Chapter 13, Politics and persecution: antisemitism in the United States, 1584 - 1932
“You know this is a Protestant country, and the Catholics and Jews are here under sufferance.”
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
“In 1946, with the ovens of Auschwitz just cooling, some 40% of Americans would still have participated in, or stood silently by as a Krystallnacht-type pogrom unfolded across the United States.”
Reaction to the 19th Century legal emancipation of the Jews carried by Napoleon’s armies across Europe set in immediately following his defeat. Political parties with an antisemitic agenda appeared on both sides of the Atlantic to contain the Jewish threat. One country in particular seemed hospitable to Jews, and Jews responded in kind. 19th Century Germany boasted higher rates of assimilation, conversion and intermarriage than anywhere before or since. But by the 20th Century a political agenda of exclusion morphed into an even more radical solution to the traditional Jewish Problem. Within a six year period National Socialism, through graduated “legal” steps, undertook a far more ambitious solution to the “problem,” a final solution.
As in Europe, The United States also birthed antisemitic political parties. And, as in Europe, a movement to deny Jews legal and social rights did not mysteriously appear but emerged from the same fertile soil of its colonial forbears. Antisemitism arrived with the first Europeans in the New World.
The first Jews to set foot in the New World arrived with Christopher Columbus in 1492; and the first recorded case of antisemitism may have involved Joachim Gaunse, a Jewish metallurgist who accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh to the Virginia territory. In 1584 Gaunse was accused of blasphemy and forced to return to England.
The Inquisition also followed the Jews to the New World:
“[In] 1647, the Portuguese authorities arrested Isaac de Castro for teaching Jewish rites and customs in Portuguese controlled Brazil and sent him back to Portugal where [he was] sentenced to death and burned at the stake.”
Seven years later twenty-three Jewish refugees fled Portuguese Brazil for the more tolerant Dutch New Amsterdam (later renamed New York after the British took it from the Dutch). But on arrival they were greeted with far less tolerance than they expected. Peter Stuyvesant, the colony’s Director General, refused them refuge. Defending his decision to his employers, the directors of the Dutch West India Company, he wrote,
“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with Christians)… [we ask] that the deceitful race -- such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ -- be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony…” (Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, Jehuda Reinharz, eds, The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History, p.452)
With several Jews serving as Company board members Stuyvesant’s request was denied and they were allowed to remain. If grudgingly allowed to settle in Dutch areas, Jews were not allowed to settle in French colonial areas for another century, until 1759. And as far as Spanish and Portuguese colonies, the Inquisition ensured they would remain free of Jews as well as Catholics of Jewish descent.
Although the 1789 US Constitution protected citizen rights regardless of religion, “states rights” took precedence. Anti-Jewish legislation had to wait until 1869 to be rescinded in North Carolina, and in New Hampshire only “Protestants” were allowed to hold state office until 1887.
“Sabbath laws,” forbidding Jews to engage in any form of business on Sunday, remained in force until well into the 20th Century:
“the 1855 California assembly debate on the topic, [where] the speaker of the house argued that Jews ‘ought to respect the laws and opinions of the majority.’” (Jaher, Frederic C, A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness, p. 195)
As for “popular” antisemitism:
“Mordecai Noah, a diplomat to Tunis from 1813-15, was recalled from his post having been denounced as an “enemy of Christ.” And, “Uriah Phillips Levy, then the only Jewish officer in the U. S. Navy, was dropped from the officer list in 1855… after six courts martial, two dismissals, and the killing of one opponent in a duel, all over slurs against his Judaism.
A direct relationship exists between social stress and heightened antisemitism throughout Diaspora history and Christendom today. This is true in the United States as Europe. The Long Depression of 1873 to 1896 saw the emergence of a variety of populist political parties with antisemitism a common focus. In the 1896 presidential race all mainstream parties used antisemitic sloganeering to appeal for votes. But for the Peoples Party antisemitism was the agenda.
Thomas Watson, a Georgia politician and newspaper publisher, was able to influence a jury to convict Leo Frank, a young Jew accused in the rape-murder of a young girl employee in the factory he managed. Dissatisfied with the slow pace of justice Watson even organized a lynch mob to carry out the sentence still under judicial review. Although failed in his attempts to win the presidency Watson would later represent his state, Georgia, as its US senator.
