The dark history of American antisemitism

The dark history of American antisemitism

Tree of Life Synagogue

daveynin from United States, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

This past week has seen: antisemitic incidents in Austin, Texas; Sunrise DC, a climate activism group, refusing to be on a coalition with Jewish organizations with any connection to Israel; and the third anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre. This comes after a year of bizarrely comparing vaccine mandates to the Holocaust and four years after the Charlottesville rally where people chanted "Jews will not replace us."

Yet many still see these as aberrations in an otherwise accepting history of Jews in the US. In reality, the history of Jews in the US is one of marginalization, systemic violence and discrimination.

Jewish acceptance in American society was not static but instead fluctuated with changes in conceptions of race, legal interpretations of religious freedom, and the size of the Jewish population. (People don't tend to hate groups that are so small they're unaware of them.)

Anti-Jewish bigotry was brought with European colonization as it was very present in Christian Europe in the 1500s and 1600s. Jews as "Christ killers" dominated societal narratives. Jews had also faced massacres and blame for the Black death just a few centuries earlier.

While these views traveled with colonists to the "new world," there was little explicit bigotry against Jews in the early history of the United States because there simply wasn't a large enough population. However, that doesn't mean Jews living in the North American colonies, and then the United States, didn't face legal discrimination.

As I mentioned in an earlier column, most of the North American colonies had established Christian religions and required engagement in the church for civic participation. While some states disestablished their state religions with their new constitutions, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maryland, Rhode Island and South Carolina didn't (New York was the only state that, in 1790, had no restrictions on civic participation based on religion).

It wasn't until 1877 that (white-skinned) Jews could universally hold public office and vote in all states, though Jews still faced obstacles to voting if it was held on a Saturday or if they didn't speak English (there were no Yiddish translations of ballots at this time). Many courts also judged the veracity of witnesses based on their belief in Jesus Christ well into the 19th century and didn't allow for Jews to swear oaths according to their own religious customs.

As religious restrictions on civic participation eased, the Jewish population in the United States grew and they faced more explicit societal bigotry. The 1850s saw increased clashes between Catholics and Jews in cities. Some Catholic priests refused to take confession if people worked for Jews. A number of newspapers ran articles warning about Jews and heavily influenced by anti-Jewish stereotypes.

In California, a law was proposed to levy a tax on Jews to keep them out of the state (though it did not pass). The Civil War saw more anti-Jewish bigotry with newspapers accusing Jews of financing the Confederacy. Some newspapers specifically accused, with little evidence, the Rothschilds and "foreign Jew Bankers.")

The Rothschilds responded, telling the State Department not only were they not financing the Confederacy but they opposed slavery. Possibly influenced by this, in 1862 General Grant expelled Jews from his military district. Lincoln rescinded the order a few months later but privately General in Chief of the Army, Henry Halleck apparently told Grant that Lincoln agreed with expelling "Jew Peddlers."

Antisemitism only intensified in the years after the Civil War with increased racial tension and nativism. A constitutional amendmentto recognize the authority of God and scriptural law, which had been proposed during the Civil War, was gaining support in the 1870s with a campaign spearheaded by Supreme Court Justice William Strong.

The revivalist and anti-Jewish campaign of the Reverend Dwight Moody also gained popularity in the 1870s. Moody traveled to cities regaling listeners with detailed stories about how the Jews killed Christ, including an incident in which Moody claimed a group of Jews gathered in Paris in 1873 to boast of killing the "Christian's God." Growing antisemitism encouraged a renewed interest in "Sunday Law" prosecutions which arrested Jews for doing business on Sundays.

In the South, growing antisemitism took a more violent extrajudicial approach. In 1868, a Jewish store owner, Samuel Bierfield, was lynched along with his African-American clerk, Lawrence Bowman, in Tennessee. It was assumed both were killed by the KKK due to Bierfield being too friendly with Black people. No one was ever held accountable for their deaths. Samuel Fleishman was killed a year later in Florida supposedly because he defended Black people.

His likely murderer was a partisan Democrat who likely fled to Texas after also killing a Black man. Similarly, a man named WM Lucy was supposedly murdered in Florida in 1871 for being a Jewish Republican who got along with Black people. These were not isolated incidents.

There are many reports of murdered Jews in this period and even more intimidation to drive Jews store owners and peddlers out of Southern communities. The vigilante farmer Whitecapping movement targeted racial minorities and specifically Jews. They scapegoated Northern Jewish peddlers for their economic problems. It's important to emphasize that while these movements didn't necessarily consider Eastern European Jews "white," violence targeted white-skinned Jews. The stereotypes couldn't even conceive of non-white-skinned Jews.

Possibly the most famous example of anti-Jewish violence in the US was the lynching of Leo Frank in 1915. He was a factory superintendent convicted of killing 13-year-old Mary Fagan in Atlanta on very flimsy evidence. When the governor commuted his sentence from the death penalty to life in prison, a mob broke into the jail and lynched Frank in Marietta, Georgia. No one was ever punished for his death.

While violence against Jews was much less common than against Black Americans, there were similar justifications for bigotry against Jewish men — that white women must be protected from sexual perverts. Ten years after Frank was lynched, a North Carolina mob castrated Joseph Needleman after a white Christian woman accused him of rape. (His attackers were found guilty, a rare outcome). In the North, Jews were criminalized as part of the white slavery panic. It was feared "racialized men" were pressing virtuous Christian girls into prostitution.

The criminalization of Jewish immigrants came at a dangerous time when immigration laws were changing and the Jewish community was terrified of denaturalization. Eastern European Jews had technically been classified as "white" for the purposes of naturalization law but that status always felt precarious. While their naturalization status didn't change, Jews did face increased obstacles to immigration with the quota system of the 1924 Immigration Act, which ultimately blocked many Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany.

Additionally, the Naturalization Act of 1906 federalized the naturalization process, and also formally defined denaturalization powers for federal attorneys. Formalizing denaturalization processes created classes of people with a form of "conditional citizenship." This status was imposed on politically active Jewish immigrants who faced deportation and denaturalization at higher rates than other groups.

Emma Goldman was the first person to be denaturalized under this law in 1919. The same year, six Jewish anarchists brought a case to the Supreme Court challenging their conviction under the Espionage Act of 1917 for distributing pamphlets discouraging registering for the draft. The convictions were upheld and four were deported.

This long article is just a snapshot of the history of antisemitism in the United States but it hopefully will start to make people see antisemitic incidents as a part of a larger pattern rather than a momentary disruption to the idea of the "melting pot" acceptance.

Also while this article is mostly concerned with antisemitism against white-skinned Jews, there are Jews of all races that face intersecting levels of oppression and bigotry. Ultimately, the lie that Jews have been historically accepted in American society only serves to cause harm and drive a wedge between marginalized communities.

White America might pretend that if white-skinned Jews act a certain way, we'll be assimilated into whiteness. But our liberation only comes through solidarity with other groups targeted by white supremacy.

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