The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation | National Humanities Center

TeacherServe: Essays by Leading Scholars

The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation

By Sarna, Jonathan D.; Golden, Jonathan

The twentieth century witnessed the emergence of American Jewry on the world Jewish scene. As the century opened, the United States, with about one million Jews, was the third largest Jewish population center in the world, following Russia and Austria-Hungary. About half of the country’s Jews lived in New York City alone, making it the world’s most populous Jewish community by far, more than twice as large as its nearest rival, Warsaw, Poland. By contrast, just half a century earlier, the United States had been home to barely 50,000 Jews and New York’s Jewish population had stood at about 16,000.

Immigration provided the principal fuel behind this extraordinary American Jewish population boom. In 1900, more than 40 percent of America’s Jews were newcomers, with ten years or less in the country, and the largest immigration wave still lay ahead. Between 1900 and 1924, another 1.75 million Jews would immigrate to America’s shores, the bulk from Eastern Europe. Where before 1900, American Jews never amounted even to 1 percent of America’s total population, by 1930 Jews formed about 3� percent. There were more Jews in America by then than there were Episcopalians or Presbyterians.

This massive population transfer radically transformed the character of the American Jewish community.
It reshaped its composition and geographical distribution, resulting in a heavy concentration of Jews in East Coast cities, including some (like Boston) where Jews had never lived in great numbers before. It also realigned American Jewry’s politics and priorities, injecting new elements of tradition, nationalism, and socialism into Jewish communal life, and seasoning its culture with liberal dashes of East European Jewish folkways. Although the American Jewish community retained significant elements from its German and Sephardic pasts (Sephardic Jews having originated in Spain and Portugal), the traditions of East European Jews and their descendants dominated the community. With their numbers and through their achievements, they raised its status both nationally and internationally.

World War I confirmed American Jewry’s new status in world Jewish affairs. America itself assumed greater international responsibilities at this time, and Jews followed suit.

As early as 1914, the American Jewish community mobilized its resources to assist the victims of the European war. Cooperating to a degree not previously seen, the various factions of the American Jewish community—native-born and immigrant, Reform, Orthodox, secular, and socialist—coalesced to form what eventually became known as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. All told, American Jews raised 63 million dollars in relief funds during the war years and became more immersed in European Jewish affairs than ever before. They even joined in representing Jewish interests at the Paris Peace Conference after the war. Also, American Jews continued their intense involvement in Zionism—the movement to create a Jewish state in the Middle East (now Israel)—which further reflected their burgeoning sense of responsibility for the fate of Jews around the world.

World War I ended the era of mass Jewish immigration to the United States, as wartime conditions and then restrictive quotas stemmed the human tide. Soon, for the first time in many decades, the majority of American Jews would be native born. Where the central focus of American Jewish life had been concentrated on problems of immigration and absorption, American Jewry now entered a period of stable consolidation.
The children of immigrants moved up into the middle class and out to more fashionable neighborhoods, creating new institutions— synagogue-centers, progressive Hebrew schools, and the like—as they went. History had proved that East European Jews would Americanize with a vengeance. The question now was whether, as Americans, they would still remain Jews. Programs designed to ensure that they would became high community priorities.

With stability and the rise of a new generation came a growing commitment to communal unity. Descendants of earlier Central European Jews and the more recent East European Jews had been drawing closer together in America even before World War I. After the war, with the growth of antisemitism at home and abroad as well as the economic and social challenges posed by the Great Depression of the 1930s, this process accelerated. Antisemitism peaked in America in the interwar years, and was practiced in different ways by even highly respected individuals and institutions. Private schools, camps, colleges, resorts, and places of employment all imposed restrictions and quotas against Jews, often quite blatantly. Leading Americans, including Henry Ford and the widely listened-to radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin, engaged in public attacks upon Jews, impugning their character and patriotism. In several major cities, Jews also faced physical danger; attacks on young Jews were commonplace. When coupled with the economic hardship wrought by the Great Depression, it is no surprise that Jews during these years sought to bury their differences and stress their interdependence. Leaving old world divisions behind, they began to coalesce into an avowedly American Jewish community—a community that could attempt, at least on some issues, to unite in self-defense.

