The Anti-Semitism of My Youth

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Born in 1940, I can remember only four episodes. The first occurred around 1956 when I was disinvited from some trivial affair at the Scarsdale Golf Club. My recollection is that my teenage girlfriend, who was half-Jewish by ancestry, had gotten invited, and she in turn invited me. That prompted a cancellation. Such disinvitations were not uncommon at the time.

When I got married, a few years later, we had to do the reception at my wife’s parents’ house, rather than the local Plainfield (NJ) country club, which didn’t admit Jews. These restrictions ended, as the Scarsdale Golf Club, short of members a decade later, had to admit those previously proscribed, while Plainfield is now, I’m told, mostly African- American. One result of this episode is that to this day I still prefer public recreation facilities to private, in addition to finding any organizations restricting membership to be unseemly.

The second occurred when I applied to college. Some of the more distinguished universities had quotas that we!e hidden, but still known, limiting the percentage of Jews, as could best be determined in advance, to 10% of an incoming class. I have been told, reliably that such quotas disappeared during the 1960s. One result of Ivy League anti-Semitism was that the best students were disproportionately Jewish, implicitly contributing to philo-Semitic mythology, while the universities in retrospect look modishly dumb. The effect on my mind has been a continuing preference for absolutely level playing fields, not only in sports, which is to say a distaste for dis / advantageous quotas of any kind in part because they customarily “demonstrate” a truth they are designed to deny.

A third episode happened at the National Endowment for the Arts during the mid-1980s. I applied for support for two projects with Jewish content, both of which drew upon art already completed with German funds – a book about the greatest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, about which I’d previously made several films, and a mechanical opera based upon an electro-acoustic composition Kaddish that had been commissioned and broadcast by Westdeutscher Rundfunk. Neither received support from the NEA, to my disappointment.

I became alarmed when I read the NEA’s Annual Reports for those years and discovered that though many recipients had all kinds of minority-monikers, very few had versions of “Jewish” in their name or their projects – as few as only one a year. Jacob Neusner, at the time on the NEA’s National Council (a trustee), remembers, “I also cannot recall any advocacy or warm support for a project because it bore a distinctively Jewish character, and there was plenty of ethnic and racial and gender advocacy in play. In other words, there was pressure to support a Hispanic or feminist or African-American person or project by reason of the ethnic or gender or racial origin or focus, and never, ever, a Jewish person or project.” Proposals for Jewish projects, such as mine, must have been cut off at an earlier pass, so to speak, long before they were ever presented to the Council whose

One result of Ivy League anti-Semitism was that the best students were disproportionately Jewish, implicitly contributing to philo-Semitic mythology.

 

 

members in that period included Harvey Lichtenstein of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Joseph Epstein of The American Scholar, and New York state senator Roy Goodman, all apparently asleep on their thrones.

Though I wrote an expose of this neglect at the time, anti- anti-Semitism in the 1980s focused more on blathering by black Muslims and similarly marginal people. My expose appeared in an obscure place, getting no further attention, and was then reprinted in a collection of my essays, “Crimes of Culture” (1995). In an otherwise sympathetic review, one writer identified it as the book’s least persuasive piece, to my disappointment.

When I mentioned this NEA scandal several years later to someone operating a private foundation to support Jewish culture, he recalled conversations at the time with NEA officials who said that they expected prominent Jewish foundations to support Jewish art. (Little did these NEA wise guys know that much of the best Jewish art of the past decades was, like my own, funded entirely in Germany; but that’s another story.) As a result of this episode, I ceased producing Jewish art, making me a victim not of censorship as such but, in truth, the effects of anti-Semitic discrimination.

In the fourth episode, I was a victim of Jewish anti- Semitism, which is always the most dangerous, because gentiles don’t find it objectionable. In 1965, I published in Hudson Review an essay about minority-monikers in American literature, explaining that .writers identifying themselves as Southerners had lost the center literary stage to a new group identifying themselves as Jews. Obvious in retrospect, my analysis was perceived as controversial at the time. My bias .then, elaborated since, was that artistic categories based on anything other than formal characteristics – that includes geography as well as ethnicity – had no validity in serious criticism.

What I didn’t know at the time was that some Jewish writers had dubbed my piece anti-Semitic, which was an opportunism typical at the time, and characterized me as a self-hating Jew, which would have come as a surprise to anyone who actually knew me. My writing had already appeared in patently Jewish magazines which continued to publish me; I attended synagogue and later produced the Jewish art mentioned· above. (The lesson here is that those considering themselves Professionally Challenged, especially if anxious and insecure, can make up anything they want to advance their vulgar interests. Indeed, precisely in hysterical deceit do those Professionally Challenged mark themselves.)

Contracts and contacts with publishers were cancelled, often at their expense, because of machinations occurring behind my back. In his sweeping complaint about younger writers in his much-reprinted 1967 essay on “The New York Intellectuals,” a critic named Irving Howe, a generation older than 1, identified only one emerging writer by name, me, albeit only in a footnote typically misrepresenting me vulgarly. Whereas my essay had no appreciable effect on the fortunes of the Jewish-American writers, most of whom were and are quite prosperous, the losses to me were probably greater than I knew then and either I or my biographer can know now (as some conspirators and co-conspirators have passed).

The question to consider is whether I would have been treated differently had I not been Jewish – whether they jeopardized me because I was Jewish. If so, then these Jewish literary operatives must be considered anti-Semitic. As a result, my ability to survive professionally was impaired, not because of gentiles in the episodes mentioned before but because of disrespectful Jews.

In an elaboration of “Militant Minorities,” which became the opening chapters of my book “The End of Intelligent Writing” (1974), I observed that some of these same writers had conspired – yes, breathed together – to deprive Communist Jewish writers, mostly older, of a livelihood, not only because the oldsters were anti-Communists but because they had to establish themselves as Kings of the Jewish Hill, so to speak. Having vanquished those foes, they turned their guns upon younger Jewish writers (apart from their direct

As a result of this episode, I ceased producing Jewish art, making me a victim not of censorship as such but, in truth, the effects of anti- Semitic discrimination.

 

 

proteges), likewise to buttress professional success and accompanying privileges. I was just another bunny in a continuing hunt whose earlier non-Communist targets included Allen Ginsberg and other Jewish independent radicals – note Ginsberg, rather than Kerouac, whose love for Jews was limited. Picking on me, rather than a gentile, implicitly flat- tered me, as well as allowing me to flatter myself, as I am doing here.

Tactically, this opportunistic Jewish anti-Semitism was ultimately a mistake, as the movement represented by its publicists terminated with writers born around 1933 (Susan Sontag, Philip Roth). The truth then, as in decades before, is that history always buries short-sightedly anti-Semitic Jews.

Fortunately, unlike too many earlier victims of Jewish anti-Semitism, I survived long enough to write about ignominy.

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