Compare and Contrast

I, Asimov: A Memoir


“Vicious anti-Semitism was (and is again) a widespread scourge; no comparable, sustained phenomenon — ‘anti-Asianism’ — exists.” – Barbara Kay, National Post, November 23, 2010.


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.”



— Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir (1994)

16 thoughts on “Compare and Contrast

  1. As you probably know, Matthew Ygelsias has discussed the (anti-) Asian quotas at elite American universities in the past.

    At one point in time, I believe he referenced a US Justice Department investigation into Asian admissions at “ivy-league” universities. I can’t find it now.

    The New York Times had its own Asian-baiting story a few years ago.

  2. Although I found Kay’s article to be typically blinkered and sanctimonious, I’m not seeing much to compare here. On a global scale, there certainly is no parallel to anti-Semitism. And Asians do not face any degree of prejudice in North America comparable to that which Jews did in the early 20th century. As for the Asimov quote, the anecdotal lady of his acquaintance notwithstanding, the fact is that Jews did in fact do a disproportionate amount to support the American civil rights movement in the U.S. (this isn’t to say that they did the most important things, which were of course done by blacks themselves and, in a few cases, by certain whites who were otherwise part of the establishment of that time). In view of that history, to select a quotation which suggests that the attitude of Jews towards African Americans can be fairly summarized as that of “little Hitlers” is extremely distasteful, to say the least, and renders your judgment, and possibly motives, rather suspect. Moreover, today Jews are still far more likely to be “bleeding heart liberals” than most other segments of the population: much more likely to be favourable towards, say, gay marriage of affirmative action programs than the general population. Why, then, would your compare and contrast that “little Hitlers” is the proper prism through which to assess North American Jews? I suppose that here are, in some cases, vocal and influential currents of Jewish opinion that take a different view from that of their liberal counterparts, as in the case of the sort of neo-conservatism that Kay represents: but the ability of such a small population as American (or Canadian) Jewry to contain so many multitudes, many of which are and have been so influential in different ways, is just a testament to the vitality and general achievement of North American Jews. (And, in this way, they are indeed similar to Asians.) The inability of certain left-wing ideologues to see and appreciate that diversity for what it is partly indicates the continuing tendency of many to default to stereotypes and conspiracy theories concerning Jews, i.e., anti-Semitism. But the least one can say is that it is not a history which is accurately reflected by a quotation about the Jewish tendency to act as “little Hitlers”. The idea that understanding Jewish thought and politics in North America could be advanced in the context of such “analysis” and rhetoric is rather incredible.

  3. @Wilson. Can you clarify what you are saying here? Is it your argument that by quoting this passage from Isaac Asimov’s autobiography I’m being anti-Semitic?

  4. I’m always reluctant to claim that anyone is being anti-semitic, for the same reasons I’m reluctant to claim that anyone is being racist (I don’t know individual motives and the world is a complicated place). So, no, that’s not what I’m saying. And it’s a bit difficult for me to clarify, because what you expected to be compared and contrasted in your two quotations was unclear to me in the first place (that’s why I rambled on about various possibilities). But maybe I can state this in point form:

    – Barbara Kay claims “Vicious anti-Semitism was (and is again) a widespread scourge”

    – In response, you present a quotation in which Jews who complain about anti-semitism are said to “general[ly]” exhibit the characteristics of “little Hitlers”.

    That is an extremely peculiar, and seemingly rather prejudicial and potentially inflammatory, manner of addressing the issue of anti-semitism. You may not be personally anti-semitic (I have no way of knowing this), but it should not be hard to see why all manner of anti-semites would embrace the conclusion that the way to do respond to people who complain about anti-semitism is to respond that they are “generally” akin to “little Hitlers”.

    Moreover, the Asimov quotation is also peculiar simply because it is so misleading. As I tried to show above, Jews are of course a multi-faceted group, and were not primarily responsible for something like the U.S. civil rights movement. But to suggest that their record on this issue (and other “progressive” issues) is akin to that of “little Hitlers” is a vile calumny since, apart from the general distastefulness of the analogy, Jews have in fact often been especially liberal in these respects. To suggest that they have been utterly selfish and self-interested, and completely hostile to the interests of others – in the manner of “little Hitlers”, no less – is disgraceful as well as inaccurate. So perhaps you could clarify what was supposed to be gleaned to from putting those two quotations side-by-side, with the unelaborated invitation to “compare and contrast”?

