The Jew in American Politics (part 5): the "fight against anti-Semitism", 1880-1914

As mentioned, Weyl is at pains throughout the book to make clear Jewish leftists are not pursuing their perceived self-interests. Yet his book is filled with examples of Jews organizing to pursue their perceived self-interests, including especially to suppress "anti-Semitism".
The Gilded Age

The German Jewish immigration of the first eight decades of the nineteenth century did not huddle in New York and other eastern seaboard cities, but spread westward and southward. Its economic role was to set up merchandising organizations that linked the nation, bringing the manufactured goods of the cities to the pioneer communities. [. . .]

For some of these German Jews, the American dream never came true and the golden land seemed a mirage. Economic failure was the exception, however, rather than the rule. In December 1890, the Census Bureau published a report by John S. Billings, which summarized the social status of 10,000 Jewish families, most of which had come to the United States between 1850 and 1880 and were of German origin.2

The success of these 10,000 families had been spectacular. Some forty per cent had at least one servant and ten per cent had three or more. About half of the family heads were in business-for the most part retail or wholesale trade and another tenth were salesmen. Twenty per cent were accountants, clerks, bookkeepers or other white-collar workers. Five per cent were bankers; two per cent were professionals; another two per cent were farmers and ranchers.

One out of eight was a manual worker, but even these were, for the most part, in highly skilled occupations such as jewelry and watchmaking, tailoring and the printing trades. Only one out of every hundred Jews was still a peddler and about one in two hundred was an unskilled laborer or domestic servant. [. . .]

By the turn of the century, American Jews were conforming to one of the standard political behavior patterns of immigrant groups in the United States. Having succeeded magnificently in their new homeland and now firmly ensconced in the ranks of the middle and upper classes, they had abandoned their earlier support of radical movements such as those of Jackson and Van Buren. In their majority, they backed the Republican Party, the political expression of business enterprise and of the virtues associated with individualism. This support suggested that they considered themselves absorbed into the ranks of the great American majority. The Republican Party, after all, was more Protestant than Catholic, more mid-Western than Eastern, more North European than representative of the newer immigrant stocks, more middle class than proletarian. Where Jews were pillars of the Democratic Party, they tended, like Morgenthau and the Straus brothers, to support the moderate and responsible policies of leaders of integrity such as Tilden. [. . .]

At a time when American Jewish political behavior seemed virtually stabilized in a mold of responsible conservatism and dedication to honest government, the waves of destitute, oppressed and partially radicalized Russian Jews were creating a quiet revolution within American Jewry. By 1895, New York City had twelve Yiddish newspapers, most of which represented new doctrines of radicalism. Die Naye Zeit was anarchist; the Arbeiter Zeitung was the organ of the revolutionary doctrines of Daniel De Leon; finally, there was the Socialist organ Der Fomerts which was to become the dominant factor in the American Jewish press.6

"Genteel" Anti-Semitism

Social anti-Semitism was virtually unknown in the United States until the 1870's and 1880's. American Jewry had always constituted an economic, intellectual and, to a lesser extent political elite. Thus, before the Civil War, the president of the outstanding Philadelphia men's club was, not only a few, but the head of his synagogue. Moses Lazarus, father of Emma Lazarus, the poetess, was a founder of the distinguished Knickerbocker Club. The Union League had a Jew among its founders; Jewish weddings were carried in society magazines; Jews were admitted into the most patrician clubs. [. . .]

These conditions were changed by the massive immigration of Slavic Jewry, which, in the course of a few decades, significantly altered the cultural, social and economic status of American Jews. To the extent that there had been political anti-Semitism in the United States prior to this influx, it had been directed against the Jews as capitalists, bankers and conspirators of the "gold monopoly." The new wave changed Jewry into a preponderantly urban group of unassimilated peddlers, artisans and sweatshop workers, living in tenements and frequently imbued with revolutionary doctrines. [. . .]

