Polling of American opinion taken in the mid-1930’s, soon after Krystallnacht, found that.
“fifty-three percent believed that ‘Jews are different and should be restricted and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported…Another poll found that, 35-40 percent of the population was prepared to accept an anti-Jewish campaign [the existing model being Nazi Germany]… 23 percent of respondents in one 1945 survey [said] they would vote for a congressional candidate if the candidate declared "himself as being against the Jews" [another 35% said] it would not affect their vote.”
Westboro church members picketing the Virginia Holocaust Museum, 2011
American antisemitism from Congress’s Immigration Restriction Act of 1924 through official American apathy regarding the unfolding murder campaign up to and during the Holocaust is, for all purposes, identical to European tradition. Is there a lesson in official and popular antisemitism in the post-Holocaust experience of the Rosenberg trial, Congress’s antisemitic witch hunt in Hollywood? How explain that a Jewish spy for Israel would be sentenced to life in prison when a Christian spy for Saudi Arabia walk out of the courthouse free? Does this describe a pattern or an explainable series of unrelated incidents?
If a “pattern,” were these government actions contrary to the ideal of the “will of the people;” or were they consistent with, and generally supported by, the American public?
Surveys of popular opinion covering the period demonstrate that government policy closely mirrors public sentiment.
For generations American Jews have insisted that the United States represents a departure from Old World antisemitism, that American history reflects not just tolerance but acceptance of Jews and Judaism. But American Jewish faith in the exceptionality or our homeland has a recent precedent. Before the Holocaust German Jewry, and on even better evidence, proclaimed their fatherland “exceptional.”
The best evidence against that faith in American “exceptionality” are the polls testing for antisemitism in the United States during the decades before and following the Holocaust:
‘[N]ational public opinion polls taken from the mid nineteen thirties to the late nineteen forties… showed that over half the American population saw Jews as greedy and dishonest... too powerful… 35-40 percent of the population was prepared to accept an anti-Jewish campaign.”
Narrowing the surveys down to year, a 1938 poll describes some 60% of Americans holding a “low opinion of Jews.” 41 percent viewed Jews as having "too much power,” and that number “rose to 58 percent by 1945.” In earlier pages reference was made to that 1939 Roper poll that concluded that 61% of Americans,
“felt that Jews should [not] be treated like other people”… Fifty-three percent believed that "Jews are different and should be restricted" and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.”
Since the Roper poll was taken in 1939, it followed Krystallnacht which received wide coverage in the American press. And sentiment towards American Jews did not improve as were murdered in escalating numbers:
“Several surveys taken from 1940 to 1946 found that Jews were seen as a greater threat to the welfare of the United States than any other national, religious, or racial group… 23 percent of respondents in one 1945 survey [reported] they would vote for a congressional candidate if the candidate declared "himself as being against the Jews" and as many as 35 percent saying it would not affect their vote.”
All of these surveys reflecting widespread antipathy towards American Jews were taken before, during and following the Holocaust. The polls were taken against the backdrop of media reports describing Germany’s persecution progressing from restricting (1933), to isolating (1935) and finally murdering “the Jews” (1939-45). Krystallnacht; Heydrich’s Einzatsgruppen murder of one and a half million Jews; he horrors of Auschwitz: all, as reflected in the polls, seemed to feed Jew-hatred in the United States. As the Holocaust progressed antisemitism in America intensified!
The creation of the Anti-Defamation League in 1913 was Bnai Briths response to the lynching of its Georgia director, Leo Frank. ADL’s "Berkeley Studies" Five-Year Study of Antisemitism in the United States is the first comprehensive survey of antisemitism in the United States and consists of seven volumes each highlighting a facet of antisemitism in America. The first volume discusses Christian Beliefs and anti-Semitism which, read alongside Catholic theologian Rosemary Reuther’s Faith and Fratricide provides an excellent introduction to both American antisemitism, and the Christian roots of anti-Judaism and its Jewish Problem. The Berkeley Studies was begun twenty years after the failed Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.
