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Anti-Semitism in America – Telos

June 9, 2022

Jews have long seen the United States as the new Promised Land. Beyond the Atlantic, in a country founded by readers of the Bible, which intended to distinguish itself from the heaviness of Christian Europe, the presence of Jews did not have the same meaning as in Europe. Colonization could appear favorable a priori. The colonizers wanted to attract European populations to populate the new lands, the social structures were less established there, therefore less restrictive. Unlike the Marranos who settled in South America and did not escape the persecutions of the tribunal of the Inquisition in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, the proclamation of independence and democracy proclaimed the rights of Jewish citizens. In 1790, George Washington replied to the Jewish community of Newport (Rhode Island) which had inaugurated the first synagogue built on North American soil on December 3, 1763: “The government of the United States, which gives no aid to religions, but no support for those who persecute them, only requires those who live under his protection to be good citizens, actively supporting him at all times”[1].

Denis Lacorne analyzed the two national narratives of the country[2]. George Washington’s answer was part of the first, in the tradition of Locke or Montesquieu. It celebrated the independence of the country, the sovereignty of the people, the revolt against the hegemony of the British monarch and the separation of political power from religious power. In the name of this republican tradition, in the name of freedom and the principles of the democratic nation, the political and social rights of non-Christians and of those who did not belong to any Church were guaranteed.

But this conception collided with another national narrative which gives a central place to the Protestant religion, and leads those who consider themselves the descendants of the first Puritans to passionately reject all the elements which they consider foreign to this tradition, the Blacks , Catholics, Slavs, Italians, Jews etc. The “nativist” movement of the end of the 19th century, which remained powerful for decades, was the expression of this, relayed, in the case of blacks, by violent movements like the Ku Klux Klan.

Social and political conditions have long favored the first narrative. Despite periods of restriction, immigration has never ceased, establishing de facto cultural and religious pluralism and gradually reducing the number and domination of the WASPs (White Anglo Saxon Protestant). It made it possible to reinterpret Judaism as one religion among others. In the United States, it is important to be affiliated with a Church, but no Church imposes itself on others. The synagogue fulfilled this role. Civil, legal and political emancipation was affirmed with political independence in 1776 and was, as in France but before France, the consequence of the proclamations of human rights and the installation of democracy (even if it was only adopted later in some States). The diversity of origins is recognized in this country founded by immigration and is inscribed in the national narrative. E pluribus unum. The country maintained the myth of being the place where all the persecuted in love with freedom could find their place and seek “happiness”, according to the term of the Constitution.

The belief of the Jews in this national narrative was all the more ardent as they experienced throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a real success story. The mass of poor immigrants driven out by the pogroms of the Russian Empire experienced an upward social mobility of exceptional rapidity in two generations. The poorest families devoted their resources to the studies of their children, who gentrified and obtained living conditions as opulent as those of the WASPs. Their cultural integration was perfect – they were perfect Americans – even if they remained mostly socially isolated from other population groups. But this withdrawal of relations with his own was also that of other “communities”, Italian-Americans or Polish-Americans for example, not to mention African-Americans.

Faith in their country was further redoubled by their fate after World War II. Their social success and the decline of anti-Semitism following the discovery of the Shoah opened a new period. Never have the Jews known a situation where they would have been more secure, more prosperous and more intellectually creative. They became the essential actors of the intellectual life of New York, since the 1960s they are preponderant in all the major universities, in particular those of theIvy League, they dominated large sectors of economic life and were numerous in politics. They found their way to the Supreme Court. Of all the ethnic groups identified by sociologists, they are among those with the highest income. Their installation in the posh suburbs of large cities bears witness to this.

These successes made them forget the second national narrative and its aftermath. Yet manifestations of anti-Semitism have never disappeared and the anti-Semitic wave has continued to be powerful. In 1913, an industrialist, Leo Frank, evidently innocent of a murder for which he had been condemned to death by a popular jury, when he was pardoned by the governor of the state, was dragged from his prison by a mob unleashed who lynched him and hanged him. The myth of the murder of a child by the Jews spread in 1928 in Massena in the State of New York. Even if these episodes of collective violence were few in number, the fact remains that the Jews suffered for a long time from discrimination in access to all professions, the army, the bar, public hospitals, the university, and this until the 1960s. The most reputable universities on the East Coast had instituted forms of quotas between the two wars which resulted in denying them access to the most prestigious studies. Henry Ford was one of the most active disseminators of Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the 1920s. Roosevelt was accused of instituting the Jew Deal for choosing Jewish collaborators.

Yet the Republican narrative seemed to remain dominant. However, its weakening has been obvious since the beginning of the new century.

Anti-Semitism is one of the surest indicators of democratic crises. The election of the first “black” president of the United States, far from signifying a victory for the Republic rich in symbols, has increased tenfold the forces of opposition to democracy. Extreme nativist organizations, racist skinheads, neo-Nazis, pro-white supremacist ultras, Ku Klux Klan activists, relying on the Constitution’s First Amendment, today freely advance the accusations and the most hackneyed anti-Semitic slogans. The Jews are apparently not the primary objects of their detestation and their violence, but by accusing the institutions, the justice system, the Capitol, Washington, the “rotten” or the traitors of the East Coast, they are targeting all the institutions that organize democratic life and, in fact, protect the Jews and to which the latter are particularly attached. They “spontaneously” rediscover the clichés and slogans of the nativist and anti-Semitic tradition.

It should come as no surprise that these movements that unite Donald Trump’s voters with the slogan “America First” and question everything that constitutes the tradition of democracy have renewed the evil and dangerous passions of the part of the people who feels deprived by the evolution of the world.

But you have to worry. To be a democrat is to respect the institutions of democracy. It cannot be overlooked that this revival of anti-Semitism is an unmistakable sign that the survival of American democracy is today threatened.

[1]. David M. Goldenberg (ed.), Documents in American Jewish History, Philadelphia, Annenberg Research Institute, 1990, p. 59.

[2] Denis Lacorne, Of religion in America, Paris, Gallimard, “Folio”, 2012 (2007).

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