American anti-Semitism: Old poison in new bottles

November 20, 2018

Eric Ruder documents the history of anti-Semitism in the U.S. and the fight against it, as today’s left faces the duty to confront once again this linchpin of the far right’s ideology.

THE RETURN of anti-Semitism as a force in mainstream American politics — combined with the growing frequency of hate crimes against Jews — is one of the most alarming developments that accompanied Donald Trump’s ascension to power.

Over the decades that followed the Second World War, the structures that had enforced the oppression of Jews in the U.S. were largely dismantled, and the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes or slurs by public figures became considered noxious enough to relegate them to the fringe.

Though the ideas held on in various ways — festering, for example, in white nationalist circles in the 1970s as conspiracy theories that placed Jews at the center of a supposed international plot to carry out “white genocide” — anti-Semitism virtually disappeared from mainstream political discourse.

That changed in the Trump era: In the 2018 midterm elections, candidates released a raft of anti-Semitic television ads; a recent FBI report documents a 37 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2017; and the white nationalist movement is on the offensive.

Surveying the damage to the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia following racist vandalism
Surveying the damage to the Mount Carmel Cemetery in Philadelphia following racist vandalism

After the October 27 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — carried out by a far-right fanatic shouting “All Jews must die” as he took the lives of 11 worshippers, Trump described the attack as “unimaginable...You wouldn’t think this would be possible in this day and age, but we just don’t seem to learn from the past.”

But Trump has trafficked in anti-Semitic insults and political messages for years. In 2013, when he tried to attack Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, he tweeted, “I promise you that I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz — I mean Jon Stewart @TheDailyShow.”

Days before the 2016 election, Trump’s campaign released an ad smearing three Jews: billionaire philanthropist and favorite target of the alt-right George Soros; Janet Yellen, then-chair of the Federal Reserve; and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein.

Trump himself provided the voiceover, which was laced with classic anti-Semitic tropes: “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interest, they partner with these people that don’t have your good in mind.”

Plus there was Trump’s initial unwillingness to condemn David Duke’s endorsement; his tweet featuring Hillary Clinton with a Star of David, piles of cash and the words “most corrupt candidate ever”; and the anti-Semitic origins of his “America First” slogan.

But all of this was overshadowed months later by Trump’s response to the August 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when hundreds of white nationalists marched and chanted, “Jews will not replace us” — followed by the murder of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer when a fascist drove his car into the ranks of a march.

Trump’s assertion that there were “very fine people on both sides” shocked the world.

OPEN APPEALS to anti-Semitism were once commonplace in U.S. politics.

Starting in the 1880s, the U.S. became a prime destination for Jews fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe. They arrived by the hundreds of thousands, largely destitute and with strong labor and socialist traditions.

When they got here, Jews found nativist organizations that sought to keep them out, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that the U.S. started imposing immigration quotas to stem the tide of Southern and Eastern European immigration, who were predominantly Jewish, Italian and Slavic.

As Jews who were already here increasingly aspired to join the middle classes, they encountered a gauntlet of restrictions and quotas meant to frustrate their assimilation. Historian Julian Zelizer recently described the period this way in The Atlantic:

Anti-Semitism manifested itself at every level of society and across the country. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan also targeted Jews as it went after African Americans. Jews “procured” young women to “enhance their own monetary interests,” the Klan stated in the 1920s.

In Dorchester, Massachusetts, Irish Catholic gangs in the 1940s roved the streets in “Jew Hunts” that culminated in physical assaults. Even as Jews started to break into certain industries, such as entertainment, in the 1930s and ‘40s, they confronted tight restrictions that kept them out of law firms, medical professions, universities and colleges, fraternities, hotels, country clubs and more. One hotel boasted in an advertisement, “No Hebrews or tubercular guests received.”

Elite institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton imposed strict quotas on how many Jews they would admit. The application for Sarah Lawrence College asked, “Has your daughter been brought up to strict Sunday observance?” Like African Americans, Jews were subject to restrictive real-estate covenants that prevented “Hebrews” from living in particular neighborhoods.

Even into the 1960s, many classified employment ads read, “Gentiles only need apply.”

The America First Committee, founded in 1940, brought prominent figures on the left, such as Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas and novelist Sinclair Lewis, together with right-wing isolationists to advocate for U.S. neutrality in the Second World War. Three of its most prominent right-wing figures were known for their virulent anti-Semitism: industrialist Henry Ford, the “radio priest” Father Coughlin, and aviator Charles Lindbergh.

During a September 1941 speech, Lindbergh blamed Jews, along with the Roosevelt administration and the British establishment, for the growing calls to join the “war against fascism” and issued a thinly veiled threat that U.S. participation in the war would lead to further anti-Jewish sentiment:

Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences...

Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not...Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government...

I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.

As Adolf Hitler developed industrial means to carry out genocide, the Roosevelt administration systematically opposed the admission of Jewish refugees to the U.S.

Not only did Roosevelt infamously refuse to allow the St. Louis to dock with its 936 passengers fleeing Nazi persecution (259 would eventually die in concentration camps), but he also helped defeat legislation that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish refugee children into the U.S.

THE HORROR of the Nazi Holocaust that exterminated 6 million Jews and an additional 11 million people whom the Nazis considered subhuman or otherwise defective — including gays and lesbians, other nonwhite communities, disabled people, trade unionists and Communists — provoked a global outpouring of sympathy for Jews.

