Thursday, September 11, 2014

Chapter 18 - Alfred And The Jews: Part 4 - Turning

Korzybski: A Biography (Free Online Edition)
Copyright © 2014 (2011) by Bruce I. Kodish 
All rights reserved. Copyright material may be quoted verbatim without need for permission from or payment to the copyright holder, provided that attribution is clearly given and that the material quoted is reasonably brief in extent.

What Korzybski subsequently did about his antisemitic views seems more unusual—he consciously examined and turned against them. Unlike many other antisemites, Alfred’s expression of prejudice in his August 16, 1920 letter functioned for him as an impetus for serious self-evaluation and change. In the letter he had put his prejudices clearly out in the open, keeping a carbon copy for himself (as he nigh always did). They had become facts on record available for his inspection, introspection, and correction. And there is every indication he did so via conscious use of the spiral ‘thought’ process he was formulating about.

A number of factors probably pushed his effort to rid himself of the poison of antisemitism. For one thing, he was beginning to associate with many individuals who—if not socialists or communists—at least had liberal sympathies towards what they perceived at the time as more ‘progressive’ notions for organizing society. And the year 1920 had been a difficult year for people with such views. In 1919, a small number of fringe extremists had indulged in violence and bombings against ‘capitalist’ targets throughout the U.S. In response, the U.S. government began to clamp down indiscriminately on people perceived as communists or communist sympathizers, whether violent or not. On New Years Day 1920, with little or no control from the infirm President Wilson, U.S. Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer launched raids around the country, arresting and detaining over 6,000 communists or presumed communists. Eventually many if not most of those arrested and held illegally were released. But despite considerable outcry against the unconstitutional nature of the Attorney General’s actions, Palmer’s raids, as part of what became known as “the Red Scare”, had a chilling effect even among many peaceful and well-intentioned liberals, who did not want to be considered radical. Although there were Jews among the ‘radicals’ (some of them prominent), not all radicals nor even a majority of them were Jewish. (And, the majority of Jews had nothing to do with radical politics.) Alfred and Mira knew many people in the so-called progressive camp, so Alfred had direct evidence of the nonsensical nature of claims about the specifically Jewish nature of radical politics.

In his letter to Keyser, and in keeping with the message of the Protocols, Alfred had also proposed a conspiratorial Jewish marriage of capitalism and communism—Jews controlling both Bolshevism and the banks. The theory, advanced in the Protocols, would likely strike any sensible person as contradictory and absurd. At some point, it must have begun to seem so to Alfred as well. He began to investigate.

He had been familiar with the contents of the Protocols for some time. As noted in a previous chapter, at the end of 1919 he had obtained a copy of Senator Overman’s Committee Report on Bolshevik Propaganda. In a notebook entry labeled “The Overman Committee on the Bolshevik activities”, he wrote out the following, which copies part of page 135 of the Overman Report:
Testimony of Rev. Mr. George A. Simons parson of the Washington Square Methodist Episc. Church 121 W Fortieth Str there is a gentleman Dr. Harris A. Houghton in Bayside a Captain in the Intel. Service “Jewish protocols book Redasti anti Christ”. But the average person in official life here in Wash. and elsewhere is afraid to handle it Houghton says that even in his Intelligence bureau they were afraid of it.(6)

The rumor of a Jewish plot of world domination had come into the news again with the fall 1920 publication, by G.P. Putnam & Sons, of The Cause of World Unrest. Alfred had clipped out the book notice for his notebook:
History of a conspiracy in which the author contends that the plans for domination outlined in the document upon which this volume is based have apparently been followed in the recent movements in Russia.(7) 

This book, by an anonymous author, offered a compendium of articles on the alleged Jewish-Freemason-Bolshevik conspiracy against the Christian World that the ‘reputable’ London Morning Post had printed earlier in the year. The book also announced the forthcoming publication by Putnam of Harris Houghton’s version of the Protocols. In October Louis Marshall, President of the American Jewish Committee, wrote to Major George Putnam protesting the publication of both books. Letters between the two men continued through the month and in early November Putnam decided to not publish Houghton’s book.(8) 

Despite the vehement tone of Alfred’s letter to Keyser, he clearly was not unremittingly invested in the views put forth in the Protocols. Once he began investigating, its claims began to unravel for him. Having had the Overman report in his possession since the end of 1919, it would be surprising—given his reading habits—if he didn’t at least look through the 1,265 page document. He probably wouldn’t have missed the testimonies of Louis Marshall; Simon Wolf, chairman of the board of delegates on civil rights of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations; and Herman Bernstein, a journalist with the New York Herald and an anti-Tsarist, anti-Bolshevik Jew who had reported in Russia in 1917 and 1918. Marshall, in a letter, and the other two men in personal testimony, provided substantial refutations of the idea of a Jewish-Bolshevik plot.