"Populists strengthened their cause by using religious metaphors to link money with a Jewish conspiracy. Thus in 1896 Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, speaking in an idiom Protestant Fundamentalists were fully conversant with, could easily intersperse biblical imagery with economic necessity when he thundered, `You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.' The antisemitism evoked by the metaphor of the crucifixion was powerful and appealed to rural Protestants who possessed a similar religious and cultural heritage with other Americans in the South and the West," (Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America, p.49-50).
By the twentieth century antisemitism was even more open and widespread, appearing in vaudeville, on the stage and even in the movies. Henry Ford the auto magnate had purchased his own newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, to serve as a populist voice for antisemitism. All Ford dealerships were well-stocked with the newspaper and served as distribution centers for the spread of antisemitism. Among his published contributions was the serialization of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion.
Political parties targeting Jews multiplied in the years leading up to and during the Second World War.
“The era gave rise to domestic anti-Jewish bigots, such as Father Charles Coughlin, Rev. Gerald L. K. Smith and William Dudley Pelley, leader of the Silver Shirts [aka the Christian Patriots].”
Although the German-American Bund was more obvious in its affiliation with German National Socialism, Pelley was also an admirer of Hitler, patterned his paramilitary Silver Shirts, even down to the Nazi uniform. In 1935 Pelley formed the Christian Party and in 1936 ran for president as its candidate. In 1944 fellow fascist Gerald L. K. Smith ran for president at the head of the more “mainline” America First Party.
Antisemitism and anti-war sentiment ran high also in traditional politics. Henry Ford was once considered by the Republican Party to run against Roosevelt; A few years later the Republicans had their eyes on Charles Lindbergh as their 1940 candidate for president. Had Lindbergh run the consequences for America’s Jews might well have been catastrophic. But this is a discussion for later.
Whatever else one might say about these organizations and of antisemitism reflected in American politics, it arose from a deep and generally unacknowledged popular sentiment, something disclosed in a 1939 Roper poll that,
“found that only thirty-nine percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that "Jews are different and should be restricted" and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.”
And the journalist, Marvin Kalb, recalled at a lecture delivered at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1996 that,
“David Wyman, author of The Abandonment of the Jews, concluded that 15 percent of the American people would actually have "supported" an anti-Jewish pogrom of some sort, and another 20-25 percent would have been "sympathetic" to such a pogrom. In the scholar's own words, "As much as 35-40 percent of the population was prepared to approve an anti-Jewish campaign, some 30 percent would have stood up against it, and the rest would have remained indifferent." We are talking here about the American people in the closing months of a war against the Nazis, in which many Americans were killed.”
Two polls, one during, the other after Krystallnacht described a level of popular antisemitism in the United States equal to that in the killing fields of Europe. It might be recalled that 1946 was a time that Movietone News appearing in theatres around the country was showing horrific scenes of stacked corpses and rows of ovens from inside the newly-liberated Auschwitz. With the ovens of Auschwitz just cooling some 40% of Americans would have participated in, or stood silently by as a Krystallnacht-type pogrom unfolded across the United States?
An American Lynching: Leo Max Frank
"This country has nothing to fear from its rural communities. Lynch law is a good sign; it shows that a sense of justice lives among the people." Thomas E. Watson
from, The Ballad of Mary Phagan
“Not one time did the poor child think
That she was a-going to die.
Leo Frank he met her
With a brutish heart, we know;
He smiled and said, ‘Little Mary,
You won’t go home no more.’”
In 1928 a four year old Christian girl disappeared from her Massena, New York home and suspicion for her disappearance fell on the town’s Jews, whom they accused of committing a “blood libel.” Blood libels are a superstition popularized in the Middle Ages that occasionally still surface in modern times, as in the 1911 Beilis accusation in Russia. How did the residents of Massena come by such an idea? As it turned out the child had wandered off and was later found. But not before a state trooper was called to confront the local rabbi. The fact that people in the 20th century, in America, could still believe the superstition is one example of the survival and transmission of traditional Christian antisemitic stereotypes over centuries. Stereotypes represent the continuing if hidden danger to Jews in all lands of the Diaspora.
