SCENES OF SWASTIKA-BEARING, torch-wielding white supremacists and neo-Nazis, whose march through Charlottesville was suffused with anti-Semitism, sent shock waves through Jewish communities nationwide, but should hardly have come as a surprise. If the spike in anti-Semitic acts during and after the presidential campaign didn’t offer sufficient forewarning, U.S. history might have. Anti-Semitism has always been part of white supremacist discourse, and Jews have perennially laid with other minorities beyond the fault line in the “us versus them” dichotomy of American white supremacy.
The 20th century saw three peaks in political anti-Semitism, defined as large social movements peddling in anti-Semitic rhetoric, form ing to resist major social or economic disruption by seeking legitimacy in the mainstream. Central to their hateful ideology has been the calumny of the conspiring, manipulative and un-American Jew as the source of the (white) nation’s ills, a theme repeated throughout the 1900s and heard loudly in chants on the streets of Charlottesville.
Jews in the early 20th century faced hostility, restrictive policies and immigration quotas, but the first surge in what we call political anti-Semitism came in the post WWI recovery, as social upheaval, fear of communism, and worker migration from rural towns to more liberal big cities were portrayed as threats to traditional values. Industrialist Henry Ford, a pacifist who blamed Jews for starting wars for profit, was a leading propagator of international Jewish conspiracy theory, exposing nearly 700,000 readers of his independent newspaper to a vicious campaign that accused Jews of being both money grubbing supercapitalists and Bolshevik revolutionaries seeking world domination. The Ku Klux Klan reached its highest membership in these years, with more than 5 million people, largely middle class men and their families, across the country. Its blend of nativism, white supremacy, religious prejudice and conservative moralism acquired an almost patriotic tone, with opposition to “alien Jews” presented as an act to protect “true Americanism.”
A second wave of political anti-Semitism came with the Great Depression, with calls for a radical break from a political and economic system alleged to have failed in no small part due to Jewish intrigue. Neo-fascist groups like the Khaki Shirts of America, the Silver Shirt Legion, Gerald Winrod’s “Keep America Safe for Americans” crusaders, the German American Bund and later Father Charles Coughlin, combined conspiracy theories with their affinity for Hitler’s National Socialism as an antidote to communism. While Ford and the Klan purported an external threat from Jewish financiers, 1930’s anti-Semites pointed the finger at Jews within government said to use their power and influence to bring economic ruin.
America’s entry into World War II and the realization of the threat of Nazism brought a swift decline in anti-Semitic activity by the early 1940s. Relegated back to the fringes of society, anti-Semites reemerged in force in the 1970s, touting familiar ideologies with new twists. The notion of “ZOG” (Zionist Occupation Government), popularized in a 1978 white supremacist novel that posits Jewish agents secretly controlling the governments of western states, became embraced by Skinheads, Aryan Nations and other contemporary hate groups as a pretext to racial war. The period also saw the emergence of Christian Identity, a virulently anti-government ideology whose adherents claim that white Europeans are G-d’s chosen people and aspire to a white homeland. Christian Identity has inspired violence against Jews, including shootings and vandalism of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, and is evident in the rhetoric of notorious white supremacist Richard Spencer and many hate groups today.
Despite anti-Semitism’s historical prominence within white supremacy, one must not lose sight of the fact that Jews are just one group among African Americans, Latinos, immigrants and others targeted by extremists who fear losing their place in society. We stand stronger when we stand together to reject forces of hate in all of its manifestations.
Lisa Armony is Director of the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services and a contributing writer to Jlife Magazine.