Sunday, September 18, 2005

To new shores   posted by Razib @ 9/18/2005 01:11:00 PM

Emma Lazarus' famous lines "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" reflect in part the perception of some Americans of who the emigrants to the New World were. A friend of mine in 8th grade told me proudly that his ancestors (Scotch-Irish) were the "trash" of Europe, but they had built the greatest country on earth. The reality is more textured. If you read Albion's Seed you will note that the various streams that settled the eastern seaboard prior to 1776 fit the "huddled masses" stereotype to varying degrees.

The Puritans of Massachusetts were very conscious of preferring literate and relatively skilled settlers. Not only did they exclude the majority of the poor peasantry from their City on the Hill via monetary hurdles but they implicitly rejected the migration of religiously like-minded nobility and gentry to their Commonwealth when they refused to transfer the inherited privileges of the English upper classes. Though as a schoolboy I learned that Virginia was founded by indentured servants, the reality is that the coastal colonies of the south were seeded from the two ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, the gentry and nobility and the destitute rural poor, who to some extent transferred their class relations and sensibilities to the New World. Many of the leading families which cohered into the Virginia and Carolina planter aristocracies have their origins among the younger sons of the southwest British nobility (primogeniture excluded them from the greater part of their familial fortunes). States like Pennsylvania and New York clearly have more variegated origins, from the Dutch remnants of New Amsterdam to the Quakers and fellow travellers of Philadelphia, but overall one can say that this relatively heterogenous bunch had a central tendency toward "lower middle class" artisan origins which they leveraged into a positive attitude toward mercantalism. Often not as as cerebral as the Puritans of New England, the citizens of Philadelphia and New York nevertheless did celebrate modern virtues of literacy and industry to the extent that worldly goods could be best attained in such a fashion. And then of course there was the massive Scot-Irish emigration to the uplands which later became Appalachia. Coming from the borderlands of Scotland and England and Ulster in Ireland, this group could best fit under the image that Lazarus' poem evokes in us. Lacking in the advantages of many of the other British groups who settled the eastern seaboard this group had to grasp opportunity physically and forced its way to the center of American life in part through its prowess in the arenas of battle and politics.

Of course Emma Lazarus was speaking to a later time, during the Great Wave of the turn of the 19th century when millions upon millions of southern, eastern and Jewish Europeans swelled onto the shores of the eastern United States. The Jews were often the most likely to be literate and skilled of the new immigrant streams, and so they were the first who made their presence felt in the professions. Nevertheless, what was the character of the Jewish immigrants relative to their source populations? We can perhaps spy a hint if we look at the character of mass conversions (assimilation) to gentile society in Europe. In The Pity of it All, a history of Jews in Germany from the first glimmerings of tolerance during the life of Moses Mendelssohn until 1933, Amos Elon states:

Conversion was mostly a middle- and upper-middle-class phenomenon. The richest, most talented, successful and cultured men and women were often the first to convert.... (page 83)

At the very moment when the new Jewish middle class was beginning to enter German society and German politics, conversion deprived German Jews of their social and intellectual elite. The most influential segments of the middle and upper middle class abandoned the poor and petite bourgeoisie to their fate.... (page 90)

My impression (though I am not sure about this, further illumination would be welcome) is that some of the same dynamic characterized the conversion experience in pre-expulsion Spain, that assimilative pressures were felt strongest by the Jewish elite who moved in gentile circles.

But such assertions have a weaker weighting in my world that some quantitative documentation. Which brings me back to the United States. In The Jews in America Arthur Hertzberg offers: 1906, the year whem some two-hundred-thousand Jews...came to the United States, only fifty listed themselves as professionals (at that time, between five and ten percent of Jews in various countries of Eastern Europe, including Czarist Russia, were in the professions). (page 13)

This is a community which today has an over two times the frequency of college degree holders as the general population. Via psychometrics one can assert that the American Jewish community's median IQ ranges from 107-115. It is interesting to reflect whether perhaps the peculiar familial experiences of the Jewish intelligensia (which I would estimate form about 1/4 of America's intellectual class, conservatively) might not influence their relatively lack of interest in strongly selective immigration in a manner remiscient of Canada. After all, their forebears were not the great ones of the European Jewry, but rather those of modest means (and even less than modest), but they have clearly succeeded in this country.