Tears of His­to­ry: The Rise of Polit­i­cal Anti­semitism in the Unit­ed States

  • Review
By – October 2, 2023

Anti­semitism is so dif­fi­cult to com­bat, in part, because it man­i­fests in such dif­fer­ent ways. In his lat­est book, renowned French his­to­ri­an Pierre Birn­baum explores a mod­ern form of Jew-hatred, one that he calls polit­i­cal antisemitism.” 

Birn­baum defines polit­i­cal anti­semitism as anti­semitism direct­ed against a uni­ver­sal and mer­i­to­crat­ic strong state” with cen­tral­ized, effec­tive polit­i­cal con­trol. It emerged along­side the new­ly formed French repub­lic in the eigh­teenth century. 

Although social anti­semitism cer­tain­ly exist­ed in Amer­i­ca before the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, Birn­baum argues that polit­i­cal anti­semitism took hold in Amer­i­ca in the mid­dle of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. While Jews were func­tion­al­ly barred from hold­ing polit­i­cal office, attend­ing elite pri­vate clubs, and study­ing at promi­nent uni­ver­si­ties, Birn­baum provoca­tive­ly claims that anti­se­mit­ic vio­lence didn’t erupt in Amer­i­ca until the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry due to the lack of an orga­nized anti­se­mit­ic move­ment. In stark con­trast, polit­i­cal anti­semitism sprang up when posi­tions of polit­i­cal influ­ence — so long the prove­nance of white, Anglo-Sax­on Protes­tants — began to be held by Jew­ish people.

Tears of His­to­ry begins by ana­lyz­ing the cen­tral ideas of the first promi­nent Jew­ish his­to­ri­an in Amer­i­ca, Salo Baron (18951989). As the first chap­ter explores, Baron famous­ly cri­tiqued the lachry­mose” con­cep­tion of Jew­ish his­to­ry devel­oped by nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish his­to­ri­ans. Under this lens, Jew­ish his­to­ry is a series of vio­lent per­se­cu­tions, depor­ta­tions, and hard­ships. Baron, on the oth­er hand, argues that there were sig­nif­i­cant times of Jew­ish eco­nom­ic pros­per­i­ty, includ­ing in the medieval Euro­pean ghet­to, where Jews were (pro­tect­ed) ser­vants of the state. Addi­tion­al­ly, Baron claims that Amer­i­ca, with its grant­i­ng of rights to minori­ties, lacked the anti­se­mit­ic vio­lence that plagued Europe.

The sec­ond chap­ter exam­ines the trag­ic events sur­round­ing Atlantan fac­to­ry super­in­ten­dent Leo Frank. In 1913, Frank was accused of the sex­u­al assault and mur­der of his four­teen-year-old employ­ee, Mary Pha­gan. The factory’s Black jan­i­tor, Jim Con­ley, was also sus­pect­ed, but Frank was arrest­ed and con­vict­ed of Mary’s mur­der. Frank’s con­vic­tion made nation­al head­lines, with some liken­ing it to the Drey­fus Affair.” He escaped exe­cu­tion by polit­i­cal par­don but was then tak­en from prison and lynched in 1915. Frank’s extra­ju­di­cial mur­der called to mind the destruc­tive Kishinev pogrom of 1903, dur­ing which Russ­ian sol­diers stood by as Jews were mur­dered. Although the Frank Affair” drew com­par­isons to Euro­pean anti­semitism, it did not stem from polit­i­cal antisemitism.

The devel­op­ment and con­tem­po­rary per­va­sive­ness of polit­i­cal anti­semitism receives sus­tained treat­ment in Birnbaum’s third chap­ter. Amer­i­ca became a strong state” with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal due to its con­sid­er­able gov­ern­men­tal plan­ning mea­sures. As FDR put Jews in posi­tions of polit­i­cal pow­er, reac­tionary anti­se­mit­ic polit­i­cal move­ments began to mobi­lize. Birn­baum cat­a­logs polit­i­cal-anti­se­mit­ic vio­lence and orga­ni­za­tions, from the Amer­i­can Nazi par­ty and the 1958 Atlanta syn­a­gogue bomb­ing, to the 2017 Unite the Right” ral­ly in Char­lottesville and the 2018 Tree of Life Syn­a­gogue shooting.

Tears of His­to­ry ends on an ambigu­ous note. Does polit­i­cal anti­semitism, foment­ed by vir­u­lent white nation­al­ism and result­ing in vio­lent attacks against Jew­ish peo­ple, give the lie to Baron’s cri­tique of the lachry­mose” account of Jew­ish his­to­ry? Birn­baum rais­es the pos­si­bil­i­ty that, giv­en the preva­lence of polit­i­cal anti­semitism, Amer­i­can excep­tion­al­ism is no bul­wark against anti-Jew­ish violence. 

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

Discussion Questions