History of anti-Semitism in America

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz   November 10, 2018

I love to keep things: photos on my phone, despite my children wondering why I don’t store them on some cloud somewhere; clothes that are timeless and well-made; recipes that link me to earlier times and family members. The Jewish people keeps relics and artifacts, customs and commandments – using them as they were originally intended or reinterpreting them for a new day and a new time.

But there are some things that get old and we don’t want really want them to come back around. And chief among that list: anti-Semitism – the hatred of Jews. Anti-Semitism has been around for as long as we have existed, you could say and it has been a part of Jewish life no matter where and when we have lived – and yes, even in our beloved American Jewish story.

Let’s review some history: It was in 1654 that 23 “bedraggled Jewish refugees” first arrived in New York harbor from Brazil. Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch Governor of the New Amsterdam colony tried to keep them out, claiming Jews were “deceitful,” “very repugnant,” and “hateful enemies and blasphemers.” He tried to get permission to evict them, lest they “infect and trouble this new colony.” But his request was refused. They were permitted to remain in New Amsterdam, provided that “the poor among them shall not become a burden to the community, but be supported by their own nation.” (Jonathan Sarna, American Judaism: A History)

LindberghIn the intervening centuries since then, anti-Semitism, in various forms, has persisted in America. In the 1930s, Father Coughlin broadcast weekly anti-Semitic diatribes to 30 million listeners. In the 1930s, the German-American Bund was founded, which excoriated Jews as part of a vast international conspiracy. And the “America First Committee” established in 1940, peaking at 15 million adherents, led by Charles Lindbergh, claimed that Jews were trying to force America into a war. (Were it not for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, who knows what would have happened?)

Though While World War II diminished the intensity of American anti-Semitism, it never really went away. Do you remember Gentleman’s Agreement? The 1947 novel by Laura Hobson, presented a journalist who pretends to be Jewish to see where anti-Semitism lurks and how it sounds to a Jew. That book went on to become an Academy Award Winner, starring Gregory Peck—and audiences realized anti-Semitism hadn’t disappeared.

Indeed, even after the atrocities of the Holocaust, Jews were still seen as “other,” at least by some. And that sentiment has never gone away. And our attachment to helping those who are seen as “other” is what drove a gunman into the Tree of Life Synagogue two weeks ago.

This morning I want to talk a bit about anti-Semitism today and how its current form (or forms) comes from both the right and the left.

From the Right…

Eli Rosenberg, in a recent article published in the Washington Post, eloquently described how Republicans consistently attacked Jewish candidates across the US with an age-old caricature OF JEWS AS LOVING MONEY ABOVE ALL: Fistfuls of cash were seen in the candidates’ hands.

In North Carolina there was an ad that depicted Senator Chuck Schumer with what appeared to be a stack of bills in his hand.

In a race that was hotly contested outside Seattle, Republicans presented Kim Schrier, a Democratic candidate for Congress who is Jewish, with a wad of $20 bills fanned out in her hands.

In California, a Republican state assembly candidate tinted his Jewish opponent a shade of green in an ad, adding $100 bills into his grip for good measure.

These advertisements are disturbing. And in the wake of the Pittsburgh shooting they are even more upsetting.

White supremacists don’t just consider Jews an enemy, alongside immigrant and people of color, but THE ULTIMATE ENEMY.

I learned this idea from an unlikely source: Eric Ward, a black activist from the Southern Poverty Law Center, once attended a white supremacist convention and found himself able to build alliances by posing as a Jew hater.

Ward shared before a group of rabbis that anti-Semitism is the fuel that moves the engine of White Nationalism.

Their ideology traffics in the fantasy that Jews possess an invisible, outsized, even supernatural power.

In a terribly disturbing Atlantic Monthly magazine profile of the alt-right Nazi Andrew Anglin, writer Luke O’Brian sums up how White Nationalists think in the following way: “They blame everything they hate on a cabal of Jews…”

And worst of all, this ridiculous talk has increasingly become normalized in today’s society.

Derek Black, a former leader of the White Nationalist movement, said that for most of his life White Nationalists knew to keep their views to themselves. But after Charlottesville, when the President of the US said: “You have some very fine people — on both sides,” Black said he knew the tide had turned.

He described Trump’s words as “the most important moment in the history of the modern White Nationalist movement.”

