Most of us carry around a fair number of ethnic stereotypes. Much Jewish humor is based on stereotypes of Jews from different areas: the kalte (cold) Litvak, the fiery Chassid, the calculating Galicianer, the elegant Hungarian.
Nor can it be said that these stereotypes have no basis in reality. If I say that the minyan in which my elderly neighbor prays starts precisely when he arrives, most readers will guess that he is a Yekke (German-born). As Montesquieu taught in The Spirit of Laws, men are not all the same. Different environments produce different cultures.
Not every generalization about Jews, then, can be dismissed as rank prejudice. If we Jews employ such stereotypes about one another, we should not rush to label non-Jews who do so as anti-Semites.
These reflections are prompted by the recent publication of excerpts from President Harry S. Truman’s diary. All cavils aside, however, I still could not help feeling a rush of revulsion upon reading Truman’s diaries. The shock was akin to that felt as a child encountering, without warning, the following sentence in the children’s classic Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates: "Jacob looked into the Jewish diamond cutters section [of Amsterdam], and wisely decided to stay away."
In a July 21, 1947 entry, Truman opined, "When [Jews] have power, physical, financial, or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment of the underdog." Such a comparison to the two worst mass murderers in history is so lacking in any connection to reality as to bespeak a deep hatred of Jews.
That outburst was occasioned by a call from former Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau Jr. seeking Truman’s intervention with the British to secure permission for a ship carrying thousands of Jews survivors of the European inferno to land in Palestine. Truman’s diary response dwelt on how "very, very selfish" the Jews are. "They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get killed as DPs as long as the Jews get special treatment," wrote the President.
These ruminations are both stupid and ugly. Made uglier by the extent of their stupidity. Unlike the other nationalities mentioned, the Jews had no homes to which they could return. The doors of America and Western Europe were largely closed to them. Eastern Europe was drenched in their brothers’ blood. Few wished to return to their former homes, and those who did were often the victims of pogroms at the hands of those who had occupied their homes.
Far from being given preferential treatment, the Jews were consistently discriminated against by the Allies during the War. Not a single Allied ship was ever requisitioned to transport Jews to safe havens during the War. Yet, notes historian David Wyman in The Abandonment of the Jews, "Transportation somehow materialized to move 100,000 [non-Jewish Yugoslavs, Poles, and Greeks] to dozens of refugee camps that sprang into existence."
Even after the War, the Allied conquerors often placed local Germans in charge so that Jewish DPs found themselves once again being pushed around by their former torturers. One Jewish American serviceman, came across a group of former Polish Jewish slave laborers receiving a diet of only 800-1000 calories a day – one-fifth that of American servicemen.
The lack of sympathy for the Jewish refugees and unfairness of Truman’s criticisms will forever lower his stature. These were not just the kind of occasional thoughts that would mortify any of us if known to others. Truman did not confine such comments to his private diaries. In a letter to his wife, he complained of the surfeit of "Hebrews" encountered on a trip to Miami.
STILL IT IS IMPORTANT TO distinguish Truman’s cultural anti-Semitism from older theological anti-Semitism. Truman’s prejudices were part of his mental baggage, but they did not define or shape his worldview. In personal relationships, his negative stereotypes of Jews were no more than rebuttable presumptions limited by countervailing American values such as judging each man as an individual.
Truman’s first business partner was his Jewish army buddy Eddie Jacobson, and the friendship survived the failure of their haberdashery. Truman once called his former partner "as fine a man as ever walked."
Nor did Truman’s anti-Semitism prevent him from rational calculations with respect to Jewish interests. He was the first head of state to recognize Israel in 1948, despite the threat of Secretary of State George Marshall to resign if he did. He realized that a failure to do so would surely to cost him the Jewish vote and the 1948 election against New York Governor Thomas Dewey. (He subsequently imposed an arms embargo on the fledgling state fighting for its life.)
In a similar vein, Richard Nixon, who was given to truly paranoid rantings about Jews, overruled his Jewish Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to resupply a desperate Israel during the Yom Kippur War.
The theological anti-Semitism that once typified the Catholic Church differs greatly from Truman’s cultural anti-Semitism. For the theological anti-Semite, Jew hatred is not an incidental prejudice but a defining principle. The Jew is the anti-Christ, the denier of every value giving meaning to life, and his persecution, and even murder, a religious obligation.
Hitler inherited that worldview from the Church. Jew hatred formed the crux of his worldview. World conquest was for him just a means to the ultimate goal of extermination of the Jews. That is why the Nazis continued to divert badly needed military supplies to the death camps in the final year of the War.
TO DISTINGUISH OLD-FASHIONED American cultural anti-Semitism from more virulent forms is not to say that the former was costless. Prejudice against Jews accounts for the fact that during World War II Americans overwhelmingly opposed the lifting of immigration quotas even for Jewish children.