Antisemitism in America.

Antisemitism in America. – book reviews

Henry L. Feingold

Twenty six years after the publication of his first book on the Leo Frank case, Leonard Dinnerstein presents us with a massive survey of American anti-Semitism. No scholar has labored longer in this particular vineyard so there is a high expectancy at the prospect of tasting this wine.

All the familiar incidents in the sad inventory of American anti-Semitism are present, from Peter Stuyvesant’s special animus against the hapless Sephardic refugees from Recife to Charles Lindbergh’s threatening Des Moines address three months before Pearl Harbor. It is the “complete” saga of American Judeophobia rendered in excruciating detail and in an highly serviceable prose. Dinnerstein is not simply satisfied with a sequential chronological narrative. He also includes chapters on anti-Semitism in the South and African-American anti-Semitism, both of which the author believes stem from the wellspring of southern evangelicalism.

Few will take issue with the central thesis of this work that “Christian viewpoints underlie all American anti-Semitism … no matter what other factors or forces may have been in play” (ix). Studies of European anti-Semitism have come to the same conclusion, but in the American historical context the Christian schema theory raises as many problems as it solves. The category historians call Christian, much like the term anti-Semitism itself, is overloaded arid too general to bear the entire burden for this dread malady. What does one do with the Christian rescuers of the village of Le Chambon during the Holocaust? The two greatest Judeophobes of the twentieth century, Hitler and Stalin, were secularists who had almost as little use for Christianity as they did for Judaism. Well into the twentieth century it was, after all Americans’ hatred of their fellow Catholic Christian that was most common.

Confined to certain sectarian Christian denominations that felt threatened by modern secular civilization, the theory holds up fairly well. American Jewry was to become the most avidly secular subculture in the United States. It is true, as Dinnerstein observes, that the United States is the most religious of the Christian nations. But it is also the Enlightenment’s favorite child. It insists, for example, that a wall separate church and state. It is also the one to have moved most quickly and decisively along the road to modernization. There are all kinds of problems and paradoxes encountered when the linkage between anti-Semitism and Christianity is assigned such a central role, as it is in this work.

Detailing the insults and humiliations to which jews were subject goes far to transmit the pervasiveness and the unreasonableness of Judeophobia, but ultimately one comes to wonder if, in such exclusive and relentless cataloging, the historian does not inadvertently present an unbalanced reconstruction. Clearly anti-Semitism was not sufficiently strong in America to bring the crucial question posed by anti-Semites everywhere – how much power and wealth jews should have into the political arena. Nor was it an anti-semitism powerful enough to put a crimp into American Jewry’s rapid ride to a middle-class station. That remarkable economic mobility allowed at least one element of the anti-Semitic imagination to come to pass. Jews today do have the highest per-capita income in the nation. One does not find in this book some mention of the protective, highly livable Jewish communal and family life. That would give the reader some clue that the Jewish experience in the United States was not all, or even primarily, lived in the shadow of anti-Semitism.

Perhaps fearful of having overreached himself, Dinnerstein hastens to add in his epilogue that in no Christian country has anti-Semitism been so weak After a massive cataloging of anti-Semitic trespasses, that is an unexpectedly wrenching observation. It presents in a nutshell the paradox of American anti-Semitism so well illustrated in this book. If, as the author maintains, anti-Semitism is rooted in the teachings of Christianity and the United States is the most religious of Christian nations, then how is it that this historical plague is weakest here?

COPYRIGHT 1995 Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc.

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