Anti-Semitism is everywhere these days. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam’s leader, accuses “wicked Jews” of using him to disrupt the women’s movement. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) intimates that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee pays politicians to support Israel and, more recently, wonders about people pushing for “allegiance to a foreign country,” triggering this week’s fierce debate about anti-Semitism in U.S. politics. Just a few months ago, 11 worshipers were gunned down in a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Anti-Semitism is hitting American Jews from the left and the right. Compelled to apologize for her first comments, Omar thanked Jews for “educating” her about “the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes.” But who, other than historians and some Jewish communal leaders, knows that history?
When Americans think of anti-Semitism, they think of the Holocaust. Teenagers read Elie Wiesel’s “Night” in middle school to learn about Auschwitz. A quarter-century after the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum opened on the Mall, visitors still need timed-entry tickets during prime tourist season. Holocaust memorials educate visitors in Miami Beach and Newport News, Va.
This focus on the Holocaust gets Americans off the hook. Anti-Semitism is something that happened over there, in Europe — an Old World problem, not an American, New World problem.
But anti-Semitism is an American problem. Its history is not simply about offensive tropes but also policies, attitudes and actions that have resulted in discrimination and violence. It is this history, which is rarely conveyed in classrooms or monuments, that we need to confront as a nation.
Anti-Semitism on U.S. soil goes back to Colonial days. In 1654, 23 Jews, fleeing the Inquisition that threatened to reach them in Brazil, landed in New Amsterdam, the Dutch colony that became New York . There, Gov. Peter Stuyvesant wanted to eject this “deceitful race — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ,” people he despised for “their customary usury and deceitful trading.”
Fortunately for these refugees, New Amsterdam’s Jewish leaders successfully interceded. Stuyvesant’s request that these new lands not “be infected by people of the Jewish nation” was denied.
But other Americans echoed Stuyvesant’s sentiments. Immigrants sailing to the United States carried anti-Semitism in their cultural baggage alongside their rucksacks. Back home, they had imbibed its lessons about perfidious Jews who had crucified their Lord and cheated their ancestors for millennia. And these ideas were everywhere. When the popular book “Mother Goose,” published in England around 1780, made its way to these shores, it had the verse: “Jack sold his egg / To a rogue of a Jew / Who cheated him out / Of half of his due.”
Eras of anxiety, disappointment and insecurity continued to stoke anti-Semitism. In 1862, during the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant expelled the “Jews, as a class,” from his military district. Although President Abraham Lincoln countermanded the order, the legacy of an expulsion on U.S. soil painfully echoed Jewish persecution across the ages. Jewish history records expulsions from England, France, Spain, Portugal and other lands.
By the end of the 19th century, Jews, once accepted as paying guests at boardinghouses, hotels and resorts, were turned away. The rise of nativism in immigration debates led to new “No Israelite” policies and signs advertising “Gentiles Only.” Anti-Semitism limited Jews’ access not only to hotels but also to social and professional clubs, private schools, camps and fraternities. If Jews were lucky enough to gain access, they faced resentment. A newly married woman living in a boardinghouse early in the 20th century in the South overheard her neighbor demand that their landlady get rid of the “stinking Jews.”
Twentieth-century anti-Semitism took new forms. When the prominent industrialist Henry Ford introduced Americans to the idea of a world Jewish conspiracy in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, his reputation enhanced its respectability. Social exclusion morphed into educational discrimination as Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Yale and many other schools set quotas on the number of Jews admitted.
During the Great Depression, most Americans did not want Jews persecuted in Nazi Germany to enter the United States. There were too many problems at home to open the gates to impoverished refugees. Two-thirds of Americans believed German Jews were responsible to some extent for their own persecution.
As I wrote in my new book, “America’s Jewish Women,” an anonymous “Jewess” described anti-Semitism’s impact on her family in a women’s magazine in 1942. Her daughter had planned to vacation with a friend, but the hotel told her that she wouldn’t find the right “company” there. Her son wanted to be a chemist, but that industry didn’t hire Jews. Looking across the ocean to Germany, she wondered: Could it happen here, too?
At World War II’s end, the killing of millions of Jews stunned many Americans. Newsreels showing bodies piled high in concentration camps began to turn the tide against anti-Semitism. In the 1947 Academy Award-winning film “Gentleman’s Agreement,” a journalist played by Gregory Peck pretends to be a Jew to expose the well-known secret of polite society’s discrimination against Jews in hotels, housing, jobs and on the playground.
But discrimination, and violence, persisted.
On Oct. 12, 1958, in the wee hours of the morning, a bomb detonated in Atlanta’s historic Reform synagogue, the Temple. White supremacists targeted its outspoken rabbi, Jacob Rothschild, for his support of civil rights. Only the timing of the explosion prevented the catastrophic loss of life for the children going to Sunday school that morning and the couple who were to marry there that day. During the civil rights struggle of the last half of the 1950s, 90 percent of the bombs planted by extremists targeted African Americans; the other 10 percent targeted Jews in their synagogues and community centers and their rabbis at home.
As for the anti-Semitism tearing up the Women’s March this year, that, too, is not new. In 1980, in Copenhagen, during one of the three United Nations Decade for Women conferences, whenever Israeli delegates attempted to speak, they were shouted down and even physically menaced. American Jewish women attending the meeting heard: “The only good Jew is a dead Jew.”
If I were asked to help educate Omar, I would reflect less on the history of anti-Semitic tropes. Instead, I would focus on this history of anti-Semitic acts. They far better demonstrate why her Jewish colleagues are so worried about her education.