Commentary Magazine


Anti-Semitism in America, by Leonard Dinnerstein; A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness, by Frederic Cople Jaher

Is Christianity Responsible?

Anti-Semitism in America.
by Leonard Dinnerstein.
Oxford University Press. 369 pp. $25.00.

A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness: The Origins and Rise of Anti-Semitism in America.
by Frederic Cople Jaher.
Harvard University Press. 339 pp. $29.95.

Not since the period between the two world wars, generally regarded as the heyday of anti-Semitism in the U.S., have demagogues manipulated the rhetoric of hatred so shamelessly and publicly as in our own day. Louis Farrakhan and his minions address mass meetings around the country, and, astonishingly, are welcomed at university campuses that pride themselves on their intolerance of real or imagined prejudice. The Aryan Nation exploits the media to spread its paranoid message of armed resistance to the “Zionist Occupation Government” in Washington. Holocaust deniers garner publicity for their vicious lies. The ancient canard of Jewish complicity in the poisoning of wells now finds expression in lunatic claims that AIDS was not only invented by Jews, but is intentionally spread by Jewish physicians. Finally, only three years ago, in one of the worst incidents of mob violence ever directed against Jews in the United States, blacks in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, rioted against their Jewish neighbors.

Coming in the midst of such troubling developments, these two new studies, each published within weeks of the other by a prestigious academic press, might seem to suggest that as far as anti-Semitism is concerned, a new and bleaker assessment of American realities is under way. But this is not quite so. In fact, Leonard Dinnerstein, a professor of history at the University of Arizona, ends his judicious survey on an optimistic note:

By comparing the strength of anti-Semitism in the United States today with what it had been in previous decades or centuries, the obvious conclusion is that it has declined in potency and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

And Frederic Jaher, too, though he is much more ambivalent than Dinnerstein, provides evidence for a basically sanguine view. True, both authors also express alarm about certain trends in American culture; but it is here, as we shall see, that their judgment falters.

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Dinnerstein’s volume, it is safe to say, will stand for a long time as the definitive treatment of its topic. Among its many virtues is a willingness to take note of episodes not just of heightened but of declining animosity toward Jews in the United States; thus, Dinnerstein devotes an entire chapter to the ebbing of anti-Semitism in the post-World War II era. He is also particularly attuned to Jewish reactions to anti-Semitism, thereby avoiding the pitfall of presenting Jews as merely the passive victims of prejudice.

Dinnerstein’s most provocative and original chapters concern anti-Semitism in the South and “African-American Attitudes.” In fact, he links the two topics by arguing that anti-Jewish views learned in Southern churches continue to inform the views of African-Americans who have dispersed throughout the country. In particular, Dinnerstein unflinchingly confronts the evidence of opinion polls “from the 1960′s through the 1990′s [which have] consistently found African-Americans more anti-Semitic than American whites,” and he forthrightly labels as “Jew-bashing” the hate-filled rhetoric of some black leaders in recent years.

Unfortunately, Dinnerstein’s generally tough-minded approach on this score gives way in the end to a species of wishfulness. He concludes his analysis of black anti-Semitism on an upbeat note, registering the “stance of tolerance” adopted by “men of such stature in the African-American community” as Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, and Jesse Jackson, and expressing the hope that thanks to their influence, “black anti-Semitism might weaken in the distant future.” But whether the first two (professors, after all) have the clout or the third has the political will to challenge the hatemongers in their own community successfully is highly doubtful.

Still, this issue aside, there can be no question that Dinnerstein’s generally positive evaluation of the contemporary Jewish condition in the United States is a sound one.

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In A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness, Frederic Jaher, who teaches history at the University of Illinois, confines himself for the most part to a narrower chronological span than Dinnerstein. After a pedestrian recounting of the career of anti-Semitism from the pagan world to the early modern era, Jaher focuses sharply on North America prior to the Civil War, in an effort to determine precisely when anti-Semitism first developed in the U. S.

The novelty of his account lies here. In contrast to other historians, including Dinnerstein, who have routinely dated the emergence of public anti-Semitism to the war years, or still later to the Gilded Age, Jaher goes back to the late 1830′s. It was then, he argues, that “American anti-Semitism assumed its modern contours, if not its subsequent intensity and scope.”

In support of this thesis, Jaher examines “the popular image of the loathsome Jew” propagated by Christian preachers and by abolitionists, educators, literary figures, and others who incorporated negative stereotypes of Jews into their writing. The material he has unearthed and assembled is indeed prodigious. Unfortunately, however, he fails to demonstrate that such stereotypes were disseminated widely—a stray remark in an arcane text seems fodder enough for an indictment—or to prove that negative images had an actual impact on the lives of Jews in their “new wilderness.”

