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History Crash Course #59: The Face of Anti-Semitism

History Crash Course #59: The Face of Anti-Semitism

Even in such civilized nations as France and the United States, anti-Semitism never died out.

by

In this installment we will briefly examine the anti-Semitism that ― with the coming of the Enlightenment in the 18th century ― hid itself under the veneer of "civil" society, only to bare its face of evil in the Holocaust.

(For a more detailed treatment of anti-Semitism in general, click here for the Why the Jews? seminar)

Of course, in Russia and the Pale of Settlement of Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism never went underground (as we saw in Parts 56 and 57). But in the Western World the situation was different.

Some of the worst cases of anti-Semitism before the rise of the Nazis in Germany were instigated by the French, whose country was the birthplace of the Enlightenment.

It is shocking to learn, for example, that it was the French consul Ratti-Menton who brought a blood libel against the Jews in 1840, when a Capuchin monk disappeared in Damascus, Syria. In response to his accusations, the Syrian authorities seized more than sixty Jewish children to coerce their parents into confessing. Several Jews were arrested and tortured. Two died under torture and several others were permanently disabled; one "confessed."

Pressured by French authorities, the Syrians would have tried these Jews on false charges had not the Jewish world reacted. Jewish organizations instigated a protest by British and American leaders (including President Martin Van Buren) that caused the Syrians to drop the charges.

French anti-Semitism continued however.

In 1886, a virulently anti-Semitic book La France Juive became the most-widely read book in France. This was followed in 1892 by the founding of an anti-Semitic daily newspaper La Libre Parole. Writes Berel Wein in Triumph of Survival (p. 233):

"Nowhere was [La Libre Parole] more popular than with the officer corps of the French army ... Stung by the anarchists and pacifists of the left, humiliated by its complete defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French army was frustrated, malevolent, and paranoid. One of its main enemies was the "Jewish influence" in French life. This made the military the logical candidate for an anti-Semitic incident. It would not be long in coming."

The Dreyfus Affair

That anti-Semitic incident ― which became known in France as "L'Affaire" ― was the famous case of Alfred Dreyfus, a captain in the French Army who was falsely accused in 1894 of spying.

The actual spy was not a Jew ― one Major Esterhazy ― but even though this fact was discovered in 1896, the French army ignored or suppressed the evidence against Esterhazy and would not back away from its accusations for anti-Semitic reasons. "Secret" documents, some of which were really forgeries, were produced and Dreyfus was tried and convicted of treason in a closed courtroom before a military tribunal.[1] He was stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil's Island off the coast of French Guiana in South America. On January 3, 1895, he was paraded through the streets of Paris while a mob jeered: "Death to the Jews."

(One of those covering this fiasco was a Hungarian-Jewish journalist from Austria, Theodor Herzl, who was shocked to the core that Jew-hatred was so ingrained in the "civilized" French. He later wrote in his diary: "Where? In France. In Republican, modern, civilized France, a hundred years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man." Even though Herzl, who was secular and quite assimilated, the Dreyfus trial made a powerful impression on Herzl and brought him closer to the realization that the only safe place for the Jews and the only answer to anti-Semitism was a land of their own ― the Land of Israel.[2] While Herzl was not the founder of Zionism, he quickly rose to the top and convened the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897, at which the World Zionist Organization was established. We will discuss Zionism in greater detail in a future installment.)

Meanwhile, the travesty of the Dreyfus trial created a controversy. France's greatest writer, Emile Zola, published a stunning newspaper article in 1898 entitled J'Accuse ("I Accuse") , charging the government with a miscarriage of justice. For this, Zola (who was not a Jew) was convicted of libel and had to flee to England.

Eventually, after another two travesties of a trial in which Dreyfus was again convicted, he was finally pardoned and, after having spent five years on Devils Island, was restored to his former military rank. (He was not fully exonerated until 1906!)

World War I

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated at Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist. One month later, after its humiliating demands were refused, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Other declarations of war followed quickly, and soon every major power in Europe was in the war. On one side were the Allies ― chiefly France, Britain, Russia, Italy and later the U.S.; on the other were the Central Powers ― Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and Turkey (i.e. Ottoman Empire).

