American exceptionality, roots of a myth

A main source of American Jewish Holocaust Denial, that somehow we in the United States did not share the fate of European Jewry because this country provided protection absent in Europe has deep roots among American Jews despite the intensity of antisemitism in the United States comparable to that in Nazi Germany; despite this country’s failure to provide refuge for European Jewry facing Auschwitz. Today provides an introduction to a larger Jewish problem involving Jewish psychology. But for the moment this brief historical overview of an internal Jewish problem, denial in face of clear and present danger.


David, you said, “America’s Jews still insisted America “exceptional.” What was the reason for that?” 

DT: “Exceptionality” is how American Jews tend to describe the country regarding antisemitism. Likely arrived in this country with the first significant immigration of German Jews. And since these were leaders of many philanthropic organizations and the ADL and American Zionism their term of reference took hold. Zionism took a long time taking hold in the US because American “exceptionality” meant Jews already were secure and needed no outside “refuge.” Eventually Brandeis, et al came up with a compromise: Palestine was worthy of American Jewish support for our brethren “over there (Europe)” and Zionism in America was willing to support that effort. But encouraging American-Jews to emigrate was to be discouraged. And that, for the most part, has characterized American Zionism since.

As regards “exceptionality” in practice: during the period from the late 19th century antisemitism in the United States was little different in intensity and distribution than “over there.” The American Congress, for instance worked on a formula to close the gates to Jewish immigration for decades before finally passing the 1924 anti-immigrant legislation that trapped Jews in Europe to face Auschwitz. (Hitler would later describe that legislation for what it was, encouraging Aryan immigrants while disallowing Jews. To him the two countries were pursuing the same path!) A 1944 survey found that twice as many Americans considered Jews more dangerous than Germans, the enemy they were fighting in the war! The temperature of American antisemitic only peaked AFTER the end of the war and the Holocaust.

And the latest ADL poll on antisemitism in America finds that roughly two-thirds of non-Jewish Americans fall into the categories “Moderate” and “Very” antisemitic, with about one third evenly distributed to their three categories (“Least” being the third). That same poll found that more than one third of respondents still, in what many consider a “less” religious United States still blamed “the Jews” for the death of Jesus.

A final observation Rabiul, and remember, this is my SHORT response; you can read the entire year-long series for the detailed response to your question! Recall that German-Jewish insistence on the “exceptionality” of their “fatherland” blinded them delayed their response to the unfolding elements leading to Auschwitz; recall that “exceptionality” likely arrived in the US with German Jewry in the 19th century: What basis for belief in America-the-Exceptional in light of belief just decades ago in German-the-Exceptional? Of course German Jews had no precedent as warning to the possibility of extermination in service of a final solution to the Jewish Problem.

How is it that American Jews, seventy years after Auschwitz still cling desperately to “exceptionality,” prefer Denial over History; and how do suggest this bodes for any future for Jewry in the Diaspora?

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.
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