Isaac Asimov On Antisemitism And The Universality Of Prejudice

JVL Introduction

Isaac Asimov, one of the great founders of modern science fiction, was actually born in post-revolutionary Russia into an orthodox Jewish family. They moved to the United States when he was three.

There he became a biochemist before becoming a prolific author, winning more than a dozen annual awards for particular works of science fiction and a half dozen lifetime awards.

In his 1994 autobiography he touched in passing on the issue of antisemitism and prejudice.

It was, writes Diana Mason by way of introduction, “about prejudice and persecution; specifically about Asimov’s discomfort at the fact that some of his fellow Jews, who were so animated at any manifestation of antisemitism anywhere in the world, could be completely blind to the persecution of non-Jews, even if it was going on right under their noses.”

[This extract, obtained circuitously, was taken from a French publication and retranslated by Diana Mason (aka Lawrence of Cyberia) in 2010. One day, when can get to a library again, we’ll check this translation against the original. For now this will have to do!]


This article was originally published by Lawrence of Cyberia blog on Fri 12 Mar 2010. Read the original here.

Isaac Asimov On Antisemitism And The Universality Of Prejudice

Alain Gresh posted this extract from the autobiography of the late science fiction author Isaac Asimov a few weeks ago on Le Monde Diplomatique blog.

The extract was about prejudice and persecution; specifically about Asimov’s discomfort at the fact that some of his fellow Jews, who were so animated at any manifestation of antisemitism anywhere in the world, could be completely blind to the persecution of non-Jews, even if it was going on right under their noses.

It reminded me of a comment the Israeli two-state activist Uri Avnery once made about his own experience of teaching the Holocaust to children in Israeli schools. Avnery was often invited to speak to Israeli children about what it was like for him to be a Jewish child growing up in Germany during the decline of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Third Reich.

After recounting his experiences, Avnery would always ask the children what they thought was the lesson of the Holocaust. About one in four would answer that the lesson of the Holocaust was that nothing like that should ever happen to anyone again. But the other three-quarters of the class would answer that the lesson of the Holocaust was that nothing like that should ever happen to Jews again.

I thought of that as I read these comments of Asimov; it struck me that if Isaac Asimov had been one of Uri Avnery’s schoolkids, he would definitely have been one of the one in four. 

I, Asimov: A Memoir, 1994; pp.20-21

(Translation and all errors therein, by Lawrence of Cyberia)

My father was proud to say there had never been a pogrom in the small town where he was born, where Jews and Gentiles lived together without problems. In fact, he himself had a friend from a Gentile family, whom he used to help out with his homework. After the [1917] Revolution, the childhood friend became a Party official, and he in turn helped my father get the necessary papers to emigrate to the United States. This detail is important, because I’ve often read in the writings of wild romantics that my family fled Russia to escape persecution. According to them, we couldn’t have left the country except by jumping from ice floe to ice floe across the Dnieper River, with a pack of bloodthirsty dogs and the entire Red Army snapping at our heels.

Obviously, there was none of that. We weren’t persecuted, and we left entirely legally with no more red tape than one would expect from bureaucracy in general and from ours in particular. Sorry if that’s a disappointment.

Nor do I have horror stories to tell about my life in the United States. I have literally never suffered for being Jewish; by which I mean no one has ever hit me or [physically] abused me in any way. On the other hand, I have been provoked many times – openly by young louts, more subtly by educated people. But I accepted it; to me, these things were an inevitable part of the universe, that I could not change.

I also knew that large swathes of American society would remain closed to me because I was Jewish, but that was how it was in all Christian societies, going back two thousand years; so again, this was part of life. What was difficult to bear, however, was the feeling of permanent insecurity, and sometimes even terror, in the face of what was happening in the world. I am speaking here about the 1930s, and the rise of Hitler with his increasingly ferocious and increasingly deadly antisemitic madness.

No American Jew could fail to be aware that first in Germany, then Austria, Jews were constantly humiliated, abused, imprisoned, tortured and murdered simply because they were Jews. We could not ignore the fact that Nazi-like parties were emerging in other parts of Europe, using antisemitism as their rallying cry. Even France and Great Britain were affected; both of them saw the emergence of a fascist-type party, and both had a long history of antisemitism.

