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In perhaps the most famous American anti-Semitic incident of the last century, a mob in 1915 stormed a Georgia prison to seize the Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who had been falsely accused of murdering a 13-year-old Christian girl. They lynched him.
The most famous American anti-Semite may have been the automobile giant Henry Ford, who published a newspaper in the 1920s, The Dearborn Independent, that served as an outlet for anti-Semitic propaganda. Ford once wrote that there was a “Jewish plan to control the world, not by territorial acquisition, not by military aggression, not by governmental subjugation, but by control of the machinery of commerce and exchange.” A close second to Ford was the aviator Charles Lindbergh, the spokesman for the America First Committee, which opposed U.S. entry into World War II. Another contender was the wildly popular “radio priest” Father Charles Coughlin, who railed against “world Jewish domination.”
Anti-Semitism manifested itself at every level of society and across the country. In the South, the Ku Klux Klan also targeted Jews as it went after African Americans. Jews “procured” young women to “enhance their own monetary interests,” the Klan stated in the 1920s. In Dorchester, Massachusetts, Irish Catholic gangs in the 1940s roved the streets in “Jew Hunts” that culminated in physical assaults. Even as Jews started to break into certain industries, such as entertainment, in the 1930s and ’40s, they confronted tight restrictions that kept them out of law firms, medical professions, universities and colleges, fraternities, hotels, country clubs, and more. One hotel boasted in an advertisement, “No Hebrews or tubercular guests received.” Elite institutions of higher learning such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Princeton imposed strict quotas on how many Jews they would admit. The application for Sarah Lawrence College asked, “Has your daughter been brought up to strict Sunday observance?” Like African Americans, Jews were subject to restrictive real-estate covenants that prevented “Hebrews” from living in particular neighborhoods.
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Conditions improved after World War II. The horror of the Holocaust made overtly anti-Semitic ideas and policies unacceptable in mainstream U.S. society. The number of Americans who heard “criticism or talk against Jews,” according to the historian Leonard Dinnerstein, declined from 64 percent in 1946 to 12 percent in 1959.
Much of the Jewish community prospered, securing middle-class jobs across a number of industries and settling into the growing suburban communities of postwar America. Jewish synagogues and civic institutions sprouted up in almost every region of the country. Federal and state legislation outlawed residential and employment discrimination. The head of the Anti-Defamation League, Benjamin Epstein, called this era the “golden age” for American Jews. The Jewish community was elated when in 1965 Vatican II adopted a version of the “Nostra Aetate,” which rescinded the charge that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus.