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reviewed by Marc Schulman
PBS has produced a monumental 6 hour history of American Jews. The 3 DVD set covers the period from the arrival of the first Jews in New Amsterdam to contemporary events. The presentations use a combination of historic films and drawing combined with contemporary interviews to present the history of the Jews of America, The documentary covers all the major events and periods of history, It does an excellent job of telling the story of the trials tribulations that Jews went through in the United States until they were fully accepted in American society, The program does a superb job of telling the story both the rise of anti-semitism in the United States and its slow disappearance in the years that followed World War II,
The program does an excellent job telling the cultural story of American Jews, from the story of the Jewish entertainers in the Catskill Mountains to the story of the Radio and TV show called the GoldbergÃs,
The programs tell the political story of American Jews from the concerns over the trial and execution of the RosenbergÃs for spying for the Soviet Union to the support shown by the Jewish community for Soviet Jewry and Israel, although in both cases it deals more with what these actions say about American Jewry then the actions themselves.
The program also tries to examine the different denominations of American Jewry, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist. This is a difficult subject to fully cover and if there is one area where the shows come up a little short it is here.
In sum however, I have never seen a film depiction of American Jewry that rises to the level of this six hour presentation. Of course you need to have six hours free to do the series justice.
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The Jewish Americans - History
May is Jewish American Heritage Month The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of Jewish Americans who helped form the fabric of American history, culture and society.
Roman Totenberg Papers
Roman Totenberg's career as a world-renowned virtuoso violinist and revered teacher spanned nine decades and four continents. In 1938 he emigrated to the United States, where he went to extraordinary lengths to aid family and friends trapped in Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. His extraordinary life is documented in thousands of pages of music, correspondence, photographs, programs, videos and other materials now in the Library of Congress.
Image Credit: [Detail of] Roman Totenberg. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.200216519/
Jewish American Heritage Month—National Archives
The National Archives and Records Administration is proud to observe Jewish American Heritage Month and to recognize Jewish contributions to American culture, history, military, science, government, and more. (National Archives)
Image Credit: A portrait of Albert Einstein by Elin Waite. (National Archives Identifier 6343429)
American Archive of Public Broadcasting's Jewish American Heritage Collection
The American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) is a collaboration between the Library of Congress and GBH. The AAPB's Jewish American Heritage Collection provides nearly 400 public television and radio programs from 1945 to 2017 that are available online and focus on social, cultural and religious aspects of Jewish life in America.
Image Credit: Image courtesy of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.
The National Register of Historic Places
The National Register of Historic Places showcases historic properties listed in the National Register and National Park units that commemorate the events and people that help illustrate Jewish Americans&apos contributions to American history. The National Register of Historic Places is the official list of the nation&aposs historic places worthy of preservation. It is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect America&aposs historic and archeological resources. (National Park Service)
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Jewish Veterans of World War II
Fighting Nazi Germany took on special significance for one group of U.S. servicemen in the European Theater. Even those Jewish soldiers and sailors who were serving elsewhere in World War II understood that defeating the Axis would be a defeat for blind hatred of any ethnic group or nationality.
Put the power of primary sources to work in the classroom. Browse ready-to-use lesson plans, student activities, collection guides and research aids.
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Background image: Detail of "Protest against child labor in a labor parade". Bain News Service photograph, 1909 May 1. (Library of Congress)
This Web portal is a collaborative project of the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The contents of this site highlight only a small portion of the physical and digital holdings of the participating partners.
Images Used on this SiteDetail of 'Share--Jewish Relief Campaign. '
Lithographed by Sackett & Wilhelms Corporation, Brooklyn, N.Y., #0911917]. (Library of Congress)
Detail of Emile Berliner, 4/12/27.
(National Photo Company Collection Library of Congress)
Detail of Jewish family working on garters in kitchen for tenement home November 1912.
Hine, Lewis Wickes, 1874-1940 photographer (Library of Congress)
Detail of 'Waiting for the 'Forwards' - Jewish paper - at 1 A.M. Group includes boys 10 years old. Taken on steps of 'Forwards' building at 1:15 A.M. just as the papers were being issued. Location: New York, New York (State)
Lewis Hine, photographer, March, 1913. (Library of Congress)
Detail of 'Jewish life - Jews praying on Jewish New Year'.
[between 1905 and 1915] (George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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Background image: Detail of Jewish life - Jews praying on Jewish New Year. Photograph. George Grantham Bain Collection. [between 1905 and 1915]. (Library of Congress)
History Crash Course #55: Jews and the Founding of America
The amazing story of Jewish influence on the founding fathers of American democracy.
The creation of the United States of America represented a unique event in world history &ndash founded as a modern republic, it was rooted in the Bible, and one of its earliest tenets was religious tolerance.
This is because many of the earliest pilgrims who settled the "New England" of America in early 17th century were Puritan refugees escaping religious persecutions in Europe.
These Puritans viewed their emigration from England as a virtual re-enactment of the Jewish exodus from Egypt. To them, England was Egypt, the king was Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean was the Red Sea, America was the Land of Israel, and the Indians were the ancient Canaanites. They were the new Israelites, entering into a new covenant with God in a new Promised Land.
Thanksgiving ― first celebrated in 1621, a year after the Mayflower landed ― was initially conceived as a day parallel to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur it was to be a day of fasting, introspection and prayer.
Writes Gabriel Sivan in The Bible and Civilization (p. 236):
Previously, during the Puritan Revolution in England, (1642-1648) some Puritan extremists had even sought to replace English common law with Biblical laws of the Old Testament, but were prevented from doing so. In America, however, there was far more freedom to experiment with the use of Biblical law in the legal codes of the colonies and this was exactly what these early colonists set out to do.
The earliest legislation of the colonies of New England was all determined by Scripture. At the first assembly of New Haven in 1639, John Davenport clearly stated the primacy of the Bible as the legal and moral foundation of the colony:
Subsequently, the New Haven legislators adopted a legal code ― the Code of 1655 ― which contained some 79 statutes, half of which contained Biblical references, virtually all from the Hebrew Bible. The Plymouth Colony had a similar law code as did the Massachusetts assembly, which, in 1641 adopted the so-called "Capitall Laws of New England" based almost entirely on Mosaic law.
Of course, without a Jewish Oral Tradition, which helped the Jews understand the Bible, the Puritans were left to their own devices and tended toward a literal interpretation. This led in some instances to a stricter, more fundamentalist observance than Judaism had ever seen.
Jewish Influence On Education
The Hebrew Bible also played a central role in the founding of various educational institutions including Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Rutgers, Princeton, Brown, Kings College (later to be known as Columbia), Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth etc.
Many of these colleges even adopted some Hebrew word or phrase as part of their official emblem or seal. Beneath the banner containing the Latin "Lux et Veritas," the Yale seal shows an open book with the Hebrew "Urim V'Timum," which was a part of the breastplate of the High Priest in the days of the Temple. The Columbia seal has the Hebrew name for God at the top center, with the Hebrew name for one of the angels on a banner toward the middle. Dartmouth uses the Hebrew words meaning "God Almighty" in a triangle in the upper center of its seal.
