November 2018

Race, Antisemitism, and American Jews

By focusing on the goal of whiteness, American Jews risked beneficial alliances with other minority groups and incorrectly convinced themselves that they were accepted by white society. 

Antisemitism is back in the United States. While anti-Jewish animus never really went away entirely, it is clear that in late 2018 American Jews are in a very different place then they were twenty years ago when some were proclaiming The Death of Antisemitism.[1] Feeding off a brutal combination of racism and nativism, the Trump administration has brought out the worst in American antisemitism. While it is obvious that anti-Jewish animus has always existed, that someone would yell “Heil Trump, heil Hitler” in a performance of Fiddler on the Roof makes it very clear where lay the roots of the revival of American antisemitism. While the United States has long had elements of antisemitic thought and Nazi sympathy, the type of violent antisemitism that has taken place in the past several years is largely unprecedented in American history. The horrific mass murder that took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh is one of several recent examples of a stark rise in antisemitism in the United States.

While Jews have certainly faced discrimination and occasional violence, America’s racial color line generally put Jews in the “white enough” category. This allowed American Jews to avoid the racialized mass violence inflicted on African Americans, Chinese Americans, Mexican Americans, and other non-white groups. Previous antisemitic violence, while horrific, has been more limited. Take, for example the murder of Leo Frank in 1915. Frank was a Atlanta industrialist who was accused of raping a young woman who worked for him. One reason the case was notable was the fact that the testimony of James Conley, an African American man who worked for Frank, was believed over Frank in the American South. Frank was ultimately lynched while awaiting trial. The case was previously the most violent outburst of antisemitism in American history.

Leo Frank was lynched in 1915 for a crime he did not commit. Image courtesy of the Washington Post.

Historians looking at the case—most notably Leonard Dinnerstein, whose work The Leo Frank Case sets the standard for scholarship on Frank—have emphasized how much the Frank case was a reaction against modernism; Frank was an outsider from New York and an industrialist.[2] The American South was only several decades removed from the sabotage of reconstruction after the Civil War. Frank represented a Northern outsider and a religious minority in a time and place where both were seen as threats to the existing social order. Re-reading scholarship on the Frank case should make the historian ponder what future historians will say about the horrific violence that occurred at the Tree of Life Synagogue. If Frank’s tragic murder is viewed as part of a broader reaction against modernism by a subset of Southern agrarians, what will historians identify Trump supporters as reacting against?

The most obvious answer is race. By most accounts, the core of Trump’s support is rooted in racism and white racial insecurity, with voters moving from Obama to Trump because of their views on race. While it is not accurate to say that all Trump supporters are racists, his base of support certainly contains a lot of very racist people. If Trump’s base of support is driven by racism, where does that put American Jews? If American Jews are no longer white, what are they? While there are certainly Jews of color in the United States, and they have faced discrimination both as Jews and as people of color, the majority of American Jews are of Ashkenazi European descent. While there are extreme income disparities within the American Jewish community, Jews are statistically the highest earning income religious group in the United States. It is clear that American Jews have collectively benefited from white privilege, while at the same time never being quite white.

It is clear that American Jews have collectively benefited from white privilege, while at the same time never being quite white.

American Jews have spent decades striving for whiteness and acceptance into American society. Major Jewish advocacy organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and Bnai Brith have made it their mission for a century or more to eradicate antisemitism and encourage the acceptance of Jews in the United States. By the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like their efforts were successful. American Jews were so accepted into American society that Democratic Presidential candidate Al Gore selected Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut Senator and an Orthodox Jew, as his running mate. While Lieberman’s inclusion on the ticket brought with it concerns about potential antisemitism, the election is remembered much more for Florida’s infamous election issues and hanging chads. For future historians of American Jews, an important question will be what happened in between this period two decades ago and our current historical moment? Was there a real increase in antisemitism, or are antisemites just less afraid to be open about their beliefs under the Trump administration? Complicating this question is the fact that Donald Trump has multiple American Jews in his cabinet and inner circle. First daughter Ivanka is religiously Orthodox, having converted to the faith of her husband. Stephen Miller, the architect of some of the most brutal family separation programs undertaken by the Trump administration, is also Jewish. The American Jewish community has collectively denounced the Trump administration, and Stephen Miller’s former Rabbi denounced him publicly in an open letter.

If there were questions about the whiteness of Jews two years ago when Trump was first elected, there are, quite frankly, not as many now. The implications for the American Jewish community are striking. Our current historical moment opens up questions about the fundamental safety of Jews in the United States. Further complicating this is the relationship between American Jews and Israel. While modern Zionism as an ideology pre-dates the rise of Nazism by several decades, the creation of Israel in 1948 was touted as a way to give Jews across the world a place to go if they faced antisemitism. American Jews are now facing antisemitism, but they are largely not looking to Israel. Gaps in the relationship between Israel and American Jewry have been becoming more pronounced for several years, especially with the notable support for Trump in Israel. Sights of Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump together are giving American Jews serious second thoughts on their support for Israel. In an almost Kafkaesque manner, the state that is supposed to protect Jewish interests is cozying up to a political administration that potentially threatens American Jews, who have long been vocal advocates for Israel.

American Jews miscalculated when they put their faith in full assimilation.

If American Jews are seeing themselves under attack in the United States and do not share the values of an increasingly rightwing Israel, where do they turn? One possibility is to re-ignite the alliance between African Americans and American Jews that formed the bedrock of the civil rights movement. This alliance frayed in part because of American Jewish assimilation efforts and concerns that the Black Power movement and programs like Affirmative Action were threats to Jews’ place in American society. It is clear that American Jews miscalculated when they put their faith in full assimilation. The lesson for American Jews should be that minority groups do not get to choose their level of acceptance in American society, no matter how much effort they put in. By focusing on the goal of whiteness, American Jews risked beneficial alliances with other minority groups and incorrectly convinced themselves that they were accepted by white society.  The reality, however, is that a dormant antisemitism continued to lurk, biding its time before re-emerging during a nationalist presidential administration with little patience for minority rights.

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[1] Spencer Blakeslee, The Death of Antisemitism (New York: Prager Press, 2000).

[2] Leonard Dinnerstein, The Leo Frank Case (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 162.

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

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