Nineteen years before Massena a young Atlanta Jew was arrested, tried and convicted in the murder of another Christian girl, a thirteen year old employee of the factory he managed. “The Jew” as despoiler of innocent Christian girls is another stereotype, one popularized in Germany during the Third Reich. That such stereotypes persist in the United States poses a significant challenge to the idea of American Jewish insistence on “exceptionality” as a Diaspora homeland; as liberal “melting pot.” In France, although it took many years, Captain Dreyfus was eventually exonerated of “treason” and freed from prison. And even in Russia, faced with a jury hand-picked to deliver a guilty verdict, Menahem Beilis was found not guilty of “ritual murder.” But in the State of Georgia Leo Frank was convicted on flimsy evidence provided by the state’s main witness and likely killer of the girl, an alcoholic janitor with an arrest record relating to anger. And the mob that lynched Leo Frank consisted of Atlanta society’s political and professional elite.
“Frank was accused of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan, a former Mariettan who worked at the National Pencil Factory in Atlanta. Historians [and some police investigators at the time] believe that the state's main witness, Jim Conley, a janitor at the factory, murdered the 13-year-old girl.”
Tom Watson, publisher of the Jeffersonian, used his paper to shape public outrage against Frank. Watson reportedly even paid the police for access to evidence, which he was later accused of not returning.
Interviewed by another newspaper, The Georgian, the factory foreman said he saw the janitor washing blood from his shirt and believed he "strangled Mary Phagan while about half drunk.” But he and two other witnesses against the janitor were never called to testify. When members of the grand jury asked the janitor to testify they were blocked by the state prosecutor.
Following the inevitable conviction,
“William Manning Smith, the attorney who defended Conley, reversed his position in 1914 concluding that his own client was the guilty party.”
When Governor Slaton agreed to revue the case Jeffersonian editor Watson warned,
“If Frank's rich connections [northern Jews] keep on lying about this case, something bad will happen…” [Watson tried bribery] “that he would throw his support behind a Senate bid if only the governor would let Frank hang.”
Days before leaving office the governor commuted Frank's sentence to life in prison, and forty years later said he assumed Frank’s innocence “would eventually be fully established and he would be set free.”
And so past presidential candidate and future US senator Tom Watson led a lynch mob to Leo Frank’s prison, took him out at gunpoint and drove him 180 miles to the farm of Sheriff William Frey. The sheriff had prepared the site complete with rope and table not far from the girl’s family home and the next morning the “Knights of Mary Phagan” lynched Leo Frank.
“…the murderous mob imagined by so many was actually a conspiracy of aristocratic Atlantans well connected in city government... this sets apart the Frank case from other lynchings: It was “state-sponsored murder.”
In addition to Justice Morris, other “Knights” included former governor Joseph Mackey Brown, Eugene Herbert Clay, former mayor of Marietta and son of U.S. senator Alexander S. Clay; John Tucker Dorsey, a lawyer and state legislator (and solicitor general for the Blue Ridge Circuit who would have been responsible for prosecuting the lynchers, but none were ever indicted.
In the aftermath half of Georgia’s 3,000 Jews left the state. And while a Jewish defense organization had been considered for some time by Bnai Brith, four months after their young Georgia director Frank was lynched the organization created the Anti-Defamation League.
But reaction to the lynching ws not limited to the Jews:
“Following the lynching a festive atmosphere prevailed, and crowds searched the site for souvenirs… A short time after the lynching of Leo Frank, thirty-three members of the group that called itself the Knights of Mary Phagan gathered on a mountaintop near Atlanta and [burned a cross] and formed the new Ku Klux Klan of Georgia.”
How was it that in Georgia a white man was convicted on the word of a black man, the state’s chief witness and prime suspect?
“The answer may have come from the pastor of the Baptist church that Mary Phagan’s family attended. In 1942 the Reverend L. O. Bricker wrote: “My own feelings… were to the effect that this one old negro would be poor atonement for the life of this little girl. But, when on the next day, the police arrested a Jew, and a Yankee Jew at that, all of the inborn prejudice against the Jews rose up in a feeling of satisfaction, that here would be a victim worthy to pay for the crime.””
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