Discrimination by race, religion or ethnicity is never a pretty sight. It is still less lovely when it occurs on the green lawns of country clubs or within the oak-paneled walls of city clubs or underneath the gaily striped umbrellas of beach clubs.
There is something about it that is so clearly redolent of un-American ways of thought and action, so clearly a slap at the founding principles of America, so sadly a reminder of Jim Crow and flaming crosses and shrieking Fuehrers that it jars me mercilessly every time I drive by the Bel-Air Bay Club in Pacific Palisades or the Los Angeles Country Club in Beverly Hills or the Beach Club in Santa Monica or the Jonathan Club downtown. Yet it happens, and I keep wondering why.
Let's assume that while ethically questionable, the exclusion of Jews or blacks or Asians from clubs is protected by the Constitution, as are so many other unfortunate facts of life. (And even the people who run the exclusive clubs know their practice is dicey, inasmuch as they always publicly deny any racial bias while privately admitting it.)
Even so, there are interesting premises to the exclusion. Clearly, if Jews (or blacks, or Asians) are specifically excluded from membership in a club, or limited to the most minimal tokenism, there has to be some articulated or silent premise for the practice. That is, the membership has decided, and continues to decide, that it would be bad or harmful to them in some way to have Jews as equal members, or at the least, that they are better off without Jews as members.
But what specifically are the members of the Jonathan Club or the Links Club afraid of? I have a number of friends who are members of these clubs (some of my best friends, in fact) and I occasionally ask them what they avoid or gain by having no Jews as members. The answers are always vague or just plain silly.
So, again, what are the members afraid of? Are they afraid that Jewish members will use their legendary selling skills to sell the other members garments at wholesale? Are they afraid that Jews will get them involved in financial transactions that are frightening and unsavory? Are they afraid that in some subtle way Jewish members will get them involved in tax avoidance schemes that will land them in jail?
Possibly there is a fear that Jewish members will win all of the bridge tournaments. Or that Jewish members will bet on games and matches at the club and take away their purely sporting character.
Or are they afraid that Jews, with their notorious loudness, might disturb the discreet charm of a Sunday brunch at Piping Rock by shrieking across the room to each other in Yiddish? Or possibly that Jews will take out kreplach and matzos in the dining room and force the scrapple-eating gentry to taste them? Or that Jews will arrive in huge Mercedeses and Cadillacs, thus upsetting the neat modesty of the Gentiles' Oldsmobiles and Buicks?
Any or all of these are possible. But obviously, there are Jews who do not sell tax shelters, who do not shriek across the room, who do not appear in loud plaids driving huge BMWs. So, perhaps the real reasons for exclusion are deeper still.
Perhaps the restriction itself is its own reward. That is, perhaps the members of the Jonathan Club define themselves as superior by explicitly defining Jews as inferior and not worthy of comradeship, except in minute numbers and by legal compulsion. It may well be that the very act of drawing a line and saying "No Jews across this line" makes the people who draw the line feel better about themselves.
It is a time-honored custom for children to attempt to make themselves feel stronger and better about themselves by creating a little group and loudly excluding others. Anyone who has ever been on a playground can readily remember it. At a slightly later form of childhood, the same phenomenon is at work in college fraternities and sororities--their real ability to confer status lies in whom they keep out.
There may lie the real meaning of why clubs exclude Jews as a group or blacks or Asians as groups. By so doing, they create a myth that inside their play group the people are superior, outside they are inferior. No matter what else is going wrong in the members' lives, no matter how beaten they may feel by the reality of life, once they step into the foyer of the club they enter a dream world. In that world they are the winners, the champs, the master race.
Never mind that the Jews have long since stopped caring about restricted clubs as a high priority. Never mind that in the real world there are new rules and new winners. Inside that cocoon of the exclusive club, the members may sit back in an armchair and dream their dreams of superiority. The exclusive club, in that light, is basically just another drug to help people get through life.
As for me, the racially exclusive club no longer makes me angry or hurt. I feel about it the same way I feel about any place where people gather to use drugs, and I feel about the members about the same as I feel about addicts. I hope they get well.