Bret Stephens Counterfactually Channels Hugo Bettauer: America Without Jews

When it rains, it pours….

Right on the heels of Paul Krugman’s counterfactually-minded New York Times op-ed, which asks readers to imagine a Know-Nothing-run America without immigrants and respect for education (see previous post below), Bret Stephens’ essay in today’s Times imagines a Jewish spin-off with the same counterfactual premise.

He writes:

“Here’s a thought experiment: Would the United States have been better off if it had banned Jewish immigration sometime in the late 19th century….The question is worth asking, because so many of the same arguments made against African, Latin-American and Muslim immigrants today might have easily been applied to Jews just over a century ago.”

Jews, he points out, were also attacked as disproportionately responsible for committing crimes and of being undereducated, racially undesirable, and unlikely to assimilate.

He goes on to speculate:

“Yet imagine if the United States had followed the advice of the immigration restrictionists in the late 19th century and banned Jewish immigrants, at least from Central Europe and Russia, on what they perceived to be some genetic inferiority. What, in terms of enterprisegeniusimagination, and philanthropy would have been lost to America as a country? And what, in terms of human tragedy, would have ultimately weighed on our conscience?”
Stephens does not answer his own question, but interested readers could easily find the consequences outlined in Hugo Bettauer’s famous novel, The City Without Jews (1922), which portrays the expulsion of Vienna’s Jews paralyzing the city by removing some of its most productive and creative citizens.
Stephens’ rationale for writing his essay is clear – to provide lessons in the current American immigration debated.
He writes:
“Today, American Jews are widely considered the model minority, so thoroughly assimilated that organizational Jewish energies are now largely devoted to protecting our religious and cultural distinctiveness. Someone might ask Jeff Sessions and other eternal bigots what makes an El Salvadoran, Iranian or Haitian any different.”
Stephens’ essay, like Krugman’s, once again highlights the analytical and rhetorical value of “what ifs.”  His strategy of revealing what we’d lose without immigration, as opposed to what we gain by having it, once again illustrates the value of negative counterfactuals in revealing the value of something by asking us to imagine its absence.