    To ask the question of whether or not I think that you are personally anti-semitic (I have no idea) is to evade the issue of why anyone would imagine that the appropriate manner of responding to the issue of anti-semitism is to suggest that those who are concerned about it are, generally speaking, “little Hitlers”.

  5. Wilson: I think you are reading many things into the contrast and also into Asimov’s comments that simply isn’t there.

    Here’s what I meant by contrasting these two quotes. On the one hand you have a writer (Kay) who thinks that anti-Semitism was and is a major problem, but is seemingly indifferent to other forms of bigotry (poohing-poohing even the very idea of “anti-Asianism”). On the other hand, you have a writer (Asimov) who is opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.

    There are things you can question in Asimov’s quote but on a human level, I find his attitude much more attractive. Anti-Semitism is vile; so are all other forms of racism.

    The “little Hitlers” phrase is shocking but on a human level very understandable. Asimov was writing as a Jew who was ashamed that some of his fellow Jews who were themselves victims of bigotry were insensitive to bigotry directed against other groups. I often feel the same way: I’m a South Asian and when I see other South Asians make racist comments I feel an extra jolt of anger and shame, because I feel like I have some extra connection with these people. It’s easier to get angry with your family than with strangers. That’s why Asimov used the phrase “little Hitlers.” On a rational level that phrase is indefensible but on a human level it makes sense.

    By the way, I think it is clear that Asimov is reacting to the bigotry of some Jews. He’s saying that all Jews or most Jews or even many Jews are bigots. And in noticing how some Jews are blinkered, he clear sees this as a human trait, not one particular to Jews. As Asimov wrote “The whole world seems to be permanently waving a banner that reads: ‘Freedom! … but not for others.’” The whole world, not just Jews or particularly Jews or especially Jews.

  6. What seems clear to you in your last paragraph seems exactly the opposite to me because he writes of the “general blindness” when writing of “little Hitlers” (the source you linked to also evidently reads the quote the quote as an indictment of most Jews – 3/4 of them, specifically – but condones that judgment). Secondly, I find the notion that “at a human level” Asimov was constantly in contact with “little Hitlers” to be absurd. If you cannot distinguish between the sort of genocidal hatred of Hitler and the prejudices of the woman down the street or what have you, then I would say that you are blinded. Moreover, giving approval to deploying “Hitler” as a rhetorical tool in any political debate (as you standard would warrant) is dubious for other reasons as well. More importantly, to get into this sort of “well, even many or most Jews are little Hitlers deep down” game ignores the plain fact that, while they certainly suffer from many blind spots, most Jews have not only not acted as Hitlers, but have in fact been more liberal, for instance with respect to civil rights, than the populations around them. In this respect, Jews have been, if anything, less blinkered than other groups. Why we should have to choose between Kay and Asimov in any case – neither of whom seems impressive – is another problem. Suffice to say that, while no one can object to the suggestion that we take seriously the blind spots which effect all people, nevertheless, if you think that a productive manner of responding to concerns about anti-Semitism is to suggest that, generally speaking, the people expressing such concerns are “little Hitlers”, then I very much doubt that you take anti-Semitism seriously at all.

  7. @Wilson:

    Do you honestly think that Isaac Asimov was an anti-Semite?

    Do you honestly think that Asimov believed that 3/4 of Jews were “little Hitlers”? It’s true that one website offers an interpretation that might lead you to think that, but is that really what Asimov is saying here? (I provided the link by the way not because I believe what the linked author said is true but to give readers a chance to look up a larger quote; if Asimov’s autobiography had been online I would have just linked to that directly. There are many things on that link that I strongly disagree with).

    Do you honestly think that Asimov believed that many or most Jews were “little Hitlers”? Asimov wasn’t deploying the phrase “little Hitlers” in a political debate, he was using it in his autobiography while reflecting on the fact that people he expected to be sensitive to bigotry made bigoted comments. That’s the human and emotional reality that Asimov was responding to, and responding to with personal honesty I’d argue. As I said before, his statement cannot be defended on a rational level, but on a human level and an emotional level it makes sense.

    Asimov wrote three autobiographies and there have been many studies of his work. If he were an anti-Semite, it probably would have come out by now.

    Asimov’s statement is a personal and emotional one, so I wouldn’t make the same statement myself. But I will say this: Asimov wrote like a human being. You and Kay are both writing like ideologues. So for all his faults, I’d much rather associate myself with Asimov than with Kay or with you.