So popular was the Hebrew Language in the late 16th and early 17th centuries that several students at Yale delivered their commencement orations in Hebrew. Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Pennsylvania taught courses in Hebrew ― all the more remarkable because no university in England at the time offered it. (In America, Bible study and Hebrew were course requirements in virtually all these colleges and students had the option of delivering commencement speeches in either Hebrew, Latin or Greek.)(2)
Many of the population, including a significant number of the Founding Fathers of America, were products of these American Universities ― for example, Thomas Jefferson attended William and Mary, James Madison Princeton, Alexander Hamilton King's College (i.e. Columbia). Thus, we can be sure that a majority of these political leaders were not only well acquainted with the contents of both the New and Old Testaments, but also had some working knowledge of Hebrew.
Notes Abraham Katsch in The Biblical Heritage of American Democracy (p. 70):
"At the time of the American Revolution, the interest in the knowledge of Hebrew was so widespread as to allow the circulation of the story that 'certain members of Congress proposed that the use of English be formally prohibited in the United States, and Hebrew substituted for it.'"
Jewish Symbolism In America
Their Biblical education colored the American founders' attitude toward not only religion and ethics, but most significantly, politics. We see them adopting the biblical motifs of the Puritans for political reasons. For example, the struggle of the ancient Hebrews against the wicked Pharaoh came to embody the struggle of the colonists against English tyranny. Numerous examples can be found which clearly illustrate to what a significant extent the political struggles of the colonies were identified with the ancient Hebrews.
- The first design for the official seal of the United States recommended by Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas in 1776 depicts the Jews crossing the Red Sea. The motto around the seal read: "Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God."
- The inscription on the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall in Philadelphia is a direct quote from Leviticus (25:10): "Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."
- Patriotic speeches and publications during the period of the struggle for independence were often infused with Biblical motifs and quotations. Even the basic framework of America clearly reflects the influence of the Bible and power of Jewish ideas in shaping the political development of America. Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening sentences of the Declaration of Independence:
- "We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
Whereas, these words echo the ideas of the Enlightenment (see Part 53), without a doubt, the concept that these rights come from God is of Biblical origin.
This and the other documents of early America make it clear that the concept of a God-given standard of morality is a central pillar of American democracy. The motto "IN GOD WE TRUST" first appeared on U. S. currency in 1864 and an a 1956 Act of Congress (largely passed as a counterforce to Godless communism) made it the official motto if the United States.
Many more things can be said about the Jewish influence on the values of America, but this is, after all, a crash course. We next turn to the Jews themselves.
The history of Jews in America begins before the United States was an independent country.
The first Jews arrived in America with Columbus in 1492, and we also know that Jews newly-converted to Christianity were among the first Spaniards to arrive in Mexico with Conquistador Hernando Cortez in 1519.
In fact, so many Jewish conversos came to Mexico that the Spanish made a rule precluding anyone who could not prove Catholic ancestry for four generations back from migrating there. Needless to say, the Inquisition soon followed to make sure these Jewish conversos were not really heretics, and burnings at the stake became a regular feature of life in Mexico City.
As for North America, the recorded Jewish history there begins in 1654 with the arrival in New Amsterdam (later to be known as New York) of 23 Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil (where the Dutch had just lost their possessions to the Portuguese). New Amsterdam was also a Dutch possession, but the governor Peter Stuyvesant did not want them there. Writes Arthur Hertzberg in The Jews in America (p. 21):
The only reasons the Jews were not turned out was that the Dutch West Indian Company, which was heavily depended on Jewish investments, blocked it.
Jews and the American Revolution
By 1776 and the War of Independence, there were an estimated 2,000 (mostly Sephardic) Jews (men, women and children) living in America, yet their contribution to the cause was significant. For example, in Charleston, South Carolina, almost every adult Jewish male fought on the side of freedom. In Georgia, the first patriot to be killed was a Jew (Francis Salvador). And additionally, the Jews provided significant financing for the patriots.
The most important of the financiers was Haym Salomon who lent a great deal of money to the Continental Congress. In the last days of the war, Salomon advanced the American government $200,000. He was never paid back and died bankrupt.
President George Washington remembered the Jewish contribution when the first synagogue opened in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. (It was called the Touro Synagogue and it was Sephardic.) He sent this letter, dated August 17, 1790:
Note the reference to the "vine and fig-tree." That unique phrase is a reference to the words of Prophet Michah prophesying the Messianic utopia:
This was an interesting choice of words on the part of Washington, but, as noted above, it is not surprising in light of the enormous influence that the Hebrew Bible had on the pilgrims and on the founding fathers of the new nation.
American Ambivalence Toward The Jews
It must be noted, however, that some of the other founding fathers were a bit more ambivalent about the Jews than was Washington.
John Adams, who said some highly complimentary things about the Jews,(3) also noted that "it is very hard work to love most of them [the Jews]. And he looked forward to the day when "the asperities and peculiarities of their character" would be worn away and they would become "liberal Unitarian Christians."
Thomas Jefferson thought Jews needed more secular learning so that "they will become equal object of respect and favor," implying that without such learning they could not expect to be respected. Writes Arthur Hertzberg in The Jews in America (p. 87):
This idea that there was freedom for you in America as long as you were not "too Jewish," kept most Jews away. Until 1820, the Jewish population of America was only about 6,000!
This changed in the 1830s when Reform German Jews, who had scrapped traditional Judaism and were not "too Jewish," began to arrive. The great migrations of poor, oppressed Jews from Eastern Europe would follow near the turn of the century. But before we take up that story, we must look to see what was happening to the Jews of Europe.
American Yiddish Radio
A live wedding broadcast on the air for station WVFW. Photo courtesy of Henry Sapoznik.
Yiddish was the common language of Jews who immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe. It is a German-based language thought to have developed in the 9th century. While all aspects of Yiddish culture, including literature, theater, film, recording, and journalism, existed in robust and diverse forms wherever Ashkenazi Jews lived, it was in America that these outlets of Yiddish self-expression found their greatest and most creative realization on the radio. As musicologist Henry Sapoznik explains, “from 1925 until 1955 on some 180 stations from coast to coast, radio programs reached into the homes and workplaces of Yiddish-speaking listeners. These programs reflected and amplified the diverse social and cultural infrastructure which characterized this immigrant community during the first half of the 20th century” (from the essay for the presentation “Hear, O Israel: Yiddish-American Broadcasting 1925-1965,” 2009). While we often think of urban centers in the Eastern United States as centers for Ashkenazi culture, Yiddish radio stations existed across the country showing that there were thriving Jewish communities in the South, the West, and Midwest. This blog brings together videos of Library of Congress events related to Yiddish radio as well as print materials and links to resources on other sites.
Zvee Scooler was one of the foremost personalities in Yiddish radio. Known as “Der Grammeister” (“The Master of Rhyme”), he presented weekly news editorials written in verse. He also did straight news and acted in radio dramas. Photo courtesy of Henry Sapoznik.
Waves of Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe from the 19th century to the wave that came after World War II created a need for Yiddish language newspapers, theater, music, and radio for these first generation Americans. But European Jews tended to learn English and adapt to their new homeland very quickly. Children often grew up speaking both Yiddish and English. It was the drive to preserve and enjoy Yiddish language and culture that created an enduring audience for Yiddish radio.
