Anti-Semitism Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Except for isolated instances, most notably the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, anti-Semitism in America never acquired the malevolent levels that it frequently reached in Europe. Discrimination had its greatest effects on U.S. immigration policies during the decades between the late nineteenth century and the era of World War II. The refusal of the United States to admit European Jews trying to flee German Nazism during the 1930’s condemned most of these persons to murder at the hands of the Nazis.

The lure of freedom for Jews can be found in the earliest decades following the founding of the first settlements in what became the United States. The first Jews arrived in New AmsterdamNew Amsterdam, which would later become New York City, in 1654, when twenty-three Dutch immigrants;JewsDutch colonists fled Recife off the coast of Brazil after the Portuguese occupied the island. Despite the reputation of Jews as productive citizens in Holland, even in the New World they continued to face discrimination, and at times even hatred. New Amsterdam governor Stuyvesant, PeterPeter Stuyvesant considered them a “deceitful race,” “blasphemers of Christ.” Jews were permitted to worship only in their private homes–a situation that did not immediately change even after the British replaced the Dutch as rulers of New Amsterdam in 1664.Anti-Semitism[antisemitism]Jewish immigrants;and anti-Semitism[antisemitism]Nativism;and anti-Semitism[antisemitism]Frank,LeoGeorgia;lynchingGermany;Nazi regimeAnti-Semitism[antisemitism]Jewish immigrants;and anti-Semitism[antisemitism]Nativism;and anti-Semitism[antisemitism][cat]CIVIL RIGHTS AND LIBERTIES;Anti-Semitism[00290][cat]NATIVISM;Anti-Semitism[00290][cat]RELIGION;Anti-Semitism[00290][cat]STEREOTYPES;Anti-Semitism[00290]Frank, LeoGeorgia;lynchingGermany;Nazi regime

The period from the mid-seventeenth century to approximately 1830 represented the first, albeit limited, immigration of Jews from Europe to the United States. A second period, of greater immigration levels, occurred between 1830 and 1880. It saw the arrival of mostly of German and other western European Jews. The third and largest influx of Jews took place between 1880 and 1924, when most Jewish immigrants were from eastern Europe, particularly from Russia. The search for religious and political freedoms as well as economic opportunities was a primary driving factor during each of these periods. However, the relative importance displayed by each of these issues varied during the respective eras.

Colonial Era and Early Independence

Most American settlers during the colonial era of North America were British. What little anti-Semitism they displayed was reflected primarily in attitudes or verbal attacks rather than in statutory legal restrictions. At the time of the late eighteenth century American Revolution, approximately two thousand Jews lived in the North American colonies. New York City and Charleston, South Carolina;Jewish immigrantsSouth Carolina had the largest concentrations. Many of these people had immigrated from Spain and Portugal or those countries’ colonies, not from England, which was itself home to only about eight thousand Jews at that time. In the British colonies, Jews had been granted full rights of citizenry by an act of Great Britain’s Parliament in 1740–a privilege not then available to Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, while interactions between individual Christians and Jews were generally amicable, British attitudes toward the Jewish “race” often reflected contemporary prejudices about allegedly unscrupulous Jewish business practices.

The United States gained its independence in 1783. The U.S. [a]Constitution, U.S.;and Jewish rights[Jewish rights]Constitution that was ratified in 1789 contained no clauses discriminating against Jews or members of any other religious group and specifically guaranteed that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The [a]First AmendmentFirst Amendment of the [a]Bill of RightsBill of Rights, which was ratified two years later, specifically guaranteed that the federal government would not interfere in the free exercise of religion. However, while federal laws did not discriminate against Jews, some state laws restricted Jewish officeholders into the nineteenth century. In 1780, as prominent a figure as Adams, John QuincyJohn Quincy Adams, the son of one of the nation’s Founders and a future president himself, said that Jews were willing “to steal the eyes out of your head if they possibly could.”

Even during this period, Jews in the public eye could be subject to personal attacks. Nones, BenjaminBenjamin Nones, a Revolutionary War hero from Philadelphia and a member of Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party, was forced to defend himself against Federalist attacks denouncing him not only for being a Jew, but for being poor as well. New York politician Noah, MordecaiMordecai Noah, whose father and grandfather had fought in the American Revolution, was likewise denounced as an “enemy of Christ.” His position as a diplomat in Tunis was revoked because of his Judaism. Despite such obvious examples of antipathy toward Jews, Jew willing to convert to Christianity were generally accepted into what was considered polite society.

Nineteenth Century Immigrants

Between 1830 and the 1880’s, the number of Jews in the United States rose to approximately 200,000. Most of this increase was the result of immigration of Ashkenazi JewsAshkenazi Jews from central and western Europe, in contrast to the Sephardic immigrants from Iberia of earlier years. Many of these transplanted Europeans settled in the cities along the East Coast, from which they gradually moved inland to the growing cities of Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New Orleans. In this they differed little from the millions of other European immigrants then entering America.