We weren’t even safe in the United States, a country where there was always an undercurrent of antisemitism and which was not immune to the occasional whiff of violence from the roughest street gangs. There was also a certain attraction to Nazism. I’m not talking here about the German-American Bund, the declared agent of the Nazis, but we heard individuals like Father Charles Coughlin, or Charles Lindbergh, expressing openly antisemitic views. Not to mention the indigenous fascist movements that rallied around the banner of antisemitism.

How did American Jews withstand this pressure? How did they not give way under its weight? I suspect that most simply adopted an attitude of “denial”, refusing to face up to things. They tried not to think about it and did their best to go on living as before. And to a large extent, that’s what I did too. There was no choice. (The Jews of Germany behaved the same way until the storm broke and it was too late.) Furthermore, I had too much faith in my country, the United States of America, to believe that it could one day follow the German example.

It is a fact that Hitler’s excesses, not only the racism but also the belligerent nationalism and the increasingly obvious rampant paranoia, aroused disgust and anger among a considerable number of Americans. Even if the government of the United States was on the whole non-committal about the tragic fate of Jews in Europe, its people were increasingly opposed to Hitler. That at least is how it seemed to me, and I took some comfort in that.

I tried also not to let myself become unpleasantly obsessed with the idea that antisemitism was the major problem in the world. Around me, many Jews separated the people of the world into two categories: Jews and others, and that was it. There were many who did not care about any problem except antisemitism, wherever and whenever it arose.

For me, it was evident that prejudice was instead a universal phenomenon, and that all minorities, all groups that were not at the top of the social ladder, were potential victims of it. In the Europe of the 30s, it was the Jews who suffered most dramatically, but in the United States, they were not the ones who were worst treated. Anyone who didn’t deliberately shut his eyes knew very well that over here it was the African-Americans. For two centuries they had been enslaved. Then we had theoretically put an end to that, but just about everywhere they had attained no more than a “semi-slave” status: they had been denied their most basic rights, treated with contempt and deliberately excluded from the so-called “American dream”.

Although I was Jewish and poor as well, I benefited from the American education system at its best and attended one of its finest universities; I wondered, how many African-Americans would have had the same opportunity at that time? Denouncing antisemitism without denouncing human cruelty in general troubled me constantly. The general blindness was such that I heard Jews condemn unreservedly the phenomenon of antisemitism, and then without skipping a beat move on to the African-American question, and talk about it as if they were little Hitlers. If I pointed this out to them and objected strenuously, they turned on me. They were completely unable to see what they were doing.

I once heard a lady speak passionately about the Gentiles who had done nothing to save the Jews of Europe. “You just can’t trust them”, she claimed.

I let it pass for a while, and then I suddenly asked: “And what are you doing to help the Blacks achieve their civil rights?”

“Listen”, she retorted. “I have enough problems of my own”.

And I said: “That’s exactly what the Gentiles of Europe said”. I saw a complete lack of comprehension in her face. She couldn’t see what I was getting at. What can we do about it? The whole world seems to be permanently waving a banner that reads: “Freedom! … but not for others”.

I publicly expressed my view on this only once, and in delicate circumstances. It was in May 1977. I was invited to a round-table discussion whose participants included Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust and hasn’t spoken about anything else since. That day, he irritated me by claiming that you couldn’t trust academics, or technicians, because they had helped make possible the Holocaust. What a sweeping generalization that is! And precisely the kind of remark that antisemites might make: “I don’t trust Jews, because once, Jews crucified my Saviour”.

I let the others argue for a moment while I brooded over my resentment; then, unable to contain myself any longer, I spoke up: “Mr. Wiesel, you’re wrong; the fact that a group of people has suffered appalling persecution does not mean it is inherently good and innocent. All that the persecution proves is that this group was in a position of weakness. If the Jews were in a position of strength, who knows if they wouldn’t become persecutors?”

To which Wiesel replied, very angrily: “Give me one example of the Jews persecuting anyone!”

Naturally, I was expecting this. “At the time of the Maccabees, in the second century BCE, John Hyrcanus of Judea conquered Edom and gave the Edomites the choice of conversion to Judaism, or death. Not being idiots, the Edomites converted, but afterwards they were still treated as inferiors because even though they had become Jews, they were still originally Edomites”.

Wiesel, even more upset, said: “There is no other example.”