Even as the community was uniting, however, it was being rent asunder in new ways. The three-part religious division among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, firmly institutionalized in this period, gave expression to longstanding intracommunal conflicts over rituals, beliefs, and attitudes toward tradition and change. Zionism and Communism proved even more divisive since they raised fundamental questions concerning the meaning of American Jewish life and the obligations of Jews to the country in which they lived.

As World War II began, American Jewry presented a mixed picture. It was a community at home in America and proud of its achievements, but still uncertain of its identity or its position vis-à-vis other Jewish communities in the world. It faced substantial antisemitic hostility and discrimination, yet under President Franklin D. Roosevelt more Jews had entered public life than ever before. As Hitler’s armies reduced European Jewish communities to ashes, the mantle of Jewish leadership firmly descended upon American Jewry. Yet its performance during these agonizing years—whether its leaders did enough to save their brethren in need—remains a subject of intense communal debate.Some blame Jewish leaders for not applying greater pressure on their government and for failing to do more to rescue Jewish lives. Others sadly conclude that, given the realities of America’s wartime priorities coupled with widespread domestic nativism and antisemitism, more could not have been done.

With the terrible destruction of the major European centers of Judaism, America in 1945 stood unrivaled as the largest, richest, and politically most important Jewish community in the world. Smaller Jewish communities turned increasingly to American Jewry for guidance and support. Thousands of Jewish refugees likewise turned to America and under more liberal immigration policies many gained admission. Within a few years, some had contributed in vital ways to American cultural, scientific, and intellectual life. Others, especially Hungarian and Hassidic Jews (who emphasize strict allegiance to tradition), added fresh dimensions to American Judaism, and helped to promote Orthodoxy’s postwar revitalization.

With its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel became the focal point of American Jewish life and philanthropy, as well as the symbol around which American Jews united. At the same time, American Jews worked in the years following World War II to reinvigorate American Jewish life. Five major themes defined the immediate postwar decades:

1. the decline of antisemitism
2. a massive movement of American Jews from cities to suburbs
3. the emergence of an American Jewish communal order emphasizing Israel and political liberalism
4. a large internal immigration of Jews to the American Sun Belt (particularly Los Angeles and Miami)
5. glowing optimism concerning the American Jewish community and its future.

Burgeoning economic growth, increasing popular acceptance of religious and cultural pluralism, the high education achievements of native-born Jews, and an overpowering desire on the part of many Jews to “make it” in America all contributed during these decades to a spectacular rise of American Jews to positions of authority and respect within the general American community.

The Six-Day War of June 1967 marked a turning point in the lives of many 1960s-era Jews. The paralyzing fear of a “second Holocaust” followed by tiny Israel’s seemingly miraculous victory over the combined Arab armies arrayed to destroy it struck deep emotional chords among American Jews. Their financial support for Israel rose sharply in the war’s wake, and more of them than ever before chose in those years to make Israel their permanent home. In addition, something of a spiritual revival washed over the American Jewish community after 1967. Many turned religiously inward, some were “born again” into Orthodoxy, and every movement in American Judaism witnessed new interest in traditional religious practices, heightened appreciation for mystical and spiritual sources, and an enhanced desire for Jewish learning.

Two movements with far-reaching significance for American Jews emerged during this period, both of them influenced by America’s domestic struggles for civil rights.

1. The movement to save Soviet Jews.
American Jewish activists, in concert with Israel and with memories of the Holocaust fresh in their minds, waged a relentless “let my people go” campaign that ultimately proved successful. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews subsequently emigrated to Israel and the United States.

2. Jewish feminism.
This movement advocated gender equality and promoted increased involvement for women in all areas of Jewish life, including the synagogue. The ordination of women rabbis beginning in 1972, the burgeoning Jewish education opportunities opened to women, the development of women’s rituals and prayer services, the emergence of women in many positions of communal responsibility once open only to men, and the changing role of women in Orthodoxy all attest to feminism’s impact.

The waning days of the twentieth century found the American Jewish community at a crossroads in its history. Demographically, the community was stagnant. It had not grown appreciably since 1960, comprised a smaller percentage of America’s total population than it had in 1920, and seemed likely to witness an actual decline in numbers in the decades ahead. The great issues of the past, including Zionism, no longer inspired and united American Jews as once they had. Nor was there any large community of suffering or persecuted Jews anywhere in the world calling upon the American Jewish community for assistance. As a result, American Jewry turned inward. Its new rallying cry, born of a survey that showed more Jews marrying out of their faith than within it, was “continuity.”