In the 1930s and 1940s there were many local radio stations that carried programs to reach immigrant audiences in many languages. Live radio programs were often recorded on aluminum discs in the early 20th century and then on tape as that medium became available. But few of these disc “transcription” recordings remain. During World War II drives for scrap aluminum needed for the war effort swept up disc recordings so that today a precious few recordings of Yiddish and other ethnic and minority radio programs remain. Fortunately Henry Sapoznik has donated his collection to the Library of Congress, including 1401 Yiddish radio broadcasts on transcription discs as well as programs on audio tape plus sheet music, manuscripts and photographs documenting Yiddish culture, theater, and music, primarily in the New York City area, but also including documentation from other parts of the United States, from the 1920s to circa 1960. As Sapoznik puts it, “The Yiddish radio collection is indicative of a largely forgotten widespread presence of ethnic and minority and foreign language radio programs.” It is hoped that his discovery of some remaining recordings of Yiddish radio may lead to other collectors realizing the importance of ethnic radio recordings among their finds.
Some performers, writers, and composers found ways of interpreting Yiddish humor and song for English speaking audiences and so were able to market themselves in multiple venues. The thriving tradition of Yiddish music, film, and theater were to have a profound influence on mainstream American entertainment, as composers, comics, playwrights, and actors interpreted aspects of Yiddish culture for English-speaking audiences. Singer, actress, and comedienne Molly Picon, for example, performed on Yiddish radio and in Yiddish theater and film, as well as in English language productions. Zvee Scooler (pictured above) was a longtime commentator and actor on Yiddish radio, and played the inkeeper in the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof. Both Scooler and Picon gained even greater fame in the Hollywood film version of Fiddler on the Roof, in which Scooler played the rabbi and Picon played Yente, the matchmaker. (For related Library of Congress collections online see Yiddish American Popular Sheet Music and Yiddish Language Play Scripts from the Lawrence Marwick Collection.)
Henry Sapoznik speaking at the Library of Congress in 2012 (screenshot from video “Hear, O Israel: Yiddish American Radio 1925-1955”).
Henry Sapoznik is a record producer with four Grammy nominations, a radio documentarian, an author, and a performer of traditional Yiddish and American music. He received a 2002 Peabody award for his ten-week National Public Radio series on the history of Jewish broadcasting, The Yiddish Radio Project, the 2000 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for Music Scholarship for his book Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World, and an Emmy nomination for his score to the documentary film, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg. He founded the Max and Frieda Weinstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, as well as Living Traditions’ annual KlezKamp: The Yiddish Folk Arts Program. His collection of Yiddish radio transcription discs, tape recordings and related materials are available as the Henry Sapoznik collection, in the American Folklife Center Reading Room. At the time of the acquisition of the collection, Sapoznik wrote an article about the history and importance of Yiddish Radio for Folklife Center News, Summer/Fall 2010 [PDF], which is available online. For more, see Henry Sapoznik’s web pages on Yiddish Radio.
Here is Sapoznik speaking at the Library of Congress about Yiddish language radio in 2009.
The acquisition of the Henry Sapoznik collection provided an opportunity to bring attention to Yiddish radio and its relationship to Yiddish newspapers, music, and theater, as well as the Eastern European Jewish materials in the Library of Congress more broadly. This idea lead to the symposium called The Stations that Spoke your Language, a title based on the slogan of New York radio station WEVD, “The station that speaks your language,” for its multi-lingual programming. The symposium brought together Yiddish language and culture experts with Library of Congress subject specialists to talk about a wide range of topics related to Yiddish-American history, culture, and identity. Towards the end of the first video, Sapoznik presents a history of Yiddish radio with some examples from recordings from his collection..
Below are the three videos of the symposium. Underneath each of the videos are the names of the participants and the titles of their talks in the order that they appear. Also, look for the resources section at the end of this blog to continue exploring Eastern European Jewish cultural materials at the Library of Congress, some of which are mentioned by symposium speakers. Included are several links to materials available online.
Welcome and Introductions
- Betsy Peterson, Director, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
- Roberta Shaffer, Associate Librarian for Library Services, Library of Congress
Moderator: Aaron Taub, Head, Israel and Judaica Section, Library of Congress
- The Listening Audience: A Profile of the American Jewish Community: Jenna Weissman Joselit, Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History, and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies, George Washington University
- Ethnic Radio and Mid-Century American Culture: Alexander Russo, Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies, The Catholic University of America
- The Rise of Yiddish Radio: Henry Sapoznik, Director of the Mayrent Institute for Yiddish Culture, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Moderator: Laura Apelbaum, Executive Director, Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington
- Yiddish Collections & Materials at the Library of Congress: Peggy Pearlstein, Head, Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division (Collections & Services Directorate), Library of Congress
- Missing the Punch Line: Mixing the Languages on Yiddish Radio: by Miriam Isaacs, Socio-linguist & Independent Scholar, Washington, DC
- Cantorial Music & Yiddish Radio: David Rein, Independent Scholar & early recording expert, Brooklyn, New York
- Yiddish Collections at the American Folklife Center: Ann Hoog, Folklife Specialist, Reference, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Panel 3 (begins at timecode 01:52:30)
Moderator: Emanuel S. Goldsmith, Queens College, City University of New York
- Yiddish Radio in Yiddish Cinema: Alan Gevinson, Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation
- Yiddish Radio and the Yiddish Press: Itzik Gottesman, Associate Editor, Jewish Daily Forward
- Yiddish Culture and Mainstream Radio’s Golden Age: Matthew Barton, Curator of Recorded Sound, Library of Congress Packard Center for Audiovisual Conservation
Moderator: Max Ticktin, George Washington University
Legislative Branch Material
The public laws between 1980 and 1993 which designate a week in April or May as "Jewish Heritage Week" can be found in the United States Statutes at Large which is available online and at many Federal depository libraries. The House Concurrent Resolution urging the president to designate a month in the year as Jewish American Heritage Month can also be found in the U.S. Statutes at Large. The specific citations are as follows:
- Pub. L. 96-237, 94 Stat. 338 (1980)
- Pub. L. 97-10, 95 Stat. 12 (1981)
- Pub. L. 97-173, 96 Stat. 69 (1982)
- Pub. L. 98-20, 97 Stat. 64 (1983)
- Pub. L. 98-247, 98 Stat. 114 (1984)
- Pub. L. 99-26, 99 Stat. 52 (1985)
- Pub. L. 99-287, 100 Stat. 409 (1986)
- Pub. L. 100-39, 101 Stat. 307 (1987)
- Pub. L. 100-292, 102 Stat. 94 (1988)
- Pub. L. 101-25, 103 Stat. 53 (1989)
- Pub. L. 101-290, 104 Stat. 183 (1990)
- Pub. L. 102-30, 105 Stat. 172 (1991)
- Pub. L. 103-27, 107 Stat. 72 (1993)
- H.Con.Res. 315, 120 Stat. 3712 (2006)
A Brief History of Anti-Semitic Violence in America
The synagogue attack in Pittsburgh may be the deadliest attack against Jews in American history—but it’s nowhere near the first.
