Friday, April 25, 2008

The Anti-Semitic Capital of America

Minneapolis, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the history of our fair burg, was once considered the Anti-Semitic Capital of America. Right up until the mid-1940s (when national legislation was passed banning certain types of discrimination), Jews in Minneapolis could not join service clubs, athletic clubs, or automobile clubs. They were restricted from buying property in most neighborhoods. They found it hard to get employment in Minneapolis department stores, and were subject to a "glass ceiling" in those businesses that did employ them. Jews were completely excluded from Minneapolis civic boards and government.

Furthermore, in the 1930s, political anti-Semitism was the order of the day. Candidates for public office won support by denouncing the "international Jewish communist conspiracy" and applauding Adolf Hitler. More disturbingly, Minneapolis was home to the largest chapter in America of the virulently anti-Semitic "Silver Shirts," a fascist organization modeled after the "Black Shirts" in Italy and the "Brown Shirts" in Germany. William B. Riley, the pastor of First Baptist Church, one of the largest downtown churches in Minneapolis, defended the Silver Shirts, openly praised Adolf Hitler from the pulpit, published and disseminated the crack-pot theories advanced in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and forged alliances with other outspoken American anti-Semites like Roman Catholic radio hate-monger Father Charles Coughlin. His anti-Semitic diatribes were disseminated at the schools he founded, Northwestern Bible School and Northwestern Theological Seminary.

Although World War II took the wind out of the sails of the most virulent fascist sympathizers in Minnesota, there were reports in the 1990s that neo-Nazi and racist skin-head groups were making a resurgence. When I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, a "White Students Association" was formed. Its founder was a student I advised in my capacity as the History Undergraduate Advisor. He refused to speak to "non-Aryans" and I never saw him again as an advisee, once he discovered I was gay.

Most Minneapolitans like to think of themselves (and their city) as a progressive, discrimination-eschewing place, and for the most part it has become that since the 1960s. But all the same, it is disturbing how quickly those things can change with shifts in the economic and political winds.

Why do we do that? Why do we create us'es and them's? Why do we spread lies about people? Why do we like to point a finger of blame at someone, anyone, and make them the source of all our problems? Why do we convince ourselves that though hate is a vice in relation to most, it's a virtue in relation to some?

6 comments:

GeistX said...

We blame others because its easier to do so than change ourselves. Because fear is the most powerful of our emotions and fear of others is an effective tool of control.

J G-W said...

That's the standard answer, I suppose.

It was partly a rhetorical question, because we all seem to know the answer, while still engaging in bad habits of mind and soul.

Knight of Nothing said...

Fascinating - I never new that. But surely there must have been home-grown resistance to anti-Semitic rantings as well..? Minneapolis also had a socialist mayor in 1918; its reputation for progressivism is not undeserved, and it stretches back a lot further than the 1960s.

Still, it is important to note such a stain on our city's character. I wonder why anti-Semitism took such a hold in Minneapolis in particular..?

J G-W said...

There was opposition. The reason Riley found it necessary to defend the Silver Shirts was because of public and journalistic criticism of them (and him). He also encountered opposition to his anti-Semitic views among some of his fellow Fundamentalists outside of Minnesota, who even formed a Fundamentalist Christian organization specifically for the purpose of critiquing and opposing anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, anti-Semitism was much more popular in Minneapolis than in other American cities at the time.

And BTW, just being a left-wing "progressive" doesn't automatically mean you can't be an anti-Semite, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. The Holocaust played a major role in raising general awareness of (and opposition to) anti-Semitism in America. Even today, of course, there are segments of both the left and right that harbor anti-Semitic attitudes.

Knight of Nothing said...

I wasn't trying to say that the left was incapable of anti-Semitism, I was just having a stream of consciousness reaction...

So did your research ever uncover why Minneapolis citizens seemed to be so much more susceptible to anti-Semitism than other parts of the U.S.?

J G-W said...

I don't know if there's a conclusive explanation for it. One theory is that Minneapolis industry and politics was controlled from the beginning by a clique of wealthy New Englanders who had always used anti-Semitism to solidify their social standing. Their anti-Semitism would have been imitated by Scandinavian settlers and other lower class immigrants...