Guiding Discussion

Mass migration of Jews and Catholics transformed American society and raised the question of what kind of nation America would become. Jews played an important role in shaping this debate and its terms.

1. “The Melting Pot.” The Anglo-Jewish writer, Israel Zangwill, in a play first produced in 1908 and dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, attacked those who sought to fashion America on the European model and hailed instead the idea of “the melting pot,” which was both the title of his play and the ideal to which he thought Americans should aspire (“Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God”).

2. “Cultural Pluralism.” By contrast, the American Jewish thinker Horace Kallen propounded what he called “cultural pluralism.” He compared America to an orchestra, where each group played its own instrument while together they produced beautiful euphonic music.

Today, yet another model of American society has been propounded, the idea of “multiculturalism.” What are the pros and cons of these different models? How have Jews and others sought to balance adaptation and retention? In what ways have they accommodated to America, and in what ways have they resisted it?

Zionism became a central theme of American Jewish life in the years between the world wars. Louis Brandeis, who became the leader of American Zionism on the eve of World War I, just prior to his becoming the first Jew to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, did much to make it fashionable, linking Zionism to “the American ideal of democracy, of social justice and of liberty,” and arguing that “to be good Americans we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” Opponents of Zionism, meanwhile, argued that Jews should strive to be accepted as full and equal citizens of the countries where they lived, and they feared that Zionism would raise the specter of dual loyalty. Where Zionists stressed that Jews were primarily a people who needed a homeland, anti-Zionists insisted that Judaism was primarily a religion that Jews should be free to practice anywhere in the world. Looking back, how do students evaluate this debate? Why did it arise during the interwar years, and which arguments, in retrospect, seem more persuasive?

Scholarly Debate

Historians have long debated both the extent of antisemitism in America’s past, and the similarities and
differences between American antisemitism and its European counterpart. Earlier students of American Jewish life minimized antisemitism, which they viewed as a late and alien phenomenon on the American scene arising in the late nineteenth century. More recently, scholars have pushed back the history of American antisemitism, discovering that no period in American Jewish history was free of this scourge: Jews encountered it from their earliest days on American soil. Yet the significance of antisemitism at different times, and the distinctiveness of the American encounter with the “great hatred,” remain subjects of intense debate; see Leonard Dinnerstein, Antisemitism in America (1994), David Gerber, Anti-Semitism in American History (1986), and John Higham, Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in America (1975).

An even more contentious debate revolves around the role of American Jews in the Holocaust and whether they might have done more to save their fellow Jews from the Nazis and their accomplices. For different perspectives, see David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews (1984) and Henry Feingold, Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust (1995).

Two textbooks, Arthur Hertzberg, The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (1990) and Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America (1992), contain significant sections on twentieth-century American Jewry, while Jonathan D. Sarna’s reader, The American Jewish Experience (2d. ed., 1997), makes available interpretive articles and bibliographies. Henry Feingold, A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920-1945 (1992) and Beth Wenger, New York Jews and the Great Depression (1996) deal with the interwar years. For accounts of postwar American Jewry, see Edward Shapiro, A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (1992), Samuel Heilman, Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century (1995), and Jack Wertheimer, A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (1993).

Resources Consulted

From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America
Wide-ranging exhibition from the Library of Congress with hundreds of documents in its collections.

The National Museum of American Jewish History
Valuable teaching site with virtual exhibitions—including the new permanent exhibition “Creating American Jews”—that are geared to the general audience, perusable in ten minutes, and image-filled with web-friendly text. Don’t miss the timetable with side-by-side chronologies of American history, American Jewish history, and world Jewish history at

Jews in America
In addition to eleven short pieces on American Jews in the twentieth century, this site offers a guide to the history, beliefs, rituals, and denominations of Judaism at From the Jewish Student Online Research Center (JSOURCE) of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America
Brief chapters on 101 notable American Jews from 1900 to the present. Sponsored by the Judaica Collections of Florida Atlantic University Libraries.

Jewish Women’s Archive
Rich site offering online exhibits that profile American Jewish women’s lives, incorporating them in broad time capsules of the eras in which the women lived (spanning 1791 to 1992) with many images, primary sources, and background resources. An example of fine Web page design for educational sites. The Archive is a non-profit organization whose academic council includes scholars from Brandeis, Yale, Stanford, and the Library of Congress.

