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Drash History of the Ethnicity of Jews in America

A History of the Ethnicity of Jews In America

Drash August 1999 By Cynthia Peterman



As many of you know, when I am not here at TI, I serve as chairman of the Jewish History Department at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. Some of my fellow teachers and I had the unique opportunity this summer to study together with an American history professor as facilitator. All teachers of history, both Jewish and general, we wanted to find a subject that would be of interest and professional relevance to us all. We chose "Immigration and Ethnicity."

For me, as a teacher of American Jewish history, this was particularly interesting. For our concluding project in the 10th grade, I ask my students to conduct an ethnographic analysis of their family or a Jewish community or organization, in order to evaluate the effect of America on their Jewish identity. This analysis is predicated on the generational theory first offered by Marcus Hansen, that the second generation moves as far away from their immigrant roots as possible, while the third generation reclaims what their parents gave up. With this in mind I began meeting with my colleagues this summer in the hopes of gaining new insights into the challenge of maintaining identity vs. falling into the melting pot.

What I did not anticipate was being constantly confronted with the question of who is an American? In my own mind, there was never a question that Jews were Americans, perhaps out of the mainstream, but white Americans nonetheless. After all, there have been Jewish Supreme Court Justices, Senators, Governors, let alone all of the powerful Jews in the business world. A 1982 Gallup Poll offered the following proof. When asked whether immigrants by nationality were good or bad for America, those questioned about Jews reported 59 to 9 that Jews were good for this country. As I always told my students, America is different. Sure, there have been periods of anti-Semitism, when Jews were not full citizens of the colonies, when Jews were not eligible for admission to Harvard, when Jews were excluded from public office. Nevertheless, America is different. No pogroms, no ghettos, no government sponsored persecution. Every American has equal opportunity. Unlike Europe, Jews in America can make it by right, not by privilege.

In Europe, prior to the period of emancipation, the high status of some Jews was a privilege accorded in exchange for something the government needed. While the majority of 17th century Jews lived crowded into ghettos, the Hofjuden or Court Jews had virtually unrestricted right of residence and movement within the great cities of Europe. While the majority of Jews had very little contact with the Christian world, the Court Jews dined with the king and his courtiers, and used their great wealth to fund projects on a massive scale, including funding wars and building the great cathedrals of Europe. In a mercantile economy and sometimes cash poor central government, the Jewish financier was highly sought after. By the middle of the 18th century nearly every German prince or duke had his own Court Jew.

In many ways these Court Jews appeared to break ranks completely with their Jewish brethren, and many did so. However, there were some who not only maintained connections with their former neighbors, but many used their tremendous influence with the government to advocate on behalf of the Jews, who often found themselves in very precarious positions. When Empress Maria Theresa of Austria issued an order to expel the Jews of Prague at the end of the 18th century, blaming them for the invasion of the city by Frederick the Great of Prussia, Samson Wertheimer and his family exerted pressure that eventually resulted in the order being rescinded. Without these exceptional Jews acting on behalf of others, the Jews of Europe had no chance of advocating for themselves, either collectively or individually. Politically powerless, pre-emancipation era Jews had to depend on the magnanimity of their well-placed brethren.

It was with this history that Jews came to America, inspired with the possibility that here they would be offered the right of free worship and living, not as a privilege offered only to the friends of the government. George Washington had said in his address to the Touro synagogue of Newport at its dedication, "All possess alike the liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship...For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens." Once American, then Jews would be offered the same rights as all other Americans. Yet, it became clear over time that the term American had a very narrow definition. Who was an American?

As I began to discover, the question is intrinsically related to another question, Who is White?

Now maybe it is because I am young, born at the tail end of the baby boom when ethnic identification and women's rights were the norm, that it astounds me to think that Jews in America were ever thought to be anything other than white! Yet as I read and studied this summer, I discovered that the term "white" has undergone many changes in meaning over the centuries of America's existence. In fact, it is the triumph of the 20th century that Jews, Irish, and other ethnic minorities are considered white.

One of the most eye-opening books I read was Matthew Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color, in which he traces the historical development of the concept of the white American. In 1790, the new American government offered naturalized citizenship to all "free white persons." To be considered white was based on one's fitness for the demands of democracy, based on the standard of the "civilized" European. Being American excluded by definition Blacks, Asians, and other clearly non-white persons. Jews and Catholics were grudgingly admitted as citizens. Despite this Euro-centrism, over time Europeans of certain backgrounds were questioned as to their whiteness, especially after the Irish potato famine of the 1840s brought thousands of Irish into America. Look at any collection of political cartoons from this period (you can see a wonderful collection at the Ellis Island Museum), and you are confronted with such blatant bigotry as to be almost unimaginable today. By the end of the 19th century in response to the huge waves of Europeans immigrating to the US, as well as the flow of free blacks into the American mainstream, the definition of whiteness narrowed based on pseudo-scientific support. The concept of biologically different races took hold, by which definition one could never escape the designation of race. Whether Slav, Teuton, or Celt, these designations were said to reflect not only physical but intellectual and moral characteristics. Some races were physically stronger than others, some were smarter, some were more honest. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and World War I at the start of the 20th century, led to a feeling that America needed to be protected from the threat of foreigners, or non-whites. Of course, the concept of "white" then narrowed even further. In a 1909 case, an Armenian appealed for naturalization based on the 1790 law, saying that anyone who was not black was therefore white. Yet, counter-arguments were made that white referred to Northern and Western Europeans as not only a geographic but a racial distinction. Discrimination was justified in order to maintain the health of the American democracy, and the 1924 Immigration Act did discriminate by restricting the numbers coming from Eastern and Southern Europe. It was not until the rise of fascism in the '30s and '40s that some influential Americans began repudiating racism, in this sense of referring not only to anti-black but also to anti-ethnic behavior.

