The devastation suffered by Jews in the Holocaust is unforgivable, unparalleled, and unforgettable, so much so that their struggles startled the world in a way never seen before. Americans, particularly, were shaken after this horrifying genocide took place. For many Americans, anti-Semitic sentiment would soften after this tragedy, resulting in the gradual lessening of discriminatory acts. It would appear that anti-Semitic sentiment would especially decrease during the progressive decade of the 1960s. This golden era of liberalism that promoted social justice and equality would thus seemingly be the conclusion to overt discrimination against the Jews. Yet, American prejudice against the Jews tragically still remains a part of our society, regardless of how much progress has been made after the Holocaust.
To start, American anti-Semitism has been alive and well since the early 1900s. Terrifying experiences such as the lynching of a Jewish businessman named Leo Frank in Atlanta in 1915, the lack of response to anti-Semitism by important public figures like President Roosevelt in the 1930s, and the discrimination barring Jews from various country clubs in the 1950s show how prominent anti-Semitism was throughout the early decades of 20th century America. Many have come to believe that these are events of a bygone time, and that the progressive movements of the 1960s made anti-Semitism a blemish of the past, not a part of our present. However, after hearing stories from my father and conducting some research, it seems to me that this decade was one of the most silenced moments of anti-Semitism.
Ironically, history teaches us that the 60s had pushed America into a more liberal, accepting environment. These were times marked by the counterculture generation, the Free Speech era, and the Civil Rights movement. Generations later, due to the lasting impact of this revolutionary time, barriers have been eradicated between different cultures, many people have realized their racist wrongdoings, and individuals have become more aware of the struggles that minorities go through on a daily basis. Although many of these legal and societal changes weren’t truly implemented until decades later, the 60s pushed Americans into listening to the silenced voices of minorities facing oppression in the states. In other words, the seeds of change were planted, but they needed to be consistently nurtured for society to grow out of its prejudice. However, while many minorities have sprouted upward from these changes, these seeds weren’t planted for the Jews in the first place.
The reason for the “quietness” of the Jew during the 60s and decades prior may be due to the tragedy of the Holocaust. After this horrifying experience in Jewish history, it may have seemed appropriate for the Jews to assimilate with the rest of the population out of fear. Ironically, as groups of minorities such as African-Americans really began to form strong bonds with one another to end prejudice, Jewish American ties with their own culture began to unravel. Here, Jews wanted to be seen as white in order to stay away from “stirring the pot” and further themselves from being the scapegoat once more. This passivity had actually increased during the 1960s as Jews assisted with the injustices that other minorities faced. Although Jews fought for civil rights for other minority communities, they hardly glanced at their own experiences of discrimination that were occurring during the 60s.
Many instances of anti-Semitism that flooded the 1960s are hardly ever mentioned today. Although stories of Jews being blockaded from fraternities and not being admitted to universities during the 50s had decreased, a significant part of the American population still harbored anti-Semitic beliefs during the 60s. In a survey done by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC), 48% of Americans believed that Jews “had irritating faults and were more willing than others to use “shady” practices to get what they want.” The Anti-Defamation League reports that acts of anti-Semitic nature took place in over 200 major American cities during the tragic “Swastika Epidemic,” which overtook the United States in March of 1960. A college building was painted with swastikas, rocks were thrown at the window of a Jewish psychologist, and a flag with a swastika on it was found in an elementary school. In addition to society acting overtly anti-Semitic, those with political power held predjudiced perspectives of the Jews. For example, there were many far right-wing groups that attempted (and partially succeeded) to circulate conspiracies that claimed Jews would spread communism among Americans. These were only a few incidents of discrimination directed at the Jews. Unfortunately, as my own father and many others from his generation can attest, Jews didn’t speak out much following these tragedies.
I’ll never forget the stories that my dad told me during his teenage years about the widespread loathing of Jews, especially in his suburban neighborhood. He recalls that most of the people in his neighborhood were anti-Semitic blue collar workers. He remembers how derogatory slang, like use of the phrase “Jew’d him down” to refer to haggling practices, was used often among his peers and around the neighborhood. He and his Jewish friends would cringe but wouldn’t respond meaningfully. They just stuck it out and went on with their days. However, my dad does recall an experience when one of the boys he went to camp with decided to call him a “kike.” After a lot of built-up tension with this same person, my dad let his emotions overtake him, and proceeded to beat the kid to a pulp.
Still, most Jews, my dad included, rarely reacted to the unfair treatment they received. This passivity has remained a part of the Jewish population until today. Many Jews in America, especially the college student population, still feel their struggles are marginalized. In a time as progressive as the twenty-first century, one would think that the Jews would bring these discriminatory acts to light. However, moments of anti-Semitism are sometimes pushed aside, reflecting the manner in which the Jews silenced their own struggle during the 60s.
The Jewish trend to continue to assimilate with the rest of the population and forget their roots has only worsened the situation nowadays. According to the Anti-Defamation League, acts of anti-Semitism have increased by 4% nationally over the course of one year with reportedly 1,606 incidents in 2000. Both the 60s and modern day America portray that no matter how progressive a movement is, there is no guarantee that acts of blatant discrimination won’t come to an end. We can no longer sit behind progressive movements and pretend that anti-Semitism will disappear. It is up to the Jews to remember their culture, connect with one another, and to not cast aside their own struggle as they did in the 60s. Prejudice against the Jews needs to be brought to light more often. The voices of the Jews can no longer be ignored, or these acts of discrimination will persist.