Jews dethroned Protestant culture, says U.C. scholar

Discussing the influence of secular Jews on American culture, U.C. Berkeley history Professor David Hollinger repeats T.S. Eliot's warning:

"`Any large number of free-thinking Jews' is `undesirable' if one wants to maintain or develop a society in which a Christian tradition can flourish."

Hollinger, himself a descendent of Protestant clergymen, adds, "He was right."

Jews, says Hollinger, forever altered a racially and religiously homogeneous society in which Protestantism held a central and uncontested position.

But Hollinger said Jews broadened America's outlook.

The role Jewish intellectuals of the 1940s through the 1960s played in dethroning Protestantism is the subject of Hollinger's latest book, "Science, Jews, and Secular Culture," a collection of essays on mid-20th-century American intellectual history.

It was an era when transplanted European Jews such as Hannah Arendt, Bruno Bettelheim and Albert Einstein stretched America's vision.

Their example also helped open the doors of academia to American-born Jews, such as atomic physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

"They advanced cosmopolitanism and affirmed a universalist perspective. It helped bring Christian culture under scrutiny," Hollinger says.

Jewish intellectuals — particularly nonreligious Jews who did not focus specifically on Jewish matters or confine themselves to the Jewish community — brought an intimate knowledge of European culture to such Protestant bastions as the Ivy League.

"Free-thinking Jews were engaged with the entirety of modern civilization rather than just Jewish culture," he says.

As a result, these Jews were in a better position to "force an encounter with the diversity of modern civilization," Hollinger added.

"Prominent people in the arts [and sciences] who don't have a Protestant past bring the presumption of Protestant primacy under scrutiny," Hollinger said.

Hollinger is an unlikely expert on Jewish intellectuals. Born and raised Protestant, he had little exposure to Jews as he was growing up in California, Washington and Idaho.

"When I was young, I thought Molly Goldberg was Italian," Hollinger says.

In the course of his general studies of American intellectual history, however, Hollinger became interested in Jewish intellectuals "in the same way a lot of people are interested in things they're not," he said.

In the early part of the 20th century, Protestantism held a central place in American culture, Hollinger pointed out. Even after World War II, Jews were kept from teaching at many of the top universities.

But Jewish intellectuals as well as a few New England Protestant scholars such as the late Harvard University president James Conant and computer pioneer Vannevar Bush were exploring new ideas as the century proceeded.

In some sense, the person most responsible for opening the doors of American academia to Jews was Hitler, Hollinger says. Hitler made anti-Semitism of even the most genteel sort socially unacceptable, and he drove some of the greatest Jewish intellectuals of the age out of Europe and into America, where academics eagerly awaited them.

Unlike today, however, when colleges seek diverse ethnic perspectives, Jews were not brought into academia for a specifically Jewish point of view, Hollinger added.

Jews were simply brought in because they were no longer kept out.