On Thursday evening, April 4, 1952, my father of blessed memory alighted from the bus at the corner of Nelson Avenue and 168th Street in the Bronx, New York, where I grew up and was aghast at what he saw. In every store window on that street there was a sign that read “We will be closed from 12 noon to 3 PM Good Friday, April 11, 1952 in observance of the death of Christ.”
One needs to remember that in those years, 750,000 Jews lived in the Bronx, representing more than half of the total population of 1.45 million. On 168th Street, except for the Italian shoemaker and the Chinese laundry, all of the other storekeepers were Jewish.
My father went to a few of the stores and the owners told them that they had been approached by representatives of the Sacred Heart Church across the street and told that if they did not take the signs and display them their stores would be boycotted by the members of the Parish. My dad arranged a Thursday night meeting at the local synagogue where the officers contacted the New York Times and Monsignor Humphrey who headed the parish at that time. Msgr. Humphrey assured everyone that this was the work of some overzealous members and was not church policy.
In an article that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, April 6th, the church laid the blame at the feet of the Fire Department Branch of the Anchor Club, which was composed of members of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s organization. Msgr. Humphrey was quoted as saying that he was not “too much concerned,” since the program was new in his parish and excitement would “wear away.” He also denied that any pressure was applied to the storekeepers. On Monday, the signs were removed by order of the Church.
This occurred in the US, in New York City, in a borough where the Jewish population was 50% of the total and just seven years after the end of World War II, which witnessed the destruction of six million Jews by state sponsored anti-Semitism.
65 years later, in the last 14 months alone in the US at least 53 Jewish community centers have received bomb threats. More than a dozen of the facilities, including those in Albuquerque, Baltimore, Birmingham, Milwaukee and Wilmington have reported repeated threats. Jarring graffiti of swastikas have been reported on some college campuses, on private homes and in the New York City subway. And, of course, most recently, 170 tombstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in the St Louis area were toppled as well.
Those too young to remember what America was like for Jews before 1967 need to speak with those of us who lived it. While the general discourse in America has always been about democratic values, there has always been a second discourse, perhaps sotto voce, that took place wherever resentment brewed. In mid-20th century America it was resentment against Jews who were blamed for the depression and then the War, against black Americans for becoming too vocal and, certainly in New York at the time, against Hispanics, particularly those hailing from Puerto Rico. For Jews it was a subtle anti-Semitism that manifested itself in quasi-neutral questions as when I was asked by the admissions officer in a college interview at Syracuse University to tell him how I spent my Saturdays. After all they could not refer specifically to religious practice per se, so that’s how the question was raised.
It was not a pleasant experience in the overall and it was only after Israel’s stunning victory in 1967’s Six Day War that things changed. Prior to that time very few religious people in New York would walk the streets wearing a kippah, a hat was de rigueur. After June 1967, of course, being demonstrably Jewish became a badge of honor.
So for those American Jews who think that “it cannot happen here,” it can, it did and it will again as the current political situation there becomes ever more accepting of racial and religious slurs and actions. What the American Jewish community must do is be ever vigilant as my father was in 1952 and not let any incident pass without comment or, when required, significant push back as well. Msgr. Humphrey’s comment in 1952 that he was not “too much concerned” since the program was new in his parish and the excitement would “wear away” flies in the face of the reality that we Jews have faced for millennia. Truth be told, it never goes away unless we make it go away.
Edmund Burke’s admonition that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” is as true today as it was when he said it in the 18th century. We dare not fail to act.