Smart Jews

The Jewish impact on American intellectual culture.

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Yet by far the largest numbers of Jewish émigré scholars were social scientists. The vocation was a not illogical one for a minority people, uniquely exposed to the vicissitudes of the societal landscape. Economists represented the single largest category among them. Those who had studied at the University of Vienna were the first to be placed at American institutions. Educated in classical liberal theory, they spoke the same mathematical language as their American colleagues.

Oskar Morgenstern, professor of economics at the University Vienna, settled at Princeton in 1938, mainly to be close to the mathe­matician John von Neumann, who was located at the neighboring Institute for Advanced Study. Together, the two wrote the pathbreak­ing Theory of Games and Economic Behavior (1944). Game theory eventually won acceptance as a major research tool, not only in econo­mics but in related social sciences, even in military planning....


If a majority of European Jewish social scientists were economists, Jews also gravitated to sociology in sufficient numbers to dominate the field. Indeed, until they were driven from their chairs by the Nazis, they constituted some two-thirds of the professors of sociology in Central Europe. In the United States the refugees found open terrain, for here sociology barely existed as an organized discipline. To their student audiences, the newcomers brought a sense of history, closer familiarity with the ideas of Marx, Weber, and Freud, and a sense of cosmopolitan enterprise. Once more, with hundreds of their fellow social scientists, many found their initial haven at the New School. Others developed an association with nearby Columbia....

The refugee soci­ologists brought to the United States the painful memory of their recent experiences, and, again, a uniquely "Jewish" sensitivity to the minutest intimations of social and political change. Few could match their ability to deduce shifts in the social climate from the most prosaic samplings, from statistics, questionnaires, even radio broad­casts. Paul Lazarsfeld became an early master of the genre. A product of the university of Vienna, Lazarsfeld was engaged in 1940 by Co­lumbia, where he organized the Bureau of Applied Social Research. Through use of elaborate quantitative methods, his program estab­lished guidelines for evaluating social phenomena with a precision never before approached. Lazarsfeld himself twice was elected presi­dent of the American Sociological Association.

Political Science

Political science, closely related to sociology on the American academic scene, did not exist as a separate field in European universities. But if refugees who taught the subject in the United States came from different backgrounds, they adjusted rapidly. Leo Strauss, holder of a doctorate from the University of Hamburg, began his career in 1921 at Berlin's Academy of Jewish Research, where he specialized in biblical criticism. Although his interest in law and comparative gov­ernment developed only later, political science was the assigned subject of his initial refugee berth at the New School in 1938. Eleven years later, Strauss joined the University of Chicago, where his political science courses became possibly the field's most provocative and widely attended....

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.