The young Lessing
For the last few months I’ve been reading a classic of philosemitism: the "Martha Quest" novels of Doris Lessing. Set in Southern Rhodesia in 1936-1949 and published in England in the 1950s, the first four of these books trace the youth of a fiercely independent child of British colonials born, as Lessing was, in 1919.
Lessing is famous as a "kaffir-lover," to use the racist slang hurled against her; her hatred of the color bar resulted in her leaving Rhodesia for England in 1949 and culminated in her winning the Nobel Prize four years ago. But there are no major black characters in these novels, and really Martha Quest is a Jew lover. Determined to overcome her parents' anti-Semitism, she gravitates to the Jews in the provincial capital of Salisbury (now Harare, Zimbabwe).
A fatherly Jewish lawyer gives Martha a job so that she can leave her parents’ farm and move to the city. There Martha loses her virginity to one Jew (Eastern European "scum," he says), marries another (German Communist refugee), and has an intense affair with a third (Zionist Communist). A Jewish doctor prescribes contraception and tells her she's too far along for an abortion. Martha's Jewish friend Stella sets the bar on fashion and decoration, while Jasmine Cohen sets the bar on politics. Jasmine's cousin Abraham dies fighting in Spain-- and Jews are all over the small Communist party group Martha joins. (In her actual autobiography, Lessing has said that the Jewish mentors in these books were based on real people.)
But my business here is not to count the many Jews in these books. It is to express pride in my inheritance as it was perceived by a non-Jew. The sense pours through these books that were it not for the Jews of that generation and their “ancient culture,” Doris Lessing could never have become Doris Lessing. As brilliant a writer as she is, Lessing needed to break out of the thick racist porridge of the land-based cultures that surrounded her—the British colonials with their "Sports Club" snobbery and the Dutch Afrikaaner men with thighs like “pillars”—and to do so she threw herself on intellectually-sophisticated Jews.
At the beginning of the Martha Quest story, there are the Cohen boys, Joss and Solly, the “brilliant” sons of a shopowner in the small town of Banket, who recognize adolescent Martha’s intelligence and send packages of books to her every week or two. From the books of Communism and psychology, “Martha had gained a clear picture of herself, from the outside.” This becomes her greatest “weapon” in life, literary consciousness:
“She was not only miserable, she would focus a dispassionate eye on that misery. This detached observer, felt perhaps as a clear-lit space situated just behind the forehead, was the gift of the Cohen boys at the station….”
The Cohen boys in their Kosher household--Solly a Trotskyite Zionist, Joss a Marxist--are exact cousins of the Jewish intellectuals at City College in the 1930s.
At the other end of the Rhodesian books is Martha's tormented lover Thomas Stern, a paranoid refugee from Poland who has lost his sisters in the Holocaust and veers self-destructively from Communism to business, from Jewish terrorism in Palestine to human rights work on behalf of blacks. By scoffing at Martha's urging that he renounce violence, Stern gives the Martha Quest books their title: The Children of Violence series. But Stern is not only called to violence, he's called to retail:
“So you see how hard it is to escape one’s fate, Martha? In Poland, middle-men, money-makers—the Stern Brothers. And here? My brother’s a rich man already, and we left Poland with what we had on our backs, eight years ago.”
A lot of my writing on this site is critical of the Jewish political presence in modern America. But I have a chauvinist streak of my own, and Lessing's non-Jewish eye confirms it in me. The Jewish gift helped to form Doris Lessing as a young writer: the cerebral, text-bound life of persecuted Jews gave her awareness of the world and encouraged her to deliver the savage-sympathetic portrait of white colonial society that would make her name in England in the 1950s. That life is the Jewish culture that I was born into-- outsiders, people of the book, harsh critics of the social structure.
[Joss Cohen] fired the following questions at her, in the offhand indifferent manner of the initiate to a breed utterly without the law:
‘You repudiate the colour bar?’
‘But of course.’
‘Of course,’ he said sardonically. And then: ‘You dislike racial prejudice in all its form, including anti-Semitism?’
‘Naturally’—this with a touch of impatience.
‘You are an atheist?’
‘You know quite well that I am.’
‘You believe in socialism?’
‘That goes without saying,’ she concluded fervently; and suddenly began to laugh, from that sense of the absurd which it seemed must be her downfall as a serious person. For Joss was frowning at the laugh, and apparently could see nothing ridiculous in a nineteen-year-old Jewish boy, sprung from an orthodox Jewish family, and an adolescent British girl, if possible even more conventionally bred, agreeing to these simple axioms in the back room of a veld store in a village filled with people to whom every word of this conversation would have the force of a dangerous heresy.
Doris Lessing was an early adopter. Her philosemitism parallels the philosemitism of non-Jewish intellectuals in the States in the 40s and 50s, Edmund Wilson for instance, and anticipates by a generation or two full-blown American philosemitism of the meritocracy-- when the White House was loaded with Jewish advisers, when Clinton put two Jews on the Supreme Court, when Jews became university presidents and started google and facebook and craigslist, and neocons guided our foreign policy.
American philosemitism reflects the Jewish contribution to this society. Recently I was told that the world still envies the U.S. because of four industries we have that no one else has (universities/research, film/media, software, and finance), and all these industries are as full of Jews as Doris Lessing’s early novels were. As Scott McConnell, who had something of Doris Lessing’s own Jewish-engendered intellectual awakening when he joined the Commentary neoconservative crowd in the 1980s, has told me, America is thankful to Jews because they are driving the economy. I think this recognition pervades Establishment culture. When I fault Chris Matthews for never talking about the Israel lobby, I must be aware that the network that gives him his salary was built and is now owned by Jewish entrepreneurs in the new global economy. When we try and explain the dismissal of Ron Paul, it is because he above all candidates is representative of an Establishment structure that has no truck with Jews-- as opposed to Romney with his neoconservative advisers, Gingrich with his Sheldon Adelson money and Barack Obama with his Axelrods and AIPACs and Crowns. When I marvel that Robert Kagan works for Romney and his wife works for Obama without anyone raising an eyebrow, or that Stuart Levey the former Under Secretary of Treasury worked for Bush and Obama without a hitch—again, this is a measure of the large Jewish presence in the Establishment. Jewish gifts have propelled the new economy, such as it is. And when people accuse Occupy Wall Street of anti-semitism, it is in part because Occupy are critics of the new economy, and much of that economy was built by Jews.
Back when we were outsiders, Hannah Arendt warned Jews about reverence for wealth: liberal Zionists, she wrote, "failed to... attack the role of Jewish finance in the political structure of Jewish life."
That same warning is sounded in the Martha Quest books, from the restless Communist Zionist Thomas Stern:
“Unlike you, when I work, I think in terms of money. I’m learning that it's terrifyingly easy to make money.”
“I don’t want you to laugh about money. I’ve got to outwit it. I’ve got to find a way of not becoming Thomas Stern, rich merchant of this city.”
The beauty and tragedy of the Children of Violence series is that Thomas Stern does outwit that fate, at the cost of his own life. But modern American Jews are still stuck with Stern's contradictions. We’re Zionists, and we've been incredibly successful. With the success has come something that none of the provincial Jews in Lessing's philosemitic saga ever dreamed of having: power, which has eroded our outsiderness and endangered our detachment—that dispassionate eye on misery, that clear-lit space situated just behind the forehead.
It is not that Jews are incapable of that detachment. Many are. But the Cohen boys shared that gift a long time ago, and it is no longer just ours.