Korzybski, a kindly man at heart, had not reacted with indifference to the post-war anti-Jewish pogroms in Eastern Europe. Even earlier, during his time serving in the Russian Intelligence Service on the Eastern Front, he had saved from further prosecution a number of Jews, who had been brought to him as spies on the flimsiest of charges.(9) He could not have read Simon Wolf’s introductory remarks to the Overman Committee and comfortably maintained the views expressed in his letter to Keyser. Wolf had stated:
I am not at all surprised by the accusations against a certain portion of the human family entitled the Jewish...always made the scapegoat of every movement. It has been so from time immemorial. I am also reminded of the Irishman who beat the Jew and when asked why he did so said that he had killed Christ. When the answer came that had been done thousands of years ago, the Irishmen replied that he had never heard of it until that day. 
And again, when a Jew was walking along the street, a stone was thrown from the opposite side. Naturally the Jew dodged and the stone went crashing into the plate-glass window. The owner sued the Jew for damages and the judge decided that the Jew must pay, for had he not dodged the window would not have been broken. A great judge—but the misfortune is that the Jew throughout all history has been dodging those kinds of missiles and subjected to such unjust decisions. (10) 

Now, Alfred had another ‘bee in his bonnet’ and set off on a program of serious research in Jewish history, religion, and philosophy. One page of his notebook is devoted to Jewish libraries, publishers, and communal organizations in New York City.(11) Elsewhere in the archives, several pages of notes show extensive annotated lists of various sources of Hebrew literature and history, including translations of the Talmud (Jewish Law Commentaries) and Kabbalah (Jewish mystical literature).(12) A number of the books he acquired on Jewish topics became part of the Institute of General Semantics library, including Arsene Darmesteter’s The Talmud, and Emanuel Deutsch’s The Talmud, Abraham Schomer’s 1909 book The Primary Cause of Antisemitism, Gustave Karpeles’ Jews and Judaism in the Nineteenth Century, Philip C. Friese’s Semitic Philosophy, William F. Bode’s The Old Testament in the Light of Today, and Rabbi Sigmund Hecht’s Post-Biblical History: A Compendium of Jewish History. Korzybski’s collection of Judaica also included the curious 1889 volume, Anglo-Israel or The Saxon Race Proved to be the Lost Tribes of Israel in Nine Lectures by Rev. W. H. Poole, which he probably acquired in 1919 or earlier (the book is marked with Alfred’s stamp from the National Arts Club). Clearly his interest in Jews and Judaism was not entirely new.

One book he took extensive notes on was Richard J. H. Gottheil’s Zionism, published in 1914, part of a series on “Movements in Judaism”. The book documented the history to that date of Modern Political Zionism, which sought to restore a significant Jewish presence to the land of Israel. The passages Korzybski copied into his notebook indicate, among other things, the diversity of opinions among Jews regarding options towards the increasingly hostile environment of Europe. Korzybski’s notes also refer to the book’s accounts of public meetings of Zionists in Europe starting in 1898.(13) What Gottheil’s book documented could hardly have been more different than the monolithic, hidden conspiracy depicted in the Protocols. Korzybski’s reading of Gottheil’s book may mark the beginning of his support for Zionism. (Almost a decade later, in 1929, two Jewish newspapers in Kansas City, Missouri—where he was speaking at The Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, declared him “an outspoken Zionist” in articles announcing his lecture. Korzybski never denied that ‘charge’. Indeed, he seemed proud of it, clipping the articles and writing positively to friends about the “enthusiastic” newspaper coverage.(14) 

Alfred’s personal contact with Jews such as Jacques Loeb and Walter N. Polakov (see the following chapter) may also have influenced his changing attitude toward Jews and Judaism. For example Loeb, a German Jew, had had plenty of first-hand experience with anti-Jewish bigotry both in Germany and the U.S. He made no secret of his ethnic origins or of his opposition to racism and unfair treatment. But we will probably never know to what extent Loeb contributed to the attitude change Korzybski was in the midst of undergoing.