Saturday’s shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were murdered and six more were injured, is believed to be the deadliest attack against the American Jewish community in U.S. history. The massacre is an unprecedented act of violence against American Jews—but it is by no means the first time that anti-Semitism has manifested in deadly violence against Jews in the United States.
American anti-Semitism is as old as America itself. For decades, American Jews have faced social discrimination, acts of vandalism against sacred spaces, and, in recent years, social-media harassment—and the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents has risen dramatically since 2016. Fatal attacks against American Jews have been far less common than these other forms of discrimination. And yet American history is full of episodes of physical violence against Jews and Jewish institutions. What follows is a list, far from comprehensive, of some of the many violent attacks targeting Jews in recent history.
The Leo Frank Affair of 1915
In 1913, a 13-year-old child laborer at an Atlanta pencil factory named Mary Phagan was found dead in the factory’s basement. Leo Frank, the Jewish superintendent of the factory, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. In 1915, Georgia’s governor commuted Frank’s sentence to lifetime imprisonment due to a lack of sufficient evidence Frank was abducted from prison and lynched. Despite the consensus among historians that Frank was innocent, as well as the corroborating claims of a witness, white-supremacist groups today continue to implicate Frank in Phagan’s murder. The controversial Frank case is credited with inspiring the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan movement it also played a role in the creation of the Anti-Defamation League in 1913.
The bombing of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta in 1958
On October 12, 1958, 50 sticks of dynamite exploded in the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, Atlanta’s oldest synagogue. The building sustained major damages, but no one was killed or injured. The attack was one in a series of attacks and attempted attacks on synagogues in the South in 1957 and ’58, spurred on by a rise in anti-Semitic sentiment among white supremacists during the desegregation era. Five men with links to the white-supremacist National States’ Rights Party were arrested and one was tried, but none was convicted.
The attack on Temple Beth-Israel in Gadsden, Alabama, in 1960
Before this weekend, the worst attack in a U.S. synagogue was believed to be the March 1960 attack on Temple Beth-Israel. A 16-year-old threw a bomb into the synagogue the bomb did not explode, but the bomber shot at congregants as they ran from the scene, injuring two of them.
The 1977 Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel synagogue shooting in St. Louis, Missouri
On October 8, 1977, guests were leaving the synagogue after a bar mitzvah and standing in the parking lot when Joseph Paul Franklin, a white supremacist who fatally attacked a number of Jews and black Americans from 1977 to 1980, opened fire nearby and killed a guest named Gerald Gordon two others were injured. Franklin reportedly chose the Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel synagogue randomly, out of a phone book. In 2013, Franklin was executed for the murder of Gordon.
The murder of the talk-radio host Alan Berg in 1984
On June 18, 1984, the talk-radio host Alan Berg was shot and killed in the driveway of his home in Denver. Berg was known for his liberal views and for challenging anti-Semites and white supremacists on his radio show. Four members of the white-supremacist group the Order were indicted in his murder, and two were convicted for civil-rights violations against Berg, but not for murder.
The murder of the Goldmark family in 1985
On Christmas Eve 1985, the Seattle lawyer Charles Goldmark, his wife, and their two sons were murdered in their home in what the Anti-Defamation League has called the deadliest attack targeting Jews in the U.S., before Saturday’s shooting. According to a 1986 New York Times report, the family was “bound, chloroformed, beaten with the point of a steam iron and stabbed” by David Lewis Rice, a 27-year-old unemployed steelworker who was a follower of an extremist group called the Duck Club. The New York Times reported that Rice thought the family was Jewish and Communist (they were neither) Rice pleaded guilty and admitted to murdering the family because he thought they were Communists, but denied the reports that he had targeted them because he thought they were Jews.
The murder of Neal S. Rosenblum in 1986
On April 17, 1986, the 24-year-old rabbinical student Neal S. Rosenblum was shot five times on his way home from evening prayers in Squirrel Hill—the same Pittsburgh neighborhood where Saturday’s synagogue shooting took place. There were no suspects for two years after the shooting, but then a prison cellmate of a man named Steven M. Tielsch came forward with claims that Tielsch, who was being held for federal drug-trafficking charges, had been bragging about murdering a Jew. The witness also reported that Tielsch had made anti-Semitic remarks and drawn swastikas on his forehead. Sixteen years later, after four trials, Tielsch was convicted of third-degree murder in 2002.
The Crown Heights riot of 1991
On August 19, 1991, a driver in the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement, accidentally hit two black children with his car, killing one of them, the 7-year-old Gavin Cato, and severely injuring his 7-year-old cousin, Angela Cato. Tensions erupted in the Crown Heights neighborhood, which was home to both black and Jewish residents, and anti-Jewish riots broke out for several days, culminating in hundreds of robberies and injuries to both police officers and residents. On August 20, about 20 black men surrounded and fatally stabbed a 29-year-old Australian Jewish student, Yankel Rosenbaum. The press coverage of the riots often portrayed them as a scene of mutual clashing between the black and Jewish communities. But one reporter, who covered the violence for The New York Times, later criticized the paper for suggesting that Jews were attacking their black neighbors when he’d seen no evidence of such attacks.
The 1994 Brooklyn Bridge shooting
On March 1, 1994, Rashid Baz shot at a van filled with Orthodox Jewish students traveling on the Brooklyn Bridge. Four students were shot, and one—16-year-old Ari Halberstam—died from injuries. Baz, a Lebanese immigrant, was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 141 years in prison. He initially argued that the motive was a traffic dispute, but in 2007 he admitted to targeting the van of Jewish students because of their religion.
The 1999 Jewish Community Center shooting in Los Angeles
On August 10, 1999, Buford O. Furrow Jr. walked into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, Los Angeles, and fired 70 shots from a submachine gun, injuring five people: a 16-year-old camp counselor, three young campers, and a 68-year-old receptionist. Furrow drove away and then killed a Filipino American postal worker, Joseph Santos Ileto, a few miles from the center. He surrendered to the FBI and was sentenced to life in prison. Furrow had considered other Jewish targets in the Los Angeles area, including the Skirball Cultural Center and the Simon Wiesenthal Center he allegedly told investigators that he wanted his actions to be “a wake-up call to America to kill Jews.”
The 2006 Seattle Jewish Federation shooting
On July 28, 2006, Naveed Afzal Haq forced his way into the Seattle Jewish Federation offices and shot six women, killing Pamela Waechter, the 58-year-old director of the federation’s fund-raising campaign. The incident was classified as a hate crime and Haq was convicted in 2009.
The 2009 Holocaust museum shooting in Washington, D.C.
On June 10, 2009, an 88-year-old white supremacist, James W. von Brunn, entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and fatally shot a security guard before being wounded by other guards. According to a CNN report at the time, von Brunn was a known Holocaust denier who ran an anti-Semitic website and called The Diary of Anne Frank a hoax. Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security guard who was murdered, had worked on the museum staff for six years.
The 2014 Overland Park shootings
On April 13, 2014, on the eve of Passover, a man opened fire at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City and at a Jewish retirement community, Village Shalom, both in Overland Park, Kansas. Three people were killed, two at the community center and one in the retirement community. The shooter, the 73-year-old Frazier Glenn Cross Jr., was a prominent former Ku Klux Klan leader he was convicted and sentenced to death. The three victims—a 14-year-old boy and his 69-year-old grandfather at the community center, and a 53-year-old woman visiting her mother at the retirement community—were Christian.