By the 1880's, New York City private schools began to exclude Jewish students and advertisements of summer camps and hotels, which stipulated that Jews would not be admitted, became common. In 1893, the Union League Club adopted a policy of closing its doors to Jews. This policy of ostracism from the best society was to continue for at least half a century. [. . .]

The Fight Against Anti-Semitism: 1880-1914

The massive immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe into the United States between the 1880's and the outbreak of World War I was impelled by poverty and land-hunger and was attracted by American economic opportunity. The Jewish portion of that immigration, however, was primarily motivated by Czarist economic oppression and political persecution. Hence, it did not depend on whether the United States was enjoying prosperity or suffering from depression. It was more like a current than a tide. Nor was it magnetized into the new centers of burgeoning heavy industry which attracted Slavs and Magyars, but rather concentrated in eastern seaboard cities which already had large Jewish populations. With packs on their backs, the German Jews had spread westward and southward from the Atlantic ports at which they debarked to become geographically distributed and represented in every state of the Union. But at the outbreak of World War I, when American Jewry was already overwhelmingly Slavic in origin, about half of the Jewish population of the United States was concentrated in New York City.

[. . .] these Russian Jews were much poorer than the German Jews who had preceded them to the United States and much more heavily concentrated in light industries and such handicrafts as the needle trades.

Their sheer numbers radically transformed the whole structure of American Jewry. In 1880, when the mass exodus from Russian territories was about to start, Jews comprised 0.6% of the population of the United States. By 1917, the Jewish percentage was 3.5%--almost a sixfold increase. The newcomers were impoverished even by the low, sweatshop standards of the day. In 1900, the average immigrant arrived in the United States with $15 in his pocket; the average Jewish immigrant arrived with only $9.

The Russian Jewish immigrant did not have enough capital to go into trade, even as a peddler. Instead he went into the sweatshops, worked inhumanly long hours for a pittance and lived in overcrowded and squalid tenements. [. . .]

The thirst for education was unquenchable. A survey of 77 institutions of higher education by the Immigration Commission in 1908 disclosed that 8.5% of the students were first- or second-generation Jews and that Jewish students constituted 18% of those studying pharmacy and 13% of the students of law. The Jews comprised about 2% of the United States population at that time. While I am inclined to believe that this sample is not entirely representative and that the data it yields for Jewish participation in higher education may be inflated, the fact that the Jews were much more heavily represented in the colleges and universities than in the general population seems indisputable. [. . .]

Patterns of Social Discrimination

Throughout American history-though to a far lesser extent than in the history of other nations composed of a variety of stocks-there have been patterns of bias and discriminatory action against minorities and newcomers. This is not specifically a Jewish problem.

In the Jewish case, however, the impact of discrimination was aggravated by three factors. Of these, probably the element of least importance was the fact that the Jews were non-Christians in an overwhelmingly Christian society. The role that religion has traditionally played in anti-Semitism has led to a fixation on this subject. The decisive factor, as far as the United States is concerned, is that discrimination and prejudice have always been at a minimum in the South and West where religion plays a more important role than in the urban Northeast.

A second factor was the often brash and ostentatious manners of the Jewish nouveaux riches, whether German or Slavic in origin. This condition was sometimes recognized in the Jewish as well as the Gentile press at the turn of the century and we find the San Francisco Hebrew, for example assuring its readers that this offensiveness of manner would vanish in time.8

Third, and probably most important was the unprecedentedly rapid upward mobility of American Jewry, a phenomenon which characterized the Jews of Russian origin almost as much as it did their German-born predecessors. While the Jews were by no means the only immigrant group which moved persistently upward, their advance was more spectacular, and hence to the older upper class more disturbing, than that of the Irish, Germans, Scandinavians and other successful non-Anglo-Saxon groups.

