Facing Anti-Semitism and American History
by Stephen A. Allen on Mar 27, 2000
The United States is a young country, and it would seem to be free of many of the ghosts of history that haunt older nations. One such ghost is anti-Semitism, and with increasing frequency these days Europeans are being confronted with the anti-Semitism of their past. Perhaps it is now time for Americans to reexamine their past as well.
Austria has become something of a pariah state because its governing
coalition now includes a party that many view as sympathetic to Nazi
ideals. Part of Austria's Nazi past will also be unearthed in the coming
weeks in the trial of Heinrich Gross — a doctor accused of killing
hundreds of children as part of Nazi "experiments."
A former president of Switzerland is speaking out against the
"creeping acceptance" of anti-Semitism in her country. This comes just as
the furor over how Swiss banks handled gold seized from Jews by the Nazis
was beginning to die down.
Pope John Paul II recently asked for forgiveness for the past
anti-Semitism of the Roman Catholic Church. But despite his general
apology this year — and a more specific apology in 1998 for the Holocaust
— critics of the papacy are demanding more, in particular a condemnation
of Pope Pius XII for his perceived inaction in the face of Nazi genocide.
But while other nations and groups have confronted their past
anti-Semitism, the United States has remained comparatively unaffected. A
handful of American companies have admitted some responsibility for the
looting of Jewish property and the use of Jews as slave laborers during the
1930s and '40s, but on the whole they have been able to shift the blame to
their foreign subsidiaries.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the United States does nothave
leaders who place a high priority on confronting past moral failures. And
because the United States fought against the Nazis in World War II, it has
not been forced to confront historical anti-Semitism in the same way that
Germany and Austria have. We were on the side of right and justice, so why
should we have anything to feel sorry about?
But the United States has its own history of anti-Semitism. As Adolf
Hitler was rising to power in Germany, the United States was producing its
own anti-Semitic demagogues. One of the most popular of these was Father
Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest whose radio programs attracted an
estimated forty million listeners. Although he did not start out as an
anti-Semitic broadcaster, by the late 1930s he was speaking out in support
of the Nazis and blaming Jews for a host of political and economic troubles.
American anti-Semitism may in fact have had some influence on events
in Germany. In 1920, Henry Ford's newspaper, the Dearborn Independent,
carried a series of articles outlining a malignant — and completely
fictional — Jewish world conspiracy. Ford later had these articles
reprinted in a book, "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem."
This book was translated into German and distributed by the Nazis. Hitler
at one point even called Ford "my inspiration."
True, the United States did eventually go to war against Nazi Germany,
and American soldiers did help liberate the concentration camps, but some
of the government's actions during the war were less than admirable. The
Vatican has apologized for Catholic complicity in the Holocaust, even
though the Catholic clergy and laity protected hundreds of thousands of
Jews. The United States, on the other hand, turned away Jewish refugees and
enforced rigid immigration quotas to keep Jews out of the country.
This past anti-Semitism is little-known these days. Anti-Semitism in
general seems to be a relic of the past, something that no longer causes
problems in the United States. But this is far from the case. The year 1999
alone saw the shooting spree of white supremacist Benjamin Smith, during
which he targeted a Jewish neighborhood near Chicago; an attack on a Jewish
day-care center in California; and the fire-bombing of several synagogues.
And there are more subtle forms of anti-Semitism, such as when political or
religious leaders refer to the United States as a "Christian nation."
Clearly, the United States needs to do something about its native
anti-Semitism. At the very least, there should be some acknowledgement of
the existence and extent of past anti-Semitism. The history of the
injustices perpetrated against blacks and Native Americans is pretty well
known. The history of the injustices perpetrated against Jews is not.
Germany, Austria, the Roman Catholic Church — to some extent all of
these are facing up to their past. So should we.
Stephen A. Allen is a doctoral candidate in the Medieval Institute at the University of Notre Dame and a writer for the History News Service.
[The Medieval Institute, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556-5692. e-mail: Stephen.A.Allen2@nd.edu]