A Concise History of American Antisemitism

Article excerpt

A Concise History of American Antisemitism, by Robert Michael, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005. 256 pp. $24.95.

It seems a tautology to assert that "negative Christian beliefs about Jews serve as the bedrock on which antisemitism has been built" (p. xix), but few have traced those beliefs, and their impact on American Jews, across U.S. history. Such is the purpose of this book. Michael traces Christian antisemitic thought from its early church and European origins through the colonization of North America, the founding of the nation, and nineteenth- and twentieth-century American history. Remarkably broad in its scope, the book explores the antiJewish sentiments expressed in the writings and pronouncements of political, civic, philanthropic and business leaders, contemporary literature and poetry, law, and (some) forms of popular culture. Emily Dickinson and Abraham Lincoln share the stage with Henry Ford and Louis Farrakhan in the unfolding drama of American antisemitism; virtually every major event of U.S. history is scrutinized for its antisemitic aspects.

In compiling such a comprehensive list, Michael does students of American Jewish history a great service. He also offers an important challenge to historical works that see antisemitism rooted more in social conditions or economic and social competition than in Christian theology. But the consequences of such an approach are sometimes unfortunate. In this case, Michael weakens his arguments by conflating pro-Christian and antisemitic thought, and sometimes skews historical events to make them seem centrally about antisemitism when in fact their antisemitism was part of a greater whole. A few examples should make these problems clear.

Michael asserts, with justification, that most Americans and most American leaders have considered the U.S. a Christian country. But beyond the pernicious examples of antisemitism that resulted (and there are many), Michael includes as evidence our use of the Christian calendar and the belief of many Christians that non-Christians were misguided (at best) and in need of proselytizing, or damned. That Christians, who after all believe that redemption occurs through faith in Jesus, might conclude that those who lack such faith are wrong, doomed, or in need of evangelical uplift, may be offensive to non-Christians but hardly equates with the antisemitism of pogroms or even university quotas. Nor is the use by our founders of their traditional calendar over a Jewish or Islamic or Buddhist one necessarily a sign of intolerance. The conflation of both relatively benign and more explicit pro-Christian activity actually weakens the author's argument of the persistence of problematic and dangerous American antisemitism.

By evaluating historical events by their antisemitic content, the book also misleadingly implies that antisemitism was at their core. In the American South, for example, Michael suggests that African American slaves "provided a substitute target for [white Christian] Southerners to scapegoat" (p. 89). But unlike Europe, from the start the primary divide in the United States has been racial and not religious; that is, race has always, in the end, proved the more pernicious and deep-rooted division. …

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