A short happier history of American antisemitism

We need clear redlines against violence, hatred and bigotry, with no partisan myopia.

By
November 6, 2018 20:00
4 minute read.
A short happier history of American antisemitism

Police near the "Tree of Life" synagogue in Pittsburgh. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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It’s tempting to add the Pittsburgh synagogue slaughter to a catalogue of American antisemitic incidents and then draw overly-grim conclusions. Yet America is exceptional; it’s not Europe or the Middle East. The history of American antisemitism is more multidimensional than a Wiki-list of taunts and terrorism – and far happier, too.

True, American Jew-hatred dates back to Peter Stuyvesant when he founded New Amsterdam in the 1600s. We can find martyrs in Leo Frank, lynched in Atlanta in 1913, and Yankel Rosenbaum, stabbed in Crown Heights in 1991. We can find ever-more vile Jew-hatred on the Internet today. We can lament that, according to the FBI, Jews endured 54.2% of the “hate crimes motivated by religious bias” in 2016, despite constituting 2% of the US population, and then watched antisemitic incidents rise by 57% in 2017. And we can be shocked by the Pittsburgh shooter’s primitive, Pavlovian response to President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant fear-mongering, which he translated into traditional Jew-hating (while blasting the president as a Jew-lover), simmering as usual on centuries of lies, demagoguery and stereotypes.

“Why the Jews?” is a perennial question – why Communists and capitalists, universalists and nationalists, religious fanatics and atheists, Americans and anti-Americans, ultraconservatives, and ultraprogressives, Muslim-lovers and now Muslim-haters all have hated Jews. Jews are a particularly annoying combination: similar enough that bullies resent our daring to be different, and different enough that the insecure wonder why we nevertheless seem so familiar.

Antisemitism can be considered the Trojan-horse hatred – ancient and lethal, like the devious Greek gift, yet elusive and insidious like the modern computer virus. Antisemites mask their hatred behind supposed virtues. Left-wingers favor human rights talk, while right-wingers favor pro-Israel talk.

But the many articles following this tragedy declaring various writers’ loss of “faith in America” miss three points.

First, God bless America: American Jew-hatred has never been as systematic, authorized or deadly as European or Middle Eastern antisemitism. Among 330 million people, 1,538 hate crimes in a year is 1,538 too many – but impressively few.

Also, Jew-hatred today is more socially unacceptable and less threatening than ever. In the 1940s, 40%-50% of Americans deemed Jews strange and menacing. No longer.

Finally, the coast-to-coast grief occurring right now reflects a fundamental American decency. That decency can withstand the Pittsburgh shooter’s bullets, Internet thuggery and a president whose “best friends” may be Jewish, but whose divisive rhetoric all too often activates Americans’ inner demons rather than what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

An accurate history of American antisemitism would acknowledge that racism often trumped antisemitism among bigots: Jews were the blacks of Europe; blacks have long been the Jews of America, the most useful scapegoat.

Most important, America’s deep, revolution-spawned commitment to equality, liberty, mutual respect and religious freedom often overcame this ancient hatred. George Washington’s Newport letter welcomed Jews as equal citizens in 1790. The First Amendment guaranteed that equality in religious matters when ratified a year later, banning any established church, too.

A true history emphasizes the “happy ending” to the rare, official act of antisemitism: Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s Order No. 11 banning Jews from parts of Tennessee during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln rescinded it immediately. Grant regretted it forevermore.


The history would detail how Jews have felt at home in America – and non-Jews’ many embraces.

One favorite story recalls New York’s police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt mischievously assigning handsome Jewish policemen to protect a Jew-hating German preacher, mocking Aryan idiocy about racial superiority.

A second acknowledges the bipartisan support given to fighting Nazism, defending Israel, repudiating the 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution and freeing Soviet Jewry.

A third favorite celebrates Hanukkah, 1993, when as many as 10,000 people in Billings, Montana, taped paper menorahs on their windows after antisemites broke a Jewish family’s window graced with their menorah.

Theodore Roosevelt’s gesture represents Americans’ individual generosity. The bipartisan policies illustrate the official embrace of Jews. And the Billings story is one of many pro-Jewish group hugs, currently being replicated throughout America as good people mourn the Squirrel Hill slaughter.

THESE MOMENTS reveal the three-dimensional strategy needed to drain the alt-right swamp that fed the shooter’s hatred. Americans must stop the hate, tone down the rhetoric and resist demagoguery, minority-baiting and rival-demonizing, and instead activate the decency that remains embedded in Americans’ DNA.

We need clear redlines against violence, hatred and bigotry, with no partisan myopia. Liberals must see left-wing antisemitism and fight it, while conservatives must recognize right-wing antisemitism and fight that.

“How do we restore civility?” a friend asked as we discussed the growing antisemitism last Saturday morning in a synagogue in Jerusalem – seven hours ahead of Pittsburgh time. As a historian, I have studied moments of social breakdown and processes of social and cultural healing, too. America has not been sliding downward since the American Revolution. It’s been a roller-coaster ride, with moments of greater rupture – especially the Civil War – and of healing, including the 1900s, 1940s, and 1980s.

The question now is whether this unprecedented mass murder of Jews in America is merely historic or a game changer. I still believe in America. American Jews today experience less antisemitism than our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did – the trend lines favor us.
Refusing to overgeneralize about this antisemitic crime doesn’t make it any less evil. Americans must lower the rhetorical temperature, diminish the chances of copycat killings and start inspiring articles about taking pride in America again, not being ashamed.

The writer is the author of the newly released The Zionist Ideas, an update and expansion of Arthur Hertzberg’s classic anthology, The Zionist Idea, published by the Jewish Publication Society. A distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, he is the author of 10 books on American history, including The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.

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