First (male) Jewish Cabinet Member
Oscar Solomon Straus was born in Otterberg, Germany, and his family immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Talbotton, Georgia. At the end of the Civil War, he moved to NYC and attended Columbia University, and then Columbia Law School. In 1887, he was appointed U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire. (Minister is like one step under ambassador.)
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Straus Secretary of Commerce and Labour, thus making him the first Jewish guy to serve in a Cabinet. (Wikipedia helpfully points out that this does not include Judah Benjamin, who was Secretary of State in the Confederate cabinet. We are not counting him!) Then, in 1909, President Taft appointed Straus as U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. In 1912, he unsuccessfully ran for governor of New York.
There&rsquos now a statue, the Oscar S. Straus Memorial, dedicated to him in Washington, D.C.:
Fun fact: He wrote memoirs! Under Four Administrations From Cleveland to Taft is only $9.95 on the Kindle right now.
Second fun fact? He&rsquos related to King Princess. His brother, Isidor Straus, was Mikaela Straus&rsquos great-great-grandpa.
First (male) Jewish justice of the Supreme Court
Louis David Brandeis was born in Louisville, Kentucky, to Ashkenazi Jewish parents from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic). He was the youngest of four siblings. He attended Harvard Law School, then founded a law firm in Boston. There&rsquos so much out there on Louis Brandeis. Some highlights? He was known as the &ldquopeople&rsquos attorney&rdquo for his work on progressive social causes, including the right to privacy, labor laws, freedom of speech, and more. One of the most oft-quoted Brandeis opinions? He argued for the &ldquoright to be let alone,&rdquo regarding privacy. (He first discussed this in an 1890 Harvard Law Review article, &ldquoThe Right to Privacy.&rdquo)
He also became a prominent figure in the Zionist movement before serving on the Supreme Court. He wrote on dual loyalty, explaining, &ldquoThere is no inconsistency between loyalty to America and loyalty to Jewry.&rdquo
In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson nominated Brandeis to the Supreme Court. He went on to be confirmed by a vote of 47 to 22.
The Supreme Court of the United States in 1936. Louis D. Brandeis is in the bottom left corner. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)
He served until 1939, when he retired. He died in 1941 from a heart attack.
Fun fact: There are so many things named after Brandeis, from Brandeis University to Kfar Brandeis, a suburb of Hadera, Israel.
First (female) Jewish member of the U.S. House of Representatives
Florence Prag Kahn was born in 1866 in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Jewish Ashkenazi parents from Poland. When she was 3, her family moved to San Francisco. She attended the San Francisco Girls&rsquo High School, then University of California, Berkeley. After she graduated in 1887 as one of only seven women in her class, she taught high school English and history. In 1899, she married Julius Kahn.
Julius was born in 1861 in Kuppenheim, Baden (in what would become Germany). His family immigrated in 1866, ending up in California. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1899, the same year he married Florence. Julius served until he died in 1924. And guess who replaced him? Florence!
She filled her husband&rsquos vacancy and became the fifth woman to ever serve in Congress, and the first Jewish woman to do so. She was reelected five times, but did not win the 1936 election. She died in 1948 at age 82.
She never considered herself a feminist, once saying, &ldquoI am not specifically interested in so-called women&rsquos questions as all national positions are sexless.&rdquo She also opposed women&rsquos suffrage before California adopted it in 1911.
Fun fact: She was a Reform Jew, and a member of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. Read more about Florence at Jewish Women&rsquos Archive.
First (male) Jewish Secretary of State
Henry Kissinger was born Hienz Alfred Kissinger in Fürth, Germany, in 1923, to a Jewish family. In 1938, his family fled Nazi Germany, first to London (briefly) before settling in New York.
He went to City College of New York before he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1943 he then became a naturalized U.S. citizen. He served in military intelligence and ended up in Germany. After the war, he attended Harvard, graduating with his Bachelor&rsquos in 1950, then his Master&rsquos and PhD in 1951 and 1954. He then remained on as a faculty member in the Government Department.
President Nixon appointed Kissinger National Security Advisor in 1969, then Secretary of State in 1973. He served under Nixon and Ford.
We&rsquore not going to get into Kissinger&rsquos foreign policy here &mdash there are hundreds, if not thousands, of books to read on the subject. Kissinger himself has written over a dozen books.
A few highlights, or lowlights, whatever you wanna call &rsquoem, that happened under Kissinger&rsquos tenure: Détente (improved relationship with the Soviet Union) Vietnam War 1973 Yom Kippur War Chilean military coup 1975 Helsinki Accord Argentina&rsquos Dirty War. He was jointly awarded the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize with Lê Đức Thọ over a ceasefire in Vietnam that ceasefire failed. Tho declined the award, and Kissinger donated his prize money to charity.
Here&rsquos a brief bio of him on the State Department&rsquos website.
Fun fact: He served on the board of Theranos, Elizabeth Holmes&rsquos failed start-up about blood testing.
First Jewish Attorney general
Edward Hirsch Levi was born in Chicago, the son of a Scottish rabbi, Gerson B. Levi. He was a big University of Chicago kid. &ldquoHe remained at the university&rsquos laboratory school through grade school and high school, then attended college, graduate school and law school at the university. He was at various times a law professor, dean of the law school, university provost and, finally, the university&rsquos president.&rdquo He served as U Chicago president from 1968 until 1975. (He was also the first Jewish person to head a major American university.)
In 1975, President Ford appointed him the 71st Attorney General of the United States he served for two years. Notably, during his term, he issued guidelines limiting the FBI&rsquos activities: primarily, before wiretapping, they had to show evidence of a crime. (Remember, Watergate had just happened.)
After serving as Attorney General, he went back to teach at the University of Chicago. He retired in 1984. Here&rsquos a nice bio of him from U Chicago.
Fun fact: His grandfather, Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, was one of the founders of American Reform Judaism.
First (female) Jewish mayor of an American city
Dianne Feinstein was born Dianne Emiel Goldman in San Francisco to Ashkenazi Jewish parents. Her paternal grandparents were from Poland, and her maternal grandparents were from Russia and of German-Jewish ancestry. Feinstein attended the Convent of the Sacred Heart High School in SF before going to Stanford. She graduated in 1955.
In 1969, she was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. During her time on the Board, she unsuccessfully ran for mayor twice (in 1971 and 1975). In 1978, she was elected President of the board. That same year, in 1978, Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated by Dan White, a former Supervisor, who was angry that Moscone refused to reappoint him to the Board and that Milk had campaigned against his reappointment. Due to their deaths, Feinstein became mayor, serving out the remainder of Moscone&rsquos term. She was then elected in 1979, and reelected in 1983.
In 1992, she won a special election to fill one of California&rsquos Senate seats. The other senator was retiring, and Barbra Boxer was elected for the other seat. Feinstein was elected to fill out the remainder of a term, however, so she became the senior senator. Yet, they both became the first Jewish women to serve in the Senate. (See below for more on Boxer!) She&rsquos had a long career in the Senate, and she&rsquos still there.
