Demonic Images of the Jew in the Nineteenth Century United States

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago the historian Oscar Handlin published a seminal article in this journal entitled "American Views of the Jew at the Opening of the Twentieth Century." (1) The essay discussed the ways in which Americans perceived Jews during the nineteenth century. Handlin maintained that the prevailing temper of the era was overwhelmingly tolerant toward Jews and that America's image of them exhibited none of the demonic depictions that had pervaded European attitudes toward Jews since medieval times. Handlin reiterated his contentions in Commentary magazine and in his 1954 book, Adventure in Freedom. (2) His thesis influenced historians of the American-Jewish experience and reinforced the conviction that the American diaspora was different from any other in Jewish history. Although subsequent studies of American antisemitism modified some of Handlin's conclusions, none of them disputed his claim concerning the absence of demonic imagery in pre-twentieth-century America. (3) Beginning in the 1970s, however, a number of scholars began to examine American antisemitism more carefully. They showed that despite the remarkable economic mobility and success of nineteenth-century Jewish Americans, the United States had not been as free from stereotyping and animosity toward Jews as Handlin had surmised. A closer look at the evidence also reveals that demonic representations of the Jew appeared frequently in American culture throughout the century. (4)

Demonization of Jews originated in medieval Christianity. This characterization accused the Jews of crucifying Jesus and associated them with Satan and the Antichrist, who is the Devil's agent for visiting evil and destruction on mankind. By the fourteenth century European Christians were charging Jews with ritually murdering children and using Christian blood in religious ceremonies, poisoning water and food, carrying and spreading loathsome diseases and the plague, engaging in sexual perversions, and conspiring to destroy Christendom. (5)

In the United States during the nineteenth century, depictions of Jews similar to these can be found in sermons, in religious and secular literature, in school texts, and in the press. Whether exposure to this imagery affected American Christian attitudes and behavior toward Jews is a moot question. No doubt some people were influenced by what they heard or read and became antagonistic toward Jews, but most others hearing and reading the same things did not. Determining the extent of acceptance of these images by Christians is hard to determine, especially for the nineteenth century when public opinion polls did not exist. What we do know is that in the United States, demonic portrayals of Jews did not lead to the kinds of murderous outrages, pogroms or legal restrictions on Jews that characterized the European Jewish experience. To the contrary, in the United States local and national governments protected Jewish property and lives. Nonetheless, demonic imagery remained a component in nineteenth-century American representations of the Jew. (6)

Charges of Jewish treachery, sedition, radicalism, and conspiracies appeared during the early stages of the American republic as one manifestation of the fierce political rivalry between Federalists and Republicans. In 1800 a Federalist broadside accused the Jewish editor of Pittsburgh's Tree of Liberty of being a Jew and therefore "a mother of sedition," and the Federalist newspaper, the Gazette of the United States, identified Jews with treachery and treason. (7) One historian of Federalism has written that widespread bigotry and antisemitism pervaded the Federalist Party at that time. (8) While Republicans appear to have been less hostile toward Jews, they too sometimes demonized them. Nehemia Judge, a Baptist elder and Connecticut Republican, accused rabbis of creating a "Jewish covenant" together with "Royalists, aristocrats and high-toned Federalists." He branded the rabbis "Judaizers" and "leaders for a long time in the Jewish church" who conspired to do the devil's work. …