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What drives success? In a surprising number of instances, the answer lies in marginality.

Living on the edges of societal norms and mainstream culture can paradoxically serve as a powerful driver of achievement for individuals and groups. Here, I’m not simply referring to history’s most famous examples—the Corsican Napoleon, the Austrian Hitler and the Georgian Stalin—but more ordinary examples of outsized success.

This phenomenon can be observed across various domains, including academia, arts, business and social movements. The drive for achievement among marginalized groups or individuals can be attributed to several factors.

In some instances, it’s compensation for social exclusion. People who experience social exclusion may strive for high achievement as a means to gain acceptance, respect and recognition from mainstream society. Achievement in fields such as science, arts or business can serve as a way to counteract stereotypes, reduce stigma and challenge the status quo that marginalizes them.

Marginality can also foster unique perspectives. Being outside the mainstream allows individuals to see the world differently, question established norms and approach problems in innovative ways. This fresh perspective can lead to groundbreaking achievements in various fields, as marginalized individuals are not bound by conventional wisdom.

Facing barriers and overcoming obstacles can build resilience and determination. Marginalized individuals often develop a strong work ethic and perseverance in the face of adversity. This resilience can drive them to achieve at high levels, proving to themselves and others that they can overcome the odds stacked against them.

Marginalized groups often form tight-knit communities based on shared experiences of exclusion. These communities can provide emotional support, resources and networks that foster achievement. Solidarity within marginalized communities can inspire collective action and empower individuals to strive for success both within their communities and in the wider society.

For some, achievement is a form of self-expression and a way to affirm their identity. Marginalized individuals may channel their experiences, culture and identity into their work, enriching their contributions and achieving recognition for their unique insights and talents.

Experiencing marginality can instill a desire to make a difference and effect social change. Individuals may be driven to achieve in areas where they can influence society, advocate for their community and work toward greater inclusivity and justice.

Marginal status offers no guarantee of success as the poet Langston Hughes wrote in his 1951 poem “Harlem,” with its famous opening question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” When opportunity is closed off, when individuals are denied the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations, when they face systematic barriers to success, frustration, disillusionment and anger are the inevitable results.

As Hughes observed, unfulfilled dreams shrivel and grow lifeless over time. Like a sore, they fester and become a source of ongoing pain and bitterness. They decay and become repugnant like rotten meat, and weigh down an individual over time—or even lead to unrest and upheaval.

But under the right circumstances, marginality can be a catalyst for achievement. The adversity faced by marginalized individuals and groups can motivate them to excel and innovate.

What brings these thoughts to mind is a widely read essay in The Atlantic by Franklin Foer entitled “The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending.” Foer’s argument, in a nutshell, is that “Anti-Semitism on the right and the left threatens to bring to a close an unprecedented period of safety and prosperity for Jewish Americans—and demolish the liberal order they helped establish.”

I found the article intensely moving, but also, in important respects, alarmist and hyperbolic. It’s not surprising that in an increasingly open society, it’s unlikely that a demographically declining group consisting of just 2 percent of the U.S. population could continue to exert outsized cultural influence.

But the article does point to the extraordinary success of 20th-century American Jewry in a host of domains: academia, the arts, entertainment, finance, the labor movement, retail trades, social activism, and the social and natural sciences.

The 20th century, as Yuri Slezkine, the Russian-born UC Berkeley professor of Russian history, wrote, was in many respects The Jewish Century. While the last century was marked by profound tragedy, it was also characterized by creativity and innovation, as Jewish intellectuals, activists, artists and authors navigated the complexities of modernity and contributed in crucial ways to the cultural, intellectual and political landscape of the 20th century.

Those of Jewish descent made far-reaching contributions to various fields of culture and intellectual life, including art, literature, music, philosophy, medicine and science, far beyond their numbers in the population. Jews also played pivotal roles in political and social movements of the 20th century, including Zionism, socialism, trade unionism, civil rights and feminism. One can’t begin to discuss 20th-century Hollywood or Wall Street without taking account of the role of those of Jewish descent. The “Great American Songbook,” early rock ‘n’ roll, the folk revival and protest songs owe a heavy debt to Jewish composers and lyricists, as does, of course, American comedy.

The Holocaust not only had a profound impact on Jewish communities worldwide, influencing collective memory, identity formation and responses to anti-Semitism and prejudice but on international law, including ideas about genocide, reparations and restitution. Key ideas, from the notion of diasporas, ghettoes, meritocracy, the melting pot and cultural pluralism, and cultural resistance, owe a deep debt to Jews.