“There is no other period in history where Jews have exercised power”, I replied. “The only time they had it, they behaved just like the others.”

That put an end to the discussion. I would add however that the audience was entirely on the side of Elie Wiesel.

I could have gone further. Alluded to the fate of the Canaanites at the hands of the Israelites in the time of David and Solomon, for example. And if I’d been able to predict the future, I could have mentioned what is happening in Israel today. The Jews of America would have a clearer understanding of the situation if they could imagine the roles reversed: with Palestinians governing the country and Jews throwing stones at them with the energy of despair.

I had the same kind of argument with Avram Davidson, author of brilliant science fiction, who is of course Jewish, and was – at least at one time – conspicuously Orthodox. I wrote an essay on the Book of Ruth, which I saw as an appeal for tolerance in opposition to the cruel edicts of Ezra the scribe, who encouraged Jews to “renounce” their foreign wives. Ruth was a Moabite, a people the Jews clearly detested; yet she is portrayed in the Old Testament as a female role model, and is even listed as an ancestor of David. Avram Davidson took offense at my insinuation (that Jews could be intolerant), and I was treated to a very sarcastic letter in which he too asked me if the Jews had ever been persecutors. I replied in part: “Avram, you and I live in a country that is 95% non-Jewish, and that doesn’t pose any particular problem for us. What would happen to us on the other hand if we were Gentiles living in a country that was 95% Jewish Orthodox?”

I never received a reply.

Even as I write, Jews are immigrating from the former Soviet Union into Israel. They are fleeing their country because they fear religious persecution. But the moment they set foot on Israeli soil, they become Zionist extremists who are merciless toward the Palestinians. They change from persecuted to persecutors in the blink of an eye.

That said, the Jews are not alone in this. If I’m sensitive to this particular problem, it’s because I’m Jewish myself. In fact, this phenomenon is universal. In Roman times, when the first Christians were persecuted, they pleaded for tolerance. But when Christianity prevailed, did tolerance reign? Not on your life. Instead, persecution was soon going on in the opposite direction. Or take the case of the Bulgarians, who demanded freedom from their dictatorial regime, but once they had it used it to aggress against their Turkish minority. Or the people of Azerbaijan, who demanded of the Soviet Union the freedom denied it by the central government, only to immediately attack the Armenian minority.

The Bible teaches that the victims of persecution must in no circumstances become persecutors in their turn: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt.”(Exodus 22:21). But who follows this teaching? Personally, whenever I try to spread the word, I get hostile looks and make myself unpopular….



Comments (10)

  • Mary Davies says:

    Beautifully written.

  • David Hawkins says:

    The whole world seems to be permanently waving a banner that reads: “Freedom! … but not for others”.(Isaac Asimov)
    A profound statement for our times.

  • James Hall says:

    Interesting to ponder a little on how his experiences may have informed both the prejudice against robots (as a minority) and the ‘Laws of Robotics’ as they deal with not harming others and not allowing harm to come to others through inaction in his ‘Robot’ novels.

  • John C says:

    Acknowledging the universality of prejudice is the necessary first step in learning to live by universal moral principles and the only way to guarantee never again.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    That’s fascinating, and beautifully clear and simple. I dont think I have read Asimov, but I will now start!!

  • Philip Ward says:

    I agree with Naomi: this is such beautiful, clear writing. I hope the original is as good as this wonderful translation!

    Of course, the Labour Party now would not touch Isaac Asimov with a bargepole. He would be prevented from speaking by local authorities and universities and harassed by the BoD, the CAA and the JLM.

    I can add another example of the oppressed becoming oppressors: Liberia.

  • Amanda Sebestyen says:

    Marvellous! Our whole family read Asimov’s trilogy, and I can see how it must have spoken to my father, who could otherwise not speak about being Jewish (with family who’d been in Hungary and in hiding throughout WW2). Sci-fi was written by minorities. I loved the feminist sci-fi of the 70s too.

  • Shereen says:

    This is absolutely brilliant. Even if I hadn’t been a huge Asimov fan already, I would be converted by this.

  • I have never read this statement from Asimov,but as a devoted reader of his novels,his statement gives much more meaning to the philosophy expressed in his stories.
    Thank you JVL for enlightening me about a favourite author

  • William Johnston says:

    So beautifully, cogently and – above all – gently expressed.

Comments are now closed.