But though anti-Semitism began lessening in the U.S., the structures that had institutionalized Jewish oppression weren’t uprooted for several more decades.

In the 1950s, the outbreak of the Cold War and the rise of the McCarthyite witch hunts of Communists, often assumed to be Jews, kept alive the climate of anti-Semitism. In 1953, the U.S. executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as Communist spies for supposedly passing secrets of the atomic bomb to the USSR.

By the 1960s, though, three distinct trends emerged that created new space for Jewish life in the U.S.

First, the economic boom of the postwar years helped to lift a growing number of Jews into the upper and middle classes, enhancing their social status.

Second, the Six Day War in 1967 heralded the arrival of Israel as a formidable military power in the Middle East, and therefore an increasingly important strategic ally of the U.S. in the region. With its forces bogged down in Vietnam, the U.S. found it useful to rely on Israel as a bulwark against radical Arab nationalism. This meant that anti-Semitism was counterproductive to the agenda of U.S. foreign policy planners.

And third, the growth of the civil rights movement strengthened opposition to all forms of discrimination in U.S. society, adding further weight to the trend against anti-Semitism.

To cite just one indicator of the scale of integration of Jews into American society: Until 1965, less than 10 percent of Jews in the U.S. married non-Jews; two decades later, it was a majority.

With the defeat of Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. South, the nascent white nationalist movement of the 1970s became the repository of the most noxious racist ideas, including anti-Semitism.

These self-appointed gatekeepers of American racial “purity” consider Jews the mastermind of the supposed “white genocide” that would replace white Americans with Blacks, immigrants and Muslim refugees. As Ben Lorber wrote in his article “Attacking anti-Semitism” at Jacobin, for white supremacists like William Bowers, who committed the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue:

[L]eft-wing Jewish activists are the hidden masterminds behind immigration, Black Lives Matter, feminism, LGBTQ rights, political correctness and all the other assorted “evils” of progressive politics that hinder the creation of their hoped-for white ethno-state.

Alt-right theorists argue that throughout the 20th century, American Jews mobilized hyper-focused networks of political and social capital to loosen the country’s immigration policies; orchestrated the civil rights movement, integration and other ills of “race mixing”; and engineered multiculturalism, relativism, sexual liberation, and other fronts of “cultural Marxism.”

The chant “Jews will not replace us,” heard at last year’s Unite the Right white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, embodies the alt-right fear that the all-powerful Jew remains the hidden puppeteer of progressivism, hell-bent on using liberal causes to keep whites outnumbered, emasculated, and demoralized.

DONALD TRUMP has given enormous confidence to white supremacists and anti-Semites in the U.S. His appointment of Steve Bannon as his top adviser at the beginning of his administration gave the anti-Semitism and white nationalism of the alt-right a place of prominence that few foresaw just a few years ago.

In these circumstances, the left has a responsibility to take up the fight against anti-Semitism as an essential part of its broader anti-racist agenda. This is especially urgent considering the way anti-Semitism serves as a linchpin to the alt-right’s worldview.

This task is a major departure from the main ways that the left has been compelled to engage with this issue for most of the last few decades — a period in which fabricated charges of anti-Semitism have mainly been directed at the left in order to silence critics of Israel and Zionism.

In attempting define as “anti-Semitic” any and all criticism of Israel — and thus equating Israel with Jews and Judaism — Zionists have been particularly intent on delegitimizing the pro-Palestine movement, which has grown dramatically in recent decades in response to the deepening of Israel’s apartheid laws and its brutal military repression of the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

As Stephanie Schwartz wrote at, it is a telling irony that today’s far-right forces:

combine their hateful racist scapegoating with a firm defense of Israel — particularly because Israel and Zionism are seen as allies in a war on Muslims, who are a major scapegoat of the right. The increasing prominence of the far right is contributing to a definite rise in the level of anti-Semitism...but this is happening at the same time that most far-right forces are embracing Israel and Zionism.

The left will need to continue to reject spurious charges of anti-Semitism while advocating for Palestinian liberation — which, in fact, stands on the principle of opposition to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism. This explains why the Palestinian struggle can count among its allies organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

But with anti-Semitic hate on the rise, socialists and anti-racists must urgently seek to unite the largest possible number of people to stand against the far right, without making agreement on Palestinian liberation a requirement for participating in protests against bigotry.

THE SLANDEROUS campaign against supporters of Palestine liberation has confused matters and made it more difficult to identify the real sources of anti-Semitism in U.S. politics.

The first major source is a growing white nationalist movement that sees Jews as the mastermind of a “multicultural revolution” to marginalize whites. A second source is the chorus of Republican and alt-right attacks, which rely on old anti-Semitic tropes, such as portraying figures like George Soros as “globalists,” and therefore disloyal to American (read “white”) interests.

Together, these two sources cover the entire spectrum of anti-Semitism historically — by combining the ideas that Jews are communist rabble-rousers and also a powerful social group that controls the media and the economy in the interests of a global elite.

In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008, the fact that the median net worth of white households is still 19 percent below what it was a decade ago — the net worth of Black households is 40 percent lower and Latinx households 46 percent lower — has created deep economic anxiety for millions of people who want answers.

As it always has, anti-Semitism provides a superficial false explanation for the causes of economic insecurity.

Throughout history, the left has led the struggle against anti-Semitism. Today, it must again embrace this struggle as a central part of our commitment to anti-racism.

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