In Order to face the central problem of the Jewish people intelligently, it is necessary first of all to clarify certain terms and the concepts for which they stand. This has rarely been done except by that line of Zionist thinkers which extends from Moses Hess to Arnold Zweig. In all other discussions of the Jewish people fear and hope have been much more active than reason and a sense of reality. We have, above all, permitted the world to impose loose thinking and murky prejudice upon us without making the answer of reason and righteousness. Thus certain fundamental issues have never been clarified and battles have been fought without either party knowing precisely what the outcome of the battle was to decide.
Ever since the emancipation the most brutally misused term and concept has been that of tolerance. This brutal misuse has so deeply penetrated into the Jewish consciousness that to this day there are thousands of Jews who are in a constant frenzy of self-justification on the lowest terms. We are honest, they say, and law-abiding and decent and useful. We have no special interests beyond those of our fellow-citizens (a flagrant untruth, of course); we produce more than our share of intellectual and spiritual goods (which is true but beside the point) and thereforeâ€”thus runs this abominable and degrading argumentâ€”therefore we ought to be tolerated. And the people who reason thus and feel thus do not see at all that they are not asking for tolerance at all but seeking to placate intolerance, that they are not making the right ethical or practical demand either of themselves or of their Gentile fellow-citizens.
If someone is exactly like me or displays all my favorite virtues and tries to be unobstrusive to boot, in what sense do I tolerate him? Such an one gives me no chance to practice the virtue of tolerance at all. It is only when he differs from me saliently that he begins to exact my tolerance; it is only when he grates on me and in his eternal duty of decent self-affirmation flicks my favorite prejudices on the raw that he gives me a chance to exercise the rare and civilized virtue of tolerance. Tolerance means tolerating difference, perceiving otherness without hostility, agreeing out of the depth of one’s heart that everyone is to have those liberties of his own life and its proper expressions that one needs and demands for oneself. We have degraded ourselves and corrupted our Gentile environment by not constantly and undeviatingly, however courteously and suaviter in modo, insisting upon that interpretation of tolerance which alone gives the word and the concept it stands for any meaning at all. So soon as we have to justify ourselves for any action or any attitude that is legal in the land of our residence and ethical in the broadest human senseâ€”so soon as we have to do that, it is sickening and cowardly to use the word tolerance. For by the very facts of the case we are not being tolerated. Tolerance is dead.
I have said that tolerance means tolerating it that each man or each group of men exercises his or its needed liberties and their concrete expression within the limits of public law and general ethics. And we find that in civilized countries (of which a few are left including our own) Gentiles do generally practice the right virtue of tolerance among themselves. Despite the muttering of fanatical fools no one dreams of objecting to the splendid and noble educational system built up by American Catholicism; no one dreams of objecting to colleges and universities that express the special sense of life of the varying divisions of Protestantism from the Anglicans to the Unitarians and Quakers; no one finds it other than natural that American Catholics, Baptists, Universalists attend world conventions or that Catholics protest against the persecution of their Church in Mexico or that Unitarians send financial aid to the historic congregations of their faith in Hungary. Yet American Jews abstain for tactical reasons from a Jewish World Congress; they shiver when someone proposesâ€”as Louis Newman did years agoâ€”to found an American Jewish University, a need so crying and bitter from every point of view that to neglect it will bring disaster upon our children and upon our children’s children; they abstain from Zionist activity from an obscure feeling of intimidation and dread.
I can hear the answer of certain groups and kinds of Jews. “Ah, but our case is different!” It is indeed. For we are, as I said before, not only a religious communityâ€”the most venerable and oldest in the entire Western world and as such alone have the rights of every other religious community in the land to cooperate with our coreligionists everywhere, to protest against their persecution, to bring them aid and comfort, to build Jewish schools and colleges and universities here and also in other lands comparable to the American Protestant Colleges in the Near East. We are, in addition to being a religious and cultural community, part of a people with speech, tradition, ethos of its own. In this respect our rights are at least equal to the rights of American citizens of German birth and descent. They use those rights, do they not? They used them from 1914 to 1917; they are using them today. And I do not criticize them for doing so, however I may regret the present substance of their attitudes. In brief: we have the double rights of a church and a people within the framework of a democracy. Let us not speak of tolerance until every Jew is ready firmly and with the most careful regard for the interests of others to exercise those rights. Let us not speak of tolerance any more and mean submission and assimilation. This is the first step toward the right approach to the central problem of the Jewish people.