Complex reasons prompted the emigration of Jews from Europe through the mid-nineteenth century. Before the 1870’s, most of them left Europe for economic or political reasons, in contrast to later immigrants who fled from lethal pogroms. The decades of the 1830’s and 1840’s were a period of political turmoil that culminated in a series of mostly unsuccessful Revolutions of 1848;and Jewish immigrants[Jewish immigrants]revolutions around the year 1848. After these revolutions failed, many young Europeans filled with revolutionary ideals looked elsewhere for their future. During this same period of political change, a population explosion was taking place in Europe while economic changes were limiting opportunities for young people. Jews were particularly affected, as merchant, trading, and skilled artisan occupations at which they had historically worked were disappearing.

Meanwhile, American attitudes toward Jews were undergoing changes as new German, Irish, and other immigrants brought their own prejudices against Jews to America. Attacks on Jews became increasingly common, and acts of discrimination against Jews increased. In Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, Roman Catholic priests told domestic workers not to work for Jewish employers. The speaker of California;Jewish immigrantsCalifornia’s state assembly tried, unsuccessfully, to levy a special tax on Jews to induce them to leave the state.

Puck magazine cartoon lampooning Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe in 1881.

(Library of Congress)

Some eight thousand Jews fought in the Civil War, U.S.;Jews inU.S. Civil War. Most fought for the Union army, but the most prominent Jew during the war was arguably Benjamin, JudahJudah Benjamin, a former U.S. senator who became secretary of state for the Confederacy. Early during the war, Union general Grant, Ulysses S.Ulysses Grant issued what may have been the most blatantly anti-Semitic official statement in American history. In December, 1862, he issued an order in which he accused Jews “as a class” of war profiteering and ordered all Jews to leave certain parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi within twenty-four hours. However, after the order was brought to the attention of President Lincoln, AbrahamAbraham Lincoln, it was revoked.

During the decades following the Civil War, Jews increasingly integrated into mainstream American society. Many became prominent merchants. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic discrimination persisted. For example, the prominent businessman Seligman, JosephJoseph Seligman was refused admittance to an upscale hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, because he was Jewish. However, Jewish communities were becoming increasingly accepted as part of the American landscape.

Twentieth Century World Wars

Wholesale changes in the demographics of American Jews, and the response of the country at large, began with the mass influxes that began during the 1880’s and continued into the 1920’s. During those years, nearly 2.4 million Jews immigrated to the United States. Most came from eastern Europe, and most of them settled in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Poverty was among the forces that drove Jews to emigrate from Europe, but increasingly virulent anti-Semitic nationalism in some eastern European countries was rising to the level of lethal pogroms against Jewish communities.

Educated Jewish immigrants from western Europe integrated into American society relatively easily, but more poorly educated immigrants from Russia were considered by many Americans as less intelligent and of poor genetic stock. As these immigrants’ names revealed their Slavic ancestry, many immigrants Name changing;Jewish immigrantschanged their names to appear more American. It was common for these persons to change their names to reflect their “Americanization.” For example, the name “Pakerevich” became “Baker,” and “Israel Baline” became Berlin, Irving“Irving Berlin.”

While overt hatred, particularly in the South, was generally directed against members of racial minorities, such feelings were also occasionally directed against Jews. The most blatant example was the 1915 lynching of the Jewish Atlanta businessman Frank, LeoLeo Frank, who had been unjustly convicted of the rape and murder of an employee. Ford, HenryHenry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor CompanyFord Motor Company and a major figure in business during the 1920’s, regularly published anti-Semitic editorials in his own newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. FatherCoughlin, CharlesCharles Coughlin preached anti-Semitism to the nation from his pulpit in Royal Oak, Michigan.

The growing anti-Semitic attitude was reflected most clearly in changes in immigration laws that were directed against eastern and southern Europeans in general, but against Jews from those regions in particular. For example, the [a]Immigration Act of 1924;quotasImmigration Act of 1924 established a Quota systemsquota system that severely restricted Jewish immigration from most of Europe. These new limits on immigration had an immediate impact on Jews attempting to flee Europe following the rise of fascism during the 1930’s. Germany;Nazi regimeThe appointment of Hitler, AdolfAdolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to power in Germany in 1933 was rapidly followed by German legalization of discrimination against Jews. The anti-Jewish riots that began during November, 1938, were merely the prelude to the rounding up and eventual murder of Jews throughout Europe.