The outsized influence of American Jewry on 20th-century American business, academia, the arts, popular culture, science and medicine can be attributed to a combination of historical circumstances, cultural values, social networks and geographical locations that enabled Jewish individuals to thrive and make significant contributions to American society. But a sense of marginality clearly played an important role.

No novel offers a more insightful commentary on the role of marginal status as a dynamic force than Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run?, his 1941 exploration of the dark side of the American Dream through the lens of the Hollywood film industry. Marginality shapes the title character’s personality, decisions and relationships and explains why he prioritizes success over ethics, integrity and human connection.

The protagonist’s drive to succeed is initially fueled by his desire to escape the poverty and obscurity of his youth. His determination to rise above his circumstances propels him to pursue success at any cost. His ambition is also intertwined with deep-seated insecurities. He constantly seeks validation and recognition, driven by a fear of falling back into poverty. This leads him to adopt a ruthless approach to his career, viewing others as either stepping stones or obstacles to his success. Underlying his drive for success is resentment toward a society that looks down upon him. It’s also a form of rebellion against the establishment and a way to assert his worth in a society that values wealth and power.

Sammy Glick is the ultimate chameleon, able to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and exploit opportunities. His ability to reinvent himself is partly a survival mechanism, reflecting his belief that adaptability is necessary for survival in a cutthroat environment.

Not surprisingly, the novel’s portrait of a ruthlessly ambitious Jewish character who manipulates and betrays others to rise from poverty to power in Hollywood, sparked controversy among Jewish literary critics. At a time when restrictive covenants barred Jews from many neighborhoods and country clubs, some feared that the novel perpetuated negative stereotypes about unscrupulous, greedy Jewish businessmen.

The novel also prompted reflection within the Jewish community about issues of assimilation and ethnic identity. The book raised wrenching questions about the societal pressures on the descendants of Jewish immigrants to shed their religious identity and communal ties to achieve success. It also explored the tension between ambition and ethical behavior, between Jewish values and the individualistic ethos of American capitalism that equates success with happiness and self-worth, and between success and assimilation and the maintenance of communal traditions.

Sammy Glick was a fictional creation, but the free-floating world of fantasy can often provide insights into a culture available nowhere else. Many factors contributed to the outsize degree of 20th-century Jewish success: Family dynamics that placed very high expectations upon sons’ success. A belief that in a discriminatory society, education provided an especially valuable route to upward mobility. Extensive historical experience in retail trades that had to be highly responsive to consumer demand coupled with an entrepreneurial ethos and, in some cases, experience in negotiation, finance and trade. Community self-help. The good fortune to be concentrated in cities characterized by especially high rates of economic growth. Their position as cultural and business intermediaries and middlemen.

But what most distinguished Jews from other European-descended groups was an early and ongoing embrace of modern liberalism along with various forms of political radicalism. Indeed, American Jews were, as Franklin Foer argues, in many ways co-architects of modern liberalism: In his words:

“Over the course of the 20th century, Jews invested their faith in a distinct strain of liberalism that combined robust civil liberties, the protection of minority rights, and an ethos of cultural pluralism.”

One must be cautious in overemphasizing the alignment of American Jewry and liberalism. I can point to plenty of examples of bias and prejudice. Also, it’s clearly an overstatement to attribute this, in self-serving ways, to the Jewish experience of persecution, the ethical values of social justice (tikkun olam, or “repairing the world”), charity (tzedakah), and community responsibility, and an intellectual and cultural tradition that emphasized critical inquiry, debate and a strong valuation of education, which inevitably contributed to a predisposition toward liberalism.

A reaction to antisemitism and political self-interest, too, played a role. Liberal policies on civil rights, civil liberties, immigration and religious freedom directly benefit a minority group such as Jews, providing protections in a diverse society. Additionally, liberalism’s emphasis on separation of church and state resonated with Jewish interests in maintaining religious freedom and avoiding the dominance of any single religion in public life.

What the historian David Levering Lewis once said about Jewish support for civil rights—that it was a way to fight antisemitism by remote control—has a grain (but only a grain) of truth. Still, the continued embrace of liberalism and radicalism distinguished and continues to differentiate Jews from other European-descended immigrant groups.