Fun fact: She&rsquos been married three times!
First (female) Jewish governor of a U.S. State
Madeleine Kunin was born in Zurich, Switzerland to a Jewish family who moved to the U.S. when she was a child. She attended University of Massachusetts Amherst, then Columbia for a degree in journalism and University of Vermont for a master&rsquos in English.
In 1972, Kunin was elected to the Vermont House of Representatives. In 1978, she became the Lieutenant Governor of Vermont the Governor, Richard Snelling, was a Republican and she was a Democrat. In 1984, Snelling didn&rsquot run for reelection, and Kunin ran, and won, becoming the first female, and first Jewish, governor of Vermont. She served from 1985 to 1991, becoming the first woman in U.S. history to be elected three times as governor. (Her second time, she was challenged by an independent named Bernie Sanders.) She didn&rsquot seek reelection in 1990.
Under President Clinton, she was the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland and then Liechtenstein.
Fun fact: She&rsquos received more than 20 honorary degrees!
First openly gay Jewish member of the U.S. Congress
Barney Frank was born and raised in Beyonne, New Jersey, to an Ashkenazi Jewish family. He attended Harvard, and then Harvard Law School. He first served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1972, before being elected to the U.S. House in 1980. In 1987, he came out as gay he was the first member of Congress to voluntarily come out. Let&rsquos let him recount:
&hellip This led to two important conversations in the early summer of 1986. The first was with Speaker Tip O&rsquoNeill, my fellow Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. As a great admirer of his leadership, I felt obligated to let him know that following the 1983 revelation of Rep. Gerry Studds&rsquo relationship with a male House page, for which Studds was censured by the House, there might be another sex-related controversy in our party that he&rsquod have to handle.
I approached him on the floor of the House, as we were watching a majority vote doom our effort to curtail President Ronald Reagan&rsquos aid to the Nicaraguan contras. I knew this was an inauspicious moment, but I couldn&rsquot stand the suspense of not knowing what his reaction would be. &ldquoTip,&rdquo I said, &ldquoBob Bauman has just written a book that says I&rsquom gay.&rdquo
&ldquoAw, Barney,&rdquo he consoled me, &ldquodon&rsquot pay any attention. People are always spreading shit about us.&rdquo
&ldquoBut, Tip,&rdquo I said, &ldquothe problem is that it&rsquos true.&rdquo
He looked stricken, though he immediately made clear it was not my sexuality that troubled him but the negative impact its disclosure would have on my career. &ldquoI&rsquom sorry to hear it,&rdquo he said. &ldquoI thought you might become the first Jewish speaker.&rdquo
As upset as I was at the prospect of a premature outing, the fact that a man I respected so much had said such a flattering thing made me feel better.
He did not seek re-election in 2012, and retired in 2013, after serving for 21 years.
Fun fact: In 2012, he married his partner, James Ready, also becoming the first member of Congress to be in a same-sex marriage.
First (female) member of the U.S. Senate
It&rsquos a tie! Dianne Feinstein (see above) and&hellip
Barbara Levy Boxer was born in 1940 in Brooklyn, New York, to Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants. She attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1958, then married Stewart Boxer in 1962.
Fast forward to 1982, and she is elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Her slogan? &ldquoBarbra Boxer Gives a Damn.&rdquo In 1992, she was elected to the Senate, representing California, in &ldquoYear of the Woman.&rdquo Boxer and Feinstein became the first female pair of U.S. Senators representing any state at the same time. And the first pair of Jewish women! She served until 2017, when Kamala Harris succeeded her.
Fun fact: She was in not one, but two, episodes of Parks and Recreation.
First (female) Jewish justice of the Supreme Court
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was born Joan Ruth Bader in 1933 in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Ashkenazi Jewish parents. Her dad was from Odessa, Ukraine, and her mom was the daughter of Austrian Jewish immigrants. Let&rsquos just bullet everything, because there&rsquos so much to know:
- She attended Cornell, where she met Marty Ginsburg.
- She went to Harvard Law School, as one of only nine women in her class of around 500.
- She then transferred to Columbia Law School, graduating in 1959 first in her class.
- She struggled to get a job because she was a woman, and a Jewish person.
- She started teaching at Rutgers Law School in 1963.
- In 1972, she co-founded the Women&rsquos Rights Projects at the ACLU.
- She wrote the brief for Reed v. Reed, which eventually led the Supreme Court to rule that you can not discriminate on the basis of sex.
- President Jimmy Carter nominated her to the U.S. Court of Appeals, where she served from 1980 to 1993.
- In 1993, President Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court. The Senate confirmed her by a 96 to 3 vote.
- She became the second-ever female justice, and the first Jewish female justice, and is now the longest-serving Jewish justice.
- She&rsquos written a ton of very notable opinions and dissents.
- Agh we can keep going!!
Fun fact: She love scrunchies. She was &ldquoCamp Rabbi&rdquo at Camp Che-Ne-Wah in the Adirondacks. I saw her speak and honestly it was a night I&rsquoll remember forever. She loves opera. She met Kate McKinnon (who portrays her on SNL) at the Yiddish production of Fiddler on the Roof.
First (female) Jewish cabinet member + first (female) Jewish Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright found out she was Jewish later in life. She was born Marie Jana Korbelová in Prague, in 1937, to parents named Josef and Anna. In 1941, Josef and Anna converted from Judaism to Catholicism to protect their family from the Nazis. Marie (Madeleine) and her siblings were raised Catholic, and her parents never told her about their Jewish ancestry. In 1959, she converted to Episcopalianism following her marriage to Joseph Medill Patterson Albright. (They divorced in 1982.)
In 1997, she discovered her Jewish heritage at age 59. She visited the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, where she found the names of her grandparents who died in the Holocaust. &ldquoIt&rsquos one thing to find out you&rsquore Jewish. It&rsquos another thing to find out that your grandparents had died in the Holocaust,&rdquo she explained. Nearly a dozen of her relatives were murdered in the Holocaust.
That is why we&rsquore including her on our list of firsts: she now claims her Jewish heritage, even if she doesn&rsquot identify as Jewish.
Quick on Madeline&rsquos career? She attended Wellesley, graduating in 1959. She then got a Master&rsquos and PhD from Columbia in their political science department. She wrote her dissertation on the Prague Spring of 1968.
Clinton appointed her Ambassador to the UN in 1993, and in 1997, she became the 64th U.S. Secretary of State. She became the first female Secretary of State, the first Jewish woman to serve in a Cabinet, and the first Jewish female Secretary of State. She served through the end of Clinton&rsquos term in 2001.
Fun fact: She is the person who said, &ldquoThere is a special place in hell for women who don&rsquot support other women.&rdquo She now regrets saying it.
6 Jewish American objects for Jewish American Heritage Month
In April 2006, President George W. Bush proclaimed May to be Jewish American Heritage Month. Jewish American objects in our collections shed light on why Jewish families immigrated to the United States, and the many ways they contributed to American society.
The first Jewish community to settle in what became the United States arrived from Brazil in 1654. The Dutch had captured Pernambuco, in Brazil, from the Portuguese in 1630 and had invited Dutch Jews to settle there in a place called Recife. But in 1654, the Portuguese regained control of the region and promptly expelled the Jewish population (the Protestants too, actually). Many families returned to Holland or settled elsewhere, but some 23 individuals sailed north to what was then the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam.