The view that anti-Semitism in America began with the upper classes and was spread by them among the guileless and well-meaning masses was not confined to radical publicists such as Carey McWilliams. It was propagated by academically respectable people such as Professor Oscar Handlin of Harvard, who generalized about the motivations and conduct of the American upper class in the following vein:

"The famous exclusion of Joseph Seligman from a fashionable Saratoga resort hotel . . . foreshadowed an evolving pattern that became a particular feature of fashionable resort life. . . . It was after all at the beaches and watering places that the putative aristocracy was most anxious to withdraw to itself so that appropriate group feelings would be cultivated and so that the proper friendships among young people would grow into the proper marriages. . . . More was involved in this development than the offended feelings of a few vain or ambitious families. High society set the standard for the country. . . ." [. . .]

During most or all of this period, Masonic lodges excluded Jews; they were not admitted into most of the better prep schools; social clubs and college fraternities were closed to them; entire recreational areas were off limits. The mechanics of exclusion often involved a generally futile counteroffensive by rich Jews. Thus, when one of the best hotels in Lakewood, a new and fashionable New Jersey winter resort, turned away Nathan Straus, he built a hotel on adjoining property which was twice as large and for Jews only. The result was that Lakewood rapidly became transformed into an all-Jewish vacation ground. [. . .]

Higham found that the regional pattern of social discrimination was at its maximum in the large cities east of the Mississippi and north of the Mason and Dixon Line. The smaller towns, where the Jews were longer established and better integrated into the life of the community, were less hostile. Social anti-Semitism was less prominent in the West and "it touched the South least of all." [. . .]

Jewish Exclusiveness

The separation of Jews and non-Jews was not always at the instigation of the latter. There has always been a strong tendency among American Jews, one that continues today, to build walls around themselves out of fear that their children will marry Gentiles and be lost to the Jewish community. A study of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews by Erich Rosenthal revealed the extent to which this attitude still prevailed in the 1950's. [. . .]

Another study, cited by Rosenthal, concluded that "if adult wishes were suddenly to become the sole deciding factor, adult Jews would live closer together than they actually do, with even fewer opportunities for neighborhood contact with non-Jews." The reason for this desire for self-imposed ghettos was fear of intermarriage, which amounted to l3.l% of all marriages involving Jewish spouses in Washington, D.C., in 1956 and from 36.3% to 53.6% of such marriages in Iowa between 1953 and 1959.

Jewish Action Organizations

The American Jewish Committee had been organized in 1906 to assist the victims of Czarist pogroms in Kishinev and elsewhere and to serve as an agency to combat persecution of Jews abroad. In 1913, the long-established B'nai B'rith (Sons of the Covenant) launched the Anti-Defamation League which was to concern itself primarily with the mushrooming of anti-Semitism in literature, the press and the movies and with the tendency to exclude Jews from vast areas of American life. One of the first major achievements of the American Jewish Committee was to get the New York State legislature to pass a law which made it a misdemeanor for any public accommodation to advertise a policy of excluding anyone because of race, creed or color. This measure, which fell short of more modern equal accommodation bills because it punished, not the act itself, but merely the advertising of an intent to commit it, became law on the eve of World 'War I. Similar legislation was passed by other states under the pressure of the Anti-Defamation League.

The next major step was to eliminate the "Jew Comedy" from the nascent American motion picture industry. [. . .] When one of these theatres boycotted Rebecca's Wedding Day in Chicago in 1916, Hollywood got the message and agreed to cease producing anti-Semitic films.

Typical of the widespread prejudice against Jews and other foreigners at the time was a World War I Army manual which declared that "foreign-born, and especially Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native born." The Anti-Defamation League protested to President Wilson who expressed shock and had the edition recalled and destroyed.

A much more serious problem was presented by great literature with a marked anti-Semitic orientation. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice with its malign depiction of the Jewish usurer, Shylock, was one of the plays that had to be "intensively studied" as preparation for college entrance examinations. In 1914, the Central Conference of American Rabbis successfully put pressure on the College Board to have it removed.

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