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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2007
Number 67
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Roots of Anti-Semitism

A Concise History of American Antisemitism, by Robert Michael, Baltimore: Rowman and Littlefield
A Review essay by Steven F. Windmueller, Ph.D.

The thesis of Robert Michael’s A Concise History of American Antisemitism is that Christianity serves as the basis for modern anti-Semitism and that this concept has not been fully explored or understood by those examining patterns of anti-Semitic behavior within this nation. Further, it is the author’s contention that anti-Semitism is at the core of the American historical experience, a perspective that this reviewer would strongly challenge.  Because it is “a concise” review of the field of anti-Semitism, there is little opportunity to fully examine some of Michael’s findings and conclusions, reflecting another weakness to this volume.

Throughout this volume Michael introduces sweeping judgments, as with his reference to the colonial period, where he offers his readers the following assessment: “ …most (italics inserted)Americans seemed to hold the belief that Jews were cast out of the economy of salvation because Jews rejected and crucified Christ and continued to do so in every generation.” Later he offers this analysis: “Even when, in a minority of instances, (italics inserted) Jews were well treated, they were often not seen as real people, but instead as a stereotyped bundle of positive traits.”  Michaels builds his entire argument around this core theme, namely that “anti-Jewish ideology embodied within Christian religious perspective provided the fundamental basis of American anti-Semitism”. The singular emphasis on Christian anti-Semitism as the basis of the politics of hate in this society would seem problematic at best. No doubt, Christianity is an important contributor to the development of anti-Semitism, but in the view of this historian it is the central theme, defining the individual and collective behavior of Americans toward Jews and Judaism.

For this reviewer, Chapter Four, “‘A People Whose Feet Run to Evil’: American Antisemitism from the Civil War through World War 1” reflects the overriding problem of this text. In this sixty-year overview, Michael attempts to introduce such themes as “America as a Christian nation”, a crisp review of the literary scene during this era, and an introduction on the impact of Jewish immigration on the American consciousness. Michael does a disservice to his readership as he seeks to encapsulate a significant period of American history within some thirty pages of text and commentary, never offering an adequate defense for his primary argument related to the impact of Christianity or acknowledging the other core factors central to the presence of anti-Semitism in American culture.

Throughout his review, Michael seeks only to concentrate his work on the specific linkages of different modalities of anti-Semitism to its Christian origins. For example, in his weakest chapter, his focus on the post Second World War period, Chapter Seven, the author introduces primarily only one key element, black-Jewish relations in defense of his position. Here again, the emphasis for Michael is to exclusively align this area of social conflict to the Christian roots of black anti-Semitism. There is no attention given to the rise of the political left, to the impact of radical Islam, or to any of the other possible social and political factors that have contributed to and continue to contemporary anti-Jewish thought. Nowhere does Michael offer any commentary on anti-Zionism or other off-shoots of modern anti-Semitism.

Fundamentally, this volume represents at best a narrow view of this complex topic. This book unfortunately misses the mark in effectively capturing this important subject by seeking a single explanation to justify this significant subject. It may well not be possible to construct “a concise” review of the causes of anti-Semitism. For sure, this effort falls far short of that mission.

Steven F. Windmueller is Dean and Adjunct Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles.

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