Political Antisemitism in the United States, 1873-1932
“In 1946, with the ovens of Auschwitz just cooling, some 40% of Americans would still have participated in, or stood silently by as a Krystallnacht-type pogrom unfolded across the United States.”
By David Turner
Jerusalem Post, Nov 30, 2012
Introduction: Over the past months I have described the development of anti-Judaism in Christian theology and its transformation into secular antisemitism with the 18th century Enlightenment. In the 19th century secular antisemitism organized into a political agenda aimed at barring Jewish participation in civil society. Activists on the left and right also concluded, as sort-of proto-Zionists, that “the Jews” should be returned to their ancestral home in Palestine. In 20th century Germany-Austria the agenda changed radically, from social exclusion to extrusion to physical extermination as the final solution to the West’s Jewish Problem.
As in Europe, organized political antisemitism followed a similar course in the United States. And, as in Europe, a movement to deny Jews legal and social rights did not just appear; it emerged from the same history and culture brought by Europeans to the New World.
The first Jews to set foot in the New World arrived with Christopher Columbus. The first recorded case of antisemitism I am aware of involved Joachim Gaunse, a Jewish metallurgist who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh to the Virginia territory. In 1584 Gaunse was forced to return to England accused of blasphemy. The Inquisition too was active in the New World:
“[In] 1647, the Portuguese authorities arrested Isaac de Castro for teaching Jewish rites and customs in Portuguese controlled Brazil and sent him back to Portugal where [he was] sentenced to death and burned him at the stake.”
Seven years later twenty-three Jewish refugees fled Portuguese Brazil for what they believed the more tolerant Dutch New Amsterdam (later renamed New York under the British) where the colony’s Director General, Peter Stuyvesant, refused them entry. His letter to the directors of the Dutch West India Company read, in part,
“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians)… [we ask] that the deceitful race — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ — be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony…”
In the end the Company, with several Jewish board members, allowed them to remain. French colonial areas refused Jewish settlers until 1759. And the Spanish, like the Portuguese, used Inquisition courts in the New World to persecute and execute their “suspect” Conversos, Catholics of Jewish descent.
While the 1789 US Constitution protected citizen rights regardless of religion, it offered little protection where contradicted by “states rights.” Anti-Jewish legislation had to wait until 1869 to be rescinded in North Carolina; New Hampshire only allowed “non-Protestants” to hold state office in 1887.
Sabbath laws forbidding Jews to engage in any form of business on Sunday, remained in force until the mid-20th century. The antisemitic component of Sabbath laws was clearly expressed “in the 1855 California assembly debate on the topic, [where] the speaker of the house argued that Jews ‘ought to respect the laws and opinions of the majority.’”
As for “popular” antisemitism, attitudes held by individuals:
“when a Jew rose to national prominence, he would always be open to attacks based upon his Judaism.” Mordecai Noah, a diplomat to Tunis from 1813-15, was recalled from his post having been denounced as an “enemy of Christ.” And, “Uriah Phillips Levy, then the only Jewish officer in the U. S. Navy, was dropped from the officer list in 1855… after six courts martial, two dismissals, and the killing of one opponent in a duel, all over slurs against his Judaism.”
Political antisemitism: Social stress is highly associated with heightened antisemitism in countries of the West. This was true during the Long Depression of 1873 to 1896 which gave rise to populist political parties. While most were short-lived, with the appearance of the Populist, or Peoples Party antisemitism entered mainstream American party politics.
In the 1896 presidential race all parties used antisemitic sloganeering to appeal for votes. But for the Peoples Party, known also as the Populist Party, made antisemitism the bedrock of its appeal.
Tom Watson, who will resurface when I turn to the lynching of Leo Frank, was the Party’s candidate for vice president 1896, its candidate for president in 1904.
“Populists strengthened their cause by using religious metaphors to link money with a Jewish conspiracy [as did the mainline parties]. Thus in 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, speaking in an idiom Protestant Fundamentalists were fully conversant with, could easily intersperse biblical imagery with economic necessity when he thundered, `You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.’ The antisemitism evoked by the metaphor of the crucifixion was powerful and appealed to rural Protestants who possessed a similar religious and cultural heritage with other Americans in the South and the West,” (Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, p.49-50).
But as any good politician, standing before a Jewish audience Bryan insisted,
“We are not attacking a race, we are attacking greed and avarice, which know neither race nor religion. I do not know of any class of our people who, by reason of their history, can better sympathize with the struggling masses in this campaign than can the Hebrew race,” from The First Battle, (p.581).
By the twentieth century antisemitism was even more open and widespread, appearing in vaudeville, on the stage and even in the movies. 1913 was the year Leo Frank was arrested on trumped-up charges and later lynched, inspired by America’s future presidential candidate, Thomas Watson. By the 1920’s industrialist and rabid antisemite Henry Ford had purchased his own newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, to publish his serialization of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. All Ford dealerships were well-stocked with the newspaper and served as Ford’s personal distribution centers for the spread of antisemitism.
Political parties specifically targeting Jews multiplied in the years leading up to and during the Second World War. “The era gave rise to domestic anti-Jewish bigots, such as Father Charles Coughlin, Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith and William Dudley Pelley, leader of the Silver Shirts [aka the Christian Patriots].”
Although the German-American Bund was more obvious in its affiliation with German National Socialism, Pelley was also an admirer of Hitler, patterned his paramilitary Silver Shirts after the Nazi Brown including their uniforms. In 1935 Pelley also formed the Christian Party and ran as its candidate for president in 1936. In 1944 fellow fascist Gerald L. K. Smith ran for president at the head of the more “mainline” America First Party.
Antisemitism and anti-war sentiment ran high also in traditional politics. Henry Ford was once considered by the Republican Party to run against Roosevelt; A few years later the Republicans had their eyes on Charles Lindbergh as their 1940 candidate for president. Had Lindbergh run the consequences for America’s Jews might well have been catastrophic. But this is a discussion for later.
Whatever else one might say about these organizations, of antisemitism reflected in America’s normative politics, it arose from a deep and generally unacknowledged wellspring, something confirmed by a 1939 Roper poll that, “found that only thirty-nine percent of Americans felt that Jews should 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.”
And according to a 1946 poll:
“David Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews, concluded that 15 percent of the American people would actually have “supported” an anti-Jewish pogrom of some sort, and another 20-25 percent would have been “sympathetic” to such a pogrom. In the scholar’s own words, “As much as 35-40 percent of the population was prepared to approve an anti-Jewish campaign, some 30 percent would have stood up against it, and the rest would have remained indifferent.” We are talking here about the American people in the closing months of a war against the Nazis, in which many Americans were killed.”
Two polls, one at the time of Kyrstallnacht and the other immediately following the final act of that 1939 pogrom described a level of antisemitism in the United States equal to that in the killing fields of Europe. It might be recalled that 1946 was a time that Movietone News was showing horrific scenes of stacked corpses and rows of ovens from inside the newly-liberated Auschwitz in movie theatres across the United States. With the ovens of Auschwitz just cooling some 40% of Americans would have participated in, or stood silently by as a Krystallnacht-type pogrom unfolded across the United States?