Anti-Semitism in America

Jeremy Bernstein

With what just happened in Pittsburgh it is easy to forget what things were like in the 1930s in America. I remember because I was growing up then. We used to listen to Father Coughlin on the radio. He said things like this:

‘Must the entire world go to war for 600,000 Jews in Germany who are neither American, nor French, nor English citizens, but citizens of Germany?’
‘If Jews persist in supporting communism directly or indirectly, that will be regrettable. By their failure to use the press, the radio and the banking house, where they stand so prominently, to fight communism as vigorously as they do Nazism, the Jews invite the charge of being supporters of communism.’
‘From European entanglements, from Nazism, communism and their future wars, America must stand aloof. Keep America safe for Americans and the Stars and Stripes the defender of God.’
‘When we get through with the Jews in America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing.’

What I did not know until much later was the anti-Semitism that prevailed at a university like Harvard. They had an admissions quota for Jews and because of the anti-Semitism of George Birkhoff, the chairman, there were no Jewish professorial appointments in the mathematics department. I.I. Rabi told me that he tried to get a job with a chemical company. I asked if they were anti-Semitic. Rabi said he did not know if they were anti-Semitic but that they did not take Jews there.

My father was a Reform rabbi in Rochester, New York. We wanted to go to the Finger Lakes for a little trip. When we got to the hotel where he had reservations my father went in first. He always explained that he was a rabbi and he was told that the hotel did not take Jews. He was ashen and we went back to Rochester. My own experience with anti-Semitism has been limited. I remember courting a girl whose grandmother told her not to marry me because she might have Jewish babies.

We have made progress but the virus is always present.


  • 29 October 2018 at 1:18pm
    Graucho says:
    One recalls that Groucho Marx's daughter was refused admission by members of an anti-Semitic swimming club, to which he responded "She's only half Jewish. How about if she only goes in up to her waist?"

  • 29 October 2018 at 2:34pm
    Quebec Scot says:
    A friend of mine (Jewish) remembers travelling as a boy with his father in the American South in the fifties. They stopped their car outside a diner and went to eat. The sign on the door read 'No Niggers, Dogs or Jews'.

  • 29 October 2018 at 4:11pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Having grown up in city and suburban environments in the 1950s, I remember anti-Semitism as being both pervasive, yet somewhat muted (at least in public), due to some kind of shame over the mass-murder of Jews during 1939-1945. I was raised as a Roman Catholic, but my father was agnostic, maybe atheist, and happened to have lot of Jewish friends and business associates, so our family’s contact with Jews came about almost completely through his connections – this is relevant to the discussion because the suburbs I remember had few Jewish people, either as a result of “polite, unspoken” segregation or its consequence, self-segregation by Jews in their own suburban enclaves. This changed over time, with people of various religions and ethnicities (“nationalities”) living in more mixed communities. I remember hearing lots of snarky or downright nasty remarks about Jews made by kids in my neighborhood and at school, obviously parroting what they heard at home. If they did this while in our house, they would be scolded by either of my parents who might be listening in, but I doubt if this changed anyone’s attitude – only moving into another milieu and later personal experience in the adult world could do that.

    The formal restraints against anti-Semitism in the US rest on law, and it is perhaps only this that has prevented the equivalent of pogroms occurring here. You certainly can’t rely on “the hearts of men and women” or the good intentions of tolerant liberals to create barriers against racial and ethnic or religious violence. As Herzl noted in the 1890s, anti-Semitism employs racism, ethnocentrism (with its "exclusion clauses" and mentality), economic anxieties, populist myths, and religious bigotry to construct its polemics and practices, so a confirmed anti-Semite has a grab-bag (or arsenal) of weapons to reach for.

    I think that the “polite” forms of anti-Semitism persist under a variety of guises in the US, but under the aegis of Trump’s willingness to send signals of approval to all types of racists, the nasty, violent kind of anti-Semitism will continue to grow, and any economic bad news will fuel the fire. The irrational components underlying political and cultural allegiances are always with us, and some of them will yield brutal results whenever the conditions of life become difficult. I'm not optimistic about this in the near or even far future.

