With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

America’s Forgotten Pogroms

The massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last Saturday announced with chilling clarity that a lethal strain of anti-Semitism, long presumed to be peripheral in post-World War II America, had returned with a vengeance. Harbingers had been appearing for months: the online harassment of Jewish journalists during the 2016 presidential race; the anti-Jewish themes deployed by Donald Trump and his campaign; the painted swastikas, toppled gravestones, neo-Nazi handbills, threats to Jewish community centers, and other incidents of hate that made local and national headlines since the election; and the siege of a Charlottesville synagogue during the right-wing rampage there in 2017. Yet even those warning signs somehow seemed aberrant, and the public outcry in each case told us that our nation’s underlying commitment to ethno-religious pluralism remained sturdy.

Why such confidence? It is true that over the course of the past 75 years, hard-right anti-Semitic voices were—though never eradicated—significantly sidelined. But such security might also be because some of the worst episodes of anti-Semitic violence in American history have somehow faded from memory. Historians describe physical violence against Jews in America as having been rare—painting the United States, in the words of one authority, as having “known no pogroms.” The abiding image of America as a haven from the bloody religious violence of Europe, for Jews as for others, reinforce the belief that it can’t happen here. In other words, caught up in an idealized picture of America, we’ve let some of the troubling details drop out of our historical narrative.

But according to Stephen Norwood, a senior historian at the University of Oklahoma, anti-Semitism in the United States has been “much more deeply entrenched than most scholars acknowledged.” In a startling academic article from 2003, Norwood amassed considerable evidence to refute this sunny picture of America as a sanctuary from brutal violence. In particular, the article tells the story of a right-wing Irish group called the Christian Front, inspired by the wildly popular radio preacher Charles Coughlin, that regularly menaced Jews—especially in Boston and New York—during the final years of World War II. Starting in 1942 and continuing for more than a year, Norwood recounts, marauding bands of Irish Catholic youths stalked and assaulted the Jews of urban communities like Dorchester and Mattapan in Boston and Washington Heights in New York, as police officers and even elected officials looked the other way. Harrowing as this episode was, few Americans know of it; it was even omitted from a very good recent list of anti-Semitic incidents that ran in the Atlantic

The role of Coughlin is significant, as he was a key figure in fostering a particular strain of angry right-wing populism, especially popular among American Catholics, that would organize the darkest impulses of American conservatism for many decades thereafter. Back in the 1980s and 1990s it went by the name of paleoconservatism. Its exponents were fond of conspiracy theories, eager to mobilize the power of the masses against alleged elites, often isolationist, protectionist, and nativist, and either overtly or subtly anti-Semitic in character. In the 1950s, its avatar was Joe McCarthy, the rabidly anti-Communist senator from Wisconsin. In our lifetimes, it was best embodied by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan aide Pat Buchanan, who despite spouting anti-Jewish and racist sentiments was one of the most visible television pundits of the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s. Its best known spokesman today is probably Steve Bannon—although one could include Trump himself. 

The point isn’t that Trump is an anti-Semite (though he has said anti-Semitic things) or that he would sanction anti-Jewish violence (he wouldn’t). Rather, it’s that for the first time we have a vessel for Coughlinite ideas, however transmuted, in the White House—raising worries that their darker expression may become common once again. ...

Read entire article at Politico