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Jonathan P. Baird: Anti-Semitism is making a comeback, and history can explain why

  • More than 900 German Jewish refugees return to Antwerp, Belgium, on June 17, 1939, aboard the liner St. Louis after they had been denied entrance to Cuba, Canada and the United States. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 12/16/2018 12:19:52 AM

As an American Jew, I have been surprised by the resurgence of anti-Semitism here. Like many others, I did not see it coming.

The relative economic success of American Jews, awareness of the horrors of the Holocaust and the American tradition of religious tolerance have all mitigated against seeing anti-Semitism as a formidable threat. We have been through a long period during which anti-Semitism undeniably receded.

There is a foundational American history of welcoming Jews and immigrants of all nationalities and religions that is symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. For me, and I expect for many other American Jews, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting shook that foundation.

It would be a mistake to view the Pittsburgh shootings as an isolated event. The Anti-Defamation League has reported 1,986 anti-Semitic incidents – defined as harassment, vandalism and physical assault – in the United States in 2017.

The 2017 statistics represent a 57 percent increase over 2016, the largest single-year escalation since the ADL began tracking these incidents in 1979.

Unfortunately, there is also good reason to think the numbers are an undercount. Studies show that only about half of all hate crimes are reported to the police. Many local law enforcement agencies do not provide hate crime data to the federal government because the reporting requirement is voluntary. There is also uncertainty as to whether all hate crimes have been properly identified.

While many rightly point to the Trump campaign and presidency as a supercharger of bigotry, I would like to focus on the largely forgotten history of anti-Semitism in America to explain recent events. As with racism, anti-Semitism has deep roots here.

One hundred years ago, anti-Semitism and racism had far more social acceptance than they do today. Jews and people of color were excluded from neighborhoods, jobs, clubs and colleges. Indeed, very prominent Americans – Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh and the Rev. Charles Coughlin – publicly voiced anti-Semitic or pro-Nazi views.

Ford, the auto magnate, was singled out by Adolf Hitler for praise in his book Mein Kampf. Ford’s collection of articles titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem was a Hitler favorite. Ford attributed all evil to Jews and to Jewish capitalists. He distributed half a million copies of his volume to his vast network of dealerships and subscribers. Ford did business with the Nazis during the war, and he was the first American recipient of the Grand Cross of the German Eagle, Nazi Germany’s highest honor.

Lindbergh, the much-admired aviator, was an America-Firster. He spoke against the “mongrelization” of America, in favor of white racial purity. He claimed Jews, through their ownership of the media, were trying to drag America into war against Germany, something he opposed. Lindbergh also received the Grand Cross of the German Eagle from Hitler.

Coughlin, a Catholic radio priest from the Detroit area with an audience of an estimated 30 million listeners, used his radio program to promote anti-Semitism. In the 1930s, Coughlin supported Hitler and Benito Mussolini. He saw Jewish bankers behind the Russian Revolution. He was eventually forced off the air in 1939 because of his pro-fascist views. At the time, he was one of the most prominent Catholic speakers on political issues in America. He was a forerunner of the rise of televangelism.

In the 1930s, there was an active Nazi movement in the United States, the German-American Bund. At its height in 1939, the movement packed a rally with 20,000 supporters at Madison Square Garden in New York.

Also of note, the Ku Klux Klan achieved massive national popularity in the early 1920s with an estimated membership of 4 million. The Klan emphasized white supremacy and opposition to Catholics, Jews and immigrants. In that period, the Klan’s widespread campaigns of lynching and terror commanded their widest popularity.

The nativist, anti-immigrant political tendency of the 1920s and 1930s is entirely consistent with the anti-immigrant hysteria directed against Latinos, Syrians and Muslims today. History reveals the dangerous repercussions of such racist and anti-immigrant perspectives, which cannot be emphasized enough.

Exhibit A is the experience of the Jewish people. When more than 1.5 million Eastern European Jews arrived in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many nativist organizations advocated for federal restrictions on Jewish immigration. Following in the tradition of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Act of 1924 drastically decreased immigration of specific groups of Europeans, including Eastern European Jews, by imposing strict quotas.

Supporters of the 1924 act believed that bringing in more immigrants would adversely affect employment for native-born Americans. They sought to establish an American identity that favored native-born white Americans over Jews and people of color. Eugenics, the science of selective breeding aimed at improving the genetic quality of a population, was a big influence on those favoring the quotas.

A Roper poll in the late 1930s showed that 70 to 85 percent of Americans opposed raising quotas to help Jewish refugees enter the United States. I think that atmosphere of hostility to Jewish immigration paved the way for what came later.

We can now see the tremendous harm caused by the restrictionist immigration policies. Thousands of Jews who wanted to escape the hell of Nazism were turned away and not allowed into the United States because of the strict quotas. As a result, hundreds of thousands needlessly died in the Holocaust.

Both before and during World War II, the U.S. government played a shameful role in abandoning the European Jewish refugees. They were joined in this abandonment by newspapers and churches. They failed to respond, adopting a posture of passive acquiescence and worse.

Anti-Semitism is the fundamental reason Americans and the other European allies did not respond sooner to the Holocaust. Many people in the United States and Europe knew what the Nazis were up to with their Final Solution but looked the other way. The dehumanization of Jews by anti-Semites contributed to their indifference and passivity. The response by all the Allies was too little, too late.

To this day, the story remains little known about how U.S. government officials deliberately created bureaucratic obstacles for refugees seeking visas. Breckinridge Long, a State Department official, a diplomat and a powerful anti-Semite, deserves mention. Under Long, 90 percent of the quota places available to immigrants from countries under German or Italian control were never filled. If they had been filled, an estimated 190,000 more people could have escaped the Nazis.

The story of the European Jewish refugees is best captured in the famous 1939 voyage of the German liner St. Louis, which carried 937 passengers. The U.S. government did not allow the passengers to land since they did not have U.S. immigration visas and had not passed a security screening. The boat was ultimately forced back to Europe and 254 of those passengers were killed by the Nazis.

If anything, the consequences of curbing Jewish immigration in the 1920s and 1930s highlights the present danger faced by immigrants in our era. Many are literally running for their lives, a reality that is not sufficiently appreciated.

The fact that anti-Semitism has a very long and tragic history in no way lessens our collective responsibility to oppose it now, especially given the alarming rise in hate crimes in this country. It is the same regressive force it has always been, redirecting popular fear and anger onto a convenient scapegoat. All who oppose anti-Semitism, racism and the alt-right need to join together in solidarity.

(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot and blogs at jonathanpbaird.com.)

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