World War I, which lasted four years, was an incredibly destructive war in which 10 million people died and another 20 million were wounded. This was largely because by the time World War I broke out, lethal weapons capable of killing huge numbers of people had been perfected. Soldiers no longer needed to stand close to each other to kill. Machine guns and heavy artillery did the job for them. And the end result was quite devastating.

The war also proved to be very damaging to both the spiritual and economic well-being of the Jewish communities especially in Eastern Europe. Poverty and hardship increased greatly. The chaos left in the wake of the war combined with the spread of Marxist, socialist and other revolutionary ideas greatly weaken the spiritual cohesion of Eastern European Jewry.

As for the Jews, 1.5 million fought in World War I. Jews fought in the Austrian army, in the German army, in the Russian army, in the French army. Jews (aligned with their host nations) fought against other Jews in this conflict, and 140,000 Jews died.

Interestingly, World War I ― which without a doubt set the stage for the Holocaust ― began on August 1, 1914 (when Germany declared war on Russia), corresponding to the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av (Tisha B'Av) the worst date in Jewish history. This was the same day on which the first and second Temples were destroyed, as well as many other terrible things that happened to the Jewish people as we have already seen.

In fact, World War I triggered a chain reaction that proved catastrophic to the Jews.

The two major links in the chain reaction were the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany.

Hitler would never have come to power were it not for Germany's defeat in World War I. As a result of that defeat, the punishing Versailles Treaty which brought Germany economically to its knees, and the world-wide depression following the war, Germany was thrown into economic chaos. But who was blamed for that economic plight by the "enlightened" Germans? The Jew, of course.

World War II, which followed World War I by only 21 years, was in many ways a continuation of the same conflict, as we will learn.

Russian Revolution

Initially, the Czarist government did well in World War I against the Austro-Hungarian Empire but was badly beaten by the German army. As the war continued, the death toll and military setbacks proved more than Russia could handle.

The many years of corruption by the Czarist government had previously led in Russia to one aborted revolution in 1905. In March 1917, the revolution was finally successful. Initially, the Czar was deposed (The Czar and family were murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1918) and replaced by a socialist (Menshevik) government which kept Russia in the war (not a popular move amongst the masses, weary of the war) but, by November the government was overthrown by a Marxist (Bolshevik) government which took Russia out of the war. This Bolshevik takeover triggered a Civil War which was to last until 1921. The Bolshevik victory in 1921 led to the creation of the U.S.S.R. (The Soviet Union) which would remain in power until its collapse in 1990.

Of course, the Jews ― who were among the most oppressed people in Russia, and who always gravitated to movements that professed to "change the world" ― were involved in a major way in the Russian Revolution. (We saw earlier that the founder of the Communist ideology was Karl Marx, a Jew who converted to Christianity and then abandoned all religion.)

The motto of the Communist Party ― "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need" – was attractive to many liberal minded Jews, who, imbued with the strong sense of social justice which comes from Judaism, felt that the socialist government would greatly benefit the masse and improve the conditions in Russia. Indeed, many of the key figures of the Bolshevik Revolution were Jews (see below).

The Jews who joined the Communist party were not religious Jews, but the drive toward tikun olam ("repairing of the world") had not died. Indeed, in absence of religious expression, this drive (toward what is identified as a Messianic utopia in Judaism) dominated their Jewish souls. The American literary critic Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) summed up perfectly the Jewish attraction to communism when he said:

The Jew lends himself easily to communism because it enables him to devote himself to a high cause, involving all of humanity, characteristics which are natural to him as a Jew.[3]

Of course, just because secular Jews were involved in the Russian Revolution does not mean that the religious Jews of the shtetls were spared in the conflict. In fact, during the Russian Revolution huge numbers of Jews were killed.

The leader of the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Illych Lenin (1870-1924) did try to root out anti-Semitism. He made a strong stand against it, because it was such an intrinsic policy of the Czarist government. Furthermore, Lenin was well aware that there would probably not have been a Russian Revolution without the Jews.

Unfortunately, these Jewish Communists were following the Marxist dictum that "religion is the opiate of the masses," and they did their level best to eradicate Judaism as a religion out of Russia.

