Home > Uncategorized > The Forgotten History of Antisemitism in America – posted 11/25/2018

The Forgotten History of Antisemitism in America – posted 11/25/2018

As an American Jew, I must say that I have been surprised by the resurgence of antisemitism here. Probably, like many others, I did not see it coming.

The relative economic success of American Jews, awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust and the American tradition of religious tolerance have all mitigated against seeing antisemitism as a formidable threat. We have been through a long period during which antisemitism undeniably receded.

There is a foundational American history of welcoming Jews and immigrants of all nationalities and religions that is symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. For me, and I expect for many other American Jews, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting shook that foundation.

I think it would be a mistake to view the Pittsburgh shootings as an isolated event. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has reported 1986 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2017. Antisemitic incidents are defined as harassment, vandalism, and physical assault.

The 2017 statistics represent a 57% increase over 2016, the largest single-year escalation since ADL began tracking these incidents in 1979.

Unfortunately, there is also good reason to think the numbers are an undercount. Studies show that only about half of all hate crimes get reported to the police. Many local law enforcement agencies do not provide hate crime data to the federal government because the reporting requirement is voluntary. There is also uncertainty as to whether all hate crimes have been properly identified.

While many rightly point to the Trump campaign and presidency as a supercharger of bigotry, I would like to focus  on the largely forgotten history of antisemitism in America to explain recent events. As with racism, antisemitism has deep roots here.

One hundred years ago, antisemitism and racism had far more social acceptance than they do today. Jews and people of color were excluded from neighborhoods, jobs, clubs, and colleges. Indeed, very prominent Americans – Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and Father Charles Coughlin – publicly voiced antisemitic or pro-Nazi views.

Ford, the auto magnate, was singled out by Hitler for praise in his book, Mein Kampf. His collection of articles titled “The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem” was a Hitler favorite. Ford attributed all evil to Jews or to Jewish capitalists. He distributed half a million copies of his volume to his vast network of dealerships and subscribers. Ford did business with the Nazis during the war and he was the first American recipient of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, Nazi Germany’s highest honor.

Lindbergh, the much-admired aviator, was an America-Firster. He spoke against the “mongrelization” of America, in favor of white racial purity. He claimed Jews, through their ownership of the media, were trying to drag America into war against Germany, something he opposed. Lindbergh also received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Hitler.

Father Coughlin, a Catholic radio priest from the Detroit area, with an audience of an estimated 30 million listeners, used his radio program to promote antisemitism. In the 1930’s, Coughlin supported Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He saw Jewish bankers behind the Russia revolution. He was eventually forced off the air in 1939 because of his pro-fascist views. At the time, he was one of the most prominent Catholic speakers on political issues in America. He was a forerunner of the rise of televangelism.

In the 1930’s, there was an active Nazi movement in the United States, the German-American Bund. At its height in 1939, the movement packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Also, of note, the Ku Klux Klan had achieved massive national popularity in the early 1920’s with an estimated membership of four million. The Klan emphasized white supremacy and opposing Catholics, Jews and immigrants. In that period, the Klan’s widespread campaigns of lynching and terror commanded their widest popularity.

I think the nativist, anti-immigrant political tendency of the 1920’s and 1930’s is entirely consistent with the anti-immigrant hysteria directed against Latinos, Syrians, and Muslims today. History reveals the dangerous repercussions of such racist and anti-immigrant perspectives, which cannot be emphasized enough.

Exhibit A is the experience of the Jewish people. When over 1.5 million Eastern European Jews arrived in America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many nativist organizations advocated for federal restrictions on Jewish immigration. Following in the tradition of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 drastically decreased immigration of specific groups of Europeans, including Eastern European Jews, by imposing strict quotas.

Supporters of the 1924 Act believed that bringing in more immigrants would adversely affect employment for native-born Americans. They sought to establish an American identity that favored native-born white Americans over Jews and people of color. Eugenics, the science of selective breeding aimed at improving the genetic quality of a population, was a big influence on those favoring the quotas.

A Roper poll in the late 1930’s showed that 70 to 85% of Americans opposed raising quotas to help Jewish refugees enter the United States. I think that atmosphere of hostility to Jewish immigration paved the way for what came later.

We can now see the tremendous harm caused by the restrictionist immigration policies. Thousands of Jews who wanted to escape the hell of Nazism were turned away and not allowed into the United States because of the strict quotas. As a result, hundreds of thousands needlessly died in the Holocaust.

Both before and during World War II, the U.S. government played a shameful role in abandoning the European Jewish refugees. They were joined in this abandonment by newspapers and churches. They failed to respond, adopting a posture of passive acquiescence and worse.

I would place antisemitism as the fundamental reason Americans and the other European allies did not respond sooner to the Holocaust. Many people in the United States and Europe knew what the Nazis were up to with their Final Solution but looked the other way. The dehumanization of Jews by antisemites contributed to their indifference and passivity. The response by all the Allies was too little, too late.

To this day, the story remains little known about how U.S. government officials deliberately created bureaucratic obstacles for refugees seeking visas. I would particularly mention Breckinridge Long, a State Department official, a diplomat, and a powerful antisemite. Under Long, 90% of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German or Italian control were never filled. If they had been filled, an estimated 190,000 more people could have escaped the Nazis.

The story of the European Jewish refugees is best captured in the famous 1939 voyage of the German liner St. Louis which carried 937 passengers. The U.S. government did not allow the passengers to land since they did not have U.S. immigration visas and had not passed a security screening. The boat was ultimately forced back to Europe and 254 of those passengers were killed by the Nazis.

If anything, the consequences of curbing Jewish immigration in the 1920’s and 1930’s highlights the present danger faced by immigrants in our era. Many of them are literally running for their lives, a reality that is not sufficiently appreciated.

The fact that antisemitism has a very long and tragic history in no way lessens our collective responsibility to oppose it now, especially given the alarming rise in hate crimes in this country. It is the same regressive force it has always been, redirecting popular anger onto a convenient scapegoat. All who oppose antisemitism, racism, and the alt right need to join together in solidarity.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Patricia Dawson
    November 25, 2018 at 4:02 pm

    This same scapegoating and closing of boarders appears to be happening worldwide. There is a rise of authoritarian leaders being elected around the globe. And the environment is being challenged as never before.

    I feel as though we are on a precipice of a multiple of calamities that are all going to hit at about the same time, or on the heels of one another so there is no time to recover, and we will end up with an epic disaster. I don’t recall a time when I felt so overwhelmed by so much anger and hatred.

  2. November 25, 2018 at 4:10 pm

    You are right that the fascist trend is worldwide. The mid-term election gave me some hope. I pray that somehow we skate through the calamities but that might be too much luck.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: