Anti-Semitism in America — Then and Now

Discrimination, hatred, and persecution based on identity have been predominant in the history of human civilisation. Apart from race, one such identity is that of religion which is very defined and prominent. In our history, as we have evolved through few thousand years of civilisation there has been wars, fights, and killings in name of religion, race, and ethnicity. But as we advanced, it was supposed to take us to a level where we as humans could have peacefully co-existed; unfortunately, on the contrary, the vile idea of religious superiority just strengthened and took upon us, to the extent that it compelled discrimination and violence towards others on religious lines.

One of the goriest incidents in the history of the human civilisation were the Holocaust where people because of their religious identity were put in a gas chamber and left to die an unimaginable and horrible death. It is in the backdrop of this religious hatred and discrimination leading to violence, persecution, and ethnic cleansing, that I would be very briefly discussing the last 100years of Anti-Semitism in America.

Anti-Semitism: what it means?

Without getting into the details of what is Semitism and who are Semitics the simplest and the most relevant meaning of Anti-Semitism is hatred, discrimination, prejudice, and violence towards Jews(Bernard, pp 25–36). One may manifest or express Anti-Semitism in several ways which includes violence, discrimination, and killings as well. The word Anti-Semite was brought to popular use in 1879 in Germany and was synonymous to “Jew-Hatred”. Therefore, in a nutshell, any hostile behaviour vocal or physical, motivated by hatred against Jews based on religious lines is Anti-Semitism.

A brief history of Anti-Semitism and its manifestation:

With recorded facts, the earliest persecution of Jews can be traced back to the 3rd century and that which continued during the middle ages and reached to an extreme level of social, cultural, political and racial hatred by the latter half of the 19th century.

With the religious hatred against the Jews embroiling in late 19th-century European society, it was politically fruitful to be vocal against the Jews and be an Anti-Semite. This was precisely the ground and incentive behind Wilhelm Mar, founding the “Antisemiten-Liga” (Anti-Semitic, League) in 1879(Levy, pp 445–446). This kind of hatred and discrimination inspired an exodus of Jews from Europe to U.S.A in the very beginning of the 20th century. Statistics indicate that between the years 1900 and 1924 itself the number of Jews who moved to U.SA was around 1.75 million. When the Jews started pouring in to save themselves from hatred, discrimination and eventually persecution in Europe, there was a demographical change in U.SA as to the percentage population of the Jews. The population of the Jews grew from about 1% of the American population to 3.5%.

The earliest forms of manifestation of hatred against the Jews or professing Anti-Semitism in America evolved at several levels. The Jews were discriminated in work and employment and this was an attack on their livelihood. They were also not easily allowed to get a residence or home and were denied housing grounds or lands. At the social level, there were restrictions or no memberships for Jews in organisations or institutions, both social and recreational. Even in education, there were limitations for the Jews to get into teaching positions or into a University. Meanwhile, in Europe, violence against the Jews was commonplace. They were beaten humiliated and even persecuted. With this more and more Jews came to America for safety and in search of a better life. But, unfortunately for the Jews, there was not much relief, as what awaited was the beginning of Anti-Semitism in America. Though it was not as bad as what happened in Europe, it was still horrible and that has left its traits embedded in the American society that surfaces every now and then even today.

The Development of an Anti-Semitic society in America:

With the hatred and persecution of the Jews in Europe many of them started moving to America and more after the civil war in American History. During the latter half of the 19th century, as the number of Jews gradually started increasing in America so was the hatred growing.The Americans saw Jews as someone who did not belong to their land and were a burden on their resources.

The deep and the religious background that added fuel to the fire of this hatred was the fact that America was predominantly a Christian nation and so the Jews were disliked; the hardcore Christians believed that the Jews were a sort of evil, tracing the legitimacy of their hatred to interpreting Jews as “ChrisT Killers”(Dinnerstein, pg35). The situation worsened day by day. The Jews were discriminated against anywhere and in any way possible. There were incidents when a Jewish student was not granted admission into a college or University, only because of the fact that he was a Jew. The religious attitude of the Americans and their beliefs were very harsh against the Jews. The Jews were literally pushed to become a second-class citizen. It should also be noted here that despite the first amendment, there was near to no relief for the Jews. The dominance of Christian beliefs was rampant and deep, which ratified the vilification of Jews making it too commonplace.

The call for Jews to be kept out of America was echoing since as early as 1890s. This was the time when the Baptists started opposing, almost officially, the coming of the Jews to Urban America. The ministers who represented the majority of the Baptists were very concerned and had a strong dislike for the Jews coming in from Europe to America fleeing persecution. The fears of these Baptists representatives was that the Jews coming to the urban localities would destroy and ruin the Grand Christian Civilization (Dinnerstein, pp-42). There were politicians who rallied across the country uniting people against the Jews and calling for solidarity in name of Christian faith and Jews as a killer of their beloved saviour. Also, the Protestant groups believed that they had to save the Jews from an eternal doom by bringing them to the church and converting them to their faith. They saw the immigration of the Jews in America as a threat to the Christian culture of America and therefore protested wholeheartedly against the influx of the Jews into America.

The lynching of Leo Frank to death was one such gory act which is historical as it almost legitimised the exploitation and killing of Jews in the American society (Ribufo, pg 201).

The Americans always questioned the role of Jews in the building of the nation and they trickled their arguments down to the fact that there was no contribution of Jews in making of “their” nation. These kinds of rhetoric and narratives further fuelled the hostility against the Jews as they were always asked to prove their patriotism and often declared as traitors. Talking about the incidents of hatred against the Jews Leonard Dinnerstein in his book Anti-Semitism in America tells how even the children had Jew hating rhymes and the one, in particular, was:

“I had a piece of pork, I put it on a fork, —

and I gave it to the curly-headed Jew,

Pork, Pork, Pork, Jew, Jew, Jew.”(pg37)

This clearly shows to what level, the hatred against the Jews was consolidated and cemented even in minds of the children. A whole generation of kids was fed on such hatred and Anti-Semitism. Also, the stereotypes against the Jews were manifold and deep-rooted. It was so much so that a novel by Anzia Yezierska called the “Bread Givers” had a typical stereotyping of the Jews and this Novel was widely accepted and applauded in by the American Christian fraternity, facing no criticism. The protagonist of the novel a girl named Sarah is very upset with the behaviour of her father.

The portrayal of her father as a typical Jewish man who has no responsibility apart from reading Torah (Jewish, religious texts) and as a merciless father is a very strong stereotyping of an adult Jew(Yezierska). This not only solidified the stereotype that was already there in the society but was also symbolic. As Jews were perceived by the Americans to be very stringent with their beliefs and that’s why they thought that Jews could never fit into the American way of life, writings like this only worsened the plight of the American Jews. This is one example of how the constant bashing of Jews at social, cultural and political level was fetched from all means.

The plight of Jews and rising Anti-Semitism:

With the situation worsening for the Jews they saw more and more social exclusion and post 1924 when their numbers rose to 3.5% of the American population the hatred against them kept building. The anti-Semitism was on the rise until the holocaust and thereafter the situations changed a little but not much. Everyday life for Jews in America has been a struggle and especially given their success in holding business enterprises and getting into higher education.

The magnitude of hatred against the Jews could be understood from the fact that in 1921 and 1924 there were legislative laws passed to restrict the immigration of Jews who were fleeing the persecution in Europe.

The white supremacists and the dominant Christian groups were behind this legislation that limited the quota of Jews coming into United States. With slogans like “Save America for Americans” Senator Robert Reynolds of North Carolina made a proposition to put to an end to all the immigration of Jews into America. He was also running his own Anti-Semitic newspaper called the American Vindicator. The Jews in America have been targeted as scapegoats throughout its history of past 100 years.

Have things changed?

With a notorious history of such deep-rooted hatred against the Jews, a change in the situation is not very evident as the latent hatred still keeps surfacing from time to time. Charles Liebman in his book Survival, Anti-Semitism and Negotiation says that he believes that the American Jews will witness rising levels of hostility because of the increased polarisation in the American society. With polarisation leading to more of identity politics, it will only incite the latent Anti-Semitism. Leibman also argues that there will be rising levels of anti-Semitism in the American society as the blacks are likely to become more anti-Semitic as their level of resentment and frustration grows(pg,437).