Here is an excerpt from a propaganda piece by Yevsektsiya (the special department of the Soviet government set up to deal with Jews ) entitled "The Liquidation of Bourgeois Institutions" published in October 1918:

"The Jewish community has hitherto been dominated by members of the property class who want to keep the masses in the dark by superimposing a Hebrew culture upon them. While the upper classes have been sending their children to public schools they have provided only dark primary schools and synagogues for the offspring of the proletariat, in which nothing but nonsense is taught.... In the struggle against the authorized Jewish community no compromise can be made with the bourgeoisie." [4]

So the Communist government of Russia, like the Czarist government of Russia Communism, embarked on a policy of forced secularization of Jews. (To be fair, they also did it to the Russian Orthodox Church.)

Thus the Jews of Russia were deliberately starved of their heritage, resulting in a huge Jewish population that is incredibly ignorant of Judaism. This, by the way, is a unique event in human history ― the deliberate secularization of a community to such a large extent for such a long period of time. (It was unique to the Soviet Union and later duplicated by other Communist regimes, particularly in China.)

Stalin and Trotsky

When Lenin died in 1924, a power struggle ensued and Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) eventually seized power. In 1935, he initiated a series of purges which devastated Russia.

These purges made Stalin the second biggest mass murderer of the 20th century (after Mao Tze-tung), if we consider the sheer number of people he ordered killed and others whom he consigned to death in a vast network of labor camps. It is estimated that Stalin is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 25 million people (twice as many as Hitler, though probably only half as many as Mao).

An anti-Semite of the first order, even after the Holocaust, he was planning to deport 2-3 million Jews to Siberia where they would have been killed. However, he died under mysterious circumstances before he could put his plan into action. [5]

However, he did succeed in purging all the Jews out of the Communist government of Russia. The most famous of these was Leon Trotsky (1879-1940). The most important Jew in the Russian Revolution, Trotsky ― whose real name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein ― was a leading organizer of the Red Army. He engineered the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 along with Lenin. When Lenin died he and Stalin were rivals for succession.

Stalin won and first ousted Trotsky as commissar of war, then expelled him from the party, and finally deported him from Russia ― that happened in 1929. Trotsky survived in exile for more than 10 years; he was murdered in Mexico City in 1940 on Stalin's orders.

Initially Stalin was meant to share power with two other men: Lev Kamenev and Grigori Zinovev, both Jews, but Stalin had them both arrested and executed after show trials in 1936.

American Anti-Semitism

Thus far, we have covered the open murderous anti-Semitism of the Russians and the insidious "intellectual" anti-Semitism of the French. But what about the land of tolerance ― America?

In 1913, in Atlanta, Georgia, a Jew named Leo Frank was falsely accused of the murder of a 13-year-old Christian girl. So strong was the anti-Semitism in the American South that the testimony of a black man ― a unique event in this racist region ― was permitted against a white man. But, of course, the white man was a Jew.

Ironically, the black "witness" was the murderer ― a fact that he had confessed to his own attorney, but this was kept secret. There had also been a real witness but he did not come forward until many years later.

Frank was convicted and sentenced to death, but the governor of Georgia, John Slaton, convinced that Frank was innocent, commuted his sentence.

Then a horrible thing happened.

A Georgia mob kidnapped Frank from prison and lynched him. The lynching was photographed and made into postcards which sold briskly.

Not until 1986 ― 73 years later! ― was Frank awarded posthumous pardon by the state of Georgia.

The Frank case led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League by the B'nai B'rith. It became the leading Jewish group fighting anti-Semitism in America, and it had a lot of work on its hands, especially after 1918, the end of World War I, and in 1929 when the stock market crashed, and things heated up for the Jews in America.

As we mentioned in our discussion of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (see Part 57), one of the big promulgators of anti-Semitism in America was Henry Ford, who spent a lot of his own money to get the Protocols translated into English and distributed in America as widely as possible.

The Protocols became the second biggest selling book in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s (after the Bible).

The Ford Motor Company's plant in Dearborn, Michigan, had a sign posted in its parking lot:

"JEWS ARE TRAITORS TO AMERICA AND SHOULD NOT BE TRUSTED BY GENTILES. JEWS TEACH COMMUNISM, JEWS TEACH ATHEISM, JEWS DESTROY CHRISTIANITY, JEWS CONTROL THE PRESS, JEWS PRODUCE FILTHY MOVIES, JEWS CONTROL MONEY."

Henry Ford was not the only one. There were others.

