This article was originally published in September 1994 and has recently been converted into HTML text format in June 2022; please excuse any grammatical errors.
It can be frustrating to warn the public of growing U.S. antisemitism when the reply (often from Jewish advocacy organizations as well as non-Jewish groups) is that Jews are doing well in the U.S. Never better, in fact. In Scapegoat in the New Wilderness, Frederic Jaber addresses that frustration with a helpful and timely explanation: throughout U.S. history, both tolerance and defamation toward Jews have co-existed. Jaher illustrates America’s history of ambivalence about its Jewish citizens with historical examples, tracing the most fundamental cause of anti- Jewish sentiment to Christianity—its doctrine and its preachers.
In reviewing 17th, 18th and 19th-century manifestations of American antisemitism in a search for the roots of modern day antisemitism, Jaher first presents the more favorable life that Jews enjoyed in the colonial period and the new republic when compared with antisemitism in Europe. From the earliest days of Puritan domination, Jews were spared the persecution and exclusion they suffered in Europe. Jews were “insulted but not assaulted.” They enjoyed almost all the privileges of full citizenship and considerable freedom of religious practice. Though their numbers were minuscule (in 1840 there were only 15,000 Jews in the U.S.), they were not repressed. During early U.S history, it was Black and Indigenous people, and Catholics who received the most serious and relentless repression.
With the Civil War, anti-Semitism began to gain strength, rising to a peak during WWII. During the Civil War, both North and South blamed the Jews as either agents of the enemy or profiteers of the war. Later in the 19th Century, Know Nothing nativism fed the Christian sense that Jews were the killers of Christ. This theological hostility intertwined with the secular image of Jews as tribalistic and without strong nationalistic loyalties to create smear that reached its height during WWII.
During this period antisemitism “assumed its modern controus, if not its subsequent intensity and scope.” Secular magazines regularly reviled Jews and popular materials such as Mother Goose and the McGuffey Readers taught children that America was a Christian country that devalued Judaism and Jews. Yet at the same time, Jews made some gains in right and access to privilege, illustrating Jaher’s point that benign and forbidding circumstances have coexisted for Jews throughout U.S. history.
Jaher’s elegant and complex analysis, combining conventional historical and social science research with analysis of metaphor and myth, stands in contrast with Leonard Dinnerstein’s more pedestrian approach in Anti-Semitism in America. Dinnerstein also emphasizes that America is perceived by most citizens to be a Christian country, and that distrust and marginalization of Jews is hence doctrinally built into the American character. Dinnerstein quotes Barabara Smith, African-American writer and paragon of open-minded tolerance, who makes this point when she says “I am anti-Semitic…I have swallowed anti-Semitism by living here, whether I wanted to or not.”
Dinnerstein’s book, though less thoughtful and multi-dimensional than Jaher’s, is also useful and timely. It meets the need for a thorough account of antisemitic incidents in the United States and makes an attempt to analyze the causes and significance of these incidents by reviewing explanations from sociology and psychology.
Dinnerstein’s weakness is that he seems to come to this historical narrative with a bias; he is convinced that the recitation of anti-Jewish incidents doesn’t add up to much. Dinnerstein’s conviction that antisemitism is on the decline in the United States creates blind spots that are puzzling to the reader. He scrupulously narrates every incident of antisemitism, admits that is transigent, then dismisses the notion that it is anything to worry about. It is in the dismissal that he does his work the greatest harm.
An example is his chapter on African American antisemitism. Relying almost exclusively on the words of Minister Louis Farrakhan and members of the Nation of Islam, he compiles evidence of a disturbing level of antisemitism in the African-American community. It would seem that an honest account of this topic would have to look at both how widespread antisemitism is throughout the Black community, and at the existence and extent of racism within the Jewish community. Dinnerstein does little of either, apparently accepting the image so often presented in the media of Farrakhan as spokesman for the larger community. He then concludes that “Existing anti-Jewish attitudes among African Americans seem resistant to change.” He reviews social, political, and economic explanations for African-American hostility to Jews, explanations that point to the tragedy of “horizontal blame.”
But we are then reassured that African-American leaders like Cornel West, Jesse Jackson, and Henry Louis Gates have taken on this explicit antisemitism. Though all three have been eloquent on the subject, this is hardly grounds for dismissing the antisemitic message of Minister Louis Farrakhan and its popularity among his followers. Dinnerstein’s rather shallow assessment of antisemitism in the African-American community (primarily a recitation of incidents) leads directly to his simplistic conclusion that antisemitism in the Black community stems from a “powerless” segment. The very complex relationship of Louis Farrakhan to the larger African-American community, and the role of antisemitism in his recruiting and organizing efforts deserve a more complex analysis than they receive here.
Dinnerstein concludes that “Today antisemitism in the United States is neither virulent nor growing. It is not a powerful social or political force. Moreover; prejudicial comments are now beyond the bounds of respectable discourse and existing societal restraints prevent any overt antisemitic content except among small groups of disturbed adolescents, extremists, and powerless African Americans.” Based on this assertion, he several times seems to blame “anxious Jews” for their (irrational) concern about contemporary antisemitism.
Dinnerstein fails to give appropriate attention to several important sources of contemporary antisemitism. First, he does not take far right antisemites (neo-Nazis, Skinheads, some Klan members, and Identity Christians) seriously, but instead dismissed them as a marginal element without influence. More importantly, he misses the opportunity to discuss the contemporary politicization of Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. As was true of much of the mainstream Jewish community in the 1980s, Dinnerstein does not fully appreciate the contemporary surge of Christian fundamentalist and evangelical theology as a threat to Jews. Crucial questions are not asked, such as: What does the rise of the Christian Right mean for Jews? Is it a matter of little concern or is the Christian agenda inherently threatening to Jews as well as others? Does the fact that Religious Right activists usually support Israel mean that they are not antisemitic? And, equally important, what does Christian fundamentalist intolerance mean for human rights in general?
This is not to say that Dinnerstein’s book doesn’t provide a valuable service, and that it isn’t an impressive feat of research. As John Hingham, sociologist of religion, says on the jacket “No other historian of the subject has done anything approaching this monumental narrative synthesis of previous scholarship in many different disciplines, melded with original research in impressive depth.” But Dinnerstein’s relentless optimism is an example of a certain amount of denial that sometimes characterizes mainstream Jewish advocacy organizations, making them lag behind in their appreciation of the reality and potential of antisemitism in the U.S. When Christianity has been identified as the dominant source of antisemitism in modern history, and the United States is in the midst of a major conservative Christian revitalization, “anxious Jews” and researchers who study antisemitic extremists and take them seriously deserve more than to be ignored and dismissed. Frederic Jaher’s elegant argument that prosperity for Jews and powerful antisemitism can co-exist is a grounding insight for those concerned with contemporary antisemitism in the United States.