To the contrary, Jaher himself concedes that in every period of American history, other groups were targeted for more severe treatment than the Jews. During the Colonial period, he writes, “in general Jews were no more subject to aspersions based on their creed than Catholics or dissenters.” From the founding of the Republic to 1840, Jews were “lesser victims of deprivation, humiliation, and violence than were blacks, Indians, and Catholics.” And even in the decades immediately preceding the Civil War, supposedly a “crucible of sectional conflict [which] forged modern American anti-Semitism,” there was a “contrary but coextant reality—the movement of American Jewry toward equality.”

In light of these observations, and the fragmentary character of Jaher’s evidence, the reader is left wondering on what basis he allows himself to assert boldly that “America is anti-Semitic.”

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The answer to this question lies in something Jaher shares with Dinnerstein. In seeking to explain the existence and spread of anti-Semitism in the United States, both place primary responsibility on “Christian doctrines.”

Jaher frames his argument in terms of a formal syllogism: “Christianity has a powerful anti-Semitic impulse, America is a Christian country, and America is anti-Semitic.” Dinnerstein, though as usual more nuanced, nevertheless strikes a similarly monocausal note: anti-Semitism, he writes, “was brought to the New World by the first settlers, instilled by Christian teachings, and continually reinforced by successive waves of Protestants and Catholics who populated American shores.”

That Christian religious teachings have historically played a major role in the spread of anti-Semitism is, of course, beyond dispute. But the modern era—and America is nothing if not a creature of the modern era—has also given rise to distinct versions of Jew-hatred, most of them rooted in secular ideologies, and some of them even blatantly anti-Christian. A number of studies have helped clarify the role of anti-Semitism in the cultural “codes” of different European nations in the modern period; regrettably, both these authors have missed the opportunity to do the same for anti-Semitism in America.

Not that they fail to recognize, at least tacitly, that a variety of factors has been at work on the American scene. Thus, when they come to explain General Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling Jews from the territory of Tennessee in 1862, or the anti-Semitic rantings of Madison Grant in The Passing of the Great Race (1916), or the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, neither Dinnerstein nor Jaher troubles to forge a causal link to Christian teachings. Jaher, moreover, although he draws upon a wide assortment of texts from religious sources, also has much to say about anti-Semitic views embedded in what he describes as “secular literature”; and Dinnerstein offers numerous instances of contemporary anti-Semitic views by individuals seemingly far removed from Christianity—e.g., Black Muslims and Afrocentrists, leftist enemies of Israel, and even denigrators of Jewish women as JAPs.

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How, then, are we to explain both authors’ recurring insistence on the pernicious role of Christian teachings in the spread of American anti-Semitism? In the end, it would seem that they are speaking less from the historical record than from a set of contemporary Jewish worries. Thus, writing of Samuel Adams’s call, in 1776, to inaugurate a “reign of political Protestantism,” Dinnerstein observes that “such ideas would never be far from the surface in the United States.” Jaher, for his part, incessantly refers to America as a “Christian land.” Both authors seem to reflect growing fears in the Jewish community that after more than 200 years, the walls separating church and state may yet crumble before the forces bent on “Christianizing” the country.

If such fretting is all too common today—witness the recent alarmist report on the Christian Right by the Anti-Defamation League1—so, conversely, is the faith that many American Jews still place in the supposedly countervailing and redemptive powers of secular ideologies. Both Dinnerstein and Jaher are in tune with this latter sentiment as well. Jaher attributes the relative weakness of anti-Semitism in the U.S. to the fact that Christianity here was “uniquely shaped by American religious and secular circumstances,” and Dinnerstein includes the secular Enlightenment among the factors that have tempered Christianity’s inherent anti-Jewish biases. Neither author explores the role played by secular ideologies in the spread of intolerance, anti-Semitism, and mass murder in the modern age.

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Paradoxically, the overt suspicion of Christianity expressed by these authors may be read as a symptom of just how secure Jews feel in the United States today. After all, in Jewish folk wisdom Christianity has long been seen as the source of all anti-Semitism; seldom, however, have Jews dared to say so publicly. Still, in the closing years of a century that has witnessed the most devastating assaults in all of Jewish history, primarily enacted in the name of non-or anti-Christian racial and political ideologies, such a one-sided fixation may be symptomatic of more than ingrained reflex.

Many Jews in the United States today, confused about their own religious identities, are palpably discomfited by public religious expression of any kind. America, they imagine, would be a more congenial place if only it conformed to their idea of a secularized society. But theirs is a double fantasy. Like it or not, America continues to be a religious society; and, to repeat, secularism, far more than Christianity, has proved itself capable of inspiring mortal attacks on Jewish life. Those who judge Christianity harshly would do well to set the relatively negligible threat posed by Christian bigots against the constructive role played by most Protestant and Catholic churches in keeping the country civilized—and therefore safer for Jews and other Americans.


Footnotes

1 See Midge Decter's article, “The ADL vs. the ‘Religious Right,’” beginning on p. 45 of this issue.—Ed.

About the Author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Among his contributions to COMMENTARY are “Judaism Without Limits” (July 1997), “The Orthodox Moment” (February 1999), and “The Perplexities of Conservative Judaism” (September 2007).




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