The incident of domestic terror at a Pittsburg synagogue October 27, labeled “the most serious anti-Semitic act in US history,” shapes a false narrative of the true extent to which, like others, Jews have been historically victimized.
First Americans, blacks imported as slaves, Chinese railroad laborers, the Irish, Italians, Japanese have suffered discrimination and assault. We’re all immigrants but the politically powerful set the rules.
A rudimentary capitalist economic system began to emerge in southern Europe around the 14th Century. Based on trade and wealth accumulation, it flowered, then funded the following century’s voyages of discovery - to the Americas and the East. The very terms we still use to define parts of the world demonstrate the Euro-centric origins of power. Notably, the very term “race” is an invention of this period.
By the 18th Century, vast flows of colonial treasure, particularly silver and gold from Bolivia, allowed flowering of capitalism in Europe’s Low Countries - indeed funded the Industrial Revolution. Colonies were exploited for resources, these to be manufactured and marketed back to colonial peoples.
Properly termed, “Israelites,” from their ethnic place of origin in the Middle East, Jews had warred against the Romans, and lost. Migration began into all of Europe. But everywhere Jews practiced a faith different from established Christianity. They were outsiders. Even adherents to assimilation efforts by philosopher Moses Mendelssohn continued to be labeled Jews.
In 1492, Jews refusing conversion to Christianity were expelled from Spain. Particularly in eastern Europe they were victims of organized assaults termed “pogroms.”
US constitutional government provided civil rights, but in 20th Century popular culture, Jews would be falsely considered, like Negroes, Indians, Orientals and Mexicans, a “race” - bearing dangerous traits.
Discrimination against people perceived to be “different” was widespread, with mistreatment of the mentally handicapped. Such offspring might be housed in an attic or committed to institutions. In Columbus, Ohio this place was actually named the “Idiotic Asylum.”
Official response was worse than prejudice. The eugenics movement, flowering in Britain and the US early last century, sought to improve humans through selective breeding and sterilization. Social position of upper class Britains was “scientifically” determined to result from better genetic makeup. Under state laws here 60,000 people were castrated. Hitler invented nothing. Even his concentration camps had their inception in Britain’s 1899 Boer War.
1940s slurs fluidly passed American’s lips. Kyke, coon, spade, wetback, spic, mackerel snapper were common terms of derision. Distinctions between war enemies existed. Caucasian Germans were mildly labeled krauts, but Italians were wops, Orientals gooks. This extended to Koreans and Vietnamese.
But my focus is upon that particular discrimination we label anti-Semitism, how it has been expressed in the US and in horrific persecution of 1930s Germany.
From 1933 on, Nazis sought to free Germany of Jews and increase its “living space.” When Germany invaded Russia, war became method to eliminate Slavic people and replace them with the German super race.
President Roosevelt initiated a July conference of 32 countries in Evian France to address Jewish emigration. Its failure allowed Hitler to claim others criticized his persecution of Jews but would not accept them.
By the time of Kristallnacht, “the Night of broken glass,” November 9, 1938, when organized mobs destroyed 1400 synagogues and 7000 Jewish businesses in Germany and Austria, killing 100 Jews and sending 30,000 to concentration camps, only a quarter of German Jews had escaped the country. Disturbed by Jews fleeing over their border, France informed Germany they intended to send 10, 000 Jews then in France to their colony, the Island of Madagascar.
Hitler had earlier met with the Polish about dividing up Czechoslovakia. He discussed creating reservations for all Jews from Germany, Austria, Poland, Hungary and Romania in the overseas colonies of the Western powers. Kenya, Alaska, Ethiopia were mentioned. His scheming embraced elimination of all 15-million Jews living in the world, saying they posed a danger to national character and needed to be first isolated somewhere.
Madagascar considered, was to be an island concentration camp, secured by the German navy and police. Numbers to be deported would insure starvation prior to slaughter. At war’s beginning, France lost possession of the island to the British. At Wannsee in January 1942, the Nazis devised their Final Solution, to simply kill all the Jews of Europe.
Anti-Semitism was official US policy when, in 1939, Secretary of State Cordell Hull advised President Roosevelt that he prevent the landing of the ship St Louis bearing Jewish refugees from Germany. It was forced to return and 250 passengers perished in the Holocaust.
By the time World War 2 began, the British and US governments had been made fully aware of the dangers Jews faced in Europe. Our Congress chose not to act and our media failed to reveal what was fully known of exterminations in Europe. In fact, polling revealed 1/3 of Americans favored an anti-Jewish campaign in this country.
Barnet resident Carl Doerner is an author and historian currently at work on a re-examination of and challenge to the prevailing “American narrative.”