Pennsylvania Governor Wolf At Mourning After Shooting in Tree of Life Synagogue by The Office of Governor Tom Wolf [CC BY 2.0] via Flickr
The October 27 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh was an egregious reminder that since the early 17th century, antisemitism has been a systematic feature of — yet an abhorrent aberration in — the U.S. At the same time, American society has demonstrated 400 years of respect for Judaism and now for the Jewish State.
Peter Stuyvesant, the first Governor of Dutch New Amsterdam (today New York), failed in his attempt to block the immigration of Jews to the colony in 1654, but prohibited them from constructing a synagogue and serving in the local militia. Moreover, he confiscated Jewish property and levied a special tax solely on Jews, claiming that they were “deceitful and enemies of Jesus Christ.”
The state of the Jewish community improved in the aftermath of the successful 1664 British conquest of New York and the introduction of a series of civil covenants in various other colonies. It was further improved as a result of the 1789 ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which enhanced civil liberties and was influenced heavily by the Five Books of Moses, especially by the concept of “proclaiming liberty throughout the land” (Lev. 25:10) — in a drastic departure from the state of mind of the European churches and monarchies.
Still, European-imported antisemitism established itself in the U.S., albeit at a significantly lower profile in the newly-created society and governance. American society has expanded liberty over and beyond the European standards, while severely restricting the playing field of potential antisemitism.
For example, in December 1862, General Ulysses Grant issued the infamous General Order No. 11, ordering the expulsion of all Jews from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi, which stated: “The Jews, as a class, violate every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department.” However, in January 1863, President Lincoln — known for his deep respect for Judaism — ordered Grant to revoke the Order. Moreover, in the aftermath of the Civil War, Grant contended that he signed the Order without studying it.
In the early 1920s, Henry Ford — the only American mentioned favorably in Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf and praised by Heinrich Himmler — wrote: “If fans wish to know the trouble with American baseball, they have it in three words — too much Jew.” However, in January 1921, 119 distinguished Americans including President Woodrow Wilson, former President William Taft, and the poet Robert Frost, signed a petition denouncing Ford’s antisemitism, including his dissemination of the 1903 antisemitic Russian-fabricated “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In 1927, Ford apologized for his antisemitic conduct.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Father Charles Coughlin leveraged his weekly antisemitic radio program into praise for Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Japan’s Emperor Hirohito. However, upon the 1939 outbreak of World War II, he lost most of his listeners and followers.
An accurate depiction of the stance of the majority of Americans on antisemitism was exposed in December 1993 by the reaction of most of the 80,000 residents of Billings, Montana, to a paving stone hurled — by a white supremacist — through the window of a Jewish home displaying a Hanukkah candelabra and a Star of David. The hate crime was followed by the Billings Gazette’s full-page color image of a Hanukkah candelabra, along with the recommendation to display it on home windows in solidarity with the Jewish community. In addition, some residents took to the street holding Hanukkah candelabras, demonstrating a city-wide determination to stand up against the bullying tactics of white supremacists. Furthermore, solidarity with the Jewish community has become a nearly annual event attended by top Billings and Montana officials.
The most authentic representation of the American state of mind is found in the 435 members of the House of Representatives — along with the 100 Senators — who are elected directly by U.S. constituents to represent them faithfully, or face being voted out of office in November. Therefore, most legislators — like their constituents — have been systematic and determined allies of the Jewish people and the Jewish State.
While the destructive and lethal potential of antisemitism must not be underestimated, countries should not be judged by the eruption of such an abomination, but rather by the way they prosecute it. The 400-year-old foundations of the USA and its track record over the years assure that antisemitism shall be constrained, prosecuted, and punished most decisively.
Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is the director of The Ettinger Report: Second Thought: a US-Israel Initiative Click here to read more of this author’s work in The Jerusalem Herald.