There were several conservative Christian political parties which were strongly anti-Semitic for example, William Pelley's "Silver Shirts." An anti-Semitic newspaper, Gerald B. Winrod's The Defender had 110,000 subscribers.

These American anti-Semites were fledgling fascists. Under the guise of patriotism, they championed the idea that Jews were the underlying cause of the economic woes of America ― such as the stock market crash of 1929 ― because it was the Jews who controlled business and banking. This kind of anti-Semitism rivaled that of Europe in the same period, but unlike Europe never took hold with the same fatal consequences.

But all this Jew-hatred did set the stage for the appeasement of Hitler when he took hold of power in Germany. It also was one of the primary reasons why America did not do more to save the Jews once they began to flee the Holocaust, as we shall see next.


[1] The one member of the French army who was truly interested in the truth, and who discovered that Esterhazy was the spy was Lieutenant General George Picquart. He was consistently ignored and hounded by the French army. When Esterhazy was finally brought to trial he was acquitted and sadly it was Picquart who sent to prison for sixty days.
[2] Ironically, today the number one excuse for hating Jews in the world is Zionism and the State of Israel. Even though it is merely an excuse, accusations against Israel and the supposed occupation of Palestinian lands are the fuel used to keep anti-Semitism alive and have lead to attacks against both Jews and Jewish targets around the world.
[3] Allan Gould ed., What Did They Think of the Jews? (Jason Aronson Inc., 1997), p.337.
[4] Paul Mendes-Flohr & Yehuda Reinharz ed., The Jew in the Modern World, (Oxford University Press, 1995), p.431-432.
[5] This event, known as the "The Doctors' plot," was an alleged conspiracy to eliminate the leadership of the Soviet Union by means of Jewish doctors poisoning top leadership. After the death of Stalin in March 1953, the new Soviet leaders declared that the case was fabricated. It was just a more modern variation on the more ancient blood libels common in medieval Europe.

Published: January 5, 2002


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Visitor Comments: 29

(29) nancy kragl, April 30, 2009 2:22 PM

It's happening again.

God help us.

(28) Duncan McLellan, November 20, 2008 1:51 PM

I believe Hitler was responsible for many more deaths than 12.5 million as suggested by this article.

I believe Hitler was responsible for many more deaths than the 12.5 million as suggested by this article. Martin Gilbert writes in "The Holocaust the Jewish tragedy" page 824: As well as the six million Jews who were murdered, more than ten million other non-combatants were killed by the Nazis." These are just the non combatants. There were "several million Soviet Prisoner-of war." My point is that these numbers refer to unarmed victims either killed in the camps or murdered by other methods. But these numbers miss the actual war casualties for which he has a pretty big responsbility as well.

(27) Rudy, February 6, 2008 11:14 PM

In the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1954 in America, were they really spies who passed the atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union or were they the victims of anti-semitism in America?

(26) Ephraim Unell, January 31, 2008 9:28 AM

Article unfairly comapres America to Europe

As this article discusses, there has certainly been antisemitism in the United States. However, R' Spiro unfairly and counter to the historical record implies that antisemitism in the US was comporable to that of Europe and that American does not deserved to be considered a land of tolenerance.

But as his own examples illustrate, this is inaccurate. Episodes like that of Leo Frank are so rare as to be singular aberrations. Unlike in Eastern Europe, US Jews did not live in fear of pogroms or lynchings. And while there were men of influence and institutions of importance that were antisemitic in both number and intensity there was no comparison to Europe. No major American political party made hated of Jews a part of its platform. No major American institution was nearly as virulently antisemitic as was the French army.

(25) Menashe Kaltmann, January 29, 2008 5:41 PM

The Wild Men of The Yevsektsiya

Thank you R. Spiro for a very good albeit sad article.
The Yevsektsiya were the Jewish Communists who hated religion. They ( a few hundred staunch and fantatical Communists insisted on closing Shules,chedarim, mikvaot and all Jewish religious institutions. This eventually led to the actual killing and persecutions of all religious functionaries including Jewish school teachers.
The Yevsektsiya were the ones who called for the imprisonment of the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe R. Josef Yitzchak Schneersohn Of Blessed Memory.
In the end many of these Yevsektsiya mmbers were killed I think during Stalin's purges.

May G-d have mercy on all the Jewish People.

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