East European Jews in America

The 350 years of association with the United States have provided Jews with certain unique freedoms and advantages compared to minorities in other parts of the world. However, the challenges they had to surmount had been quite considerable. Not least of which is the Catholic and Protestant theologies, which label Jews as the “Children of Darkness” (Kampelman 585). The Jewish community including the Eastern European group was subject to hatred crimes throughout their American history.

The first Jewish settlers arrived on the shores of America in 1654. They were greeted with hostility the moment they landed in New Amsterdam. The government of the day also treated them with contempt and denied them religious freedom as is evident from Governor Peter Stuyvesant’s view that “If we grant liberties to the Jews, we will have to grant them also to the Lutherans and the Papists” (Kampelman 586). It was indeed a long and hard struggle for the community to gain basic rights.

“What shall we do with these rejected and condemned people, the Jews?” (Noble) Surprisingly, these were the words of Martin Luther King Jr., the champion of the civil rights movement and an iconic figure in American history. In his speech, he goes on to propose-

“synagogues should be burned to the ground; their houses destroyed; their prayer books seized; their rabbis forbidden to teach on pain of death … they should be prevented from traveling in the countryside and their wealth confiscated … the young and strong should be forced to do menial work in order to prevent them feasting and farting … we should toss out these rogues by the seat of their pants” (Noble)

Across the Atlantic, the Nazis did not miss this propaganda opportunity. Hitler mentions in Mein Kampf that Luther is a “great historical protagonist” and someone he admired greatly. Irrespective of his real intentions, Martin Luther offered in his writings a historical and intellectual justification for the Holocaust, which the Nazis took pains to exploit” (Noble).

The attacks in West Hartford, Connecticut and New York City stand out among numerous other occurrences in the 1980’s. There was a series of such incidents leaving behind burnt synagogues, destitute families and shattered livelihoods. The expressway shootout was another example of such pattern of events where Yeshiva students and other Jews, descendants of East European Jews, were targeted in 4 such shootouts during a 3 month period (Time 18).

The disappointing fact about anti-Semitism in America is that it is not perpetrated only by extremists, but also by the civilized middle class. The brutal killing of five children in a Jewish daycare center by Buford O Furrow Jr. is another low point in American social order. The culture of ethnic and racial discrimination gets inculcated into the fabric of the white lower-middle-class during their schooling and employment. The prejudice mixed messages by a lecturer or a colleague gets absorbed quite easily. So much so that they believe that Jews are sucking the economy dry. Even if they fire an employee, they are likely to explain that its because the Jews put interest rates up. A section of the white-middle-class believes that they are struggling because “Jews are taking away more than their fair share” (Kampelman 585). They blame blacks and Jews, especially the East European groups, for “every bill they can’t pay and every hour unemployed or working at a job that is only a step away from servitude” (Kampelman 586).

The far-right of the political spectrum acts as the ideological source for much of this negative sentiment. As a matter of fact, Jews are blamed for seemingly unconnected developments, such as the civil rights movement, women empowerment and advancement of gay rights. This tradition of hatred can be traced back to Ulysses S Grant, who expelled Jews from the state of Tennessee during the course of the American civil war. Add to this the right-wing such extremist organizations as Aryan Nations, a 3,000-member strong hate group situated in Oregon. Such institutions have the potential to cause great human suffering and their foundation is based on pure ignorance. Only the affluent class of East European Jews dwelling in New York and Los Angeles are quite immune to these forms of discrimination. There is a growing vicious fringe of extremists in America. These groups are similar to international terrorist organizations and they build small but “violent cells such as the one led by Eric Rudolph, who is accused of masterminding six solo bombings, including the one at the Atlanta Olympics” (Kampelman 585).

Signs such as “No Dogs, No Coloreds, No Jews” were not uncommon in the civilized American society until recently. Social organizations like membership clubs adopt a subtler form of discrimination, where the contempt is not obvious (Friedman 93). The rules do not explicitly exclude Jews, as it could lead to discrimination lawsuits and the like. Instead, there is a tacit understanding among the members, both Catholic and Protestants, who prefer to avoid Jews of all origins. For example,

“To join, a prospective member must be recommended by 12 current members, must have all 12 to their home and must visit their sponsors’ homes, all within a 12-month period. Only a few Jews have bothered to meet this onerous standard in the past decade, and most were married to Gentiles.” (Jeffreys)

Consider this fact – “The top five country clubs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where Jewish charities built one of America’s best-rated hospitals, have no Jewish members of East European descent. The sixth-ranked club, the Dallas, admitted its first Jew in 1997” (Jeffreys). This goes to show that anti-Semitism is always beneath the surface in the collective American consciousness. In other words, it is part of the texture of American culture. (Friedman 92)

The following statistic released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation reveal the harshness of anti-Semitism. Of the 8,049 hate crimes reported in 1998, nearly a thousand were committed against Jews, which is disproportionately high considering that they make up less than 3 percent of the total population. A study conducted by the Anti-Defamation League shows that anti-Semitic incidents attract disproportionately less press coverage and sympathy from other minority groups (Time 17).

All this goes on to show that though East European Jews reach the very top of American society, they are never free from the impenetrable biases and prejudices of their compatriots. Sadly, the deep-rooted hatred of Jews in America, east European and otherwise has become a potent political force.

Works Cited:

Friedman, Murray. “American Jews – Lowering the Separation of the Church and State Wall?” Journal of Jewish Communal Service. Winter 2000: p90-95.

Jeffreys, Daniel. “No Jews on their golf courses.(country clubs in the US that still exclude Jewish people from their membership).” New Statesman (1996) 128.4450 (August 23, 1999): 8.

Kampelman, Max M. “Jews in America: a romance and a challenge.” Vital Speeches of the Day 68.19 (July 15, 2002): 585(4).