Jewish-Americans From 1865 to Present

Since the end of the Civil War, Jewish-Americans not only have defined themselves, but also have helped define America. As they often prove throughout history, the bonds of Judaism operate like the bonds of a family: through shared religious beliefs, associations such as B’nai Israel, and economic and political prowess, Jews have succeeded in transcending many obstacles. By breaking American history into five units (beginning with 1865), this paper looks at how each unit has shaped and been shaped by American Jews in terms of culture, economics, literature, politics, and religion.

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The rise of industrialization in America following the end of the Civil War brought many immigrant workers to big cities such as Chicago, New York and Detroit. These were rocky years, considering that one American President had been assassinated and his successor impeached; that over 600,000 people had died in the war between the Union and the seceding states; and that Reconstruction was underway in the New South, which was subject to all manner of fits and seizures at the hands of carpetbaggers, scalawags, politicians, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan. In the midst of this milieu, Jewish-Americans were especially sensitive to economic deprivations and social issues such as racism and Americanization.

Even before the conclusion of the war, Jews had shown their temerity in the face of racism. Accusing Jews of war-profiteering and illegal trading, Gen. Grant had issued in 1862 an order to have the Jews expelled from parts of Tennessee controlled by the Union. “Jewish merchants, led by Cesar Kaskel” succeeded, through the assistance of Jewish Republican Adolphus Solomons, in petitioning President Lincoln to force Grant to rescind the order (Jewish Virtual Library, General Grant’s Infamy), which Grant did in 1863.

With the conclusion of the war and the influx of Jewish immigrants, both American and Jews faced new challenges.

One economic issue many Jewish immigrants faced was how to adapt to new surroundings and provide for a family in an urban setting.

By 1870, many Jewish immigrants from Europe were seeking to secure a future in urban cities. One such man was Samuel Goldstein, who at the age of twenty-six arrived in Providence, Rhode Island from Russia, and straightaway demonstrated that “independence of spirit which is one of the chief attributes of success […and by which a man] will endure any hardships or privations in order to accumulate enough capital with which to make a start for himself” (Goodkind, 1918, p. 106). By working for an iron and metal dealer for a number of years and saving scrupulously, Goldstein was finally able to establish himself in Detroit, MI as the head of a large iron and metal yard. Goldstein is just one example of the many Jewish immigrants who came to America and flourished through the bonds of a strong heritage and hard work ethic.

In fact, such a work ethic came to identify many Americans. The hard-working mentality of many, from frontiersmen to financial bankers, was no less a part of Jewish-Americans than it was of Irish, British and German-Americans. The American landscape was one that demanded labor and was a place where only the strong survived.

However, as demonstrated by Gen. Grant, social stigma was also a part of the lives of many Jews. How they dealt with prejudice was by banding together like a well-knit community — as Cesar Kaskel demonstrated during the Civil War.

Unit Two: 1877-1920

Jews were once again receiving the blame in the early 1880s, when the Populist Party accused Jewish bankers of driving down farm prices. The Populist Party largely consisted of rural Protestants, who had little contact with Jewish-Americans, but also had little problem vilifying them. Protestants clashed with Jewish and Catholic groups repeatedly in an effort to establish WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) control over the States. Such was an example of a political issue Jews had to face during this time period.

As Ben Macri (2000) tells, “The most notable example of Populist anti-Semitism can be found in the novel a Tale of Two Nations, written by the Populist thinker ‘Coin’ Harvey.” The story tells of a foreign Jewish banker who is at the heart of a conspiracy to keep the United States from adopting the silver standard. The foreign Jewish banker clearly represented the Rothschilds, the premier Jewish European bankers.

In 1896, the Populist Party took full advantage of the JP Morgan banking scandal that suddenly went public:

When the public learned that President Cleveland had sold bonds to a syndicate which included JP Morgan and the Rothschilds house, bonds which that syndicate was now selling for a profit, the Populists used it as an opportunity to uphold their view of history, and prove to the nation that Washington and Wall Street were in the hands of the international Jewish banking houses (Macri, 2000).

Jews were already in the crosshairs, so to speak, with the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfuss, a Frenchman and Jew who had been accused of spying for Germany. Though he was later exonerated, Jews in America, who followed the case closely, were linked to the image of the foreign assailant; and the JP Morgan banking scandal did nothing to alleviate these claims.

