This month marks the 80th anniversary of the German-American Bund rally in 1939. It happened in the old Madison Square Garden, the one on 50th Street and 8th Avenue, the MSG of my youth, the place where I later went to see the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Rodeo, the Knicks, and the National Horse Show in succession.
On this night however, February 20th, 1939, 13 months before I was born, 20,000 of Hitler’s American supporters poured into MSG. Men, women and children in brown shirted uniforms and suits, give Nazi salutes in the presence of massed flags and drums, proclamations of dedication to American ideals, the saying of our Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of our National Anthem, all before a full-length portrait of George Washington that stretched up to the rafters unfurled before them.
Simultaneously, Hitler was building his 6th concentration camp, though none were yet the killing camps to come just 7 months later when he began building them after his invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War 2.
Hitler’s hatred of Jews was well known by then, by Americans and everyone else, as was his campaign to remove all Jews from German political, economic, social, cultural and intellectual life. American Nazis and Nazi sympathizers were completely supportive of Hitler’s efforts and hoped to emulate them here. But Hitler didn’t invent antisemitism and his effort to remove Jews from German life, even before the killings, was hardly the first time it had been done.
Antisemitism has a long history in Western civilization, at least as long as Christianity. Indeed, the two have been coupled together since Christianity’s earliest days. It was just one of the things that the colonizers of America brought with them from Europe.
Most Americans learned about Peter Stuyvesant stomping about on his wooden peg leg in New Amsterdam while we were in elementary school. Most of us never learned of his religious bigotry, something that was not reserved for Jews. Among the things we never learned was his attempt to banish a group of Brazilian Jewish immigrants from New Amsterdam in 1654 saying, “the deceitful race, — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ, — be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony.” Stuyvesant’s masters in Amsterdam prohibited him from doing that, an important event in the developing notion of religious freedom and pluralism that became one of the bedrocks of the American Constitution.
As we all know, the inclusion of religious freedom in the Bill of Rights didn’t end religious bigotry in America. Roman Catholics, for example, found plenty of evidence of anti-Catholicism in this country, as have Mormons and any other religion, old or new, at one time or another, in one place or another. In terms of antisemitism, it didn’t end with the end of World War 2; shocking and horrifying as Americans, in general, found the Holocaust, it continued. Just 5 years after the war ended I was called a “Christ killer” on a number of occasions by boys who attended the parochial school that was on the same block as the public school I attended. A few years later, the daughter of the superintendent of the apartment building in which we lived (ironically, a Brazilian immigrant) told me in all seriousness that “you know, the Jews killed Christ.” At the dinner table of my parents I learned of industries that wouldn’t hire Jews, of universities that would limit the number of Jews who could attend or even prohibit them altogether, of a subtle sort of racism in which certain NYC officials would argue that Jews needed no philanthropic services because there weren’t any poor Jews.
As time went, such incidents of antisemitism, overt or covert, gradually disappeared from my life. From the time I entered high school in 1953, I encountered no personally directed antisemitism. I never knew it to infect any of the girls I attempted to date or jobs I applied for. Perhaps that was because I lived most of my life in NYC. Not having encountered it made me chastise my parents for thinking that behind every non-Jew there lay the possibility of antisemitism, latent antisemitism, if you will; if you poked the bear it would roar. Their wariness greatly upset my first wife, who wasn’t Jewish, and I didn’t blame her.
If I didn’t experience antisemitism in my life it wasn’t because there wasn’t any. There would be the occasional swastikas on the walls of temples and gravestones in NY. And there was certainly a through line from that German-American Bund rally in 1939, to the 1977 march of neo-Nazis in Skokie, to the white nationalist, Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Those same themes of patriotism, nationalism, racism, and antisemitism were a common thread.
Since the last presidential campaign, there has been a dramatic increase in overt and covert antisemitism, whether it be on the political extreme right or the extreme left. Intentionally or not, President Trump has encouraged, exacerbated, and normalized the political/social/economic/religious in America. The result has been ever more overt, publicly acceptable, expressions of racism and religion-based bigotry. But antisemitism has never been about political ideology any more than has racism or any expression of bigotry. Sadly, anyone can be a bigot.
Fortunately, here in the area of Columbia County, there has been little, if any, overt antisemitism in the past two or three years, at least according to those to whom I’ve spoken. I know I haven’t seen it. In fact, I’ve never felt uncomfortable here since I first started coming to the county with my parents in 1952. A friend who is a cantor in Kingston, hasn’t heard of any overt antisemitic acts to his north although there have been some incidents in Kingston and the mid-Hudson Valley, and there are no hate groups based in this area, though one can’t say that of the northern and western parts of the state.
When I spoke to a prominent member of Hudson’s Jewish community recently, he told me the same thing about Columbia County. He said, however, that there might be occasional, more subtle evidences of antisemitism present. We agreed to a meeting. The night before the meeting, he called to cancel, saying he had discussed it with several people who had advised against it. I wonder why? A friend of mine, an immigrant herself, wrote that the general advice among Jews was to “’Sha Schtill’ – stay quiet – and then, perhaps, no one would notice that you were ‘other’.” Is that what they/he, were thinking, were concerned about, afraid of? That if they just stood still enough, quiet enough, some of the emotions that are roiling our world would leave them untouched? Were they were afraid of poking the bear?
Is that what we have come to? That we are afraid of poking the bear? On this, the 80th anniversary of the American Nazi rally, and, for that matter, every day, it’s a question all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike, should ask ourselves. We might not like the answer.