Let me set out for you an idea I had this morning. You may not like it, but I can show my reasoning.
What the German Jews were to the population of Germany a century ago, the African-Americans are to that of the United States today.
I’ll begin my development of this idea by suggesting that you did not see a lot of coverage on the TV or in the corporate press of the Lombard Bridge anti-coal train demonstration ten days ago, even though 100 people were there for two hours, not to mention a handful of aspiring politicians. That’s what you have come to expect.
One hundred Glenn Beck supporters, chanting slogans about sluts getting their condoms on the public payroll, and there would have been plenty of corporate news coverage. Corporate interests in our country provide access to the right-wing preferentially, and not only with respect to time on television.
Intelligent young people who devote their lives to support of the present power structure — journalists only being one example — are going to receive rewards to a much greater degree than folks who dedicate themselves to the interests of the working class or — even worse — the disadvantaged.
If you go back with me to middle of the 19th century, the aristocracy and large landowners of the German-speaking lands of Central Europe were no more anxious than the wealthy of the United States are today to assist fighters for social justice.
Karl Marx was aware of his ability, and the fact that he wound up in exile, without stable means of support, seeing his children perish from neglect, embittered him. In my opinion (which is based on a lot of work by others, but I’ll not bother to look up the references) Marx’s teaching of unbending hostility to the landowners and factory owners of the world had a lot to do with his winding up in very difficult circumstances, despite his extraordinary intellectual gifts.
This was true for Jews generally. Freud and Einstein were world-rank scholars who found comfortable positions when they went into exile, but they were the exception: tens of thousands of Jewish exiles were anything but comfortable. Besides, the anti-Semitism of the National Socialist government after 1933 only accentuated conditions of hostility to the Jewish citizens of the German lands, an anti-Semitism that for a couple of centuries constrained the careers of thousands of talented Germans of Jewish descent.
There was a whole history behind the question of the assimilation of the Jews of the German lands. Forced to privilege their brains, the Jews were overrepresented in cultural activities (as they now are, for example, in the United States); their emancipation during the course of the 18th century led to wrenching controversies within the Jewish community over whether, or how much, to assimilate into the German Christian culture and community. Further, the German Jews felt that the recently-arrived Eastern European Jews were getting all the advantages with none of the anxieties of life in a civilized society.
Christian Germans had to admit that Heine was a superb poet, the best of his generation; German scientists were often Jewish; and Marx’s work was epic. It bothered them that these members of a slighted minority had accomplished so much: it needed an explanation, and one of their favorites was, that German Jews weren’t any good at “real German” activities. German Jews tried especially hard, then, to do war service during what was called the Great War [1914-1918].
The effort was not crowned with acceptance from German Christians. When an English politician of Jewish origin got into office — Benjamin Disraeli was Prime Minister from 1874 to 1880 — he selected the path of support for the established powers of the British Crown. When the first nationally prominent German Jewish politician came into power — Walther Rathenau was foreign minister for 6 months in 1922 — he supported a democratic republic. Disraeli was ennobled, and died in bed; Rathenau was assassinated.
So you see there’s a kind of unrequited love affair: the German Jews really did the German culture and nation immense service, of all sorts; yet, they met with if anything only the most grudging acceptance.
Turn now to the African-American experience within the United States. You have to have excelled, more than your paler-skinned brothers and sisters, in order to win acceptance of any sort in the society in which we live. In athletic endeavors of all kinds, in entertainment, in setting a stylish mode for living, black folk excel; and yet . . .
So just as Karl Marx betrayed a rather natural bitterness at the way the German Establishment treated him (he never did identify fully as Jewish, incidentally: part of the territory was ambivalence about that), so James Baldwin has spoken of black rage over the persistent claim that those most American of our citizens, the African-Americans, are less than fully us. Nor is there a lot of solidarity at the bottom. When I was in federal prison the black population rioted by physically attacking, not the white prisoners, but the Hispanic; I claim that the Hispanics are the East European Jews of our society.
Do I have any solution to all this? Well, of course. I would not have taxed you with all this without some prescription, however modest, at the end of it all.
Why are you willing to accept the apathy of the present power structure when you demonstrate for social justice? (For a long time, it is true, the survivors of the 60s among whom I lived would marvel that the news media did not afford coverage to their good causes. But that’s a lot less frequently brought up these days.) It is because the action on behalf of the oppressed can be cherished for what good it does, in and of itself, for you, as a human being. Your spirit is enriched by marching around Pioneer Courthouse Square, singing “Money for Jobs and Education, Not for War and Corporations.” You can accept you’re not going to get invited onto the Tonight Show. Virtue is its own reward, in the locution of the Old School.
Bitterness is human. To some extent we all have some of it (I know I do). But the contributions of the Jews to Germany, of the blacks to the United States, is imperishable. It does not depend upon the reversal of attitude by the German Christians, or by the whites of the United States.