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Anti-Semitism is a symptom

Hate-mongers emerge during times of intense social and cultural stress, revealing more about America's underlying maladies than about Jews
Henry Ford, with 1921 Model T. Ford was at the forefront of spreading the false rumors of a Jewish conspiracy. (Ford Motor Company/Wikimedia)
Henry Ford, with 1921 Model T. Ford was at the forefront of spreading the false rumors of a Jewish conspiracy. (Ford Motor Company/Wikimedia)

American is experiencing a social and cultural crisis. Anti-Semitism is one of its symptoms.

Years ago, the Israeli historian Shulamit Volkov concluded that anti-Semitism is best understood as a “cultural code.” Although anti-Semitism victimizes Jews, it actually reveals far less about them than it does about the culture that surrounds and stigmatizes them. Volkov drew her evidence from late 19th-century Germany, where, she showed, anti-Semitism “served as a code, a signal for a much larger and more important political and cultural phenomenon.” But her argument applies equally well to contemporary America, where the resurgence of anti-Semitism likewise reflects deep social and cultural tensions.

Historically, hate-mongers and conspiracy theorists have repeatedly targeted out-groups during times of intense social and cultural stress in the United States. During the second quarter of the 19th century, when the number of Jews in the country was still tiny, Freemasons, Catholics and Mormons bore the brunt of public hostility and odium. The late historian David Brion Davis’s comparative review of the hate literature produced at that time suggested that “its authors simplified problems of personal security and adjustment to bewildering social change.” Many Americans, he concluded. “found unity and meaning by conspiring against imaginary conspiracies.”

As social tensions rose again during the American Civil War, the Jewish community, now numbering more than 150,000, fell victim to these same tendencies. One newspaper denounced the entire “stiffnecked generation” of the “Children of Israel” as Confederate supporters, although the majority of the nation’s 150,000 or so Jews actually supported the Union. Some likewise blamed Jews for many of the other evils associated with war — smuggling, speculating, price gouging, swindling, and producing “shoddy” merchandise for the military. Indeed, “Jews” came to personify the foulest of wartime capitalism’s ills. This helps to explain why General Ulysses S. Grant sought to expel “Jews, as a class,” from his war zone in 1862, an order that Abraham Lincoln fortunately reversed.

During the late 19th century, when mass immigration, urbanization, and rapid industrialization transformed America, the resulting social stress again resulted in Jews being victimized. The very term “anti-Semitism,” coined by Wilhelm Marr in Germany, entered American parlance at that time. In 1877, the famed Grand Union hotel in Saratoga, New York excluded banker Joseph Seligman, one of the country’s most respected Jewish figures. “No Israelites shall be permitted in future to stop at this hotel,” Judge Henry Hilton, the Grand Union’s new owner, announced. Within a few years, “Jews as a class” were declared unwelcome even at New York’s Coney Island, and social discrimination against Jews became commonplace across the country. “The provident hotel-keeper avoids the contact of the Hebrew purse,” an 1881 article entitled “Jewish Ostracism in America” reported. “The little child in school finds no room for the Jew in the game at recess…In social and professional clubs, the “Jew” is blackballed.”

Three major groups of Americans targeted Jews in the late 19th century: agrarian rebels caught up in the Populist movement, patrician intellectuals in the East, and the urban poor of bustling cities. Manifest differences distinguished these Kansas farmers, Cambridge intellectuals, and Manhattan day laborers from one another, but all looked upon the Jew as the cause of their misfortune. Once again, anti-Semitism reveals much more about American society’s fears and forebodings than it does about Jews.

Following World War I, as Americans grew disillusioned with internationalism, fearful of Bolshevik subversion, and frightened that foreigners would corrupt the nation’s values and traditions, manifestations of anti-Semitism multiplied. Much of it bore the imprimatur of a national hero, automaker Henry Ford. In his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, and in books entitled The International Jew, he described a worldwide Jewish conspiracy based upon the notorious anti-Semitic forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The ills he projected – unraveling family bonds, new styles in dress and music, changing sexual mores, Hollywood “lasciviousness,” and the “filthy tide” sweeping over the theater — reveal little about actual American Jews, but a great deal about Ford himself and the fractured culture of the 1920s.

A century later, with anti-Semitism back on the front page, these many historical examples of Americans targeting Jews and other out-groups during eras of intense social and cultural strain demonstrate the importance of distinguishing symptoms from diseases. America has experienced eras of crisis before, and Jews in America have been victimized before. In each case, anti-Semitism has been the symptom of larger social maladies, revealing more about the parlous state of American society than about Jews.

There are ways of mitigating symptoms of social stress: policing, education, vigilance, and the like. To repair the fabric of American society for the long-term, however, will require fresh leadership and a renewed commitment to shared values.

About the Author
Jonathan D. Sarna is University Professor and Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His American Judaism: A History has recently appeared in a second revised edition.
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