Anti-Semitism in the U.S. is nothing new. Still, it’s shocking to hear coded language—whatever the intention—come from the top.
Julian E. Zelizer
Oct 29, 2018
Anti-Semitism reared its ugly head this Sabbath in the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. The 46-year-old Robert D. Bowers walked into Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and opened fire on congregants as he yelled out, “All Jews must die!” Bowers is so far to the right and so addled by hatred that he has refused to support President Donald Trump on the grounds that he is “controlled by Jews.”
Speaking to reporters shortly after the shooting, Trump expressed his condolences and said, “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 the president can’t really be so surprised. He has been warned repeatedly about the dangers of tolerating white nationalism even as he has borrowed language from anti-Semitic propaganda.
When the president has played in this sandbox for political purposes, he has been playing with fire. Although American Jews has never experienced the same level of virulent, state-sanctioned aggression as European Jews have, anti-Semitism has never been absent in this country. Like their analogues abroad, populist American leaders in the 19th century told their followers that Jewish bankers posed a threat to the security of hardworking Americans. Images of Jews with big noses and crooked faces were commonplace in political cartoons. When more than 1.7 million Eastern European Jews arrived in the country at the turn of the 20th century, they encountered nativist organizations that fought for federal restrictions on immigration.
In perhaps the most famous American anti-Semitic incident of the last century, a mob in 1915 stormed a Georgia prison to seize the Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who had been falsely accused of murdering a 13-year-old Christian girl. They lynched him.
The most famous American anti-Semite may have been the automobile giant Henry Ford, who published a newspaper in the 1920s, The Dearborn Independent, that served as an outlet for anti-Semitic propaganda. Ford once wrote that there was a “Jewish plan to control the world, not by territorial acquisition, not by military aggression, not by governmental subjugation, but by control of the machinery of commerce and exchange.” A close second to Ford was the aviator Charles Lindbergh, the spokesman for the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II. Another contender was the wildly popular “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin, who railed against “world Jewish domination.”
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.