William Jennings Bryan who ran for office against William McKinley, often pled the Protestant plight of suffering at the hands of inimical Jewish interests. Referencing the crucifixion of Christ, he told supporters Jews would “not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” (Macri, 2000). Two-facedly, however, he tried to earn the Jewish vote by claiming he was not against a race, but against avarice.

Jews responded by electing McKinley to the presidential office.

The American Jewish Committee was founded in 1906 to help safeguard the values and heritage of Jewish-Americans and fight prejudice.

But more persecution was to follow in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Jews were linked with Bolsheviks in America, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion which had been published in London, as well as in America by industrialist Henry Ford, helped renew the idea that Jews were part of a conspiracy for world domination.

Unit III: 1921-1945

The polemic against Jews did not abate with WWI. In fact, Jews faced another political hurdle: the Johnson-Reed Act, which put a limitation on the number of immigrants from Eastern Europe who could enter America. Since most of the immigrants from Eastern Europe were of Jewish descent, the Johnson-Reed Act was seen by Jews as an attack.

Not every Jewish family was able to make its way to middle class. During this unit of time, Henry Roth wrote Call it Sleep, a novel depicting the pains and labors of Jewish immigrants on the Lower East Side of New York City. The novel was acclaimed critically, but failed to spark much public interest until thirty years later when it was reissued in paperback when anti-Semitic sentiments had lessened and next-generation men and women could read it with appreciation. Roth’s novel, which “portrays family tensions and a vibrant neighborhood where people spoke Yiddish, English, German, Hebrew, Italian and Polish,” drew on painful memories of a childhood with an abusive father, which led critic Irving Howe to remember and acclaim the book thirty years later (Tannenbaum, 2000).

One social issue faced by Jews who worked their way out of the slums of urban cities was admission to higher academics. Colleges such as Yale during this time tried to limit their acceptance of Jewish students. This phenomenon went on for decades, especially as Ivy League schools were predominantly WASP-oriented. But as more Protestants and Jews became Americanized, barriers between institutions were broken down.

Jewish-Americans also emerged as leaders in American cinema. As Jack Wikoff (1989) observes,

Jewish producers moved to Hollywood from the East Coast in the teens and twenties because of the abundant sunlight, cheap non-union labor and distance from the enforcers of the Edison Patents Company. [Adolf] Zukor and his associates arrived relatively late in Hollywood…the Jews did not invent Hollywood, but they certainly did come to dominate it.

In the book an Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, Neal Gabler, says Wikoff, makes the case that not only did Jews make movies, but also they invented a new identity for themselves. The Jazz Singer in 1927 (in which Jakie Rabinowitz becomes Jack Robin) was the perfect example of “assimilation” of Jews into the American culture — according to Gabler. Wikoff, contends, however, that “Jewish men never truly wanted to join the culture of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite. What they sought was entry into those domains of power and influence which had once been exclusively gentile.” Still, Gabler contends, and Wikoff agrees, that to some extent Jewishness did shape the content of Hollywood productions.

From the end of WWI to the end of WWII, the way Jews were viewed in America underwent a dramatic change. In fact, it reversed 180 degrees. In spite of congressional investigations and black-listings in Hollywood during the 40s and 50s, the Holocaust served to cast Jews as victims of Hitler’s plan for world domination, not as world dominators themselves. The creation of the state of Israel in Palestine lent Jews in America a degree of legitimacy. And Jewish-Americans were now on the cusp of a new reality.

Unit IV: 1946-1976

In the 1950s the Anti-Defamation League sought to have the immigration laws of decades prior repealed. President Truman was sympathetic to the millions of displaced persons, a good portion of which were Eastern Europeans of Jewish descent. Even though America was largely outraged at news of the Holocaust, many Americans reserved the suspicion that Jews were crooked bankers secretly poised for world domination. The immigration laws were not repealed.

The 1950s also saw a debate concerning the census of 1960: should it contain religious questions? Here was an issue that embraced social, political and religious points all at once. The way Jewish-Americans faced the issue had repercussions for the entire nation. The book Protestant-Catholic-Jew had helped establish the idea in the 1950s that religion mattered more than race or class. Favored by the Eisenhower administration and by Catholic committees, the idea of adding religion to the 1960 census looked to go through. However, Jewish organizations had always tried to keep separation between church and state — and now was no time to quit. “Between 1956 and 1958, the American Jewish Congress and other Jewish organizations worked hard to stop the plan, especially by lobbying members of Congress. In 1958 the Jewish organizations were able to declare victory” (Hollinger, 2009, p. 1-2). Through their vigilance, Jewish-Americans were able to keep church and state at a distance regarding this issue.