Volume Seven summarizes the earlier six. It describes the distribution of antisemitic attitudes among non-Jewish Americans for the period as, 31% “least,” 32% “moderate,” and 37%, “intensive.” Disregarding the category “least,” the findings are startling. According to ADL, in the 1960’s 69% of Americans were moderately to very antisemitic. But even those surveyed as “least” still agreed with one or two antisemitic stereotypes. And how many “stereotypes” makes an “antisemite”?
According to the Antidefamation League approximately 50 million Americans surveyed for antisemitic beliefs in 2011 fell into the “most antisemitic” category!
While there seems to be no precise polling of antisemitism among Germany’s non-Jewish population before the Holocaust, historian David Engel estimates that,
“the Holocaust was planned and executed by only a select coterie of Nazi leaders and officials, who could count on the support of a hard core of Nazi true believers that probably numbered about 10 percent of the adult German population.”
That 10 percent figure lies comfortably within the range of ADL’s “Intensive” category of American antisemitism in all surveys taken since before that organization began polling for antisemitism in the United States.
Summarizing ADL’s 2011 Executive Summary:
“Perceptions of disproportionate Jewish power in the U.S. continue to dominate the views of the most anti‐Semitic.
“In America, 31 percent believe Jews are responsible for the death of Christ, a number that has remained steady through the past decade.
“Remarkably, since 1964, approximately 30 percent of Americans have consistently believed that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to America, even though the makeup of the U.S. population has changed dramatically.”
Among other findings,
• Fourteen percent (14%) agreed with the statement that "Jews have too much power in the U.S. today," an increase from 13 percent in 2009.
• Fifteen percent (15 %) agreed that Jews are "more willing to use shady practices," up slightly from 2009.
• Sixteen percent (16%) agreed that Jewish "business people are so shrewd, others don''t have a chance," up from 13 percent in 2009.
• Nearly half of all respondents agreed with the statement that Jews "stick together more than other Americans, and 33 percent said they believe Jews "always like to be at the head of things."
• One-quarter of Americans believe that Jews "still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust."
The “What” of antisemitism in everyday America is well described in the 1965-70 Berkeley Study. It was most successful in describing the “Why” of American antisemitism in its first volume, Christian Beliefs and anti-Semitism. Where it is weakest is in ignoring the persistence of antisemitism throughout the Diaspora inherited from 1700 years of Christian history. And so ADL clings stubbornly to the same failed efforts of the past, that which is easiest to quantify and analyze: there is an obvious correlation between “education” and “prejudice!” But nowhere does this important effort, the polling pulse of American antisemitism over time define that which is said to inspire, “prejudice.” And so the follower of the polls is left with a “mysterious” something aggravated somehow by economic and social strains among our non-Jewish neighbors.
Extensive and continuing surveys are not necessary to prove that “education” expands experience and has the potential to increase “tolerance.” Under this formula Germany, likely the most “educated” and “cultured” country at that time, should have been least likely to perpetrate the “extermination” of the Jewish people! But it did.
According to ADL, since education leads to increased tolerance, the way to overcome antisemitism is to educate Christian America regarding Jews, Judaism and specifically Jewish contributions to America. And ADL has devoted itself to this mission for the past century. Yet antisemitism continues to rise and fall according to economic and social stress, its baseline hardcore and most dangerous faction, ADL’s “extremes,” never falling below 10%, usually above the hard core who are credited with executing Hitler’s dreamed Final Solution. Fifty-million Americans, according to ADL’s most recent polling, hold extreme antisemitic views, and still the explanation is traditional, as is the determination to assert Education a viable counter to antisemitism.
Both American Zionism and the Anti-defamation League appeared at about the same time, their leaders drawn from the same Jewish elite. In Europe Zionism was a revolutionary movement. American Jewry, maintaining exceptionality for its homeland, sought for and found a compromise providing a definition of Zionism allowing for America-the-exceptional: Since there was no Jewish Problem in the United States it was American Zionism’s role in the movement to work for the creation of a refuge in Palestine for European Jews in need. American Jewry needed no land of refuge since America was our new Jerusalem, an attitude unchanged until today. Even with our experience of the Holocaust, and that previous exceptional Jewish community, German Jewry. Not surprisingly German Jewry’s attitude towards their fatherland arrived in this country with émigrés who would become the leaders of American Zionism, and the ADL.
