I am a Sarah Silverman fan. I watched his comedy, read his memoirs, Wetting the bed, and I regularly listen to his podcast. As readers may know, Sarah is originally from New Hampshire, born in Bedford, and raised in the southern part of our state.
She and Seth Rogen recently did vocals in a new animated comedy series called Santa Inc. which airs on HBO Max. It’s made for adults, not kids. Rogen plays the voice of Santa Claus and Sarah plays an elf who wants to become the first female and Jewish Santa Claus. It’s dirty and funny and I would describe it as in Billy Bob Thornton’s Bad Santa lore. It will offend many.
Still, when the Santa Inc. trailer came out in November, what was shocking was not the comedy. Santa Inc. received a torrent of ugly and frightening reactions from enemies of the Jews and deniers. YouTube turned off dislikes when the comment count exceeded 25,000. Many seemed to dislike the idea of two Jews making a movie about Santa Claus.
The enemies coordinated a campaign of trolls, “brigading” Santa Inc. The response got me thinking about the origins of anti-Semitism in the United States and why it is happening now. Is the anti-Semitism reflected in incidents like the Reaction to Santa Inc. something qualitatively new or is it a continuation of longer-term history?
The United States has largely been a welcoming place for Jews from the start. Of course, at first, Jews made up an infinitely small percentage of the American population. In 1776, there were about 1,000 Jews in America; in 1840, 15,000; and in 1880, 250,000, which was half a percent of the population. Unlike Europe, Jews benefited from our constitution which guaranteed religious freedom in the First Amendment.
After 1880, things changed dramatically for American Jews. Between 1880-1920, two million Jews fled Eastern Europe and Russia to escape pogroms and state terrorism. And the Jews were certainly not the only immigrants. Several million came to the United States
The influx of immigrants rushed headlong into American xenophobia and racism. In 1894, the Immigration Restriction League was founded on the belief that the Anglo-Saxon tradition was drowned out by a flood of racially inferior people from southern and eastern Europe.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, upper-class WASP elites viewed Jews as greedy, cunning, and dishonest people. Protestant and Catholic religious leaders promoted stereotypes of Jews as the killers of Christ. It was the height of Christian anti-Semitism before Christian churches began to recognize their responsibility to acquiesce in the promotion of hatred.
Although there has been an American tradition of tolerance, anti-Semitism has become more entrenched in all sectors of American society.
At that time, scientific racism and eugenics were used to justify restrictions on immigration. A group of intellectual influencers, close to ruling circles, which included Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard and Edward Ripley, argued against interracial mixing and against immigration. They argued that immigrants brought crime, illiteracy, and political and union radicalism.
Grant believed that the Anglo-Saxons were displaced by highly unwanted immigrants, especially Jews, whom he saw as worthless. In his very influential book, The passage of the great race, he described the intellectual rationale for the Immigration Act of 1924 which significantly limited Jewish immigration to America. It was this restrictive law that prevented more European Jews from obtaining asylum during the Holocaust.
The gist of the book was that swarms of Jews and other racially inferior people were the cause of the death of the great white race. Grant’s book was one of Hitler’s favorites.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, prominent Americans like Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and Father Charles Coughlin all contributed to an anti-Semitic upsurge. In his diary, the Dearborn Independent, Ford published a long series called The International Jew, claiming that there was a vast Jewish conspiracy seeking to rule the world.
Groups like the German-American Bund have sold outspoken anti-Semitic newspapers in cities across the country. In Boston, Irish Catholic gangs organized “Jewish hunts” where half a dozen young men would go to a Jewish neighborhood, get out of a car, beat Jews, and go their separate ways. Boston had the reputation of being the most anti-Semitic city in the country.
While the oppression was much milder than what African Americans experienced, anti-Semitism was, to some extent, institutionalized. There were limits on the number of Jews who would be accepted into higher-level colleges and universities. There were also restrictions preventing Jews from entering law firms, medical offices, private clubs, and exclusive residential areas.
Opinion polls of the 1940s paint an unflattering picture of American anti-Semitism. An opinion poll found that 63% of Americans believed Jews as a group had “objectionable traits.” A majority believed that German Jews were in whole or in part to blame for their persecution by the Nazis. One third to one half of the American public is said to have sympathized or actively supported an anti-Semitic campaign. No more than 30% would have opposed it.
After WWII, I think awareness of the Holocaust changed the thinking of many Americans and put anti-Semitism on the back burner. The Holocaust was such a huge atrocity that it discredited haters against Jews and reduced their visibility and presence.
Now I consider anti-Semitism to be worsening in America and according to opinion polls 82% of American Jews would agree with this assessment. The historical context I have described creates a context in which anti-Semitic ideas have been insufficiently repudiated. Rather than confronting and rejecting anti-Semitism, Americans seem to prefer to pretend that this is not happening.
There are some indicators that I would like to mention. According to the FBI, American Jews are subject to most hate crimes from all religious groups, although they make up only 2% of the American population. Since 2016, there has been a significant increase in both anti-Semitic incidents and hate crimes in general.
Among the Jews, there is evidence that many changed their behavior out of fear. According to a new report from the American Jewish Committee, 39% of American Jews avoid posting content online that would reveal their Jewish identity. 23% refrain from carrying, transporting or exhibiting in public any items that could allow others to identify them as Jews. Synagogues and other institutions identified as Jewish have increased security.
I think former President Trump sparked the hatred. Hate crimes increased in the days following his election in 2016 and clearly continued. For me, Charlottesville was the turning point. Trump’s refusal to clearly and unambiguously condemn the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who were part of his grassroots reinforced racists and anti-Jews. The anti-Semites saw this as a victory.
Another factor that needs to be mentioned in the worsening of anti-Semitism is the role of the internet and social media. Online communities connect enemies everywhere. Haaretz’s Tomer Persico writes: “The web connects eccentrics and fundamentalists, and it makes extremists feel like they are part of a larger movement. A growing, bubbling wave of toxicity is ridden by unscrupulous politicians who amplify the sense of white victimization. ”
The reaction to Santa Inc. is a sad testament to the increase in hatred of Jews. Americans of all stripes and political persuasions must speak out publicly against hatred and oppose it. Part of protecting our multiethnic, multiracial democracy is protecting all citizens from emboldened haters.
(Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.)