During the early 20th century, leading figures of Jewish descent played an indispensable role in the formulation of modern liberal principles including its commitment to pluralism, civil liberties, civil rights, trade unionism and government as an agent of reform. One might think here of the influence of Franz Boas, Louis Brandeis, Samuel Gompers, Walter Lippmann, Joel and Arthur Spingarn, who assisted in the formation of the NAACP, and Julius Rosenwald, the philanthropist, who, from 1917 to 1932, contributed to the construction of over 5,300 schools for Black Americans in the South. Then, there was also the more radical tradition associated with Emma Goldman, Sidney Hillman, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Abbie Hoffman, Bella Abzug, Noam Chomsky, and Bernie Sanders.

Of course, every social group can point to an ethnic “hall of fame” that advanced various social causes or championed ideas that American society has come to value. It is essential to recognize that many of those considered “Jewish” champions of liberalism were Jewish in ancestry, not in terms of identity or observance. There have also been plenty of influential Jewish conservatives (such as Ayn Rand), economic conservatives (including Milton Friedman and Arthur Laffer, among others) and especially foreign policy neoconservatives.

In the face of declining birthrates, intermarriage, assimilation, the relative growth of Orthodox Judaism and the central importance of Israel among many established Jewish organizations, it is unclear whether American Jewry will continue to be as tightly aligned with liberalism and the left as it was in the 20th century.

But if many Jewish voters were to shift rightward, following the example of other European-descended ethnics, this would not just be a loss for the Democratic party, but for Judaism itself.

During the 20th century, American Jewish identity became increasingly intertwined with liberalism, the left, radicalism, and the intellectual and artistic avant-garde. The product of a confluence of ethical imperatives, historical experiences, socioeconomic factors, and a commitment to social justice, intellectual inquiry, and experimentation and innovation, this identification and alignment was a source of immense ethnic pride.

I’d argue that this was as important to sustaining Jewish identity as the examples of Leonard Bernstein, Bob Dylan, Andrew Goodman, Hank Greenberg, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Sandy Koufax, Arthur Miller, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Michael Schwerner, Mark Spitz, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, Alan Jay Lerner, Stephen, Sondheim, Jule Styne—and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman, and Phil Spector.

The association of American Jews with liberalism, political radicalism, and the intellectual and artistic avant-garde was a defining feature of Jewish identity in the United States throughout the 20th century. This association has deeply influenced not only how Jewish Americans see themselves but also how they were perceived by others within the broader American society. The potential loss of this association would have profound implications for Jewish identity.

During the 20th century, Jewish Americans were at the forefront of cultural, intellectual and artistic movements, driven by questioning authority, advocating for social justice and exploring new forms of expression. Losing this association would greatly diminish the richness of Jewish cultural and intellectual life, reducing the diversity of voices within Jewish and American discourse, and potentially leading to a more insular, less dynamic community.

A commitment to social justice, informed by the historical experiences of persecution, migration and the fight for rights, was a defining aspect of 20th-century Jewish identity. This naturally aligned American Jews with liberal and radical movements from labor rights and civil rights to contemporary issues such as climate change and social inequality. Moving away from these movements could lead to a disconnect from a long-standing tradition of activism and advocacy, potentially altering the community’s focus on tikkun olam and reducing its impact on broader societal issues.

The collaboration and solidarity between Jewish Americans and other marginalized groups was a hallmark of their political and social engagement. This alliance-building has been rooted in shared struggles for rights and recognition. A shift away from liberalism and radicalism could, potentially, isolate Jewish Americans from coalitions that have historically worked together for mutual goals, and impact the broader societal progress toward inclusivity and equality.

Liberalism and radicalism also influenced religious practice and thought within the Jewish community, leading to the development of movements like Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Judaism. These movements have reinterpreted traditional practices and beliefs in light of contemporary values and social issues. A departure from these influences could lead to a narrowing of religious expression and debate within the community, potentially stifling innovation and spiritual growth.

The association with liberalism, radicalism and the avant-garde has contributed to a sense of Jewish identity that values critical thinking, empathy and social engagement. Losing this association might not only alter how Jewish Americans view themselves but how they are viewed by others. The rich tapestry of Jewish American identity could become less visible, reducing the community’s role and influence in American society.

The association of American Jews with liberalism, political radicalism, and the intellectual and artistic avant-garde has been a significant aspect of their identity, influencing cultural production, social activism, religious life and intercommunity relations. A shift away from these values would inevitably lead to a loss of the vibrancy, diversity and social impact of American Jewry.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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