The resistance of the United States to Jewish immigration during the 1930’s was dramatized in the St. Louis, SS[Saint Louis]St. Louis affair in 1939. When the German ship St. Louis, carrying more than 900 Jews attempting to escape from Europe, arrived in Cuba, its passengers were not allowed to disembark, and they were ultimately refused permission to enter the United States. Most had to return to Europe, where they were eventually murdered. In 1939, the Wagner-Rogers Bill designed to admit 20,000 Jewish children from Europe was voted down in Congress. Despite the admittance of prominent individuals. such as Einstein, AlbertAlbert Einstein, few Jews were allowed to enter America during the 1930’s.

After World War II

Although Germany;in World War II[World War 02]there was strong evidence that Nazi Germany was trying to exterminate European and Russian Jews throughout the war, the full extent of German atrocities became widely known only after the surrender of Germany in May, 1945. Hundreds of thousands of European Jews who survived the Holocaust;survivorsHolocaust became Statelessness;Holocaust survivorsstateless; even the idea that they might return to what was left of their prewar homes was unrealistic. Holocaust;American awareness ofWhether public awareness of the extent of the Holocaust changed American attitudes or merely rendered overt anti-Semitism no longer acceptable is unclear. Returning American soldiers regarded the elimination of racial and religious discrimination to be a major priority, and criticism of Jews as a people was significantly reduced. Although Jews within some individual professions continued to endure some discrimination, often in the form of hiring quotas, legal barriers against Jews were gradually eliminated. Even the Films;andanti-Semitism[antiSemitism]Hollywood film industry addressed discrimination and hatred against Jews. In the film Gentleman’s AgreementGentleman’s Agreement (film)[Gentlemans Agreement] (1947), for example, actor Gregory Peck played a reporter pretending to be Jewish in order to investigate discrimination, while the plot of Crossfire (film)Crossfire (1947) involved the murder by bigots of a Jewish war hero.

U.S. immigration policies that had historically discriminated against Jews began to change as well. A bill proposed by Congressman Stratton, WilliamWilliam Stratton of Illinois in 1947 to admit 400,000 displaced persons, including Jews, went nowhere. However, one year later Congress did pass a similar bill to admit more than 200,000 displaced persons, the [a]Displaced Persons Act of 1948Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Efforts by members of Congress to establish into law provisions of the 1948 act that continued to create barriers to immigration of displaced Jews were defeated, and by 1960 an estimated 250,000 survivors had arrived. The Civil Rights movement;and anti-Semitism[antiSemitism]Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s, while primarily addressing discrimination against African Americans and members of other racial minorities, ended most remaining legal barriers directed against Jews as well.

The last major influx of Jewish immigrants to the United States began during the late 1970’s and continued through the presidency of Ronald Reagan, as emigration barriers in the Soviet Union;Jewish emigrationSoviet Union slowly beginning to lift. Approximately two million Jews had remained in Russia following World War II. An increasing number of activists, largely but not solely Jewish, began a campaign directed at the Soviet Union;Jewish emigrationSoviet government to allow these Jews to emigrate. Pressure from the United States as well as internal Russian refuseniks eventually proved successful. Ultimately, nearly 200,000 Russian immigrants;JewsRussian Jews immigrated to America between 1979 and 1990.Anti-Semitism[antisemitism]Jewish immigrants;and anti-Semitism[antisemitism]Nativism;and anti-Semitism[antisemitism]

Further Reading
  • Diner, Hasia. The Jews of the United States, 1654-2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. In addition to treating Jewish history from a religious viewpoint, Diner addresses economic and cultural changes within the community. A feminist perspective underlies much of the history.
  • Dinnerstein, Leonard. Antisemitism in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Comprehensive history of anti-Semitism that addresses the earliest European Christian biases toward Jews and the influence of those beliefs during the earliest years of Jewish immigration. Chapters divide American history into specific periods, emphasizing the evolution of anti-Semitism and effects on immigration policy during each period.
  • Gerber, David, ed. Anti-Semitism in American History. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Collection of essays analyzing both the roots of anti-Semitism and resultant discrimination against Jews. Subjects such as mythological accusations against Jewish practices, and interactions among Jews and other minorities are covered.
  • Sheldon, Harvey. Encyclopedia of the History of Jewish Comedy. Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge Publishing, 2008. Although not strictly a history of anti-Semitism, this self-published work addresses the development and use of “Jewish comedy” as a means to address perception of Jews by outsiders. The premise of the book is that one cannot hate if one is laughing.
  • Wenger, Beth. The Jewish Americans. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Comprehensive history of 350 years of Jewish history in America. The book contains extensive first-person accounts of the Jewish experience, accompanied by a large number of photographs.

American Jewish Committee

Anti-Defamation League

Displaced Persons Act of 1948

History of immigration, 1783-1891

History of immigration after 1891


Israeli immigrants

Jewish immigrants


Religion as a push-pull factor


Categories: History