German Jewry clung to German “exceptionality” almost to the end. Martin Buber, at the time a community leader, assumed the German people would quickly tire of Hitler and National Socialism and put them out of office. He discouraged emigration as defiance of Hitler, describing Nazis not “real” Germans. In the end the “educated and cultured” Germans on which Buber and many Jews counted stood by in silence as their Jewish neighbors were dragged off to their fate.
Is antisemitism’s dramatic rise in Europe today understandable due to a decline in education and culture? Not yet seventy years after Auschwitz and political parties with an antisemitism agenda are sprouting across the continent. Echoes of nineteenth century Germany: street rallies with shouts of death to “the Jews,” and physical assaults recalling the rise of Nazism in Germany.
The question we Jews should be asking is: if “education” fails as explanation for Germany and the Final Solution, for 21st Century resurgent political antisemitism in Europe, then clearly ADL’s approach is wrong, and with it the optimism regarding American “exceptionality.” And that which is avoided is to overcome denial and recognize that the millennial Jewish Problem which Hitler clearly addressed, that millennial Jewish Problem permeates all of Christendom, including America’s City on the Hill.
If the Holocaust was but the most recent effort to solve the Problem, and it did not quite succeed, then what does that represent for the Jewish future?
This question, of course, is what has been discussed in preceding chapters, the roots of Christianity’s Jewish Problem and its evolution into what historians today refer to as “lethal” and “annihilative” antisemitism. As the above photograph of that otherwise “normal-appearing” Westboro picketer suggests, at a fundamentalist religious level the reason for traditional anti-Judaism is a matter of eternal Jewish guilt: if it appears in scripture, it is God’s Word. First Century gospel accusations became, with the Middle Ages, superstition-fed stereotypes to a population seemingly under constant threat by forces beyond control. Jesus failed to return as expected at the turn of the millennium, the year 1000; the Black Plague fed superstition and created new anti-Jewish stereotypes which have survived until today in Western society’s cultural “subconscious.”
Christian scripture condemning “the Jews”; subconscious cultural stereotypes describing “the Jews”: these represent the bedrock of antisemitism. Both exist beyond the reach of “education”, our continuing and optimistic fantasy represented by generations of Jewish idealists and Christian “liberals.” But how convince Christians through “education” that their scriptures, their “inerrant word of God,” is the source of antisemitism and bedrock of the Holocaust, that their very religion’s Jewish Problem remains yet unresolved?
Anti-Jewish stereotypes are deeply ingrained in the psyche of the West, its cultural unconscious. With enormous and consistent effort the determined few may force them down, deny them expression even under extreme environmental stress. And these were those honored today in Israel’s Yad v’Shem as “righteous gentiles,” honored for risking their own lives on behalf of saving Jews from the Holocaust. Their tiny numbers itself describes the limits to which “education” has possibility of success.
The more immediate question is not ADL’s interfaith outreach, its focus on educating those open to dialogue. Interfaith dialogue is always positive in principal and should be supported. That it will not fulfill its intended goal is the problem. What accounts for our faith that we, of all previous generations, in defiance of two thousand years experience; that we American Jews are truly the “chosen,” have finally arrived, the exception to the previously unbending historical rule?
This insistence, particularly in the shadow of the Holocaust, expresses a millennial Jewish yearning, the need to belong, to be accepted by our neighbors and Diaspora homeland. This yearning, born of rejection and persecution, even in awareness that the present is, if anything, even less likely to provide, to accept us, is so powerful as to overwhelm even the clearest presentation of fact-based warning.
Pinsker and Herzl raised alarm decades before what for them would have been the unimaginable, the Holocaust. Perhaps before the Holocaust we, as our predecessors in Germany, might assert “exceptionality.” That was before the Final Solution and six million Jews murdered as solution to the Jewish Problem. Is it rational to assert exceptionality for ourselves aware of its lie? Can we afford the self-deception, the assertion that the Holocaust happened over there? Does need for acceptance overrule judgment and reason. And what will denial achieve for us which history indicates awaits?