by Nina Valbousquet
In a picket line of right-wing demonstrators in New York City, a man held a protest sign “We Christians need more father Coughlin”. The picture struck me when I discovered it on the frontpage of The Voice for Human Rights of September 1939, while consulting the journal at the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library. The frontpage offers a snapshot of two contrasting realities of Christian America and antisemitism. On one side, the picture encapsulates the activism of Charles Coughlin’s pro-fascist militant Christian Front, which in 1938-1939 unleashed an unprecedented level of street and political anti-Jewish hatred in the United States. On the other side, the cover title of the Voice, “Catholics Expose ‘Christian Front’”, demonstrates resistance to antisemitism and to the instrumentalization of Christian values by right-wing hatemongers.
Antisemitism was a divisive topic among American Catholics at the end of the 1930s. Anti-Jewish vitriol seduced some sectors of American Catholicism while outraging others. In the second half of the 1930s, the repercussions of the Great Depression, the political backlashes of the New Deal, and the worsening of the international situation fostered tensions and resentment toward religious and ethnic minorities and immigrants. The propagation of antisemitic myths about both the “Jewish bank” and “Judeo-Communism” reached a new level of mass diffusion. The rise of domestic anti-Jewish agitations included a “tide of Catholic antisemitism” (Father Gregory Feige) empowered by the inflammatory propaganda of Father Coughlin. Christian antisemites accused “international Jews” of taking part in communist and anticlerical movements in Spain, Mexico, the Soviet Union and France, and blamed American Jews for being complicit with their anti-Christian coreligionists. Jewish refugees in America were labelled communists, radicals, and atheists, all plotting to destroy a Christian White America from within. Coughlin, the “Radio Priest”, capitalized on nativist prejudices and stirred up populist fears against Jewish refugees.
In spring 2019, thanks to the support of the NYPL-Fordham fellowship in Jewish studies, I was able to examine more closely this historical subject and conduct research at the Dorot division on primary sources pertaining not only to Christian antisemitism in New York City, but also to Jewish-Catholic collaborations in the fight against bigotry. Alongside rare copies of The Voice and the American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection, I looked at Social Justice, Coughlin’s weekly based in Detroit. Social Justice’s use of religion and Christianity remained a political expediency to serve a right-wing and nativist agenda. Among other “fake news,” Coughlin published in his weekly the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, from July to November 1938. An article of December 5, 1938 blamed “Judeo-Communism” for the persecutions of Jews in Germany: “German Jews are today suffering persecution because for 15 years after the Great War Germany was prostrated by Communism, headed by Jews under direction of Moscow.” Thus, Social Justice made the diffusion of anti-Jewish sentiments in American seem understandable and legitimate: “Anti-Semitism is spreading in America because the people sense a closely interwoven relationship between Communism and Jewry. […] It is the duty of American Christians to aid their Jewish fellow-citizens in shaking off Communism before it is too late.” The distinction between communist and religious Jews, and between foreign and American Jews was actually a subterfuge to demonize all Jews while claiming that the publication was not antisemitic. Coughlin’s fallacious arguments drew on typical mechanisms of antisemitism such as conflation, generalization, collective guilt, and conspiracy theories.
An examination of Commonweal, a Catholic weekly of liberal stamp based in NYC, which I was able to consult at Fordham Walsh library, provides a completely different picture. On November 18, 1938, a few days after Kristallnacht, Commonweal published a cartoon and several articles making a plea for European Jewish refugees and asking for the end of the strict immigration quotas that had been implemented in the United States since 1924. Although the cartoon includes stereotypical physical features, its logic of analogy reminds me of current images that have been circulating on social media portraying the Holy Family as refugees from the Middle-East.
These few examples demonstrate that it is especially timely to further investigate the historical shapes of antisemitism in the United States and to consider both its religious and secular components. While a NYPL-Fordham fellow, I also taught a seminar on antisemitism at Rose Hill campus. Even though at the beginning of the semester not all students were aware of some common antisemitic tropes, they grew increasingly equipped to critically decipher the construction of stereotypes, prejudices, and hate-speech. While most of them knew already about the history of Nazism, they seemed more astonished to discover the roots of a domestic history of antisemitism. Particularly helpful in this regard was the in-class discussion of the Pittsburg shooting and of Jaclyn Granick and Britt Tevis’ article (The Washington Post, October 28, 2018). Learning about the history of anti-refugee sentiments and of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, students were able to grasp better the intersectionality of prejudices and discriminations in the United States and to revise assumptions of American exceptionalism. One of my takeaways from this intense and stimulating semester is surely that much remains to be taught and researched about the entanglement between antisemitism, nativism, and populism in American history.
Nina Valbousquet was a Fordham-NYPL Fellow in Jewish Studies in spring 2019. While at Fordham she also taught a values seminar on antisemitism.