Facing Anti-Semitism and American History

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 not have 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]