Jewish Questions Podcast

Episode 1: Anti-Semitism in the United States — Transcript

*Learn more about the hosts and the series on the Jewish Questions podcast page.*

Laurie: Hi, I’m Laurie Marhoefer, I’m a historian at the University of Washington in the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Noam: And I’m Noam Pianko, and I’m also a history professor at the University of Washington.

Laurie: And this is Jewish Questions, the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies’ deep dive podcast on stuff that matters now in Jewish life, politics, history and culture from a scholarly perspective.

Noam: This season, we’re talking with scholars at the University of Washington about anti-Semitism: what it is, its long history and how we can push back against it today.

Laurie: OK, so I’m a historian of Nazi Germany and anti-Semitism, so I’m embarrassed to say this, but I was really shocked when, in the run up to the 2016 election, I saw anti-Semitic rhetoric go kind of mainstream in the American Republican Party. And then again in the 2018 congressional elections. So it was these small things, like a TV ad with coded language or a flier. But still, to me, it just really fundamentally challenged the way I saw this country.

So I knew there was anti-Semitism in the U.S. I knew that there was a history of these groups, these far-right groups. But I really thought it hadn’t caught on here, like the U.S. was kind of an exception. Was I wrong?

Noam: Laurie, I completely agree. I think that as a historian of American Jewish history, one of the key pieces of how we look at the past is thinking about America as an exception to what happened in Europe, that the United States, while there were ways in which Jews were discriminated against, fundamentally represented a very different experience.

And I think the events over the last few years have really, for me, raised questions anew about how I understand the past and whether or not it is accurate to call America an exception when it comes to anti-Semitism. And that’s exactly what we want to explore today with our guest, Professor Susan Glenn.

Laurie: Susan Glenn, our colleague, is a professor of history at the University of Washington, and she’s the Samuel and Althea Stroum Chair in Jewish Studies at the University of Washington. She has many books and articles and a special expertise in the long history of anti-Semitism in the U.S. Susan, thank you so much for doing this. Thanks for coming on this podcast.

Susan: Thanks for having me.

Laurie: So was I wrong? I mean, I think I was, right? But can you tell me just how wrong I was to think of the U.S. as an exception; that there is this kind of American allergy to anti-Semitism?

Susan: So I think that your and Noam’s perception of exceptionalism is shared by a lot of people. But what I try to impart to my students is that anti-Semitism is an American tradition. And what feels like fringe today was for decades quite mainstream in American culture and social thought. And they were attitudes toward Jews that were shared both by American elites and by people at the other end of the social scales.

And what I mean by anti-Semitism is either suspicion of Jews or outright hatred of the kind that gets mobilized into the call for violent acts like we’ve seen quite recently.

Noam: Do you see that as coming primarily from Europe, or is there something that develops on its own in this country, the unique elements of American anti-Semitism?

Susan: So that’s a great question. So when I teach, for example, my course on the Holocaust in American life, I emphasize that anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 30s was a transatlantic phenomenon. That it went back and forth across the Atlantic, and that ideas that began in Europe, or began in the United States, were circulated on the other side of the Atlantic.

And then it’s very hard sometimes to pull the European social thought and American social thought apart, that they’re really… you know, that there’s not a clear demarcation between them.

One thing I think that is different is that, in the United States, we never saw a kind of state-sponsored genocide. But we do see state-sponsored laws, which ended up having a huge impact on the capacity of the victims of Hitlerism to come to this country when they needed to most. So I think that’s very important.

Noam: Can you talk a little bit— I think one of the ways that we look back at the period of the 20s and 30s before World War II is that the situation in Germany and the United States was really radically different vis-à-vis Jews and the way that they were perceived.

If you were to kind of parachute us back into mid-1930s America, mid-1930s Germany, or maybe early 1930s, what similarities and differences would one see in the way in which Jews were perceived in anti-Semitic discourse, even in some of the ways in which violence against Jews was actually carried out?

Susan: So, there were laws passed in Germany which severely impacted Jewish life: laws against intermarriage, laws which Aryan-ized businesses. So there was none of that. There were social restrictions on Jewish mobility, quotas on university admission, refusal to permit Jews to circulate in clubs and social circles, and so the kind of restrictions were much more subtle in the United States, and they didn’t impact entire populations. So that’s one thing.

I mean, as I said, the one federal regulation that really singled out not just Jews, but people from Eastern Europe and from Southern Europe, was the 1924 Immigration Act, which created a quota based on national origins for the numbers of people who could come to the United States.

