined that it “has grown out of Heathenism.” His conclusion after more than 460 pages of proof texts, was certainly not surprising for a Jew whose ancestors had been persecuted by the Holy Inquisition, but was nevertheless utterly countercultural in the 1820s world of New York City. Gomez firmly insisted that Judaism was right and Christianity wrong. “The idea of there being more Gods than One, either three in one or three distinct characters…,” he whispered to his son, “is inconsistent with reason or common sense.”

And so it began, and continues to this day.

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