The situation has superficially changed but there is still anti-Semitism in America as it has always been. The stereotypes against the Jews is still strong and deep-rooted in the general mindset of the American population. One such convincing example of stereotype against the Jews is manifested in Art Spiegelman’s Maus I. The depiction of Jews as meek and feeble rats against the powerful and ferocious Nazis as cats have a lot to say in itself (Spiegelman,3–5). This shows that still there exists a stereotype of the Jews who are seen as weak and fragile to the extent that it is logical and humorous for them to be compared to a rat. This kind of literature or graphics is a testimony to the fact that Anti-Semitism is still there in the American society; in fact, it never went.

Anti-Semitism in Today’s America:

Though a lot is claimed to have changed in the past 100 years of Anti-Semitic America, the facts are contrary to the popular belief and such brittle claims. The resurgence of Anti-Semitism is very evident and deliberate attempts at targeting the Jews has been witnessed in several recent incidents. The white supremacists marching in Charlottesville were motivated by racism, Anti-Semitism, religious hatred, and supremacy and gave strong signals of how much Anti-Semitism is still thriving in today’s America. This remarkable incident which was one of its kind of this level in 21st Century America is not a lone incident either. Especially, post last General Elections the far right and the radical fringe groups have become more vocal and some of their prominent agendas are inspired and motivated by Anti-Semitism.

The recent voices and sloganeering of “America for Americans” resonates with the early 19th-century advocacy of keeping the Jews out from America because they were perceived as a threat to the Growth, Integrity, and Prosperity of the American people. Similar agendas, propaganda and modus operandi have started to emerge. The Anti-Semitism that seemed to have started to dilute is now finding its resurrection in a potential white supremacists revival. Adding facts to an argument that expresses fear of a potential rampant rise of Anti-Semitism in the United States is the recent testimonials of University students who have faced peer discrimination on religious grounds. The incidents propelling hatred and discrimination deriving their legitimacy from that long-held belief of anti-Semitism of “Jew-Hatred” are still rampant on university campuses and in workplaces. Still, to date the Jews who are Americans by birth and who have inculcated American values and beliefs are seen as aliens, and are being questioned about their patriotism. The American values and the American way of life is still not seen as something that is inclusive enough to take in the Jews. Though most Americans do not go to a church but still the Christian values are as intact as it has been in the last century. Moreover, the advancement of the Jews in business and key positions in Education and technology is not well received by average Americans. The stereotypes are there and have still not found a way out from the mindset of the American society. There are more than enough clear indicators of how anti-Semitism is still dominant in America. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the Jews in America are still seen as a threat.

References

Bernard, Louis. The New Anti-Semitism, 2006, pp 25–36.

Levy, Richard.S. Marr Wilhelm (1819–1904),2005, vol-2, pp-445–446.

Dinnerstein, Leonard. Anti-Semitism in America, New York, Oxford University Press, 1994, pp 34–37.

Ribuffo, Leo.P. Henry Ford and The International Jew,1980, pp 201.

Yezierska, Anzia. Bread Givers, Newyork Persia Books, 1999.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus I, Pantheon Books, 1986.

--

--

--

Content Strategist With A Passion For Evolving Technologies

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Recommended from Medium

Educating Myself About Africa

A history of People Migration

DECENTRALIZED AUTONOMOUS GOVERNMENTS (DAGs) — Are They Possible?

Primary Source: Lincoln’s National Emergency

Violence: Anti-Judaism and Antisemitism

Colors : as connotations

People Were Beheaded And Eaten By Dog, The Rwanda Genocide That Ended A million Lives In 100 Days

Cultural Memorialization of Indenture in Guadeloupe

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Utsav Kumar

Utsav Kumar

Content Strategist With A Passion For Evolving Technologies

More from Medium

Neo-Neo: From Sympathy to Support

A Point on News Diversity

O West, where have you gone?

The Rime of the Impulsive Floridian