Between 1655 and 1664, until the British took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York, the Jewish community in the Dutch colony won the legal right to settle there and did well. Although the permanence of the Jewish community in New York subsequently fluctuated for a few generations, stable Jewish communities were beginning to crop up in Charleston, in Philadelphia, and in Montreal, and by the late 1700s there were around 2,500 Jews living in America.
We have a number of Jewish American artifacts in our collections that speak to this long history of Jewish presence first in British North America and then the United States. This pewter Seder plate was made in Germany in the 1700s and was brought to America by a Jewish family who settled in Baltimore, Maryland. It was passed down through several generations before it came to the Smithsonian. A Seder is the ritual feast held on the first two nights of a family’s Passover celebration, the holiday that reminds Jews of their long history and honors the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt.
Like many immigrant populations before and after them, Jewish Americans have roots all over the world and have sought American shores for a multitude of reasons. Religious persecution was a significant factor those first Jews who arrived in Brazil had come from Holland by way of Portugal and Spain, from which homelands they had been expelled in the 1490s.
This small drawstring leather pouch was used to hold a Jewish prayer book and was made as an engagement present for Lazarus Roth Schild sometime between 1810 and 1825. When his son decided to immigrate to the United States, Schild gave him this bag as a gift. Schild's son had no choice but to leave Germany. He wanted to marry, but in some German municipalities, no Jews were allowed to marry unless there was proof that another Jewish community member had died. One German publication noted in 1839 that the laws "make it little short of impossible for young Israelites to set up housekeeping in Bavaria often their head is adorned with gray hair before they receive permission to set up house and can, therefore, think of marriage."
American Jews eagerly took part in the bustling economies of the cities and towns they lived in, spreading out across the continent to chase popular dreams.
The silk Torah Mantle above, used to protect Torah scrolls in a synagogue, was brought to San Francisco by Jewish immigrants during the California gold rush and presented to Congregation Emanu-El. Founded in 1850, Emanu-El (Hebrew for "God is with us") was one of the first synagogues in San Francisco. It provided a spiritual and social community for German and central European Jews who came to California in search of economic opportunities and political freedom.
In industrialized New York City, and elsewhere, Jewish immigrants dominated the garment industry and many owned small businesses. The Yiddish-language sign below hung in the window of a shop maintained by immigrant knife makers Joseph and David Miller. The local Jewish community used the special knives the brothers made for animal slaughter and circumcision.
Jewish American communities have a long history of involvement in community aid organizations. In 1783, the Jewish community of Philadelphia established the first immigrant aid society in the United States. In 1784, Charleston's Jews opened the first Jewish American social welfare organization, followed by an American Jewish orphan care society in 1801. Even before the United States became officially involved in World War I, many religious, secular, and civic aid societies, including the Jewish Welfare Board, had begun dedicating efforts to providing relief to war-torn Europe. The Jewish Welfare Board raised millions in relief funds, maintained social centers for servicemen stateside and in Europe, and, together with the Red Cross, Young Men's and Women's Christian Associations, and National Catholic War Council, deployed tens of thousands of women as uniformed volunteers.
Have you ever noticed a little symbol on your food's packaging—a U with a circle around it—and wondered what that means? Maybe you saw a K with a circle around it instead. These symbols, and others, indicate that these foods have been certified as Kosher, meaning they are approved to eat under Jewish dietary laws. Groups like the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations in New York, New York, work with the food distribution industry to certify some foods as kosher, especially during Passover, when many Jews who don't usually keep kosher choose to follow the rules of Passover. Advertisements like this one from 1940, selling "Kosher for Passover" Pepsi, demonstrate how American Jewish communities became integrated into American consumer culture.
Dear American Progressives: Your Jewish Friends Are Terrified by Your Silence
(This letter makes no arguments about Israel and Palestine. I’m not trying to change your opinions on that issue or how you express them.)
Dear American Progressives,
I need to be honest, because I’m more frightened than I’ve ever been in my life. My heart has been pounding for over a week and I keep forgetting to eat.
It’s not just me. Most American Jews I know are feeling fearful, regardless of their politics. I’m hearing from Jewish friends I haven’t heard from in decades — some heartbroken, some frantic.
We need to talk about what just happened in America.
Progressive friends, you have a blind spot when it comes to Jews, and it’s become glaringly obvious to us in the past few weeks. Don’t stop reading. Honor the progressive principle of allyship and listen to my lived experience. If you’re feeling resistant to reading this letter (and I know most of you are) then it’s meant especially for you.
Over the past few weeks, people have been attacking Jews in American streets for being Jewish, as well as vandalizing synagogues and other Jewish sites. No, I’m not talking about the scuffles at protests I’m talking about the premeditated attacks on random people who look Jewish — sucker-punching, shooting fireworks, pulling people up from seats at restaurants, screaming threats.
Though no comparison is perfect, these attacks are similar to the recent attacks on Asian Americans in that they’re targeted against people of an identifiable group and motivated by foreign events.
Progressives claim to stand against all forms of bigotry. But when it comes to attacks on American Jews — Jews uniquely — you’re not speaking up. Almost all of you are silent.
At first, I hoped it was just that you didn’t know what was happening, so I posted about it. A few friends showed care and concern, but mostly I was met with more silence, denial, and even derision. I got my first small taste of the dismissiveness, gaslighting, and victim-blaming that many Americans (Black & Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ+ people) have dealt with forever, and which progressives usually condemn.
A few friends suggested there weren’t actually that many attacks. They criticized the Anti-Defamation League’s methods for collecting the statistics. But even the critics’ counts suggest the attacks doubled this month (over their already-high norm).
The numbers weren’t really the point, though. The more I pushed, the clearer it became. It all tied back to Israel.
Some of you said, “of course I oppose the anti-Jewish violence but have been focused on the Palestinians.” Some of you said, “I don’t want to seem Zionist.” Some of you said things like “Why center Jews being attacked in America when kids are getting bombed in Gaza?”
The impact of your silence should be obvious: it leaves us vulnerable and deeply hurt. Your silence is telling Jew-haters that it’s open season on Jews in America — that as long as they shout “Free Palestine” the next time they shoot up a synagogue, it’ll be okay with you.
But I want to talk about the cause of your silence, which is your huge antisemitic blind spot. (I say this with love. We all have blind spots that hurt people.)
Let me explain the blind spot:
As I mentioned, Asians and Asian Americans are being randomly beaten on American streets in a surge of attacks apparently driven by anti-Chinese hatred. This is horrific, and your response has rightly been widespread and loud. #StopAsianHate. Instagram posts. Donations. Zoom calls. An outpouring of support and solidarity.
Some might say this outcry is merely performative and doesn’t do enough, but it’s a hell of a lot better than nothing.
And here’s the thing — when you joined the outcry against this violence, it didn’t cross your mind to say “I can’t support Chinese Americans right now because of what China is doing to the Uyghurs.” (Spoiler alert — it’s genocide.)
Do you see the blind spot?
