The dark political history of American anti-Semitism

When hundreds of white supremacists bearing torches and giving the Nazi salute descended upon the University of Virginia’s campus on August 11, they began a chant that would have been entirely unrecognizable to the figures immortalized in the statues they sought to preserve: “Jews will not replace us!”

Neither the Confederacy nor the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan — founded in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War to terrorize newly freed blacks — were very concerned with the few Jews then living in the South. (In fact, Jefferson Davis appointed the first Jewish cabinet member in the western hemisphere, Judah Benjamin.)


Yet 50 years after the end of the Civil War, virulent anti-Semitism became intertwined with white supremacy, and these views seeped into new American laws that targeted Jews. The restrictive immigration laws of 1921 and 1924, written by eugenicists and cheered by white supremacists, came a decade before the Nazi Party took power in Germany. These laws were still on the books in the 1930s and 1940s, severely limiting the number of Jews who would be able to find refuge from Nazism.


The Ku Klux Klan reemerged in 1915, while Woodrow Wilson, a segregationist, sat in the White House and “Birth of a Nation” filmgoers gave standing ovations when triumphant Klansmen galloped onto the screen.

More than ten million immigrants had arrived in the United States in the decade prior to 1915, most from southern and eastern Europe, including millions of Jews as well as Catholics. As these immigrants formed ethnic melting pots in major cities, Confederate monuments were dedicated throughout the South; more statues were erected between 1905 and 1915 than at any other time in U.S. history.

Disillusionment after World War I, “Red scares” that stereotypically linked Communism to Jews, and the post-war flu epidemic convinced many Americans that foreign people and ideas brought with them moral and physical disease. As the 1910s gave way to the 1920s, the Klan’s membership grew. A 1921 New York World editorial condemned the Klan’s “fomentation of racial prejudice and militant intolerance,” and reminded readers, “We must choose which we will serve — the laws of a free people or the tyranny of a dark-lanterned ring.”

Klan membership reached its peak of about four million in 1925, and anti-Semitism joined racism as core to its ideology. The new nationwide Klan privileged “One Hundred Percent Americans,” celebrated people who defended slavery, and turned its attention towards limiting immigration.

In 1921, Congress capped overall immigration and set up the first quotas, basing these limits on an immigrant’s country of birth, or “national origins.”

One historian writing in 1924 about the Ku Klux Klan attributed the bill’s easy passage — with only two recorded “no” votes — to fear and hateful propaganda: “The immense popularity of this drastic immigration law with the masses of Americans should throw some light for us upon the readiness with which men listen to the Klan’s anti-foreign propaganda. 

At the last minute, the Senate removed protection for immigrants fleeing religious and political persecution — the spectre of Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and finding haven in the United States was apparently too frightening.

The 1921 law lasted only temporarily; soon lobbyists who believed in eugenics and white supremacy gathered to write a more restrictive version. The Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 passed Congress overwhelmingly and with bipartisan support. The act capped total quota immigration at 164,667, which was reduced to 153,879 after 1929

The new immigration quotas were now based on 2 percent of the “national origins” of the American population in 1890 — a year intentionally chosen because it came before the turn-of-the-century wave of Jewish immigration. Great Britain and Germany, countries with supposedly “good racial stock” (white and Protestant), were granted the highest percentage of the available quota slots, while some others, with populations deemed by the United States to be less desirable, received as few as 100 slots each year. Most Asian immigrants were barred entirely due to race.

In the 1930s, even as Americans regularly read news about Jews being attacked on the streets in Nazi Germany, there was no national appetite for increasing immigration. As the waiting lists for U.S. immigration visas swelled, so did anti-Semitism in the United States.

In 1939, Sen. Robert Reynolds of North Carolina (who ran his own anti-Semitic newspaper, the American Vindicator), proposed bills to end all immigration for five years, declaring in a June 1939 speech that the time had come to “save America for Americans.”

At that moment, more than 309,000 Germans, most of whom were Jews, sat on the waiting list for the United States, hoping for a place on the German quota, set by the 1924 law. The St. Louis, carrying more than 900 passengers turned away from Cuba and unable to land in the United States, was slowly returning to Europe.

Despite the fact that Nazi persecution of Jews and others was widely reported, 67 percent of Americans thought that refugees from Germany and Austria should be kept out. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution were unable to escape to the United States before the Holocaust because of these policies and attitudes.

The white supremacist marchers in Charlottesville were fueled by racism, anti-Semitism and other ideas about identity and community. Today is different in many ways from the 1920s and 1930s but history reminds us that ideas have consequences and that each of us has a role to play in shaping them — and confronting them.

Rebecca Erbelding, Ph.D., is a historian at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Erbelding is working on the museum’s upcoming exhibition on “Americans and the Nazi Threat.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.