Jews in the American Historical Profession (8-4-21)

Peter Novick writes in his 1988 book: * Selig Perlman, a professor of economics at Wisconsin, is said to have regularly summoned Jewish graduate students in history to his office and warned them, in a deep Yiddish accent, that “History belongs to the Anglo-Saxons. You belong in economics or sociology.” The academic patrons of Jewish graduate students often despaired of finding them jobs.

* It is impossible to disentangle, from fragmentary evidence, the components of academic anti-Semitism. Concern with lowering the status of the profession merged into concern with who should be entrusted with the guardianship of the Geist, and with reservations about the allegedly aggressive intellectual and personal style of Jews: a concern that discourse and social life within the profession would become less genteel if it became less gentile. Letters of recommendation repeatedly tried to reassure prospective employers on this point: Oscar Handlin “has none of the offensive traits which some people associate with his race,” and Bert J. Loewenberg “by temperament and spirit . . . measures up to the whitest Gentile I know” (Arthur Schlesinger); Daniel J. Boorstin “is a Jew, though not the kind to which one takes exception” and Richard Leopold was “of course a Jew, but since he is a Princeton graduate, you may be reasonably certain that he is not of the offensive type” (Roger B. Merriman); Solomon Katz was “quite un-Jewish, if one considers the undesirable side of the race” (Merrill Jensen); variations on the formula were endlessly repeated.

* With minor exceptions (Parsons in the one camp, Pollack in the other), those critical of the Populists were Jews and from the Northeast; those defending them were gentiles, and from the South or Midwest. This feature of the controversy was well known to the participants and many contemporary observers, but was usually mentioned only obliquely, if at all. It tacitly raised issues of perspectivism and universalism which, for the moment, the profession preferred not to discuss openly.

* Daniel Bell recalled for an interviewer discussions about anti-Semitism he had with Richard Hofstadter in the early 1940s. “What arose in our conversations has, I think, shaped a lot of subsequent work. I mean a fear of mass action, a fear of passions let loose. A lot of this goes back in many ways to a particularly Jewish fear. In traditional Jewish life, going back particularly to the Assyrian and Babylonian episodes, the first creativity, there’s a fear of what happens when man is let loose. When man doesn’t have halacha, the law, he becomes chia, an animal.”

* In the early 1960s Carl Bridenbaugh outraged a good many historians with his AHA presidential address. In what was universally taken to be a reference to Jews, who were for the first time becoming a significant presence in the profession, Bridenbaugh deplored the fact that whereas once American historians had shared a common culture, and rural upbringing, the background of the present generation would “make it impossible for them to communicate to and reconstruct the past for future generations.” They suffered from an “environmental deficiency”: being “urban-bred” they lacked the “understanding . . . vouchsafed to historians who were raised in the countryside or in the small town.” They were “products of lower middle-class or foreign origins, and their emotions not infrequently get in the way of historical reconstructions. They find themselves in a very real sense outsiders on our past and feel themselves shut out. This is certainly not their fault, but it is true.”

* None, so far as I can tell, ever advanced what seems to me the most compelling reason why a group of the background of Hofstadter, Bell, Lipset, and their friends should have taken such a uniformly and exaggeratedly bleak view of the Populists: they were all only one generation removed from the Eastern European shtetl, where insurgent gentile peasants spelled pogrom.

* After World War II anti-Semitism in the historical profession, as in society at large, was an embarrassing legacy to be exorcised. The selection of Louis Gottschalk as president of the American Historical Association at the extraordinarily young age, for an AHA president, of fifty-two was in part an expiation of past sins. In these years, relatively few Jews undertook graduate work in history, compared with other disciplines. Of a large sample of the B. A. class of 1961, only 7 percent of those planning graduate work in history were Jews, fewer than in any other disciplines save geology, biology, botany, and zoology. By the end of that decade Jews constituted 9 percent of academic historians, but 22 percent of the membership of history departments at highly rated universities. Of works in American history deemed outstanding in polls of historians, none published before 1950 was by a Jewish historian; of those published in the 1950s three out of ten were by Jews; in the 1960s, four out of ten. Jews also figured prominently in modern European, especially German, history in these years, with a particularly noteworthy role being played by those who had emigrated in the 1930s as children.

Anti-Semitism by no means completely disappeared, and indeed for some the entry of Jews into positions of prominence was an added provocation. J. Fred Rippy of the University of Chicago History Department complained in the early 1950s that “Alfred Knopf does all he can to promote the Jews. . . . The Harris Foundation here is now largely Hebrew controlled. The Guggenheim Foundation favors the Jews in its awards. Saturday Review of Literature is now in the hands of Jews.. . . Jewish influence has been responsible for the choice of Louis Gottschalk as a member of UNESCO’s committee to write a world history. . . . Enrollments have declined . . . the main cause . . . probably is the distaste for such an overwhelming number of Jewish refugees on the faculties.”

* When David Donald recommended six young Americanists to the University of Wisconsin in 1957, five of the six were Jews. By that point, the price of anti-Semitism was mediocrity.

* With a few noteworthy exceptions the Jews who rose to prominence within the profession did not venture into Jewish history; they certainly never attempted to define a “Jewish perspective”; it is probably not coincidental that the leading figures in developing the “consensus” interpretation of American history were all of Jewish background.