Noam: So, before 1933, if you had been reading these immigration laws in terms of the United States, could you actually argue that the situation in the United States in the 1920s was even more racially anti-Semitic than what was going on in Germany in the same period? We also have the lynchings in the United States, right? We have the Leo Frank lynching that takes place in this country.

Susan: The Leo Frank case is a fascinating example of violence toward Jews.

Laurie: Can we maybe say what…?

Susan: So, in 1913, Leo Frank, who was the manager of an Atlanta pencil factory, who was a northerner, is arrested for allegedly sexually violating and murdering a young factory worker. This happens in Atlanta, Georgia. And there had been a very long history of racial lynching in the United States, really dating back to the post-Reconstruction period. But this was the first time that a Jew was lynched.

So, Leo Frank was convicted. He was sentenced to prison. And then a mob of white supremacists pulled him out of jail and lynched him. So, basically what we have is a person who’s phenotypically white, who looks white, being lynched in the same way that African Americans were. So the lynching of Leo Frank became a kind of warning to Jews that their status as whites was not at all secure, that while they looked white, they could be treated as racially “other.”

This is the time when the Anti-Defamation League begins to up its efforts to push back against racial stereotypes about Jews. And if you look at the press about the Leo Frank case and the discussion of the case, there’s just a lot of emphasis on physiognomy, on Leo Frank’s Jewish looks.

But what makes this case particularly difficult to talk about is that, in defending Leo Frank, the Jewish community had to use the Black janitor, Jim Conley, as a kind of foil to say that, you know, Leo Frank couldn’t have done this; the Black janitor did it. And so, even as some Jews and racial liberals were making common cause with African Americans, others were, you know, trying to kind of foist the crime on the Black suspect because in the south, as everywhere in the United States, African Americans are considered guilty until rendered innocent.

Noam: You know, we’re trying to understand what’s unique and different about anti-Semitism in this country and how it relates, also, to Europe. And I think one of the defining characteristics of identity and group identity in this country is about race, and it’s really about the white-Black line, and it’s very difficult to think about race and ethnic identity in this country without those questions. So, what about the centrality that race plays in the United States impacts anti-Semitism in this country?

Susan: So, even as Jews were not considered fully racially white, they were considered provisionally white. They still benefited from what today we’d call white skin privilege. And that, I think, is the biggest distinction.

What fascinates me is the way in which Jews constantly asserted that they understood how African Americans felt because they were discriminated against. And there was a great deal of pushback against that conceit on the part of African American activists. So, the sympathy was real, but the imagination of, you know, “we know how you feel because we’re there too” really was not acceptable.

So, I think color in the United States has played a very important role in the way in which Jews have been able to move over into the white side of the color line. And when I talk about white, I’m talking about it conceptually, not visibly, because Jews were considered in the United States, really up until the end of the Second World War, as somewhat racially “other.”

They weren’t considered Black, but they weren’t considered fully white either. And it’s really only after the Holocaust, when scientific racism falls out of favor and the horrors of the genocide were fully exposed, that those kinds of assumptions about Jewish racial difference were rejected.

Laurie: So, when you think about anti-Semitism being a mainstream American tradition in the 20s, 30s. What are some of the examples of that, or what are some stories, like just how mainstream was it?

Susan: So just how mainstream it was—you can think about this in terms of the Ku Klux Klan, the second Ku Klux Klan. So around the time of World War I, we see this explosion of organizing on the part of the Ku Klux Klan.

We think of the Klan as being primarily an anti-African American organization, but they reorganized themselves into the second Ku Klux Klan around the time of the First World War, 1914, 1915, 1916, by the 1920s, they were the most well-organized and popular social movement in the United States, so much so that they could influence elections, and they were mainstream and respectable.

And what’s important to recognize about the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s is that their main targets, although they hated Black people, their main targets were Jews and Catholics. And they were part of the organizational push to create immigration restriction.

They were not the only ones. They were also very convinced that Jews were the main violators of the prohibition on alcoholic consumption, they argued that Jews controlled the movies, and they were promoting vice and sin. And so, they were kind of moral police, but they were mainstream and respectable. And lots of people joined because it was advantageous to do so for business purposes, for social mobility and so forth.

Laurie: Was that in the South, Susan? Where was that?

Susan: So the original Ku Klux Klan was based in the South. But the second Ku Klux Klan, the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, as Linda Gordon puts it in a new book on the Klan in the Northwest, that was really a national movement. And it is striking that we think of the Northwest as this place of great liberalism when, in fact, the Klan was firmly implanted in the Northwest and Oregon and Washington.

But the Klan was not the only source of anti-Semitism in the 20s. Another important source, which is still with us today, is the tendency to subscribe to conspiracy theories.