In the text of Manhood, which he was revising, Alfred wrote “...if we teach humans false ideas, we affect their time-binding capacities and energies very seriously, by affecting in a wrong way the physico-chemical base.”(15) This reflected not only his new spiral theory but also the sober result of his own self-examination. Among the books Alfred read around this time was Freidlander’s translation of Moshe ben Maimon’s (Maimonides’) Guide for the Perplexed. Alfred copied this quote from Chapter XI into his notebook:
All the great evils which men cause to each other because of certain intentions, desires, opinions or religious principles, are likewise due to non-existence, because they originate in ignorance, which is absence of wisdom. (16)

Was Korzybski somehow acknowledging here his earlier mistaken opinions about Jews? (Later he would often emphasize the dual nature of ignorance—passive ignorance and, to him, the much more dangerous, active ignorance of false knowledge/half-truth.) At any rate, in later letters and published works after 1920, there is no trace of the Jew-hatred contained in the Keyser letter. Although he referred to the ‘white race’ in later writings, his references could not be considered ‘racist’ by a careful reader, except perhaps against the so-called white race.(17) 

For the rest of Korzybski’s life he maintained an interest in antisemitism and talked and wrote about Judaism and the Jewish people with sympathy. Throughout the following decade, in letters to his friend psychologist A. A. Roback, who wrote a number of books on Jewish topics, Alfred would often inquire about the Jewish ethnicity of various mathematicians and scientists. He came to feel that the Jews as a group, like the Poles and the Scots, had especially developed a “‘time’ or process orientation” foreshadowing the modern way of thinking he wanted to formulate more clearly—although he felt that creative individuals from all groups also tended to express this. The Jewish people constituted the only ethnic or religious group (including the Poles) about whom Korzybski ever published anything specific (see his Foreword to “The Essence of Judaism” by Hans Kohn, first published and distributed in 1943 by the Institute of General Semantics, along with a reprint of Kohn’s 1934 article).(18) He was also an early outspoken critic of the Nazis and wrote openly and condemningly about their ideology and their persecution of Jews—quite a shift for someone who had once sounded like a proto-Nazi himself.

Korzybski’s efforts at self-education regarding Jews and Judaism reflected an all too rare but much to be wished for condition, something writer Erich Kahler (a Jew) later noted:
One day when I was discussing the problem of anti-Semitism with the eminent Austro-Jewish poet, Richard Beer-Hofmann, he said to me: “I am not at all astonished at the fact that they hate us and persecute us. But what I cannot understand is, why they do not marvel at us more than they do.”  
Well, marveling at the strange phenomenon of the Jewish people would imply some knowledge of their history, some general perception of the Jewish destiny. And if there were such knowledge and such perception, there could not be so much hatred and persecution. …(19)

You may download a pdf of all of the book's reference notes (including a note on primary source material and abbreviations used) from the link labeled Notes on the Contents page. The pdf of the Bibliography, linked on the Contents page contains full information on referenced books and articles. 
6. Note from Overman Committee report, in “AK Personal Notebook, Early 1920s”. AKDA 37.720. 

7. Advertisement for The Cause of World Unrest. AKDA 37.769. 

8. “The Protocols Come to America”. Jewish Virtual Library, 

 9. “Count Korzybski To Speak at ‘Y’ Monday Evening”. The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, 3/29/1929. AKDA 3.319. 

10. Overman Committee Report. See U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Judiciary, 1919. Bolshevik Propaganda..., p. 381. 

11. “Jewish organizations” in “AK Personal Notebook, Early 1920s”. AKDA 37.720. 

12. “Hebrew literature”. AKDA 34.747-749. 

13. Notes on Gottheil’s Zionism in “AK Personal Notebook, Early 1920s”. AKDA 37.762-763. 

14. AK to C. B. Bridges, 3/31/1929. AKDA 22.146; AK to G.Y. Rainich, 3/31/29. AKDA 22.145. 

15. Korzybski 1921, p. 234. 

16. Maimonides quote from Friedlander, trans. p. 267 in “AK Personal Notebook, Early 1920s”. AKDA 37.764. 

17. See Science and Sanity, p. 404 and 406. 18. Korzybski’s “Foreword to “The Essence of Judaism” by Hans Kohn” in Korzybski, Collected Writings, pp. 401-404. 

19. Kahler, p. 1. 

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