Where did Jews fit into all of this? In a recent book by Karen Brodkin called How Jews Became White Folks, she makes the case that the Eastern European Jews who immigrated at the end of the 19th century were not considered white by those Americans who were allied with the Nativist sentiment. While Progressives set up educational institutions and welfare organizations, intending to Americanize these immigrants, the Nativists declared them non-White and unassimilable. The dress, language, and customs of these Russian and Polish Jews were evidence of their foreignness.

In light of this, what if we go further back into American history, and re-examine earlier waves of Jewish immigrants? Do we find the same ambivalence from settled, Christian Americans toward the Jewish arrivals? In her volume of the series The Jewish People in America, Hasia Diner writes of the German Jews that their traditions were "... external to America. To depict a Jew in a play or to preach against Judaism in a sermon was to hold up something alien to America." "Yet," she continues, "unlike blacks, Indians or Chinese immigrants, the Jews functioned inside the American framework. As 'white' people they voted, held office, served on juries...." Jews were insiders, yet perpetual outsiders and essentially non-American; and, in order to become "white" they needed to abandon the exotic qualities that made them different. Thus, those German Jews who were truly at home in America were those who were willing to put their Jewishness second to their American identity. Even so, at times they were reminded that they were still not truly white Americans, as in the case of Leo Frank who was lynched in 1913 in Atlanta after his murder conviction was commuted by the Georgia governor. In Jacobson's Whiteness of a Different Color Frank, whose conviction was based largely on the testimony of a black janitor, was seen as "inconclusively white." The newspaper accounts of the time even described him in terms of his racially identifiable physical qualities, such as his "animal jaw," "bulging eyes," and "thick lips." So, Jacobson concludes, while southern Jews may have been the first Jews to see themselves as white, they were still perceived as non-white by others.

In some ways these tales do not seem far removed from the perception of Jews in early modern Europe. Those Jews who rose above the disabilities of being Jewish were exceptions, and they were seen as such. Christian friends of Moses Mendelssohn, the 18th century Jewish thinker, bemoaned the fact that not all Jews were like him. Voltaire, one of the primary voices of enlightened thinking, depicted the Jews as uncivilized and unfit for modern society, though he also was willing to admit the occasional exceptional Jew. The Court Jews of whom I spoke earlier were always seen as Jews, useful but non-European, and inferior, nonetheless.

Now of course things are different at the end of the 2oth century. Hitler's war against the Jews and the violent black-white encounters at mid-century changed the definition of race, and today the vast majority of Americans speak of racism as a black-white issue only. And, as I said at the beginning, how many of us would think of Jews in America as anything other than white (unless, of course, they ARE black)? And certainly with our multi-cultural approach today America has become far more accepting of what we today call ethnic (not racial) differences. Jacobson even goes so far as to say that many today want to disavow whiteness, since it has come to be associated with unfair advantages and discrimination. We expect people to assert their ethnic uniqueness.

But then what are we to make of the following information? In 1989 when the American Jewish Committee conducted their national survey of Jewish opinion the primary concern of American Jews was Jewish continuity. The recent survey showed that the primary concern was anti-Semitism. Certainly the headlines in recent weeks of synagogues set on fire and JCCs attacked would seem to confirm our worst fears. Are we really still perpetual outsiders and non-whites, despite the exceptions such as the Joe Liebermans, Ruth Bader Ginsburgs, and Steven Spielbergs? Is it true that the real meaning of being a Jew in a post-Holocaust world is to say "never again"?

I think not. The more I look at the history of this country, the more I am convinced that America is indeed one of the greatest homes for Jews that we have seen in our long history. I think that the process of defining what it means to be an American has been an ongoing one. Yes, the framers of the Constitution may have had only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants in mind when they admitted free whites as Americans, but today the term American represents a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. The fabric of the American quilt is multi-colored and multi-cultural, as much Latino, African, and Asian, as European. I have to believe that the Buford Furrows are the exceptions, and that while the Shoah taught us indeed to remember to look suspiciously around us, it also taught us to look forward. Anti-Semitism and other threats to Jewish survival will always be rallying points for otherwise minimally affiliated Jews. The real issue for Jews in America is not anti-Semitism but rather the challenge of maintaining Jewish identity when it is so easy not to be a Jew at all. So, when I ask my students to evaluate the effect that America has had on the Jewish identity of their family, I am issuing a challenge to them. Look at the patterns of the past, and judge for yourself where you think your future lies. Do we want to define ourselves by the perceptions of others, merely surviving as a people, or as a unique vibrant culture with its own past and future?