  • 29 October 2018 at 5:37pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    To expect Trump to do anything about this is like expecting Dracula to try to cure hemophilia.

    • 30 October 2018 at 5:07pm says: @ Jeremy Bernstein
      Ha ha ha ha ha! Exactly!

  • 29 October 2018 at 6:40pm
    XopherO says:
    Anti-Semitism in the USA as in the UK is long-standing. The attacks on Labour in the UK haave completely missed the issue, and distracted attention from the extreme (and less than extreme-right-wing nastiness and conspiracy 'theories') Both countries imposed very low quotas on Jewish refugees seeking refuge in the UK and USA, fuelling the 'Exodus' to Palestine in 1945-48. Arthur Miller in his only novel 'Focus' brought the anti-Semite USA into focus! The recent mistaken and ridiculous attacks on those on the left who criticise Israel for its policies have unfortunately fuelled right-wing, aggressive anti-Semitism.

  • 30 October 2018 at 7:53pm says:
    The virus is not only always present, but it has also been weaponized and used to political ends, most recently against the Leader of the Labour Party. The laboratory which produced it is not in Britain and, exceptionally, not in Russia. The compound tends to be deadly to anyone's political ambitions. If it isn't, the decontamination is lengthy and awkward. Only the bungling of the assailants has left Corbyn standing, if not more securely than ever. But, as a supporter of the Palestinian cause, he will always remain a target.

  • 31 October 2018 at 4:33am
    Joe Morison says:
    I am imagine you are still reading Proust, Jeremy - I wonder what you make of the anti-Semitism there. It pervades the book, perhaps most notoriously when he describes M. Nissim Bernard as having "the air of a pre-Raphaelite grub on to which hair had been incongruously grafted, like the hairs in the heart of an opal." The idea of the Jew as larva (Proust uses 'larve') invading and devouring the body of Christian society was an established trope by this time; but there really is something deeply repulsive about the idea of hairs trapped in an opal hideously and incongruously present just as the Bloch family were at the casino.

    I went to see the Bellini portrait of Mehmet II in the National Gallery when it was on loan. It's the one that Swann says looks so much like Bloch - it's a fine portrait but it's also not far off a Third Reich representation of the hideous Jew.

    (Spoiler alert) Of course, Proust was half Jewish himself. But then Proust was gay, and by the end of the book virtually every character in the book, apart from the narrator, is exposed as being at least bi-sexual (but probably, one feels, gay really).

    • 31 October 2018 at 7:43am says: @ Joe Morison
      Note, though, that there are no nice characters in La Recherche.

  • 31 October 2018 at 12:04pm
    Rory Allen says:
    Correction: the narrator's grandmother comes across as nice.

    • 31 October 2018 at 3:08pm says: @ Rory Allen
      Having had written the comment, it occured to me too that the grandmother, and possibly the mother, were both nice characters. Will pay attention during my next plunge into Proust, and report to this space.

    • 1 November 2018 at 2:27pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Rory Allen
      Most of Proust’s characters are a chiaroscuro mix of hateful and delightful; that’s one his key themes, that people are a mass of contradictions. Think of St. Loup: sometimes the most charming and loving of friends, at others aloof and dismissive or even petty and mean. Even the Verdurins, who are at their most repulsive bullying Saniette, quietly arrange a private income for him when he faces destitution. The only main character that I can think of who is always in a negative light is Bloch, we know he’s clever but at best he’s absurd (with his classical speaking style) and at worst he’s a crawling snob who doesn’t realize how irritating everyone finds him; and his family is never better than ridiculous. I see Bloch as the embodiment of Proust’s fears as to the worst that people might think of him, the intellectual Jewish parvenu desperate for a taste of society.
      It’s true that the book is passionately pro-Dreyfusard, but that’s about the cause, not Jewish people per se. Outside the Blochs, the only other Jewish person examined is Swann (half Jewish like Proust). His Jewishness never really appears as an issue until he’s dying (until then, he's superficially all gentile), and then his race reveals itself hideously in his wasted face - and it really is maliciously hideous, almost as nasty as the hairs in the opal image.
      I don’t want to get too psychoanalytic, but there does seem to be some sort of self-hate being played out in his treatment of Jewish people in the book.