During this time, Jewish-Americans also began more and more to emerge as leaders in American literature. Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Betty Friedan and Phillip Roth had much to say about Jewish and American life.

Betty Friedan had been shaped herself by much of what went on in early twentieth century America. An avid activist and strong supporter of equal rights for women, Friedan took the opportunity on the fiftieth anniversary of the granting of women’s suffrage to organize a strike for equality. Her book the Feminine Mystique sparked the Feminist Movement. She claimed “that she came to political consciousness out of a disillusionment with her life as a suburban housewife” (Horowitz, 1998, p. 2) and wrote the book on feminism, literally, as a means of doing what the Jewish producers in Hollywood had done: reinvention of self. Not only did Friedan reinvent herself, she enabled millions of women to reinvent themselves as well. Women’s roles changed significantly during the ’60s and ’70s and continued to change well into the present. For example, one such social and cultural issue Friedan and other women (not just Jewish) took to heart was the issue of abortion. Friedan founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws — a repeal that was granted by the Supreme Court in 1973.

Phillip Roth’s literary career took a much different route. As a Jewish-American, Roth often depicted characters in his novels as split or torn between American fundamental values and Judaic values. He himself was a second generation Jewish-American and often felt adrift: neither American nor Jew. His novels explore this idea as his characters search for a kind of transcendence neither Jewish nor American. His novels would help shape the way many Americans felt about their culture as well as their identities as Americans. Several of his stories have been adapted into films, including Goodbye, Columbus, the Human Stain, and Elegy.

Unit V: 1976-Present

The rise of Wall Street banking during this final period of time has again thrown Jewish-Americans into a defensive role in the public eye. The latest economic issues have been faced by Jewish-Americans with great temerity. Rolling Stone commentator Matt Taibbi issued a scathing article on banking giant Goldman Sachs and its graduates having the White House literally in its back pocket. In Taibbi’s words, Goldman Sachs has been “gorging itself on the unseen costs that are breaking families everywhere — high gas prices, rising consumer credit rates, half-eaten pension funds, mass layoffs, future taxes to pay off bailouts” (2009). By emphasizing Goldman’s role in the housing bubble and the economic collapse of the twenty-first century, Taibbi showed the Jewish-founded banking firm to be at the center of a scandal even larger than the JP Morgan scandal of a hundred years prior. Americans responded by once again complaining that Jews and the White House were “together.”

Animosity over the Gaza Strip has also been a point of contention even among Jewish-Americans themselves. While some see Israel as increasingly aggressive, others point to Palestine as being the start of most of the conflicts.

While America battles two wars overseas, flexes its arm virtually across the globe, and meanwhile seems to be crumbling at home, many Americans give vent to an age-old anti-Semitism that does not appear to be going away any time soon. However, Jewish and civil rights watchdog groups are quick to pounce on anti-Semitic remarks — so quick, in fact, that many Americans in the public sphere risk losing their careers. Mel Gibson is one infamous example. Once celebrated White House correspondent Helen Thomas is another. Thomas lost her job when she criticized Israel’s war against Palestine. Universities across the nation at once ceased awarding honors in her name.


Throughout their history, Jewish-Americans have helped shape and been shaped by America’s diverse and ever-changing culture. Through their tenacity, their bonds, their knack for reinvention, and their hard work, Jewish-Americans have left their mark on American society. American society has also left its mark on Jewish-Americans like Betty Friedan and Phillip Roth. By observing history in its different time periods, one can see just how Jewish-Americans faced many social, economic, religious, political, and literary issues. There is no doubt that the future will reveal even more as Jewish-Americans face the next century.

Reference List

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Horowitz, D. (1998). Betty Friedan and the Making of the Feminine Mystique.

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Taibbi, M. (2009). The Great American Bubble Machine. Rolling Stone, 1082-83.

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Tannenbaum, J. (2005). Henry Roth Bio: Life as a Self-Loathing, Sister-Loving Genius.

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Wikoff, J. (1989). An Empire of Their Own — How the Jews Invented Hollywood

(review). The Journal for Historical Review 9(2), 243. Retrieved from