Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Jealousy, Anti-Semitism and Fish Out of Water

My wife was once asked by a co-worker to stop doing such a good job, if not in so many words. Same old thing: you are doing a better job than we are and you are making us look bad. (Short version: she kept doing a good job and she moved up the ranks. So it goes.)

I know you are supposed to talk about books after you have finished them, but I am in the middle of Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts and I recently read a section in which the "main character" (it is historical narrative, not fiction) William E. Dodd, the man who was America's ambassador to Germany during Hitler's rise to power, is talking to Hitler, himself. During the conference, (and all dialogue in the book is from record, not speculation, according to its author -- all dialogue is from reliable documents) Dodd told Hitler:

"You know, a number of high positions in our country are, at present, occupied by Jews, both in New York and Illinois [Dodd's home state]...where the question of over-activity of Jews in the university or official life made trouble, we [have] managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as not to give great offense and...wealthy Jews continued to support institutions which had limited the number of Jews who held high positions." Dodd maintained that "the Jews in Illinois constituted no serious problem."

It seems this otherwise well-meaning guy saw Jewish folk as "a problem." Why? Because they indulged in "over-activity" in the highest levels of public and academic life? Sounds, on a larger and more insidious scale, like my wife's co-worker.

I've been puzzled for years as to the root of anti-Semitism, especially because I have witnessed quite a bit of it, if only in conversation. But I think this passage made it clear: it is exactly the same as the root of my wife's co-worker's request. Jewish people have operated with ambition and with a respect for education and those principals have made them (and were making them in Dodd's and Hitler's lifetimes) seem to have made them more successful than many others cultural or racial groups as a whole. (I realize that this, although a positive trait to point out in a race of people, is also, no matter how you slice it, a stereotype -- but, people's perception is reality, no matter how we shade it. Are there facts and figures to support that Jewish people held [or hold] an inordinate number of high positions? I have never seen them, but either way, it was [and is] believed by anti-Semites, hence the "problem.")

Even in the mind of the American ambassador, there existed what was often called a "Jewish problem." (Henry Ford even used to prattle on about it -- in conversation and in print). The problem? Jews, as a people, seemed to have been doing well and people didn't like it. True or not, that's how people saw it. If it wasn't true, it was grist for racism; if it was true, it should have been a source of admiration, not of  hate -- but most people are not constructed that way, it would seem; at least, not the most violent ones.

In Larson's book, in a passage that, honestly, I can't find to quote directly, there is an incident of a comedian in Berlin who was heckled from the stage. An audience member called the comedian a "Yid." The comedian responded that he was not, in fact, Jewish -- he only looked intelligent. Even in the mind of this nameless comic satirist, the abilities of the culture were clear.

In my life's journey, I have, as I said, met and read about anti-Semites spanning from the merely annoyed and rude to the genocidal, and they all seemed to have one idea in common: "The Jews are 'in' everything..." What they always meant, in their particular contexts, was that they seemed to be at the top of everything. Hitler seems to have held the same views.

Oh well. Ain't that just too bad? Should we disparage (and/or exterminate) a people for becoming successful? -- for showing the ability and the tendency to achieve the top levels in their chosen pursuits?

Human jealousy is the root of many evils, if not all. How awful that it can amount to something as annoying as the request made to my wife but that it can also result in every reaction in-between, up to and including a desire for ethnic "cleansing."

What a horrible kind of evil jealousy can amount to. What a perfect example of human weakness that we will resort to anything to keep our fellow man down in the mire of mediocrity with us. Still, it is one of the truths of human nature: we would rather keep out fellow man down that work hard enough to exceed his achievements.

Are we beyond this now? Heck no. Our whole educational system is based on making everyone the same. Sorry, Fishy -- we want you to climb this tree or you can't graduate. Monkey is the valedictorian. It doesn't matter if Fishy can swim forever. He needs to be like all the other land-walkers. What happens to Fishy? He suffocates spending too much time trying to climb a tree.

Is this the same as anti-Semitism? Yes and no. There is no hate or dislike stated, but there is a distinct side-stepping of those who stand out. We can kill those who excell or we can test them into submission. The source is the same, even of one isn't as heinous as the other.

We are jealous. Sometimes it makes us evil; sometimes it makes us "accidentally" smother people.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I hope that a flood of anti-Semites don't come to your blog in an outrage now.

    I've always felt somewhat the same way you do, and so I don't have much to say, but just to deliver on what you requested: people of Jewish descent make up about 2% of the American population, but represented 27% of Nobel Prize winners in the 1900s. This holds true for many other awards and accomplishments as well, including the ACM Turing Awards and seats held as chess champions. As for holding high positions, I don't even want to look that up, because the data is more often than not hijacked by... anti-Semites.

    1. So, there it is. Some more concrete proof of success... And so it goes. No worries about anti-Semitic hijacking. I have the all-powerful "delete comment" button.

      Thanks, Alexis.