Type B Antisemitism in America
“It is clear that antiSemitism, like all deeply ingrained prejudices, continually manifests itself in new forms.” Nadine Epstein, editor and publisher, Moment, and editor, Anti-Semitism: Where does it Come From & Why Does it Persist?”
“Anti-Semitism is very serious and is getting worse. Anti-Semitism is like a retrovirus, morphing from pagan anti-Semitism to Christian anti-Semitism, to Enlightenment anti-Semitism, to racialized anti-Semitism, to now, an anti-Semitism that is associated with anti-Zionism.” Ira Forman in Moment.
In my first piece in the series introducing antisemitism, I depicted three types of antisemitism. Some writers, like Forman, make further divisions but, for my purposes, three are sufficient. Type A compressed ancient, mediaeval and Enlightenment antisemitism as anti-Jewish to distinguish it from the antisemitism that arose in the nineteenth century rooted in a concept of race rather than belief. In this essay, I deal with the manifestation of Type B antisemitism in the United States. In my next essay, I take up the question of American Type C antisemitism.
The U.S. never went through a phase of anti-Judaism or what I called antisemitism Type A. That may simply be because the U.S. usurped and adopted the tropes central to Judaism, Americans were the chosen people. They had entered history to become the body politic of God’s historical revelation. Like the ancient Israelites, they came from foreign lands to make America the Promised Land. And they achieved their independence by revolting against the British crown just as the Israelites had rebelled against their Egyptian overlords.
However, Type B antisemitism of the nineteenth century made its appearance in America during the Civil War. Though within a month Abraham Lincoln ordered the order be rescinded, General Ulysses S Grant, to stop the black market in cotton, issued General Order Number 11 on 17 December 1862 expelling all Jews (not just peddlars) from the parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi under Union Army control. Jewish unlicensed peddlars were viewed as the main culprits in this illicit trade.
The Jewish community was understandably outraged and protested “the grossest violation of the Constitution and our rights as good citizens under it.” Captain Philip Trounstine, of the Ohio cavalry stationed in Tennessee, resigned in protest. The Senate rebuked Grant for issuing the order. Grant claimed that he had signed the order prepared by a subordinate without reading it.
In 1868, when Grant campaigned for and became president after the war, he tried to make up for his error, not simply with an apology, but by appointing more Jews than ever before to important positions in his administration. (See Jonathan Sarna (2012) When General Grant Expelled the Jews) Sarna dubbed Grant as “one of the greatest friends of Jews in American history.” In 1874, in an unprecedented move, he and his whole cabinet attended a dedication of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.
Generally, antisemitism is viewed as an alien element on American soil. Unlike polio, however, it remains virulent in large numbers of Americans. Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, insisted in 2014 that antisemitism is “not a threat to he security and well-being of the Jews in America.” He clarified in a follow-up morning TV show (“Tell Me More”) that he was concerned about rising antisemitism in Europe and in the Arab world, but insisted that, “America is different.”
He, of course, meant to say that Jews in the U.S. are not under any extensive or existential threat at this time and need not adopt a siege mentality. Jews can go to any university of their choice. They are not discriminated against in the job market and they can live in any neighbourhood.
As Yoffie pointed out, in contrast to the present, this was not always the situation in America, including immediately after WWII but especially in the 1920s and 1930s when that threat reared its ugly head most ominously. Leonard Dinnerstein, author of Anti-Semitism in America, in Moment magazine discussing the topic, wrote, “I am optimistic about the United States where there are more than 300 million people and you can go through your entire life without ever encountering anti-Semitism. True, during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, anti-Semitism was a significant problem. There were established anti-Semitic organizations, and anti-Semitic discourse was quite open, even in polite society. But today, it is politically correct to be respectful of every group, and it is against the law to discriminate on the basis of race and religion. The Anti-Defamation League pounces on the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, and their reports on college campuses reveal that three percent of students are anti-Semitic and five percent of academics are.”
However, there has also been an effort to rewrite the history of even Type B antisemitism in the 1920s and 1930s, particularly by those associated with and apologetic of Type C antisemitism even when not necessarily infected themselves.
Hasia Diner is a Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies and History and specialist in American Jewish history. In the special Moment issue on antisemitism, she railed against labelling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign as antisemitic since it is perfectly acceptable to criticize the Israeli government and its policies. (I will have more to say on this tomorrow.) However, she also disputed whether phone companies in America in the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s discriminated against Jewish girls on the basis of antisemitism.
