Monday, September 29, 2014

Hankus Pankus, the Jewish Question, and the American Dream

Michael L.

{Originally published at the Elder of Ziyon.}

Hank GreenbergIt frankly astonishes me that at this late date the Jewish Question persists.

Of all the peoples on the planet why should Jews remain under harassment not only by a much larger hostile Arab-Muslim majority in the Middle East, but through the antipathy of our supposed western-left allies who conceive of any form of Jewish self-defense as an unconscionable act of aggression?

It is as if they honestly believe that Arabs have every right to try to kill Jews and if we dare defend ourselves we are at fault.

Israel is generally despised by the left, yet we still donate to them and advocate for their issues and in, ways great and small, lend our collective weight to progressive-left causes.  We raise money and attend the Met and make phone calls and proudly support a political movement that is unfriendly to our own people.

Who does this?

What other people on the planet support political movements that are directly and openly in opposition to their own well-being?

There is, to my mind, something deeply disturbing about the Jewish relationship to western-left politics.  We did more than anyone else, given our relative numbers, to build up ideals of western social democracy.  In the United States the Jewish people were at the very forefront of the fight for civil liberties and universal human rights from the nineteenth-century until the present.

We fought against slavery and we fought for the late nineteenth-century progressive movement which opposed political corruption and child labor and unsafe work conditions and economic injustice.  We stood with Franklin Roosevelt, not to mention Eleanor, because we believed that government had an important role in protecting the economic well-being of American citizenry.

We also assimilated and became Americans and played baseball in the streets of New York, as did my father and as did the great Hank Greenberg - otherwise known in his day as "Hammerin' Hank" or "Hankus Pankus" or "The Hebrew Hammer" -  who became a legendary first-baseman for the Detroit Tigers in the 1930s.  The guy hit 183 runs batted in (RBIs) is the 1937 season.  183.  

{For those of you who know something about baseball, 183 RBIs in a single season is nothing short of miraculous and, lo, these many decades later remains the American League record for a right-hander.}

But while Greenberg was one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, he also risked his own relatively tentative acceptance on the field through actively welcoming African-American ballplayer Jackie Robinson into professional baseball.  What Greenberg would not have known is that although he stood up for the rights of Black athletes to join the bigs in 1947, the year Robinson broke into the major league, just a few years earlier the very icon of American liberalism, FDR, was indifferent to the fate European Jewry.

Greenberg stood up for Robinson when he had the opportunity, but Roosevelt certainly did not stand up for the Jews when he had his.

Franklin Roosevelt could have saved the Jews aboard the S.S. St. Louis in 1939, but he callously refused and thus effectively sentenced them to death in Europe at the hands of the Nazis.  He could have bombed the railroad tracks leading to the extermination camps, as we all know, but likewise refused.

According to historian Jerold Auerbach:
As far back as 1920, when FDR was the Democratic party candidate for vice president, he had proposed that “the greater part of the foreign population of the City of New York” should be “distributed to different localities upstate” so as to feel pressure to “conform to the manners and customs and requirements of their new home.” As a member of the Harvard board of directors he supported a Jewish admissions quota.

In 1941 he told his Cabinet that too many Jews were federal employees in Oregon. One of his grandsons recalled that the protagonists in FDR’s jokes “were always Lower East Side Jews with heavy accents.” At a wartime White House luncheon with Prime Minister Churchill, he suggested “the best way to settle the Jewish question” was “to spread the Jews thin all over the world.”
American Jews have given our allegiance to the Democratic Party since the 1930s.  We stood up for Roosevelt because we believed in social justice and universal human rights.  We stood up for the left because as Jews we understood persecution and hoped to create a liberal political system in which all people would have a fair shot at what idealists in the United States called the American Dream.

I think that Hank Greenberg knew a thing or two about the American Dream.

The truth of the matter is that Jews were so hell-bent on living the American Dream that we practically invented the notion.  Or, to be more precise, we helped popularize it to a non-Jewish western audience (via cinema, for example) who lapped it up like cream because it reflected who they were and, hopefully, still are in some measure.

We also stood up with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the movement for Civil Rights in the 1950s and the 1960s.  We saw Jewish kids slain in the American south by white racists as they fought for social justice for black people and all non-whites in the United States.

It was Jewish kids, far beyond their numbers, who stood up in the 1960s against the war in Vietnam and for social justice at home and who sometimes went off the rails entirely in doing so.