And I would single out the great automaker, Henry Ford, who was an American hero in the 1920s and 19-teens and 1920s — American college students voted him the most important person just after Jesus Christ and Napoleon Bonaparte. But Henry Ford played a large part in helping popularize what I like to call the mother of all conspiracy theories.

And this conspiracy theory did not originate in the United States. It originated in tsarist Russia. And it was a fake document that was created at the end of the 19th century. And the name of the document was the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. That text was translated into English in the early 20th century.

Henry Ford, who was a raging anti-Semite even before he read the protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, had it circulated in his newspaper, had it serialized in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which reached millions and millions of Americans who picked it up in car dealerships or through subscription.

And The Dearborn Independent published a series between 1920 and 1922 called, “The International Jew: The World’s [Foremost] Problem.” And in it, he recycled and Americanized this protocol’s plot narrative in a series of articles that talked about how Jewish capitalists manipulated American finances, how they controlled the press and the media, and how the true Americans, the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans, were being squeezed from the top by these Jewish financiers who plotted to take over the world’s riches and from the bottom by these Jewish revolutionaries who were part of the so-called immigrant horde.

And those revolutionaries were supposedly controlled by the financiers. So we have the financiers at the top, pictured as kind of Jewish puppet masters and the working class sowing discord from below.

Noam: And so Jews become the arch capitalists and also the arch socialists at the same time.

Susan: So blaming Jews for the Bolshevik revolution, blaming them… Henry Ford said, I know who caused World War I. This is very similar to what Hitler said. In fact, Hitler became very enamored of Henry Ford and had a portrait of Ford in this office and eventually awarded him a medal.

Laurie: So, why don’t people know this about Henry Ford? He’s still kind of an American hero. Why is this swept under the rug?

Susan: I think Americans suffer from historical amnesia. This is not a subject that is taught regularly in American high schools; the way that American textbooks convey the history of the Holocaust is it’s a European story.

And I think part of this is that in 1945, when the Americans swept across Germany and opened up the concentration camps, liberated the concentration camps, that the narrative about Jews really shifted. So, up until 1945, the United States did not do anything to address the refugee problem, in part because of immigration restriction, which created these draconian quotas.

But also because of anti-Semitism in the 1930s and by the accusation on the part of organized anti-Semitic groups like the Christian Front and America First, which I can talk more about, which said that the Jews were trying to drag the United States into the war.

And Roosevelt was very defensive about not wanting to seem partisan toward the Jews. Roosevelt himself had been accused of being a tool of the Jews, that he’d been put in place and controlled by the Jews, and the White House was under Jewish control. And so, during the war, Roosevelt did not want to do anything to kind of mess with the quota system.

And in fact, Roosevelt’s assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long, who was, you know, a Jew-hater himself, did everything he could to convince the consulates around the world not to grant visas to Jews, including Anne Frank’s family, who had applied for a visa several times and was turned back.

So, let’s fast forward to 1945, about when the narrative changes. So, when the Americans come and liberate the camps; Dachau, Buchenwald, other concentration camps in Germany. Meanwhile, the Russians are liberating Auschwitz and the camps in Poland.

General Eisenhower, who’s the supreme commander of the Allied troops in Europe, decides to make a kind of statement out of the goodness of Americans and to contrast to the kind of depravity of the Germans. So he calls upon delegations from the American press, from members of Congress, to come and witness these horrific sights in the concentration camps.

And he also demands that ordinary German citizens come to witness what was done in the name of National Socialism.

And so that kind of drama of liberation catapults the United States into the position of kind of moral heroes. So that’s the story the Americans want to tell about themselves. And then we have the Nuremberg war crimes trials in 1945, which is this other moment when the international military tribunal, which is the United States, Britain, Russia and France, putting the top Nazi war criminals on trial.

Laurie: So, the de-Nazification is this process that the victorious Allies carried out, right, and they did it to very different levels of effectiveness. So the Soviets are far more serious about it, and the Americans are sort of literally slapping people on the wrist in a lot of cases.

So I know that story. You know, in Germany, you had to fill out a questionnaire whether or not you were a Nazi and you could just check “no,” you know, and go about your business. What was that… I mean, how did that affect the Holocaust in American life?

Susan: So, at a certain point, I think it’s 1946, the Americans turned the de-Nazification project over to the Germans. And, you know, they have to fill out these questionnaires. The problem was that most of the anti-Nazis were dead by that point.

And so the people that are sort of asking the questions and administering this project were themselves, probably a lot of them, former Nazis or people who were sympathetic to various degrees. So it’s kind of like having a corporation investigate itself. So, that’s one part of it.