And it is not at all surprising to me that a little more than a year later, eleven Jewish worshipers were murdered at the Tree of Life Synagogue by a white supremacist who felt emboldened by the climate in this country.

This “style” of Jew-hating dates back to Europe in the Middle Ages and often and almost universally has come from extreme elements of the right. I wish that were the only anti-Semitism I am seeing. Sadly, such is not the case. Today anti-Semitism is increasing found on the left as well.

Antisemitism on the Left…

Ilhan Omar is a Somali American politician from Minnesota who was elected to Congress last Tuesday. During the campaign, Omar tweeted that “Israel has hypnotized the world. May Allah awaken the people and help them see the evil doings of Israel.” Further, she described as “an apartheid regime.” To be clear — I don’t mind that Omar criticizes the government of Israel. I do it all the time. But criticizing Israel with harsh judgment and titles that simply are misleading at best leaves no room for discussion.

FarrakhanThis past year Tamika Mallory, a co-chair of the Women’s March, had attended a rally of the Nation of Islam led by the notoriously anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan. While her work advocating for women’s rights is noteworthy, she praised Farrakhan, who claims Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks and who has called Hitler “a very great man”. She later doubled down with this bewildering tweet: “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader!”

The co-chair of arguably the most important progressive movement of the last 2 years could not bring herself to denounce the hate-filled Farrakhan and defended him by employing the oldest canard that Jews killed Jesus.

Last year, The New School co-sponsored a panel on anti-Semitism that featured, among others, Linda Sarsour, who opined that “nothing is creepier than Zionism,” praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and believes one cannot support the right of Jews to a homeland of their own and still be a feminist. Alongside Sarsour was Rebecca Vilkomerson, who headed the odious Jewish Voice for Peace. The group, as an ADL report aptly put it, “uses its Jewish identity to shield the anti-Israel movement from allegations of anti-Semitism and to provide the movement with a veneer of legitimacy.” Among JVP’s recent achievements are the enthusiastic support of Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian terrorist convicted of a bombing attack on a Jerusalem supermarket that left two young students dead and who was recently deported from the United States after lying about the incident on her immigration forms. The group is also a frequent supporter, despite its allegations to the contrary, of Alison Weir, an activist robustly promoting modern-day blood libels against Jews.

Between the “classic” forms of Jew-hatred to anti-Israel rhetoric that wreaks of anti-Semitism as Jews get singled out as other and not to be accepted among the nations of the world, we Jews have much to fear in an age that seems to prey on fear.

Professor Deborah Lipstadt from Emory University is publishing a book on anti-Semitism. She describes a disturbing sentiment she often hears from students on campuses: “[Jews are] always playing the Holocaust card. Suffering? They’re just trying to hitch a free-ride on the backs of people of color who face real racism. They are white and they are privileged.’”

I wonder what people who say such lies would say when they realize that not all Jews are white. How does such a lie hold up when Jewish students are targeted with violence and being kept off student union assemblies on campus simply because they are Jews – regardless of their political stance on Israel.

This week the University of California Berkley’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter will be hosting a vigil with Jewish Voices for Peace that equates the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh to Israel’s actions in Gaza. The vigil was described as an event to honor “the lives of those lost to violence and hate at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh AND the Palestinians killed in Gaza by settlers and Israeli state violence in the month of October.”

All of these examples, and I will point to a couple more, speak to former Member of Knesset and Cabinet Minister Natan Sharansky’s teaching of the 3 D’s of anti-Semitism vis a vis Israel: Delegitimization of Israel; Demonization of Israel; and holding Israel to Double Standards.

My colleague Rabbi Angela Buchdahl shared the following story with her congregation last Rosh Hashanah:

“Last spring a congregant enrolled at NYU came to me distressed. Fifty different progressive student organizations on campus from Black Student Union to LGBTQ groups, pledged a boycott.

Not only a boycott of Israeli goods and academic institutions, but a refusal to partner with the most mainstream Jewish organizations on campus — including the Anti-Defamation League, Birthright, and AIPAC — on any topic whatsoever — issues such as gay rights, feminism or racism, which MANY Jews have long championed. Opposition to Israel has increasingly become a necessary precondition for all other progressive commitments. Some groups will only allow Jewish students to participate if they take a ‘disloyalty-oath’ and affirm they are opposed to “Israeli racism.”

This singling out of Israel as THE litmus test for Jewish involvement in any social justice cause is anti-Semitism plain and simple as it continues to hold Jews as “other” and having to choose between being Jewish and being a part of the larger whole.