Cal Abrams 1953The guy on the right is Cal Abrams.  He played for the Dodgers in Brooklyn and was the brother of Arty Abrams, one my father's closest friends in the burbs of New York when I was a young'n.  Abrams wore number 18 through most of his career because he liked the magic of the number.  Ballplayers are notoriously superstitious, so when you combine that superstitious tendency with the ancient semi-Hebraic mystical-numerological system known as gematria than you end up with Jewish ballplayers who favor the number 18, which apparently means, among other things, Chai or "life."

Cal Abrams, as far as I know, did not stand up for the Civil Rights Movement, but he did play baseball in the streets of Brooklyn before joining the fight in the Pacific during World War II.  When the Dodgers picked him up after the war a New York Post headline read, Mantle, Schmantle. We Got Abie. 

Abrams turned out to be a good ballplayer, but no Mickey Mantle.  The point is, though, that he was a regular American assimilated Jew who served his country at a moment of dire need and pursued the American dream in the most quintessential manner possible, as a professional baseball player.  They even buried him in his Dodgers uniform with the number 18.

American romanticism is part of the life-blood of American Jews and nothing means Americana like baseball.  The intimate connection between baseball and American Jewry is very well documented.  It was as a means for the children of immigrants to join the larger American project and it has been handed down ever since as a natural part of growing up.

And it was, indeed, part of the American Dream even if we did not think of it in those terms as we swung bats and chased one another around on the grassy fields of our youth.  Baseball is about assimilation and integration and joining in the joys of the culture around you.  It is about resonating, long-standing cliches concerning hot dogs, stolen bases and sunny summer afternoons.  Whatever anyone might think of such cliches they comprise a manner in which Americans tell themselves who we are.  Baseball is one of the vehicles through which Americans define themselves and through which Jewish Americans likewise do so.

American Jews, much like American Blacks as described in W.E.B. DuBois' classic, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), however, have double consciousness.  We see ourselves through the eyes of others even as we see ourselves, and those others, through our own eyes.   DuBois put it like this:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
I do not wish to overstate this idea, but it is unquestionably true that the Jewish experience in the west, like the African-American experience in the United States, means always to be regarded with a certain degree of suspicion and to, inevitably, incorporate that suspicion into our sense of ourselves.  We too often come to believe the worst that is said about us, which is why we end up with Uncle Toms like David Harris-Gershon running around the United States telling people what monsters the Jews of the Middle East are.

At the end of the day, however much we may assimilate, we can only really count on ourselves.  And what that means is, yes, assimilating and being proud Americans (or Canadians or Australians), and enjoying the pastimes of our countrymen, but it also means foregoing slavish and outdated loyalties that simply no longer serve any meaningful or helpful purpose.

When Franklin Roosevelt refused to use his influence to save the Jews aboard the S.S. St. Louis he sent a very clear message to American Jewry which was simply not received, because we refused to receive it.

Likewise, when Barack Obama stood up in support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt he made a very clear statement to the Jewish people which we have also not received, because we refuse to receive it.

The message was this:
I am not to be trusted.
It is time that we took him at his word.

All peoples, however assimilated or integrated, stand up for themselves and for their children.

When considering our political options, I say that we go forth and do likewise... even as we are enjoying a dog at the park.


  1. I can't help but hear Centerfield in my head on an endless loop as I read this piece. If I'm anywhere near Chicago while I'm out on the road next Spring / Summer, there is a 100% chance I will finally see a game at Wrigley.

    Interesting timing on this piece, on Wednesday I'm finally gonna see the Chasing Dreams exhibit in its final weeks at NMAJH.

    I no longer dismiss the notion of an unfriendly left in certain quarters, but to me the challenge is more to fight them from the inside than to leave my movement to such bigots and illiberal hypocrites.

    I take my allies as they come, issue by issue, however, and it certainly has been freeing to no longer have to play Team Politics all the time.

    1. I respect that, Ryan.

      I've always agreed, naturally, that we have a choice. We can fight 'em from the inside or do so from the outside. I have chosen to do so from the outside for a number of reasons, but I certainly respect friends of Israel who remain self-identified as left-wing if they are seeking to challenge progressive anti-Zionism and so long as they do not piss on my head and tell me it's raining... if you get me.

    2. Oh, for crying out loud.


  2. Ah, that's right, the 2015 schedule is out already!


    I need to be in Chicago between July 24 - 26 next year. I'm sure something will need to be delivered there that weekend. I must be the one to do it.

    I'll finally get to see Wrigley, and I'll get to root for my Phillies. Best of all worlds!