The 19th Century Jewish Experience in Historiography

While earlier historians focused their attention on how Jews were viewed by the larger American society, later historians have focused their attention on the Jewish experience itself.  Using Jewish newspapers, Naomi W. Cohen in “Anti-Semitism in the Gilded Age: The Jewish View,” argues that Jewish writers consistently held that religious hostility was the source of anti-Semitism which in turn led to their focus on the “potential dangers of religious activism and the fusion of ‘priestcraft’ with politics.”[1]  Jewish concerns were in part driven by efforts to add a constitutional amendment “acknowledging the authority of God, Jesus, and Scriptural Law;” the revivalist crusade of Reverend Dwight L. Moody who repeated the deicide charge; and the Sunday laws.[2]  Cohen notes that there was an interplay between European and American anti-Semitism that combined religious imagery with “references to Jewish conspiracy and money power.”[3]  Cohen argues that the Populists relied more heavily on Jewish money and power conspiracies and also included the charge of the “wandering Jew” at a time of heightened nationalism.  Yet, Cohen states, Jewish newspapers perceived the Populists as a nuisance, and saw the real threat to Jews coming from religious anti-Semitism. 

Hasia Diner argues in “The Encounter between Jews and America in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” there were five features of American society that “both stimulated the mass migration and made possible a relatively harmonious, although complicated, integration” of Jewish immigration.[4]  Those forces were: the broader increase in immigration, race, industrial and economic expansion, the “valorization of religion,” and the two-party system which Diner claims neither party “had any stake in demonizing the growing number of Jewish voters.”[5]  Diner’s essay is not about the rhetoric and action between the 1870s through the 1920s, but rather on how these five characteristics of American society contributed to the “forging of a synergistic relationship between America and the Jews,” a history that Diner describes as “sui generis in the context of modern Jewish history.”[6]  While Jews in the first half of the nineteenth century tried to remain inconspicuous, Jews of the last half of the century began building visible synagogues in the Moorish style replete with Hebrew phrases and Stars of David.  They also began challenging parts of American society, specifically over issues of working rights and the poor, racial issues (Jews made up half of the white people involved in forming the NAACP), and lastly, the idea of America being a Christian nation opposing efforts, among other things, to create a constitutional amendment declaring that the United States acknowledged “the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among nations.”[7]  Jewish women’s groups on larger social issues as well as on religious issues asserted themselves, the first time in American Jewish history and probably all Jewish history.  Diner acknowledges that the history of American Jewry might “smack of the much criticized idea of American exceptionalism” but the history of American Jewry, she writes, shows that something “worked” for the Jews.[8]  While Diner is right to acknowledge the non-violent nature of anti-Semitism in America, she is more optimistic about the anti-Semitic rhetoric because she compares the experience of American Jewry to that of Jews who immigrated to other countries or to the experience of Blacks.  She does acknowledge that in the late nineteenth century when scientific racial theories proliferated, Jews became viewed as something other than white.  At the very least, Diner argues that in spite of the pervasive anti-Semitic rhetoric that earlier historians have revealed in popular American culture, American Jews were still able to achieve great levels of success.  Most importantly, in the larger nation that had separated religion from the state, Americans viewed religion as a “benign force for promoting personal and civic virtue.”[9]  As such, Jews formed many organizations and movements and were able to articulate the “idea that Jews belonged to a religious community, with wide geographic reach and deep historic roots,” giving a sense of respectability to American Jewry.[10]  The diverse nature of American society and the multiple religious identities along with the political stability of the two-party system where each party wanted votes, compared to other countries, Diner argues, gave Jews the ability to participate equally in society over time. 


[1]  Naomi W. Cohen, “Antisemitism in the Gilded Age: The Jewish View.” Jewish Social Studies (vol. 41, no. 3/4, 1979) 203.

[2] Ibid, 192. 

[3] Ibid, 198. 

[4] Hasia Diner, “The Encounter Between Jews and America in the Gilded Age and

Progressive Era.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (11, no. 1, 2012) 3. 

[5] Ibid. 

[6] Ibid, 6. 

[7] Ibid, 8. 

[8] Ibid, 10.

[9] Ibid, 19. 

[10] Ibid.