Unknown and therefore unchecked by public opinion, without any ‘stake in the country’ and therefore reckless . . .
That’s how the English anti-Semitic writer Henry Wickham Steed explained the “unfair advantage over the natural-born Viennese” that enabled the successful Jewish businessman or financier, arrived from Galicia within a generation or two, “to prey upon a public and a political world totally unfit for defence against or competition with him.” This is from The Hare with Amber Eyes, a page-turner of a memoir by a descendant of one of those Jewish banking families, who follows the fortunes of a collection of Japanese netsuke he’s inherited to trace his family’s rise and fall in, seeming assimilation into and convulsive expulsion from, Parisian and Viennese society in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Yes—I’m actually finding the time to read a book!!)
Why do I quote this? Because, having been immersed in ecology and natural history lately, I recognized, with a start, pretty much the exact same language that ecologists use to deplore and traduce invasive, opportunistic species.
Not having coevolved with the rest of an ecosystem, these species have no natural constraints on their growth, such as predators, and no “stake in the country”—no dependence on the evolved, stable balance of the ecosystem. Similarly, the Jews who fled Galician pogroms for the cities of Central and Western Europe in the 19th century didn’t “know their place” because they had no place, and this enabled some to be immensely successful. Like invasive plants they thrived and found new niches in soils disturbed by change, and they accelerated change. With invasive plants and animals, ecologists—like the “blood and soil” defenders of Europe’s settled, traditional order—try to restore the status quo ante of an ecosystem by programs of exclusion, confinement, and if that doesn’t work, eradication.
Does this analogy make me feel more sympathy for the defenders of tradition? No, as a Jew—an opportunistic weed myself—it makes me feel more sympathy for kudzu.
The analogy is hardly perfect. Invasive plants, marine organisms, goats, rats, or cats can really overrun an ecosystem, outcompeting or just plain eating unique endemic species ill equipped to adapt. A small minority of Jews can hardly be said to have done the same to Western European civilization—which, if anything, they enthusiastically adopted and arguably revitalized—though it is sobering to realize that that’s exactly how the “blood and soil” nativists saw the financial success and cultural ubiquity of a minority of the minority.
But it should make us question the impulse to try to restore ecosystems or societies to the way they were. Biodiversity is an irreplaceable trove of genetic creativity, but nature itself is quite heartless toward it. Nature’s one constant is change, even though it goes in pulses that our lives are sometimes too short to perceive, and change is never all good or all bad; it destroys as it creates. For further examples, we need look no further than the arrival of Europeans in North America . . . or the emergence of an upstart, upright species out of Africa.