The attack two weeks ago in Pittsburgh is not an isolated event. The crime that took place at the Tree of Life synagogue is part of a broader reality. The attack is a way of thinking about Jews and whether it comes from the right or the left, Jews literally wind up marginalized at best and quite chillingly, dead at worst. This kind of thinking always has been and remains very threatening. It is toxic. It is scary. And it is dangerous whether we are talking about Jews or other groups. And I like to believe that such thinking is un-American.

Touro SynagogueNot too far away from us is the colonial city of Newport, Rhode Island, which is home to the oldest synagogue building still standing in the U.S. Built in 1763, the Touro Synagogue welcomed George Washington on August 17, 1790. Four days later, he wrote a letter thanking the Jewish community for their hospitality. In his letter, Washington wrote:

“The government of the U. S. ... gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance … 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; while everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

What a wonderful dream-like image, Washington penned. And he did so knowingly. Washington was quoting the ancient Israelite prophet Micah (4:4). The very next line in that passage from Micah is also worth quoting: “All the nations may walk in the name of their gods; but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God for ever and ever.” In a sense, you could say that Micah expresses a kind of religious tolerance, a pluralistic vision that is also part of the American story, an essential part of the American story, embodied in the Bill of Rights and in the many legal protections that Jews have enjoyed in this country over the years, and embodied in other ways as well. And on that Washington was in New England promoting the ideas his newly forming government would establish and support and thanking those who would be partners: the Jewish community among many.

During the past few weeks, people have been gathering all across America. Citizens of all backgrounds and traditions have wanted to do something to express their revulsion at the attack in Pittsburgh and their sympathy with its victims because this attack speaks to an attack on humanity from such an old hatred. I am so grateful to your church leadership and to so many of you who supported us and reached out to the local Jewish community.

Some supporters have chosen to write letters to the community. I want to read to you an excerpt from a letter by one child, which I saw on Facebook:

Dear Tree of Life:
...I am in 4th grade. I am very mad and very sad. And if anyone is reading this, I just want to say I will honor and pray for those who got injured or died or helped. America was created for religious freedom. And when something like this happens we need to make the good voice louder than the bad voice.

That letter reads as though its author channeled the sentiments of George Washington.

Following Pittsburgh and living in an era where fear and hate are so vocally present, we must ask ourselves: Which vision of America will triumph? The xenophobic, hate-filled, anti-Israel, apocalyptic vision of American vigilantes and their enablers? Or that open-hearted, compassionate, hopeful vision expressed in George Washington’s letter -- and that condolence note of a fourth grader? 

Tree of Life Synagogue Memorials 10 30 2018We all have a role to play in formulating an answer. And it begins with our values, traditions, and sense of community. To my community, I say: we have to continue to practice and to live our sacred heritage, to teach and to share our Jewish values with our neighbors, our fellow Americans.

And to you, I say: please continue to practice and to teach and to share YOUR religious values with us so we may create a world of blessing with each other: particularly when it has to do with standing up for refugees and for other marginalized people and populations.

We must continue to have faith that we can form alliances with other men and women of varying faith traditions – or those who have no faith-tradition – bonding with one another over our shared sense of humanity.

Lastly, it is upon us to continue to build a better world, strong enough to hold at bay the hurtful, hateful, destructive forces that lie deep within the human heart.

Peter Stuyvesant, who was no great friend of the Catholics either, had to accept the Jews ultimately because it turns out some of the investors in the New Amsterdam colony, who were literally paying his salary, were Jewish. He still didn’t let them build a synagogue or serve in the militia. And Jews have dealt with quotas and housing prohibitions, and Jews have been prevented from access to any number of governmental, business, social, or academic institutions over the many years. We have been targeted and even murdered as Jews. And we have been targeted and even murdered as Jews fighting for the rights of others.

But in the end – what I sincerely believe will rule will be Washington’s words and the sentiments brought by the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have stood by us these past couple of weeks and have defended our rights over the many years we have been a part of the American fabric of society. But the anti-Semitism from the right and left are our current fears and I pray for the day when– ALL ELEMENTS OF OUR SOCIETY – can rest easily beneath our fig trees and maples and grapevines and oaks and no one will use fear, anger, exclusion as weapons to ostracize the other and dismantle the beauty of what America is and can continue to be.


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