Academic journal article American Jewish History

One Crisis Behind? Rethinking Antisemitic Exceptionalism in the United States and Germany

Academic journal article American Jewish History

One Crisis Behind? Rethinking Antisemitic Exceptionalism in the United States and Germany

Article excerpt

In September 1921, Louis Marshall, president of the American Jewish Congress declared, "We do not recognize the existence of a Jewish question in the United States." (2) Yet, only three years later he remarked to noted African American scholar and leader W. E. B. du Bois, that Hitler's policies toward Jews were "identical with those of the Ku Klux Klan." Both aimed for "the elimination of the Jews socially, economically, politically, and even physically." (3) How could a country with a radical nationalist, racist movement whose membership numbered in the millions, and whose intent toward the Jews was, according to Marshall, "identical" with Hitler's, not have a Jewish question? (4) Was his not uncommon faith in the idea that America was somehow 'different' from Europe blinding him to their similarities? Might antisemitism in the United States in fact have been really not so different from that of Europe? If so, was the possibility of a right-wing antisemitic movement gaining power in America and carrying out some kind of violent anti-Jewish campaign as real a potential danger as in Germany? Could an 'American Fuhrer' have come to power in the United States? (5) If Hitler's appointment and the subsequent Nazi 'seizure of power' resulted not only from long-term historical trends but also from a series of unforeseen and unnecessary contingent events, including two major economic and political crises, could not something similar have occurred in America? (6) If some of the 'ingredients' that made an antisemitic regime possible in Germany also existed in the U.S., can we say with confidence that a similar outcome could not have occurred here, too? Radical antisemites in both the United States and Germany used strikingly similar rhetoric in attacking the Roosevelt administration during the twelve years of its existence, and their language suggests a rethinking of our understanding of antisemitism in both countries. In both cases, FDR was depicted as somehow foreign, a tool of an alleged Jewish cabal and a man who obeyed 'International Jewry'. Both American and German radical antisemites described his policies as 'socialistic' or 'communistic' and serving the interests of the Soviet Union. Each group also claimed to see in Roosevelt's machinations an effort to drag both the U.S. and Germany into a world war that would result in the destruction of both and ultimately benefit only the Jews themselves.

Those antisemitic charges against the Roosevelt Administration in Germany and America can be used as lenses through which we can reevaluate this history. When placed in a broader context that takes into account the more general environment of antisemitism in both countries over the course of the 1920s and 1930s, such remarkably similar depictions of the Roosevelt Administration demand a renewed effort at explanation. One depiction was produced by the right-wing dictatorship of Nazi Germany, the other by a range of groups and individuals in the liberal, democratic United States of America. In hindsight it is easy to dismiss the latter as the deranged rantings of a lunatic fringe. After all, the radical right did not gain power in America and thus was not able to carry through on the implications of its dire warnings about the supposed danger of 'International Jewry'. In Germany, on the other hand, the radical right did establish an explicitly antisemitic regime. But should we let hindsight blind us to a fuller understanding of antisemitism? Knowing that Germany carried out the Holocaust should not lead us to think that it was inevitable, or the result of a uniquely German pathology; nor should the fact that it did not happen in America lead us to think that an antisemitic regime could not have come to power here. Equally important, our knowledge of the Holocaust should not limit our thinking to expect an anti-Jewish campaign in the United States on the model of the Holocaust with, for example, an American version of Auschwitz. …

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