Can antisemitism flourish in America?
‘The good news is that Jesus is back,” said once Bob Hope, “and the bad news is that he is mad as hell.”
And who would not be mad to learn that, while he was away, his memory was used to libel his own nation as God’s murderers, and to unleash on them lawmakers, literati, armies and mobs?
Jesus would surely be mad to learn that anti-Jewish canards traveled between his era’s three continents as freely as Satan journeyed to the Land of Oz.
In Asia Bishop Melito of Sardis shouted in 137 CE “the king of Israel has been slain by an Israelite hand” in a sermon known as “Peri Pascha,” or “On Passover”; in Africa, Bishop Augustine of Hippo Regius wrote that the Jews must be kept landless and wandering in order to vindicate his own faith; and in Europe Martin Luther wrote that the Jews were “a base, whoring people” destined to be their Christian neighbors’ “miserable captives.”
Now, having buried the victims of the first-ever massacre of Jews in the US, one must wonder: has the fourth continent swallowed the antisemitic germ?
BACK IN 1649, there was reason to suspect antisemitism had smoothly crossed the Atlantic, when the Mexican Inquisition burned at the stake a secretly Jewish merchant named Tomás Treviño de Sobremontes for having refused to abandon his faith. There were others.
Still, subsequent events made it plain that what mattered in the New World – in terms of antisemitism – was North America, and what evolved out there was a haven of a sort the Wandering Jew had never visited, or indeed imagined.
Yes, even in the US, things were not always fully smooth.
In 1862 Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, out to fight the black market in southern cotton, ordered Jewish merchants expelled from Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky; in 1915 Jewish engineer Leo Frank was lynched in Georgia, after having been convicted – probably wrongly – of murdering a 13-year-old girl; in 1908, the New York Police Department was accused of inflating in a report the number of Jews in jail; in the 1920s Henry Ford published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and The International Jew; and throughout the interwar years elite universities imposed quotas on Jewish students’ admissions, while high-end hotels, country clubs and golf courses altogether barred them.
Even so, American churches never heard the kind of anti-Jewish vitriols that Europe’s churches heard for a lot more than a thousand years; American facades did not display statues portraying Judaism as a blindfolded woman with a broken staff, as the Strasbourg Cathedral’s does to this day; American buildings did not display Jews suckling pigs, as ones in Wittenberg, Heilsbronn and Wimpfen still do.
And when antisemitism secularized, its new prophets – from anticlerical crusader Voltaire (16941778, “the Jewish nation” is “the most contemptible in the world”), philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814, the “dreadful” Jewish nation inhabited “a state within a state” and “infiltrated almost every country in Europe”) and historian Heinrich von Treitschke (18341896, the Jews are “an alien element which has usurped too much space in our life”), to politician Edouard Drumont (1844-1917, “the Jews” waged war on France), romanticist Alphonse Toussenel (1803-1885, author of The Jews: Kings of the Epoch, 1845, which claimed that the Jews govern France) and musician Richard Wagner (1813-1883, “only going under” can redeem the Jews of their curse) – were never American.
AMERICA’S BENEVOLENCE to the Jews was not about expediency. It was genuine, fueled by a religious appreciation of the Jews’ biblical origins, and by revulsion with the Old World’s prejudices, which antisemitism epitomized.
When George Washington wrote to the Jews of Newport “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants,” and when he wished that all “shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid,” he wasn’t thinking of primaries, midterms or popularity polls. He meant every word.
That spirit, which both preceded and survived Washington, is why America produced so much Jewish mobility, excellence and visibility, from Emma Lazarus, Louis Brandeis, Saul Bellow, Bob Dylan, Henry Kissinger and Alan Greenspan to Allen Ginsberg, Steven Spielberg, Milton Friedman, Jonas Salk, Sandy Koufax, Mark Spitz, and the list of scientists, philosophers, historians, statesmen, entrepreneurs, novelists, poets, actors, playwrights, producers and athletes goes on and on.
Faced with so much happily embraced Jewish merit, one must accept historian Ben Halpern’s thesis in his essay “America is Different” (Midstream, 1955) that antisemitism never seriously gathered in America, because its Jews were citizens from the inception of the American nation, and because American society was religiously pluralistic and socially classless from the onset.
That is all true – with one caveat: It’s true for the middle class, for the elites, and even for the working class, provided all are gainfully employed and socially secure, and the Jews’ success causes admiration rather than envy.
Conversely, when people feel economically insecure and socially disenfranchised, while the Jews are perceived as part of the ruling class and moneyed elite – Jews become wrath’s potential targets.
This is what happened in interwar Central Europe, when thousands of Jews were successful lawyers, doctors, businessmen and literati, while millions hungered for bread because of the Depression, and this is what happened before the 1648-49 massacres in Ukraine, where Jewish entrepreneurs working for Polish landowners became identified by Ukrainians with the hated alien nobility.
This kind of dynamic is now at play in America. Will it produce pogroms of the sort Phillip Roth imagined in The Plot Against America? It won’t. America is different. But the size of its emotionally alienated and economically dispossessed class, and the intensity of its fears, anger and despair, are growing from year to year.
Otherwise, there would be no President Donald Trump.
SUPPORTERS OF THE National Socialist Movement give Nazi salutes while taking part in a swastika-burning in Georgia in April.