Americans who were surprised by the anti-Semitic vitriol that was directed at former Hawaii governor Linda Lingle during her speech before the Republican National Convention on Monday shouldn’t have been: American anti-Semitism has a long history. Monday’s explosion of Jew-baiting and racist trolling that took place on the Republicans’ official YouTube page shocked the RNC into closing down the comments section, but it is unlikely to have had an impact on diminishing the anti-Semitism that its presumptive nominee has been actively courting.
In an article published earlier, Raw Story demonstrated some of the ways that Donald Trump was manipulating anti-Semitic imagery — some of which went all the way back to the 12th century. That imagery had its roots in Europe. But there is a particular type of American anti-Semitism that is also being courted by the Trump campaign, and the ugliness that erupted on the YouTube comments page was just the foam on top of the boiling pot. (And for purposes of this article, anti-Semitism is defined, not as racial hatred of Semites, but as the irrational fear and hatred of Jews, a term more generally referred to by Jewish historians as antisemitism.)
And while American anti-Semitism obviously doesn’t go back as far as the 12th century, what is remarkable is that it first shows up in documents in the 17th century–when a total of 12 Jews lived in the then-American colonies. This points to something that historians of Judaism have long argued about anti-Semitism; namely, that a lot of hatred of Jews occurs without those who “hate Jews” ever having had contact with a Jewish person in their entire life. Jews — not Judaism, but the figure of “the Jew” — are turned into “bogeymen,” some kind of monstrous creatures who present an almost supernatural threat to the health of a community.
At various points in American history, anti-Semitism has been whipped up. Not surprisingly, those periods roughly correspond with periods of greater immigration into the United States and with periods of economic insecurity. Despite the fact that Jews comprised only a tiny number of the many bankers in the United States in the nineteenth century, during waves of immigration or debates over economics, conspiracies about “Jewish bankers” would be sold by populist politicians who sought to place easy blame for complex issues onto scapegoats. During the Civil War, U.S. Grant expelled Jews from portions of Tennessee and Kentucky, in response to wild rumours that Jewish merchants were war profiteering. The order was almost immediately overturned by President Lincoln, but the message had been sent to Jews that their status as “real Americans” had been brought into question.
The early 20th century had its share of anti-Semitic horrors take place on American soil. One of the most famous instances was the lynching of Leo Frank, an Atlanta businessman, in 1915. In 1913, Frank was charged with the killing of a young woman who had worked at the pencil factory where he was the supervisor. Once Frank was arrested, the newspapers waged a campaign against him in which his otherness as a Jew was repeatedly used as evidence that he was a sexual deviant who had regularly molested all the young women who worked for him and had killed Mary Phagan when she resisted him.
Despite testimony from large numbers of his employees that Frank was a model employer, the jury convicted him, and Frank was sentenced to death. After his appeal went all the way to the Supreme Court and was rejected, it appeared that he would not escape the gallows. The governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s sentence after reading the case notes, including those from the judge, who believed that Frank was innocent. A mob broke into the prison where Frank was being held, drove him out into the countryside, and lynched him. They then took photographs of the hanging and sold them as postcards.
It is impossible to link to information about Leo Frank on the internet as the domain names with Frank’s name have been bought up by white supremacist groups who use the sites to try to prove that anti-Semitism does not exist. The lynching of Leo Frank is generally credited with the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, who, for the purposes of Frank’s murder, called themselves the “Knights of Mary Phagan.” The Frank murder also led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League.
Many private colleges have a “legacy” system whereby if a relative attended that college, an applicant is supposed to be given an advantage in applying. In the Ivy League, the legacy system enabled “gentleman-C” students of politicians to attend elite institutions. When conservatives complain that “Affirmative Action” allows less-qualified students to attend schools, they often neglect to mention how the legacy system has often acted as a step-ladder for white kids. What many may not know, however, is that the original purpose of the legacy system was to keep Jews from attending.
In a review of The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton by Jerome Karabel, the reasoning behind the legacy system is explained. The system originated with Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell.
At one point, Lowell wrote to a Harvard philosophy professor to explain that enrolling a high number of Jewish students would “ruin the college” by causing elite Protestant students to attend other schools, according to Karabel’s book. Harvard would be ruined “not because Jews of bad character have come; but the result follows from the coming in large numbers of Jews of any kind, save those few who mingle readily with the rest of the undergraduate body,” Lowell wrote in the letter.
The linking of Jews with radical politics goes back to the late 19th century and continued for over a hundred years. Emma Goldman was a Russian immigrant. She was a secular Jew, an advocate of “free love,” and an anarchist. In 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I, Goldman and hundreds of other Anarchists and Marxists were rounded up and imprisoned for opposing the war. Even though many of Marxism and Anarchism’s adherents did not practice religion, the perception was that their radical politics and Judaism were somehow connected, which increased anti-Semitism.
In the 1920s, after the end of World War I, it is estimated that as many as 8 million people belonged to the KKK, and the Klan’s influence on elections was larger than its actual membership. While Klan membership today is a fraction of what it was, the white supremacists, citizen sovereigns, and Klan organizations continue to pose a threat not only to Jewish people, but to the government of the United States.
Sovereign citizens, for example, (which is what the murderer of the Baton Rouge police officers claimed to be) refuse to acknowledge the government of the United States, refuse to get driver’s licenses, register their cars, and they’re also violently anti-Semitic. The Posse Comitatus, another anti-government group, also hates Jews. Other “patriot” groups subscribe to conspiracy theories that range from seeing Jews as having been responsible for September 11 to the old canard about Jews controlling the banking or the media industries.
Mainstream Republicans such as House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana have spoken in front of white supremacist groups. When Ted Cruz referred to Donald Trump’s “New York values”, it was clear he meant “Jewish.” When a Jewish reporter wrote an honest interview with Melania Trump, the reporter was hit with a barrage of anti-Semitic Tweets and death threats, and instead of condemning it, Ms. Trump said that the reporter had “provoked them.”
And, of course, there is Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that the Hillary Tweet with the Star of David was a Star of David. Because sheriff’s stars have always been associated with dollar signs.
If the Republican National Committee thought that it could prove to Jews in the United States that Jews were still welcome in the party by having Governor Lingle speak, the ugliness that showed up on the message boards revealed the truth: American anti-Semitism is alive and well, and it has found its mainstream candidate in Donald Trump.