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The History of Jews in the United States

From the early days of New Amsterdam to the present-day United States, the journey of Jews in America is a compelling narrative of courage, endurance, and the pursuit of the American dream. Let’s unravel the American Jewish odyssey, from persecution to persistence. 

Early America

Ever wonder if Jews have always flocked to New York? In fact, yes!

The first Jewish settlers docked in the Dutch Colony of

New Amsterdam in 1654. They were refugees fleeing

 persecution in Brazil. By the time the Revolutionary War began, there were Jewish communities in Newport, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Savannah. 

In 1790, President George Washington himself welcomed American Jews in a letter to the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, emphasizing the nation’s commitment to religious freedom.

19th-Century European Immigration

Then, in the early 19th century, American Jewry exploded. Within 30 years, roughly 200,000 Jews immigrated from Central Europe, spurred by economic opportunity and religious freedom. Though they tried leaving behind “old world” antisemitism, it ultimately followed them. The twist? The American Civil War. 

In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Order No. 11, effectively kicking Jews out of his military district, including areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. Why? Well, he thought that they were corrupt and involved in an illicit cotton market. President Lincoln revoked the order, but the damage was done; it had already affected several communities. 

The Great Migration

As the 19th century chugged along, millions of Jews from Eastern Europe sailed across the Atlantic in search of a better life. They faced their fair share of struggles, from pogroms to poverty. As they acculturated into American society, resentment toward them rose. Conspiracies began to spread, claiming that urban Jews controlled the banks, markets, and government, posing a national threat. Still, their determination was unwavering.

World War I

Fast forward to World War I, where tensions ran high and discrimination reared its ugly head. Jews were labeled as “slackers.” A U.S. Army manual wrote, “the foreign born, and especially Jews, are more apt to malinger than the native-born.” In addition to antisemitic labels, theories of Jewish Bolshevism spread, painting Jews as the masterminds behind communism. 

Discrimination and Quotas

Even in the land of opportunity, Jews faced discrimination in clubs, and professional fields. Universities implemented quotas, keeping Jewish enrollment at a minimum,

and some hotels advertised their “no Hebrew” policies. 

Mass Media

Enter the roaring ‘20s, where the rise of mass media facilitated the spread of antisemitic propaganda. Press and radio allowed influential people to spread Jewish hatred. Between 1920 and 1924, Henry Ford published 91 issues of antisemitic conspiracy theories in his weekly newspaper which reached 700,000 readers. His pamphlet, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem received praise from Hitler himself. Charles Coughlin, a radio show host, justified Nazi violence and prompted his millions of followers to rise against Jews. 

World War II

The specter of Nazi ideology loomed large over America, with the German Bund spreading hate from coast to coast. They held rallies and youth training programs in major cities across the United States, spreading hatred and bigotry. 

Many people blamed Jews for bringing the U.S. into the war. Violence rose. 64% of Americans claimed to have heard “talk against Jews,” even while 550,000 American Jews were overseas, fighting for their country. 

Post-World War II

Thankfully, the post-war era brought some positive change. Civil rights efforts gained momentum, leading to greater equality. But, Jewish involvement in the civil rights movement led white supremacists to blame America’s “corruption” on Jewish plots.

Antisemitism Today

In the 21st century, social media has become a breeding ground for antisemitic rhetoric. Both right- and left-wing extremists contribute to its dissemination. In 2017, right-wing white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” at a Virginia rally, while in 2018 the same ideology fueled a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

On the left, some equate Jews with white privilege, overlooking Jews of color and dismissing the historical persecution faced by all Jewish communities. This oversight excludes Jews from marginalized spaces and conversations, perpetuating discrimination within progressive circles.

Anti-Zionism further serves as a guise for antisemitism, especially on college campuses.

The Importance of Historical Awareness

So, what’s the takeaway from all this? It’s simple: knowledge is power. By understanding the history of American Jewry and the persistent threat of antisemitism, we can work towards a more inclusive and tolerant society for all.

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