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Colonial-era prejudices and the root of American antisemitism

The belief that landless people are morally inferior made its way here from England in the 1600s. A modern-day version is still causing problems for Jews.

Neo-Nazi demonstrators at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12, 2017.Edu Bayer/NYT

The dinner that Donald Trump hosted last month at Mar-a-Lago with avowed antisemite Kanye West and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes may have come as a shock in a country that has historically been open and welcoming to Jews. When we ponder the deep roots of antisemitism, after all, we typically think of medieval Germany or Tsarist Russia, not colonial America.

It’s true that Anglo-American history is relatively free of crazed mobs accusing Jews of eating children and spreading plague, as one finds in Europe’s past. But another kind of antisemitism, based on the moral inferiority of landless people, did make its way from England to America. It’s still causing problems.

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When England began colonizing North America and the West Indies in the 1600s, only those who owned land could vote and hold office. To own an estate was to rule a little patch of the realm. A small minority of aristocrats monopolized the land, but many English worked for those elites, creating a broad sense of belonging to a national family rooted in the soil.

Jews, expelled by King Edward I in 1290, weren’t in the family. They weren’t allowed back into England until 1656, with the specific understanding that they would be merchants and shopkeepers, not landowners. As legal aliens barred from inheriting estates, they had little choice in the matter.

Especially in English sugar colonies such as Barbados and Jamaica, a vicious cycle thus developed: Because they were aliens, Jews could not own plantations. And because they could not own plantations, they made their living through trade with both British and foreign markets, exposing them to charges of national disloyalty.

During the American Revolution, in which the sugar islands remained loyal to the Crown, one British commander in Jamaica accused “the Sons of Israel” of monopolizing the island’s currency and conspiring with Dutch, French, and American enemies.

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Jewish merchant communities faced less hostility in places like Newport, R.I., where in 1790 President George Washington assured the Hebrew Congregation that the new nation’s “enlarged and liberal policy” extended the “immunities of citizenship” to all law-abiding people, including “the Children of the Stock of Abraham.” Although the constitutional guarantee of equal protection under the law would not come until the 1868 passage of the 14th Amendment, the wide availability of land in the early United States was good for landless minorities, including Jews.

To be sure, white American farmers of the late 1700s and the 1800s laid a special claim to patriotic virtue. Thomas Jefferson even called them the “chosen people of God.” In a sense, these farmers became the democratic version of a landed aristocracy, the supposedly “rightful” owners of the country. As long as they flourished, however, they didn’t mind the Jewish families who mostly worked as merchants and shopkeepers in towns and cities. As long as white settlers had land to take from Indian nations, old prejudices against Jews were forgotten.

That era of American history ended around 1890. As the frontier disappeared, the dwindling rural majority looked upon the urban population in general — and the Jewish population in particular — with renewed hostility. Once again, Jews seemed both rootless and influential, less trustworthy than those who literally owned little pieces of the country.

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Once revived, antisemitic ideas spread far beyond the ranks of embittered farmers. In the 1920s, for example, the industrialist Henry Ford wrote extensively about “The International Jew” who somehow controlled labor unions and big banks. During the Depression, public figures, from the aviator Charles Lindbergh to the radio host and priest Charles E. Coughlin, scapegoated Jews as the shadowy figures behind the hard times.

Today, many white Christians feel excluded from a multiracial media and entertainment juggernaut dominated by metropolitan centers. As happened a century ago, demagogues manipulate these feelings, telling their crowds that cosmopolitan elites in Washington and Hollywood mean to replace the real Americans with various strangers.

No wonder the torch-bearing crowds in Charlottesville, Va., chanted “Blood and soil, blood and soil!” on the eve of their deadly “Unite the Right” rally in August 2017. “You will not replace us!” they screamed. Then, inevitably: “Jews will not replace us!”

Even the old legend about Jewish slave trading has reemerged in alt-right media forums endorsed by Kyrie Irving and fringe elements of the Hebrew Israelite movement, which sees the Black descendants of the formerly enslaved as God’s chosen people.

The only way to confront these hatreds is to trace their particular histories and to call them what they are: Aristocratic and theocratic poisons that have lingered for far too long in the body politic, preventing us from seeing one another as equally American.

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Jason M. Opal is professor of history at McGill University.