The 5 must-read books about American anti-Semitism

Jonathan Sarna, one of the country's preeminent historians of American Judaism, offers his recommendations for anyone interested in understanding how we got to where we are today.

University professor Jonathan Sarna

Jonathan Sarna

With anti-Semitism in America again in the news, BrandeisNOW asked distinguished historian Jonathan Sarna '75, MA'75 to recommend some background reading.

Sarna is the University Professor and Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History. He has written about a notorious anti-Semitic incident in the Civil War in his award-winning 2012 book, "When General Grant Expelled the Jews."

Here are his suggestions along with his comments on each book:

Antisemitism in America
By Leonard Dinnerstein

Exactly one comprehensive scholarly history of American anti-Semitism exists and this is it. Dinnerstein chronicles all aspects of anti-Semitism in American history from the colonial period to the 1990s. He situates anti-Semitism within the context of Christian hostility toward Jews, and compares hatred of Jews with other forms of American animus.

And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank
By Steve Oney

Until Pittsburgh, the most notorious anti-Semitic incident in American history was the lynching of Leo Frank just outside Atlanta on August 17, 1915. Frank had been charged with the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan two years earlier, and his trial took place in an atmosphere poisoned by virulent anti-Semitism.

A terrorized jury found Frank guilty, but the judge and later the governor thought the evidence unconvincing; the sentence was commuted. Outraged citizens, stirred up by the demagogic Thomas E. Watson, broke into the jail, seized Frank and lynched him. Only later was the true culprit identified.

Journalist Steven Oney spent many years investigating this tragedy, and his book — written like an epic novel — peels away its many layers and provides the definitive story, replete with ironies, paradoxes and horrors.

Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate
By Neil Baldwin

For 91 successive weeks beginning on May 22, 1920, automaker Henry Ford’s newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, purported to describe an international Jewish conspiracy based on the notorious anti-Semitic forgery known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

"The International Jew," drawn from the series and four volumes in length, reprinted these scurrilous charges. Hundreds of thousands of copies were distributed and included such fantastic claims as “Rule of the Jewish Kehillah Grips New York” and “Jewish Jazz Becomes Our National Music.”

Only in 1927, under intense economic and legal pressure, did Ford publicly recant and apologize, but by then the damage had been done. Neil Baldwin recounts the story of Ford’s anti-Semitism from its roots in his childhood to its repercussions in the 1930s. His is the definitive account of Ford’s anti-Semitism, with implications that extend to our own day.

The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
By Jerome Karabel

For decades well into the 20th century, America’s Ivy League universities restricted Jews through a strict quota system that kept their numbers down. Social discrimination against Jews was common in those days, but until sociologist Jerome Karabel gained access to the archives, the full story of how some of America’s best universities discriminated against Jews (and blacks, women and others) had never fully been told. Among other things, the book makes clear why the founders of Brandeis University insisted, 70 years ago, that it would follow a different path and base admissions upon merit.

The Temple Bombing
By Melissa Fay Greene

In the early morning hours of Oct. 12, 1958, exactly 60 years to the month before the massacre of 11 Jews in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, a nitroglycerine bomb equal to 50 sticks of dynamite tore apart the temple, the oldest and most distinguished Reform congregation in Atlanta. Greene’s book recounts in meticulous detail the story of this notorious synagogue bombing, contextualizing it within the struggle for civil rights and the tumultuous transformation of the South in the wake of court-ordered desegregation. One of her chapters quotes the courageous Ralph McGill, editor of the Atlanta Constitution, in an editorial published in the bombing’s wake: “When the wolves of hate are loosed on one people,” he wrote, “then no one is safe.”

Categories: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research

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