  8. I’ll add: what I find humanely impressive in Asimov is that he was opposed both bigotry in his own community and bigotry against his own community. That’s an ideal worth living up to. I don’t see either Kay or Wilson offering a comparable ideal.

  9. You keep coming back to trying to accuse me of acussing others of anti-semitism, which I have not done and explicitly denied. I do not know enough about Asimov to asses his relationship to his religion. I have only been addressing the distinct question of how best to approach the problem of anti-semitism, and I have suggested that your approach to it (as distinct from Asimov, whom I do not know much about and so cannot comment on in any detail – although the fact that he characterizes the “little Hitlers” as part of the “general blindness” of Jews is troubling) is unsatisfactory. That doesn’t mean that I am calling you an anti-Semite, but, as I have suggested above, it is obvious to me how your approach to the problem
    could lend comfort and cover to anti-semitism. I won’t repeat myself any further on that point. I will only add this: no one is going to disagree with you that self-criticism is admirable. But while Kay surely is lacking in that respect, she is not wrong to point out the existence and the problem of anti-semitism. And if we are to think about how to address that problem, approaching it in terms of the “general blindness” and mini-Hitlerism of Jews will do nothing but give comfort and cover to anti-semites. (Do you think that the first response to all questions of race in America should be point out the “general ignorance” and KKK-like character of African Ameticans?) What us “ideological” about any of this is beyond me. Finally, while self-criticism is to be encouraged, so is a sense of reality and history, both of which indicate that North American Jews have done a remarkably admirable – though by no means flawless – job of doing just what you ask for.

  10. Does Asimov’s statement comfort and cover to anti-Semites? I don’t think so. Quite the reverse. Asimov’s opposition to anti-Semitism is grounded in a politics that opposes all bigotry. That seems to me a philosophically and morally stronger opposition to anti-Semitism than that offered by people who worry about the mistreatment of the Jews but don’t seem terrible concerned about other forms of bigotry.

    If you look at this passage in context, the phrase “general blindness” isn’t referring to a “general blindness” of all Jews, or most Jews or even many Jews. It’s a “general blindness” of Americans to the mistreatment of African-Americans, a blindness which some Jews shared. Again some, not many, or most or all.

    The larger point that Asimov is making isn’t about Americans or Jews at all but about a “general blindness” in humanity. And it’s a point that rings true to me.

    Of course, you’re right that the types of Jews Asimov was talking about were a minority. Most American Jews have had and continue to have admirably liberal politics about Civil Rights, much more progressive than that of their Gentile counterparts. But this factual and historical truth doesn’t over-ride Asimov’s point about human nature, that there are people who oppose the persecution of their own group but not persecution in general. There are Jews like that, just as there are people from all groups who are like that (Gentiles, black, white, Asian, men, women, gays, straight). It’s a “general blindness.”

    Awareness of this “general blindness” is a good thing to have, and helps the cause of those who genuinely oppose anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. To ignore this issue doesn’t do anyone any good.

  11. Readers will have to judge the Asimov quotation for themselves. However, my comments were never focused on Asimov in particular, whom I do not know enough about to assess.. I was only addressing the general question of how best to approach the problem of anti-Semitism. And, in that respect, I can only conclude by asking readers to consider whether they would expect left-wing websites or Le Monde to introduce a discussion of racism in the U.S. by asking us to consider the “general ignorance” and KKK-like characteristics of African Americans. I don’t believe that they would approach the problem that way, and I don’t believe that they would treat such an approach as admirable, notwithstanding whatever the shortcoming of that community are, and however admirable or necessary addressing those shortcomings would no doubt be in more appropriate contexts. In fact, I rather suspect that someone who tried to approach the problem of U.S. racism in that way would be swiftly accused (fairly or unfairly) of being racist. But readers can judge the analogy for themselves.

  12. Wilson, one of your fundamental mistakes is thinking this post is about “the general question of how best to approach the problem of anti-Semitism.” It’s not about that at all. It’s about two different ways of looking at the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism. As I said before: “On the one hand you have a writer (Kay) who thinks that anti-Semitism was and is a major problem, but is seemingly indifferent to other forms of bigotry (poohing-poohing even the very idea of ‘anti-Asianism’). On the other hand, you have a writer (Asimov) who is opposed to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.”