* The entry of large numbers of Jews into the upper reaches of the profession in the 1950s and early 1960s was widely seen as the fulfillment of universalist norms. It was otherwise with the arrival of blacks and women from the late sixties onward. For their rise to prominence within the profession coincided with a new, assertive, particularist consciousness which both directly and indirectly challenged universalist norms. They defined themselves not as “historians who happened to be Negroes,” with a consensually acceptable integrationist standpoint, but as black historians, committed to one or another form of cultural nationalism; not “historians who happened to be women,” seeking proportional representation in textbooks for members of their sex, hut feminist historians with an overriding loyalty to their sisters, and agendas which called for a thoroughgoing transformation of historical consciousness. Jews, upon entering the profession, had insisted that they were “just like everyone else, except more so,” committed to a sensibility which was not just integrationist but usually assimilationist as well.

* The chairman of Yale’s History Department, for one, found the social origins of postwar graduate students distressingly low, as compared with those in the English Department at that institution. “Apparently the subject of English still draws to a degree from the cultivated, professional, and well-to-do classes, hence more young men and women from able backgrounds. By contrast, the subject of history seems to appeal on the whole to a lower social stratum. . . . Far too few of our history candidates are sons of professional men; far too many list their parent’s occupation as janitor, watchman, salesman, grocer, pocketbook cutter, bookkeeper, railroad clerk, pharmacist, clothing cutter, cable tester, mechanic, general clerk, butter-and-egg jobber, and the like. One may be glad to see the sons of the lower occupations working upward. .. . It may be flattering to be regarded as an elevator. But even the strongest elevator will break down if asked to lift too much weight.”

* * It was quite otherwise with Wisconsin, which throughout the 1950s had been something of a “Progressive” holdout against more conservative historiographical currents. Its faculty contained a number of historians who in various ways served as models to graduate students, a significant portion of whom were New York Jews of leftist background, for whom Wisconsin served an “Americanizing” function. George Rawick, a student at Wisconsin in the mid-1950s, recalled in a letter to Merle Curti that Curti had served as an inspiration to him in becoming an American radical, “not just someone in the ‘internal emigration’ which has been the home of so many New York radicals.” Paul Breines, a graduate student at Madison a few years later, thought that “leftist Jews who identified with [William Appleman] Williams were trying to submerge their Jewishness in his very American socialism or even his socialist Americanism.”

* Whereas Jews were substantially overrepresented at elite institutions (22 percent versus 9 percent in the profession at large), the situation with respect to Catholics was reversed (10 percent versus 21 percent in the profession at large).

* “Those who can, gloat; those who can’t, brood.” Englishmen are born gloaters; Irishmen born brooders. .. . A reformed gloater—an English liberal say, or a Swede—…identifies himself… with the master race. The brooder, making the opposite identification, feels no sense of guilt, only a sense of outrage.”

* …those who have written the most influential studies of white attitudes and behavior toward blacks were almost all gentiles—David Brion Davis, George Frederickson, Winthrop Jordan, Morgan Kousser, James McPherson; those who wrote of blacks as subjects, were overwhelmingly Jewish—Ira Berlin, Herbert Gutman, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwack, George Rawick. Whatever the reason for the disproportionate number of Jews who wrote about blacks from the black point of view, what is important for our purposes is the profound identification of all members of this latter group of historians, Jewish and gentile, with blacks. Though white, they prided themselves on “thinking black”; of being the reverse of “oreos”—vanilla wafers with chocolate filling.

* The generalization about the difference in focus between gentiles and Jews applies with greatest force to those who came of scholarly age in the sixties and seventies, though one could observe it in the previous generation: Woodward and Stampp writing the history of racism and oppression from the white side, Herbert Aptheker and Philip Foner emphasizing black agency. By the 1980s the injunction to “think black” had become so powerful that the distinction began to break down. The examples of Aptheker and Foner suggest a partial explanation for the difference: Jews were considerably more likely to have a background in left politics—to be presocialized into identification with the oppressed.

* If capitalism was as inhuman and destructive as socialists maintained, its victims must have been psychologically maimed and brutalized. On the other hand, if workers were as noble and stalwart as they were in socialist depictions, could the system within which they had developed really be all that oppressive?

* In a way which had many parallels to Jewish historians’ discussions of the behavior of Jews during World War II, resistance came to be equated with endurance and survival. Responding to criticism that in The Slave Community he had slighted resistance, John Blassingame made the analogy explicit: “The most apt characterization of the slave’s behavior is that Lucy Dawidowicz used . . . [in] The War Against the Jews: ‘They learned not only to invent, but to circumvent; not only to obey, but to evade; not only to submit, but to outwit. Their tradition of defiance was devious rather than direct, employing nerve instead of force.'”

* Nathan Glazer…assert[ed] that the black American “has no values and culture to guard and protect.”

* Most members of the generation of young white historians who wrote the history of blacks in the seventies had left-wing backgrounds or involvement in the civil rights movement. Insofar as they were disproportionately Jews, they were products of the years when Jews were, in O’Brien’s terms, brooders rather than gloaters.

* Michael Walzer, Professor Emeritus at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, explains why anti-immigrant populism is more a European problem than an American one. “There is one decisive moment in American history — he says — which is not much written about, but which is very important and it sets up a contrast with Europe. That moment is the moment when the Anglo-American settlers, who thought that they were establishing an Anglo-American State, allowed themselves to become a minority in what they thought was their country. That happened in the course of the Nineteenth century, with a lot of resistance, resentment, nativist movements, hostility to immigrants, but it happened. And, instead of America becoming an Anglo-American nation-state, America became what Horace Kallen called ‘nation of nationalities’ without a majority nation and with an ongoing immigration. That moment is not going to be repeated in Europe.”


* That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession
* The Holocaust in American Life by Peter Novick
* Harry Levin. Portrait of a Scholar as Young Man
* Enlarging America: The Cultural Work of Jewish Literary Scholars, 1930-1990
* Jews In The American Academy

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Academia, History, Jews. Bookmark the permalink.