Another example: when you protest violence and intimidation directed at your Muslim American neighbors, it doesn’t cross your mind to say “I can’t support Muslims right now — Saudi Arabia’s been bombing kids in Yemen with American weapons.”
(I am not bringing up China and Saudi Arabia in order to justify or minimize Israel’s actions. I’m contrasting your allyship with Chinese Americans and Muslim Americans against your abandonment of Jewish Americans when those groups are under attack.)
Indeed, you believe it’s horribly bigoted to treat people as less American because of ethnic or religious ties to foreign countries. If anyone even implies that the violence against Muslim or Asian people in America is in any way deserved, you rightly call out their racism regardless of what’s happening overseas.
You don’t extend that allyship to Jews. You’re treating us the way far-right racists treat other American minorities under attack: by either blaming the victim or simply ignoring the abuse. You tie American Jews, collectively, to the actions of a foreign government. You turn us into a side in a conflict — which can be protected only at the expense of the other side — instead of treating us as fellow Americans. Jews are the only minority group in America you’re withholding allyship from because of the actions of a foreign state. (Please read this sentence slowly three times.)
Now, a few of you have spoken up, and I’m grateful for each and every one. Perhaps ironically, my Muslim American friends have been my strongest allies this week. And yes, most of them are passionate critics of Israel whose social accounts have been absolutely ablaze on behalf of Palestine.
Are my Muslim American friends contradicting themselves by supporting both the Palestinian cause and the safety of their Jewish neighbors? Of course not. They’re not fooled by a false choice they know that their allyship toward me is not about Israel, but my right to exist as an American. They know what it’s like to be a vulnerable religious minority in America. They know what it’s like to be suspected of having foreign loyalties. They know that in this country, wearing distinctive religious garb can get you beaten and shot.
They understand that “Stop beating up Jews” is in no way a pro-Israel statement (I can’t believe I have to say that). It’s a decent, human, progressive statement.
And by the way, since some friends have mentioned it: I’m not policing your Palestine activism. I’m not asking you to append something about Jews to every #freepalestine post and tweet. On the contrary, defending Jewish Americans shouldn’t be part of those posts at all, because linking us collectively to Israel perpetuates the stereotype of Jews as foreign.
But you have to end the silence. Your silence is deadly. Trust me on this: I’m a third-generation Holocaust survivor with a history degree. There is a recurring pattern in Jewish history, which transcends time and space: political tensions rise, someone blames us for something because we’re easy scapegoats, people start to attack us, our neighbors turn their backs, and then — disaster.
This ancient, toxic pattern arose in America this month. Why do I say “this month”? After all, we’ve always been attacked in America. Well, the attacks aren’t what’s new. What’s new is the silence. The time to speak out against the violence was as soon as it began to rise, and you didn’t do it.
Your silence is so profound that we can make out the rumble of history.
Now, I imagine that many of you reading this are Feeling Angry at this point, and some of you Simply Don’t Care.
Let me address these feelings.
If you’re Feeling Angry at me, please pause to interrogate that. You may be thinking “this guy has some nerve, talking about a few beatings when people are dying in Palestine.” You’re still thinking I’m cynically trying to change the subject. I’m not. Please reread what I wrote above about attacks on Asian Americans, because you’re still tying our dignity as Americans to what happens in Palestine and Israel. That’s the blind spot again. It may take some time to undo.
Or, if you Simply Don’t Care, it’s likely because you are one of the many progressives who’ve simply excluded Jews from the groups you care about. One reason for this — and something we must talk about — is that you categorize Jews as both white and rich. There is, of course, truth to both of these stereotypes. Indeed, modern America has been the best place to be a Jewish minority in the history of the world. We live openly and proudly. Those of us who pass as white enjoy white privilege.
So while you may not actually be saying the words “maybe the Jews deserve it” to yourself or your friends, you’re probably thinking it on some level. The White Rich Jew is not exactly a progressive priority. In fact, if we’re honest, lots of progressive politics these days is explicitly aimed at taking rich white people down a peg.
But here’s the thing: Jews were seen as white and rich in Germany, too.
Then, people started publishing racist cartoons and no one said anything.
Then, people started beating us up in the street and no one said anything.
Then, mobs destroyed our homes and businesses and no one said anything.
This was the time to speak, because as the violence grew it became normal, and speaking out became a greater liability.
Ordinary Germans were good people. They mostly tuned it all out. They knew there were crazy racists out there led by some nut named Hitler, but he was a sideshow — nothing to worry about. He was even imprisoned for attempting an insurrection. Years passed. He seemed to fade away.
Then it started up again. A shop window was broken. A synagogue was burned. Gangs of thugs beat up Jews in the streets. Still, no one said anything. (Well, a few brave people did. But by that late hour, anyone who did speak out was suddenly a Jew-lover — outside the mainstream, and therefore suspect.)
By the mid-1930s, when Jews finally lost our jobs and cars and couldn’t use sidewalks anymore, the ambient hatred suffusing airwaves and cartoons had seeped in so much that the oppression started to be normalized. A “maybe they deserve it” mentality took hold.
And, after years of slow buildup, the stewing mix of vitriol and apathy boiled to its worst climax in our history. My teenage great-aunt Mussia was mowed down by machine guns in a Polish barn with 2,300 other people my 12-year-old great-uncle Heniek was shot in cold blood while performing slave labor in the ghetto my great-grandmother Bella was shoved into a gas chamber virtually my entire mother’s side was wiped out. Silence killed my family and millions of others. This trauma lives in my body.
Progressive friends, I’m not writing from a place of judgment. I’m writing from a place of terror. I know my family story and I know my history, and I’m seeing the pattern before you do.
I’m not saying we’re heading for another Holocaust. It’s more likely that American Jews are heading toward the situation of Jews in Europe today: hated, hiding, sometimes beaten or killed, looking over their shoulders on the way to a fenced-off synagogue under police protection.
If that’s where we’re headed, so be it. I’ll always be grateful that I got to live for three decades in the best place to be a Jewish minority in the history of the world. I’ll always be grateful that my grandparents at least got to live peaceful post-Holocaust lives before this lethal pattern revved up again.
But I don’t want to go there, and hopefully you don’t want to either. Tragically, attacks on American Jews will spike again. And next time, you can do better. You can still be our ally. You can speak out for me just like you speak out for our Asian American and Muslim American neighbors. You can interrupt this pattern.
Here’s what you can do next time we’re attacked.
- If you’re the kind of person who shows allyship by posting on social media, you can say #StopJewishHate. You can say “#StopBeatingUpJews.” You can say “All Americans deserve to live in safety, full stop. Stop the antisemitic violence.” Say something. Anything.
- If there’s a march happening and you like to march, please go.
- When you hear progressive friends say things like “attacks on American Jews aren’t nearly as bad as the bombing in Gaza,” point out that they’re making Jewish Americans’ right to safety conditional on foreign events. Point out that they would never say the same thing about Chinese Americans and China. Remind them we’re Americans, and that choosing between us and the Palestinians is a false choice.
- Or, if you don’t like to post or march or stand up to friends, send a Jewish friend a message letting them know you care about them.
If you can’t do any of these things, if you’re content to let us be herded into the metaphorical ghetto for minorities unworthy of allyship, please ask yourself why.