But the most important thing that happens by 1947 is the concern about keeping Russian aggression at bay. Now we have nuclear weapons, right. And there’s this concern about science and what we see is really fascinating.

So when the Allies were still in Europe, we have German war criminals on the run. But a number of them are being kind of intercepted and plucked out of the trial system and brought into a secret program that came to be called Operation Paperclip. And this is a project run by the military, and what became the CIA, to use former Nazi scientists, rocketeers, people who had expertise in developing biological and chemical weapons to bring them into the American orbit.

A lot of them, at least a thousand of them, came to the United States under secret cover to develop America’s postwar rocket program, chemical and biological weapons and so forth. And some of these men were top Nazis who had conducted medical experiments. The most famous among these scientists was a guy named Wernher von Braun.

And he was the head of the Nazi’s V-2 rocket program that were these giant rockets capable of flying long distances and carrying a lot of payload. And those rockets had bombed Britain and Holland during the war.

Laurie: Von Braun is actually… the more people look into him the nastier he was. He had blood all over his hands.

Noam: So just to make this clear, basically you’re saying after the war, the United States military and CIA brought leading Nazi scientists and other innovators to the United States to actually support the United States efforts in the military and other sort of areas as well. To develop weaponry and rocketry.

Can you talk a little bit about what happens in the 40s and 50s in terms of… you know, on one hand, we have Americans bringing in Nazis, as you’ve talked about, to lead our military rocket programs. On the other hand, there really is the diminishment of anti-Semitism, at least popular anti-Semitism, in this country in the late 40s. And so those two things are going on together. Can you talk a little bit about how that worked out in the 40s and 50s?

Susan: Right. So, I think what happens is that anti-Semitism goes underground, so to speak, that it is discredited, but it doesn’t disappear. And one of the most important ways in which it is mobilized goes back to the Protocols plot.

And that is that in the pushback against the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the South, Jews are portrayed as these puppeteers that are controlling African Americans and that they are behind the Civil Rights Movement. And, you know, it kind of denies Black people any agency. It’s kind of Jews as controllers.

And there’s this whole spate of bomb threats against Jewish synagogues, against Jewish community centers.

Noam: But this is the same time as movies like Gentlemen’s Agreement when there’s clearly a greater sense of anti-Semitism being, you know, antiquated and not the way Americans should be acting.

Susan: Right. So Gentlemen’s Agreement is a movie from 1947, in which a non-Jewish journalist played by Gregory Peck tries to pass as a Jew to ferret out the anti-Semitism that still exists in the world of employment. And he tries to kind of experience the world by walking in the shoes of a Jew. It’s a very fascinating movie.

But what you need to know about Gentlemen’s Agreement is that it, like other films, is a response to the continuation of anti-Semitism, that it’s not over. What happens in the late 1940s is the Jewish organizations develop a new strategy for pushing back against the continuation of anti-Semitic attitudes and anti-Semitic practices such as employment discrimination. And part of the strategy is to use the mass media, to use television and radio, to create these films and public service announcements and so forth.

So, Gentlemen’s Agreement is part of that media push. And the very fact that movies like that had to be made in the late 1940s really is evidence that the problem hadn’t disappeared. So, the official rhetoric is that Jews are now part of the Judeo-Christian American religious trio, Protestant, Catholic, Jews, all coequal. In the meantime, there’s this ongoing problem.

Noam: How does a Civil Rights Movement then complicate that or impact anti-Semitism in this country?

Susan: So, the Civil Rights movement is very interesting. So, there’s a whole debate, actually. So, the Civil Rights Movement… I talked about white supremacists using the Protocols plot theory that Jews are the puppet masters of the Civil Rights Movement. So there’s that.

But Jews themselves are very divided in the after— you know, during the Civil Rights Movement about how much they should be involved in African American activism and liberation. And we can see how this plays out in a city like Little Rock in 1957. So this is post-Brown v. Board of Education, the era when schools are supposed to be integrated,

And we have the governor of Arkansas saying, basically, “over my dead body” and bringing in the National Guard to try to prevent Black children from entering the schools. So you would think, right, that the Jewish community in Little Rock would be all for integration and make a public stand because of the Holocaust, what had happened in terms of Jews. But in fact, the Jews of Little Rock were very divided.

Most people stood on the sidelines. They were very afraid because of anti-Semitism in the South. Some people were very actively involved in the integration movement and others were actually anti-integration. So, we have this real spectrum of Jewish opinion in the South.