Chapters in American Jewish History
Short pieces on little-known aspects of American Jewish history, including the 1902 kosher meat boycott, the Jewish creators of Superman, and the “kashering” of Coca-Cola. From the American Jewish Historical Society.

Judaism in America
Highly readable lecture from Dr. Terry Matthews for his course “Religious Life in the United States” at Wake Forest University (NC).

Biographies of Jewish leaders (discussed in the essay)

Israel Zangiwill, author of The Melting Pot, 1908; from the Jewish Virtual Library.
Horace Kallen, proponent of the theory of “cultural pluralism”; from the World Zionist Organization.
Louis Brandeis, first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme Court; from FindLaw.

The Archive of Jewish Immigrant Culture
In its words, the Archive “is an open forum for sharing the uniqueness and continuity of Jewish identity from shtetl life to Soviet urban settings, the resettlement in the United States, and the multicultural experience of the new generations.” The site was founded in 1996 by professionals, scholars, and artists who are Russian immigrants.
Enter the “Projects” page:
In the “Clinic” section, read the narrative responses of Russian Jewish immigrants to the site’s online survey.
In the “Theater” section, view photographs submitted by Russian Jewish immigrants.

Jewish Immigration to the United States (Photograph Collection)
Fifteen briefly annotated photographs from the collection of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Baruch College/City University of New York (CUNY).

Jews in Local History
Many Web sites are available on regional Jewish history. Search on “Jews AND [your city, state, or region].” For example:
“The Oklahoma Jewish Experience” (from the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma).
“Righteous Remnant: Jewish Survival in Appalachia” (from the American Religious Experience Project at West Virginia University).
Louisiana’s Jewish Community, from the Louisiana Dept. of State.
“To Seek the Peace of the City”: Jewish Life in Charlottesville, from the University of Virginia Library.

“Homeward Bound”: The Zionist Exposition
An introduction to American Zionism from the Jewish Agency for Israel/World Zionist Organization.
In the Zionist Movement Pavilion, see “Early Zionist Activity in the U.S.” and “American Zionism in the 1940s.”
In the Portrait Gallery, see “American Personalities.”

American Jewish Response to the Berlin Olympics of 1936
Start at this page and progress through six illustrated pages on the response of American Jews to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. The home page of the exhibition is at From the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Father Charles E. Coughlin, antisemitic radio priest
Summary of Coughlin’s career from the history pages of the Social Security Administration.

America and the Holocaust
An excellent site for primary and secondary resources for classroom study of the issue. Includes interview transcripts, twenty-six documents, profiles of major American responses and events, a bibliography, a transcript of the program, and a teacher’s guide. Designed to accompany “America and the Holocaust” in the series American Experience from the Public Broadcasting System (PBS).

U.S. Policy During WWII
Brief, well-written pieces on the response of American Jews and the U.S. government to the Holocaust. From the Jewish Virtual Library.
“Could The Allies Have Bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau?”
“The Tragedy of the SS St. Louis”
“Rabbi Gittelsohn’s Iwo Jima Sermon”
“When the Rabbis Marched on Washington” [1943]

Work Cited

Works cited in “The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation”
Dinnerstein, Leonard. Antisemitism in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Feingold, Henry L. Bearing Witness: How America and Its Jews Responded to the Holocaust. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

________ . A Time for Searching: Entering the Mainstream, 1920-1945. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Gerber, David A., ed. Anti-Semitism in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Heilman, Samuel C. Portrait of American Jews: The Last Half of the 20th Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1995.

Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990.

Higham, John. Send These to Me: Jews and Other Immigrants in Urban America. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

Sachar, Howard Morley. A History of the Jews in America. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Sarna, Jonathan D., ed. The American Jewish Experience. 2d ed. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1997.

Shapiro, Edward S. A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Wenger, Beth S. New York Jews and the Great Depression. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996.

Wertheimer, Jack. A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Wyman, David S. The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 1941-1945. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Return to article! to “The American Jewish Experience through the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation.”

For permission requests and questions, please contact NHC Digital Collections.

Read More

American History / Jewish History / Jews / Anti-Semitism / Cultural Assimilation / Twentieth-Century / United States of America / American History / Jewish History / Jews / Anti-Semitism / Cultural Assimilation / Twentieth-Century /