  • 31 October 2018 at 12:18pm
    Jeremy Bernstein says:
    The Anti-Semitism in Proust is of the genre of people who dislike Jews more than is absolutely necessary. He does have characters who support Dreyfus. Having lived in France I can testify that in that social class there is always a whiff of Anti-Semitism.The practical consequence of this was the complicity of the French during the occupation with the purging of the Jews.

  • 31 October 2018 at 3:14pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Though perambulating down Swann’s and the Guermante’s Ways is a pleasant pastime for all and sundry, these strolls are leading us away from anti-Semitism in the US. A topic of interest (maybe just because it confounds or confuses me) is the phenomenon of American evangelical communities offering Israel their strong support on the allegedly scriptural basis of Jews living in the “Holy Land” as a necessary pre-condition of the Second Coming (apocalyptic wars, kingdom of heaven on earth, last judgment, etc.). Does this have a corollary that American (and British, etc.) Jews should all be migrating there, in order to expedite the arrival of those wonderful last days for all of us? Does it also imply that Israel has to become a “thoroughly religious state”, as it should in the minds of many Hasidic Jews? Maybe somebody can enlighten me about this. I don’t know what this way of thinking means for relations between believing Evangelical Christians and Jews. It seems peculiarly American.

    • 31 October 2018 at 5:24pm
      Jeremy Bernstein says: @ Timothy Rogers
      Anti-Semitism in America is nearly as old as the country. Here for example is Charles Lindbergh
      In his diaries, he wrote: "We must limit to a reasonable amount the Jewish influence ... Whenever the Jewish percentage of total population becomes too high, a reaction seems to invariably occur. It is too bad because a few Jews of the right type are, I believe, an asset to any country." Jews of the right type. Trump has seized on this notion to get his base riled up. He repeats again and again that there is a "caravan" of diseased rapists about to invade the country and that these are being financed by George Soros, Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer. He is impervious to the truth-that they are a thousand miles away and largely women and children- He will continue doing this so long as he is persuaded that this will gain votes. That there is the collateral damage of a few elderly Jews gunned down matters to him only in so far as it calls the attention away from him.The only hope in the near future is that the Democrats win big in a week Our system is so different from the British system that a comparison seems to me to be beside the point.

  • 31 October 2018 at 9:20pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    I concur with Mr. Bernstein’s observation that the only way for creeping or camouflaged anti-Semitism to be successfully countered in the US is through elections. The problem is both cultural and political, but as citizens we have very little ability to effect the broad cultural changes needed to abolish anti-Semitism in tens-of-millions of minds, so we have to go out and vote against as often as vote for. As a long-time reader of (and writer about) Central European history and culture, I would commend readers to Robert Wistrich’s two big books about anti-Semitism in both Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire (“The Jews of Vienna in the Age of Franz Joseph” and “Laboratory for World Destruction”). Here one can read about both Jews and anti-Semites pondering “the Jewish Question” (an interesting categorization, since it could just as well, and more correctly, be called “the anti-Semitic Question”). The idea of “the right type of Jew” who might be accepted as a co-national is pervasive (and depressing) when reading about such eminences as Freud, Schnitzler, Herzl, Kraus, and a host of other outstanding intellectuals and political activists (or, in many cases, pessimistic passivists). The Austro-Hungarian world might be seen as more prognostic for the US than Germany, due to the fact that it was in fact multi-national and multi-cultural, with only legal constraints (and the temperament of the “old Emperor”) keeping a lid on things when it came to anti-Semitism. On the other hand, the political success of a “selective anti-Semite” like Vienna’s famous mayor (and Hitler icon), Karl Lueger (“I get to say who is a Jew and who is not”), is very American, indeed.

