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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:]