Smart Jews

The Jewish impact on American intellectual culture.

Reprinted with permission from
A History of Jews in America
, published by Vintage Books.

Although by the 1920s no sensitive observer could have doubted the role of Jews in America’s popular culture, a Jewish presence on the nation’s intellectual scene failed to achieve decisive visibility until the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was, to be sure, supremely the 1930s influx of cultivated and erudite fugitives from Nazi Europe that projected the new and ultimately ineradicable image of Jews as intellectuals.

Yet, at a time of economic depression and widespread anti-Semitism, years often passed before employment could be secured for these newcomers, and surely before their erudition and insights could begin to register in the New World.

albert einsteinIn wartime, it is recalled, the scientists were first to make their mark. Indeed, the physicists among them would forever be identified with development of the atomic bomb. Several of these–Otto Stern, Victor Hess, and Felix Bloch–later would become Nobel laureates, joining the exalted company of refugees who brought their Nobel Prizes with them. Of nearly comparable influence was the new cadre of mathematicians from Poland and the German Reich….


In chemistry, the United States for years had relied heavily upon European scholarship. Even before they arrived as refugees, Peter Debye, Kasimir Fajans, James Franck, Walter Loewe, Otto Loewi, Otto Meyerhof, and Gustav Neuberg were respected names among American scientists. Franck and Meyerhof were Nobel laureates. Offered teaching posts not long after arriving, these men soon effected hardly less than a revolution in American academic chemistry.

Meyerhof, Neuberg, Konrad Bloch, Hendrik Dam, Fritz Lipmann, and David Nachmansohn were biochemists, molecular biologists, and neurolo­gists. Unlike their American counterparts, they were prepared to apply the interdisciplinary techniques of other physical sciences (Franck had won his Nobel Prize in physics). Accordingly, their work on the structures of proteins and amino acids, on metabolic pathways and genetics, almost immediately propelled the United States to world leadership in the chemistry of life.

Humanities & the Social Sciences

But there were other, nonscientific areas in which immigrant intellectuals also provided near-instant respectability to American scholarship. Art history, a venerated European specialization, first was transplanted to the American cultural landscape when Erwin Panofsky, former director of the Warburg Center for Art History at the University of Hamburg, resettled at the Institute for Advanced Study in 1935. He brought with him a characteristic European fascination with the links between art and wider civilization….

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….

Hans Morgenthau also had been trained originally for the law, although later he acquired a German doctorate in political philosophy. Upon reaching the United States in 1937, Mor­genthau first earned his bread as a part-time instructor in government at the University of Kansas City. Six years later he was called to the University of Chicago. There he conducted an uphill battle against the “scientific positivism” widely in vogue, until his European emphasis on “philosophic coherence” began to take hold. Morgenthau pursued the approach in a wide series of books and papers on international affairs. Their influence on policy planners in Washington–among them, George F. Kennan–was enduring.

Yet, among this galaxy of intellects, it was Hannah Arendt who emerged as the most renowned of émigré political thinkers, indeed, as hardly less than an explosive force of intellectual virtuosity. Possessor of a doctorate in philosophy from Heidelberg, the Prussian-born Arendt fled to Paris after the rise of Hitler, divorced her first husband, married Henrich Blucher, a non-Jewish Trotskyite and fellow exile, and with him and her widowed mother finally managed to reach New York in 1941. There Blucher earned a meager livelihood as a night-course director for Bard College.

Hannah Arendt

Arendt churned out articles for the refugee newspaper Aufbau and for various Jewish philanthropies, and later worked as an editor at Schocken Books. It was during these early postwar years, upon mastering English, that she launched her American career with an electrifying series of review-essays in the Nation on a wide range of philosophical and political books. The articles evoked immediate attention and won Arendt the friendship of important literary and scholarly figures, among them W. H. Auden, Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Dwight MacDonald, Salo Baron, and Alfred Kazin. Kazin remembered her as “a blazing Jew,” an “intense, dominating woman with a gruff voice” who “lived her thought, and thought dominated her life.” It was Kazin who ar­ranged for Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich to accept her first book.

Published in 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism was an almost obsessive interpretation of the horror of recent Europe. In impas­sioned, feverish prose, and drawing upon a lifetime of thought and anger, of apparently bottomless scholarly and linguistic resources, Arendt proceeded to analyze the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and imperialism as prefigurations of totalitarianism. Although uneven, the volume was a bombshell in the sheer ferocity and relentlessness of its argumentation, the originality of its insights, the breadth of its erudition. Within months of its publication, Arendt emerged as a major figure in the intellectual firmament. The leading journals com­peted for her articles. Universities vied for her lectures. In ensuing years she became a visiting professor at Princeton, Berkeley, Co­lumbia, and eventually at her permanent berth at the University of Chicago.

At the same time, Arendt conscientiously immersed herself in public activities, becoming a dependable participant at annual meet­ings of the American Political Science Association and a vigorous polemicist in political controversies. The passion of near-visceral “in­volvement” doubtless bespoke her awareness that the detachment of intellectuals had abetted the collapse of democracy in Europe.

And meanwhile, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Arendt continued to pro­duce an astonishing number of books and articles. Her 1958 volume The Human Condition, a trenchant refutation of Marxist social thought, evoked as much admiration among conservatives as The Ori­gins of Totalitarianism had among liberals. She wrote on political theory, revolution, violence, education, civil disobedience. No issue in society was alien to her. Tough and unsentimental through every vicissitude and reward, Arendt became the paradigm of Jewish intel­lectualism, of European Jewry’s supreme cultural gift to the New World–the deprovincialization of the American mind.

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