  • 6 November 2018 at 9:39pm
    raf37 says:
    There, in contrast to the religious-fueled anti-semetism of the Chrisitan world, has been a minimal equivalence in the muslim countries. By and large jews were not only tolerated but accorded considerable respect as people of the book. Their rise to positions of power and privilege in muslim states never gave rise to envy and hate. Pogroms of the scale and frequency in Europe were unknown.
    The State of Israel and its treatment of a dispossessed minority of Palestinians, their killings, abasement and destruction of property has put an end to all that. The truth is that it would be difficult to find a single citizen (not heads of state) in the muslim world who does not now cordially loathe the Israeli state. Does this also extend to jews? Although there must and will be exceptions, it probably does. But this animosity could, also probably, be reversed if Israel were to reverse its inhuman policies, surrender illegal gains, apologise for the Nakba, and treat the arabs with the dignity and respect they themselves demand in christian and muslim lands.

    • 7 November 2018 at 5:29am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ raf37
      The country that suffered from the worst series of massacres. In the 8th century whole communities were wiped out by Idris the First. In 1033, in the city of Fez, 6,000 Jews were murdered by a Muslim mob. The rise of the Almohad dynasty caused waves of mass murders. According to testimony from that time, 100,000 Jews were slaughtered in Fez and about 120,000 in Marrakesh (this testimony should be viewed with caution). In 1465, another massacre took place in Fez, which spread to other cities in Morocco.
      There were pogroms in Tetuan in 1790 and 1792, in which children were murdered, women were raped and property was looted. Between 1864 and 1880, there were a series of pogroms against the Jews of Marrakesh, in which hundreds were slaughtered. In 1903, there were pogroms in two cities, Taza and Settat, in which over 40 Jews were killed.
      In 1907, there was a pogrom in Casablanca in which 30 Jews were killed and many women were raped. In 1912, there was another massacre in Fez in which 60 Jews were killed and about 10,000 were left homeless. In 1948, another series of pogroms began against the Jews which led to the slaughter of 42 in the cities of Oujda and Jrada.

      A series of massacres occurred in 1805, 1815 and 1830. The situation of the Jews improved with the start of the French conquest in 1830, but that did nor prevent anti-Jewish outbursts in the 1880s. The situation deteriorated again with the rise of the Vichy government. Even before 1934, the country was permeated by Nazi influences, which led to the slaughter of 25 Jews in the city of Constantine. When it achieved independence in 1962, laws were passed against citizenship for anyone who was not a Muslim and their property was effectively confiscated. Most of the Jews left, usually completely penniless, together with the French ("pieds noirs").

      In 1785, hundreds of Jews were murdered by Burza Pasha. Under Nazi influence, harassment of the Jews intensified. Jewish property in Benghazi was plundered, thousands were sent to camps and about 500 Jews were killed. In 1945, at the end of World War II, a program against the Jews began and the number of murdered reached 140. The New York Times reported the horrible scenes of babies and old people who had been beaten to death. In the riots that broke out in 1948, the Jews were more prepared, so only 14 were killed. Following the Six Day War, riots broke out once again and 17 Jews were slaughtered.

      A massacre occurred in Basra in 1776. The situation of the Jews improved under British rule in 1917, but this improvement ended with Iraq's independence in 1932. German influences increased and reached a peak in 1941 in the pogrom known as Farhud, in which 182 Jews were slaughtered (according to historian Elie Kedourie, 600 people were actually murdered) and thousands of houses were pillaged.
      Those were the days of Haj Amin al Husseini, who preached violence against the Jews. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the Iraqi parliament acted according to the Arab League bill and in 1950 and froze the assets of Jews. Sanctions were imposed on those who remained in Iraq. The Farhud massacre and the harassment from 1946 to 1949 to all intents and purposes turned the Iraqi Jews into exiles and refugees. The few thousand who remained in Iraq suffered from harsh edicts. In 1967, 14 Iraqis were sentenced to death on trumped up charges of espionage. Among them were 11 Jews. Radio Iraq invited the masses to the hanging festivities.

