Antisemitism: An Abhorrent Aberration in the USA
The October 27, 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, in Pittsburgh, PA, was an egregious reminder that since the early 17th century, antisemitism has been a systematic feature of — yet an abhorrent aberration in — the US. At the same time, American society has demonstrated 400 years of respect for Judaism, Judeo-Christian values, and the Jewish state.
For instance, Peter Stuyvesant, the first Dutch Governor of New York/New Netherlands (1647-1664), failed in his attempt to block the immigration of Jews to the colony, but prohibited them from constructing a synagogue and serving in the local militia. Moreover, he confiscated Jewish property and levied a special tax solely on Jews, claiming that they were “deceitful and enemies of Jesus Christ.”
The state of the Jewish community improved in the aftermath of the 1664 British conquest of New York and the introduction of a series of civil covenants in the various colonies (e.g., the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties). It was further improved as a result of the 1789 ratification of the US Constitution, which enhanced civil liberties — in a drastic departure from the state of mind of the European churches and monarchies — partially inspired by the Five Books of Moses, and especially by the concept of the Jubilee (Leviticus 25:10).
Still, European-imported antisemitism established itself in the US, although as a significantly lower profile in the newly-created society and governance. The latter has expanded liberty over and beyond the European standards, while severely restricting the playing field of potential antisemitism.
For example, in December 1862, General Ulysses Grant issued the infamous General Order No. 11, ordering the expulsion of all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, stating: “The Jews, as a class, violate every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department.” However, in January 1863, President Lincoln — known for his deep respect for Judaism — ordered Grant to revoke the order. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Civil War, General Grant contended that he signed the order without studying it.
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford — the only American mentioned favorably in Hitler’s Mein Kampf and praised by Heinrich Himmler — wrote: “If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words — too much Jew.” However, in January 1921, 119 distinguished Americans, such as President Woodrow Wilson, former President William Howard Taft, and the poet Robert Frost, signed a petition denouncing Ford’s antisemitism, including his dissemination of the 1903 antisemitic Russian-fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In 1927, Ford apologized for his antisemitic conduct.
During the 1920s and the 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin leveraged his weekly antisemitic radio program to praise Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito. However, upon the 1939 outbreak of the Second World War, he lost most of his listeners and followers.
An accurate depiction of most Americans’ stance on antisemitism was exposed, in December 1993, by the reaction of most of the 80,000 residents of Billings, Montana to a paving stone hurled by a white supremacist through a window of a Jewish home displaying a Chanukah candelabra and a Star of David. The hate crime was followed by the Billings Gazette’s full-page color image of a Chanukah candelabra, along with the recommendation to display it on home windows in solidarity with the Jewish community. In addition, some residents took to the street holding Chanukah candelabras, demonstrating a city-wide determination to stand up against the bullying tactics of white supremacists. Furthermore, solidarity with the Jewish community has become almost an annual event attended by top Billings and Montana officials.
While the destructive and lethal potential of antisemitism must not be underestimated, countries should not be judged by the eruption of such an abomination, but by the way they prosecute it. The 400-year-old Judeo-Christian foundations — and track record — of the USA assure that antisemitism shall be constrained, prosecuted, and punished most decisively.
Yoram Ettinger is a former ambassador and head of Second Thought: a US-Israel Initiative.