“When Jewish girls applied for these jobs, however, they would not get them. Most historians have called this anti-Semitic, but I am not sure if this is true. Was it anti-Semitism or anti-unionism—or did the phone companies simply have a vision of which group would make good workers? Instead of anti-Semitism, I would describe the situation with a more analytic statement: Jewish women could not get jobs with the phone companies because the companies recruited telephone operators among the Catholic high schools. To say it is anti-Semitism tells me nothing.”
I suggest that this incident tells her nothing because of her antipathy to using the label anti-Semitic, most likely in response to its overuse and abuse by leading members of the Jewish community. But this is not an example of overuse. It is a blatant example of antisemitism, similar to the one my mother experienced when she found she had to hide her Jewishness to get the job she held in the 1930s where she had to ignore the prolific anti-Semitic remarks she overheard. First, the reasons phone companies discriminated against Jews could also have been because they were anti-union and because they preferred the neatness and discipline of Catholic girls. That is called overdetermination. But it was also clearly and unequivocally a case of antisemitism Type B because the girls were discriminated against based on their belonging to an ethnic group and not based on a measure of their individual traits, behaviour and qualifications for the job. Because behaviour is polite rather than raucous does not mean the label antisemitism is inappropriate.
Everyone agrees, or almost everyone, that this type of antisemitism has declined enormously. However, has it recently increased again? Let us begin with the baldest recent data with respect to antisemitism Type B. Divide the expressions of antisemitism, not simply attitudes, into two groups – those that express government policies and those that arise in civil society behaviour. I begin with the latter since incidents in the former are very rare; that, in itself, is revealing. Further, it is in civil society where the latest concern has been aroused. Civil society threats are expressed generally in three ways: i) violence; ii) threats of violence; iii) vandalism.
Some cases of violence are interpreted as threats of violence – a bullet through a window of a Jewish school – and most threats of violence are not reported, possibly two-thirds. Further, under vandalism, only major acts of vandalism are generally reported in aggregating figures. Thus, turning over tombstones in a Jewish cemetery is considered a major act of vandalism; one incident of writing of a swastika on a blackboard in a university in not considered a major act of vandalism, even though it may be treated as such during periods of eruption of antisemitic incidents, thus making comparative statistics difficult.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, 751 incidents of antisemitism in civil society took place across the U.S. during 2013, the most serious being the killing in April of three people in a shooting outside Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas. In the first two months of 2017 alone, there were 101 incidents, but this was not even the pace of incidents in 2013. Excepting Israel, in what is considered the country most hospitable to Jews in the world, the U.S. may hit the same number of incidents of antisemitism Type A as occurred in 2013. There does not appear to be an increase.
However, there has been an apparent significant increase in the number of incidents of false threats. They have taken place in waves, suggesting a coordinated effort. There were 29 bomb threats against Jewish targets across U.S. in the fifth wave. 48 JCCs in 26 states and one Canadian province received nearly 60 bomb threats during January. On 20 February, another wave hit 11 JCCs across America. The total number of bomb threats in January and February 2017 targeting JCCs and ADL offices reached 89 in 72 locations, the large majority against JCCs. Just the day before yesterday, the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto had to be evacuated to investigate a bomb threat.
The JCCs, schools and an ADL office were all located in 16 states along the West and East Coast states where the bulk of American Jews live. This is not antisemitism rooted in deep prejudice by people who have no contact with or knowledge of Jews. Why now? Why this specific pattern? Why are secular institutions rather than synagogues the major targets, though on 4 January, the initial target of the year was a Chabad Centre in Orlando?
In December 2916, Richard Spencer bought a house in the small Montana town of Whitefish, population 6,649. Whitefish has three Jewish families, but no synagogue or Jewish public building of any kind. Spencer’s mother lived in Whitefish, but she has no sympathy with these neo-Nazis and the views of her son, the self-proclaimed president of the National Policy Institute, a virulent neo-Nazi organization that last year held an antisemitic conference near the Holocaust Museum in Washington. On the anti-Semitic news site, The Daily Stormer, the names and addresses of the three Jewish families in Whitefish were published. At the same time as the three Jewish families have been targeted, so has Mrs. Spencer who owns a building in Whitefish. Misguided activists simply insist they are trying to protect the image of their small town.
In tomorrow’s blog, I will suggest that this publicity surge of Type B racist antisemitism is not a major threat, but it is a movement taking advantage of the Trump moment. The real danger comes from Type C antisemitism. In that analysis I will ask whether American antisemitism is a threat to all Jews AND, even more so, it is a threat to America. Any threat to American Jews, after all, is a threat to world Jewry. And any threat to American Jews is a threat to what is best and shines brightest in America.
With the help of Alex Zisman