      The first blood libel in a Muslim country occurred in 1840, and led to the kidnapping and torture of dozens of Jewish children, sometimes to the point of death, and a pogrom against the Jews. In 1986, the Syrian Minister of Defense, Mustafa Talas, published a book, "The Matzah of Zion," in which he claims that the Jews did, indeed, use the blood of a Christian monk to bake matzah. Same old anti-Semitism, new edition. Other pogroms occurred in Aleppo in 1850 and in 1875, in Damascus in 1848 and in 1890, in Beirut in 1862 and in 1874, and in Dir al Kamar there was another blood libel which also led to a pogrom in 1847. That year, there was a pogrom against the Jews of Jerusalem, which was the result of that blood libel. In 1945, the Jews of Aleppo suffered severe pogroms. 75 Jews were murdered and the community was destroyed. There was a resurgence of the violence in 1947, which turned most of the Syrian Jews into refugees. Those who remained there lived for many years as hostages.

      There was a pogrom against the Jews of Mashhad in 1839. A mob was incited to attack Jews, and slaughtered almost 40. The rest were forced to convert. That is how the Marranos of Mashhad came into being. In 1910, there was a blood libel in Shiraz in which 30 Jews were murdered and all Jewish homes were pillaged.

      There were fluctuations in relations that ranged between tolerance and inferior subsistence, between harassment and pogroms. The Rambam's Letter to Yemen was sent following a letter he received from the leader of the Yemeni Jews, describing edicts of forced conversion issued against the Jews (1173). There were further waves of apostasy edicts which cannot be detailed here for lack of space.
      One of the worst milestones was the Mawza exile. Three years after Imam Al Mahdi took power in 1676, he drove the Jews into one of the most arid districts of Yemen. According to various accounts, 60 — 75% of the Jews died as a result of the exile. Many and varied edicts were imposed on the Jews, differing only in severity. One of the harshest was the Orphans' Edict, which ordered the forced conversion of orphaned children to Islam. In nearby Aden, which was under British rule, pogroms occurred in 1947 which took the lives of 82 Jews. 106 of the 170 shops that were owned by Jews were completely destroyed. Hundreds of houses and all the community's buildings were burned down.

      As in the other Arab countries, the Jews of Egypt also suffered inferior status for hundreds of years. A significant improvement occurred when Muhammad Ali came to power in 1805. The testimony of French diplomat, Edmond Combes, leaves nothing in doubt: "To the Muslims, no race is more worthy of contempt than the Jewish race." Another diplomat added, "The Muslims do not hate any other religion the way they hate that of the Jews."
      Following the blood libel in Damascus, similar libels began to spread in Egypt as well and incited mobs to carry out a series of attacks: in Cairo in 1844, 1890, and in 1901-1902; and Alexandria in 1870, 1882 and in 1901-1907. Similar attacks also occurred in Port Said and in Damanhur.
      Later on, there were riots against the Jews at the end of World War II, in 1945, in which 10 were killed and hundreds were injured. In 1947, the Companies Law was passed, which severely damaged Jewish businesses and led to the confiscation of property. In 1948, following the UN resolution on partition, riots began in Cairo and Alexandria. The dead numbered between 80 and 180. Tens of thousands were forced to leave, many fleeing and abandoning their property. The lot of those who remained did not improve. In 1956, a law was passed in Egypt which effectively denied the Jews citizenship, forcing them to leave the country with no property. This was an act of pure expulsion and mass property confiscation.

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