    The hypothetical Le Monde article that you mention is not at all comparable to a blog post that quotes two conflicting ideas about anti-Semitism and racism.

    In any case, if we did apply this analysis to African-Americans, then I would say that I much prefer blacks who are opposed to all forms of racism (say Martin Luther King, Jr. or Bayard Rustin) to African-Americans who are concerned about anti-black but indifferent to or actively hostile to other races and ethnic groups (say Louis Farrakhan). And in fact I’ve seen many articles denouncing anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the black community. I tend to automatically agree with these articles unless they have some factual errors (for instance taking quotes out of context).

    A politics of anti-racism has to be universal if it’s to be honest and effective. That’s a simple point you seem to be resisting.

  13. This seems to be running around in circles, so I’ll make this my last volley, and then you can have the last word if you want. If you’re talking about “universality”, that raises complicated philosophical issues which I don’t want to get into now (as you must know, fashionable progressive academics everywhere denounce and decry it, all while calling themselves “anti-racist”; they may be foolish, but my point is just that that issue is contested). However, as I’ve said above, self-scrutiny and self-criticism certainly is necessary and commendable. I’ve already said that repeatedly, so if that’s all that your blog post was about, that’s fine. But, in fact, it wasn’t clear what your post was about, since it asks us to “compare and contrast” to quotations with no explanation (I mentioned this lack of clarity in my first comment). And in the first quotation the issue that I see Kay raising is one of the existence and persistence of anti-Semitism. And while she may raise it ham-handedly, my point was only that your second quotation does not address that issue appropriately at all. I went through my reasons above. Thus, the point of the African American analogy is not whether or not African Americans should condemn all forms of racism, but whether it would be appropriate to respond to, e.g., a black writer broaching the topic of racism in America by immediately shifting the discussion to the “general ignorance” and KKK-like traits of African Americans. But if your point was only that we should be against all forms of racism, fine. In that case my only caveat would be that that is so banal as to get us nowhere, since pretty much everyone would claim to agree with it. Of course they might not all live up to it, but in order to understand why, we’d need much deeper analysis – which, whatever its other merits, I don’t think that the Asimov quote gives us.

  14. Hi Wilson: I agree that we should call it a day but in closing I’ll simply note a few points:

    1) As I’ve said before, Asimov’s comment about “general blindness” referred to the general blindness of the American society of Asimov’s youth to anti-black racism, not the general blindness of Jewish Americans to anti-black racism. You persistently misread Asimov on this point (as well as other ponts), which I part of what I meant when I said that you are writing like an ideologue (i.e., you are not making a good faith effort to understand Asimov but are reading into the text what you imagine him to be saying).

    2) The call for a “universal” anti-racism isn’t connected with philosophical universalism. These are two very distinct things.

    3) Neither Kay’s quote nor her larger column is about anti-Semitism. Rather in both the sentence quoted here and in her larger column Kay is trying to make an argument for why we should be concerned about anti-Semitism but indifferent to other forms of racism (forms of racism which she pooh-poohs and minimizes). The Asimov quote, for all that it can be criticized, seemed very pertinent as offering another (and I think infinitely more humane and ethical) way of thinking about the connection between anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. To think of this as an issue just about anti-Semitism (rather than the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism) is to be even more “blinkered” than Kay herself (to use your own characterization of Kay).

    4) I don’t think the idea “we should be against all forms of racism” is a banal one that everyone agrees to. It’s a much harder principle to live by than the alternative (to focus on one form of racism and ignore or minimize the existence of others), and for that reason needs to be articulated.

  15. My comment to Jeet Heer, and Wilson. Rather if both of you guys realize it or not, you both are stereotyping each other. The both of you made great arguments, but not knowingly that you both showing signs of prejudice towards one another. Right now, that’s the discussion in my class, do people make prejudice remarks unconsciously, I believe so. We are all imperfect humans, and we are going to step on one another toes every now and then. People cannot help what has happened in the past, all we can do is move forward and get over ourselves.

    I’m not saying that it was cool, that Black people were enslaved, and the Jewish people were persecuted, but we have to move on. It’s not like we can go back in the past and change things, but we can make a difference today. It hurts my heart sometimes, knowing that racism and prejudice is still among us. So in short, you two are bright and intelligent individual, use the knowledge that you both posses to help others.
    Stay positive GUYS

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