But more generally, liberal Jews in the North were much more interested in supporting Black liberation than Jews in the South. But not all liberal Jews in the North were fully behind civil rights.

Noam: It seems like you’ve kind of pointed out a tension in our conversation. On the one hand, we talked earlier about Jews who sort of saw themselves as being similar to African Americans and facing some of the same challenges and the way in which that wasn’t the case.

And yet, at the same time, we also find the situation where Jews are consciously choosing not to align themselves with African Americans because they kind of recognize that they want a different status in some way than African Americans. I mean, is that constant tension in American Jewish history?

Susan: That’s part of it. But the other part of it is that there were people in the Jewish community that said that Jews need to focus on their own survival as a distinctive community and that they shouldn’t be sort of agitating for the rights of others. They needed to turn inward. And this becomes a kind of fascinating divide in Jewish life in the postwar period.

Laurie: So, Susan, did you think there was this upsurge of anti-Semitism around about 2016, or did it just seem like business as usual to you? And do you see connections between the history you’ve talked about and the recent past?

Susan: So Charlottesville, Pittsburgh? I definitely think there’s an upsurge. I think that we have a racist running for the presidency, who is using all kinds of dog whistles about Mexican Americans and others. And white supremacists feel they have a friend when Mr. Trump is elected, that they now have a friend in the White House.

So, I think that the anti-Semitism among very extreme people was there, but that Mr. Trump became an enabler for people acting out.

Noam: Could you explain the relationship between… I mean, white supremacists, Jews are often perceived as white. Why are white supremacists so focused on the Jews?

Susan: I think this is kind of like the way that the Protocols plot sort of travels across U.S. history. You know, in 1978, we have the publication of a fictional work called The Turner Diaries. And it’s a fantasy of Jews having kind of taken over the United States, taking people’s guns away, trying to promote racial intermarriage, trying to basically dissolve what’s left of the white race. And this is kind of the genocidal fantasy of murdering the Jews, murdering Black people to basically bring back the rightful owners of the United States: white Nordic people.

So, it is this constant paranoia about Jewish control. And that’s why I think the Protocols plot, you know, has really traveled. It’s kind of reemerged in different time periods among fringe groups. So, the difference between today and the 1920s is that the today these groups are kind of really considered outside the American mainstream, whereas in earlier decades they were very much mainstream.

Noam: Well, one question that I often get asked by students and just, you know, as historians,

our job is to understand what historical forces impact and create different cultural political trends. And I just wonder, how do you understand the forces that lead to anti-Semitism?

What can it tell us about a historical moment when you see a rise of anti-Semitism?

Susan: I don’t know if Laurie would agree with me about this, but one of the hallmarks of fascism is to create a narrative about us and them. I alone can save this. I alone can do this. I alone can protect you against these evil forces coming to destroy our society.

And that idea of the alien horde was something that was lodged against Jews in the late 19th and early 20th century American history. So, I think the idea of having a scapegoat for domestic and international problems is a very important historical phenomenon. Certainly Nazi Germany did that as an explainer for losing the war in the Versailles Treaty and Germany’s economic troubles during the Great Depression.

You see some of the same kinds of things in the United States during the 1930s about Jewish capitalists and greedy Jews. So, it becomes a kind of explanatory framework for the present.

Noam: I’m really fascinated by the way you’ve kind of framed this story through this mother of all conspiracies. And I think it’s really important for all of us to be gaining some knowledge about this conspiracy theory, because it does seem to be one of the threads that links anti-Semitism and this country.

And if we open this episode by talking a little bit about the way in which there was a break, or American exceptionalism, this seems to be a thread that raises the question about whether the exceptionalism was that period between the 1950s and early aughts. We may look back and see that period of really a lot less anti-Semitism as the exceptional period.

Laurie: So, I think I was really wrong and that America is not exceptional in terms of anti-Semitism. But thank you so much for coming in. And thanks, Noam, for talking about this, because it helps me see these really complicated through-lines where you see conspiracy theories in different periods being important then and important now. But a lot of the other dynamics are changing. And it’s a complicated picture. But I think history really helps to elucidate it. So thanks so much for coming in, Susan.

Susan: You’re so welcome. I enjoyed this conversation.

Laurie: This has been Jewish Questions, the podcast of the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies, part of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Noam: This season was supported by an Ignition Grant from The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies.

Laurie: Jewish Questions was produced, recorded and edited by Kara Schoonmaker.

Noam: Join us next time as we discuss more of the history and impact of anti-Semitism with faculty from the University of Washington.

Find more episodes of the podcast, and learn more about the series, on the Jewish Questions series page.