This week briefly describes the emergence of political antisemitism. Next week we turn to its development in Germany and, the following week, in the United States.
“…the Jews learned to their sorrow that Judeophobia was not neutralized by a mere governmental decree, nor by theories of Enlightenment, nor by assimilation.”
Introduction: Emancipation, the promise of acceptance and equality, washed over the Jews as something akin to messianic deliverance. Two thousand years of relentless prejudice, persecution and murder were about to end as religion was overtaken by enlightened secularism. Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher of the eighteenth century, inspired the Jewish Enlightenment movement called Haskalah and the religious stream known today as Reform Judaism, both intended to bring Jewish identity and religious practice into the modern nation-state. For the first time in Diaspora history the Jews felt free to choose…, and many, aware of their recent and distant history, chose the “insurance policy” of conversion. Heinrich Heine, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy are two such prominent converts. As Hugo Valentin wrote in his book Anti-Semitism, “more German Jews were baptized between 1800 and 1818, than in the previous 1800 years put together.”
But conversion was, at best, a temporary escape from discrimination and persecution. To Richard Wagner Felix Mendelssohn’s conversion did not did not make him a “Christian.” For the Jews conversion was a matter of choice, but that did not assure acceptance by Christian society. And Jew-hatred is too deeply engrained in Western history and culture to disappear by political fiat, or by “conversion.”
Far from improving the condition of the Jews, emancipation within Christian secular society would result in an even more dangerous situation for the Jews of Christendom than their persecutions under religious authority.
Political antisemitism in Europe: The First Anti-Jewish Congress was convened in Dresden on September 11, 1882. “[T]he participants wove virtually all the threads of the “Jewish question” into the fabric – the fabrication – of a monumental struggle against international ‘Jewish parasitism.’ Claiming that all Christian nations had no choice but to recognize the Jew as biologically alien, it called for a reversal of Jewish emancipation and for the expansion of an antisemitic ‘movement of self-protection.’” It continued:
“[T]he Jews are a foreign race [that] threatens the culture, civilization, prosperity, and future of the European Christian peoples… The victorious ideals of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, and fraternity – have torn down the barriers against the Jewish race that had been erected for the protection of the Christian peoples…. [C]heating, stealing from them [Christians], bleeding them dry, bringing ruin upon them, perjuring against them, dishonoring, and even killing them constitutes an activity pleasing to their God… [According to their] Talmud non-Jews are enemies destined for eradication.”
The future Nazi program was already written in Dresden fifty years earlier.
Édouard Drumont, collage with the antisemitic newspaper he founded, La Libre Parole of September 10, 1899. The headline reads: “The Traitor [Dreyfus] Convicted, Ten Years of Detention and Degradation, Down with the Jews!”(Wikipedia)
The following year the National Antisemitic Party was founded in Hungary and, in 1886, theAlliance Antijuive Universelle was created in the birthplace of Jewish Emancipation, France. And three years later Eduard Drumont founded another antisemitic party, Ligue antisemite française. The author of La France Juive (Jewish France), and editor of the virulently antisemitic paper, La Libre Parole, Drumont was elected to the French Chamber of Deputies in 1902.
By 1905 Russia could boast two antisemitic parties, The Russian Assembly and the Union of Russian People. In German the Free Committee for a German Workers'' Peace was created in Bremen, in 1918. This party would undergo several name changes until finally settling on the National Socialist German Workers'' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, in 1920. In 1921 Adolph Hitler became its chairman.
Political antisemitism in the United States: Although no political party to my knowledge actually contained the word “antisemitic” in its name, several “mainline” parties were either motivated by, or supported an antisemitic agenda. The most prominent among earlier parties were the Know Nothings before the Civil War, and the Ku Klux Klan in the wake of that war.
“In 1835 a group of New Yorkers organized a state political party, the Native American Democratic Association. Association candidates, running on a platform that opposed Catholics and immigrants… gained 40 percent of the vote in the fall elections.” The Know-Nothing movement emerged in 1849. “[It was] a group of secret anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant political organizations that called itself the American Party. Comprised principally of native-born, white, Anglo-Saxon males… [they supported legislation] that included stringent restrictions on immigration, exclusion of foreign-born persons from voting or holding political office and a residency requirement of more than 20 years for U.S. citizenship… They also supported daily Bible readings in schools and tried to ensure that only Protestants could teach in the public schools.”
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by Confederate Civil War veterans. “[A]t first, it focused its anger and violence on African-Americans.” It resurfaced in 1915 following the lynching of Leo Frank.
Lucille and Leo Frank at Frank''s trial (Widipedia)
In 1913 the young Jewish superintendant of an Atlanta pencil factory was accused of the murder of a 13-year old employee, Mary Phagan. Although there was abundant evidence pointing to the factory janitor as her murderer heightened antisemitism surrounding the death and trial resulted in Frank being convicted. The sentence was eventually commuted by the governor citing inconsistencies, calling the conviction a miscarriage of justice. A mob consisting of the elite of Georgia society including a past governor, ex-senators, lawyers, businessmen and numerous law enforcement officers broke into the jail and drove Leo Frank to the Marietta farm of the sheriff where they lynched him the following morning. Tom Watson, who would later be a candidate for US president, was an organizer of the lynch mob. Soon after the lynching Watson went to Stone Mountain with a group of followers and burned a cross. The Klan was re-born, its new target, the Jews.
Other writings in this Series: