Anti-Defamation League

Identification: Civil rights organization founded to combat anti-Semitism

Date: Established in October, 1913

Significance: Although the Anti-Defamation League was founded to correct injustices toward the Jewish people, it later broadened its mission to seek justice and fair treatment for all social groups.

Anti-Defamation League

Leo Frank, whose lynching helped prompt the creation of the Anti-Defamation League. (Library of Congress)

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was founded as an American Jewish defense organization by the Chicago chapter of B’nai B’rith. A decade before World War I, the United States experienced a vast influx of immigrants. More than 10 percent were Jews, who tended to settle in the cities of the East Coast such as New York City. Many of these Jewish immigrants were living among other immigrants who had carried their hatred and fear of Jews from their home countries, and the seemingly endless Jewish immigration from eastern Europe increased anti-Semitism. Wearing unfamiliar clothing, speaking a language most Americans did not understand, and engaging in religious practices that seemed bizarre, Jews were "othered” by some non-Jewish Americans who experienced discomfort and fear.

At the 1908 meeting of the executive committee of B’nai B’rith, Rabbi Joseph Silverman of New York proposed establishing an agency to promote "the Jewish name” and to combat stereotypes of Jews. Five years later, Chicago lawyer Sigmund Livingston, himself an immigrant from Germany, suggested the formation of a National Caricature Committee, the name reflecting the negative portrayals of Jews in the media. Early film, the vaudeville stage, dime novels, and even daily newspapers introduced the stereotype of the repulsive Jew. On stage, the Jew was a cheater, an arsonist, or a liar; on film, he was a usurer, smuggler, or worse. These stereotypes reinforced anti-Semitism and helped lay the groundwork formobviolence against Jews.

A few months before the founding of the organization that was finally named the Anti-Defamation League, Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager, had been found guilty of rape and murder in an Atlanta trial where crowds outside the courthouse chanted, "Hang the Jew.” After reviewing the evidence, the governor of Georgia commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment. In August, 1915, a mob inflamed by anti-Semitic propaganda took Frank from prison and lynched him. Anti- Semitic words turned to deeds.

Livingston and fifteen leaders of the Jewish community convened the first meeting of the ADL in Chicago. They established a 150-member executive committee representing Jews across the United States. With a budget of two hundred dollars from B’nai B’rith and two desks in Livingston’s law office, the organization began its mission: "to stop, by appeals to reason and conscience, and if necessary, by appeals to law, the defamation of the Jewish people.” The league was also committed to securing "justice and fair treatment to all citizens alike.” One of the first actions of the ADL was to eliminate negative images of Jews in the media. Adolph S. Ochs, a member of the ADL executive committee and publisher of The New York Times, wrote a letter to newspaper editors nationwide decrying the use of "objectionable and vulgar” references to Jews in the national press. By 1920, such references had virtually ceased.

A Continuing Mission

The work of the ADL was carried forward through aggressive campaigns to educate people about anti-Semitism. Through the publication of pamphlets and short films, the league sought to eradicate negative stereotypes of Jews and to promote awareness of Jewish contributions to American life. However, serious attempts to defame Jews continued. For example, in 1920, industrialist Henry Ford began publishing the widely circulated anti-Jewish tabloid The Dearborn Independent. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), proclaiming its hatred of Jews, experienced a resurgence in the South and several northern states, with four to five million members throughout the United States. KKK activities including boycotting Jewish merchants, smashing shop windows, and burning crosses outside synagogues.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (first published in English in 1919) was introduced to America and spread throughout the country. This document, later proved to be a forgery, stated that Jews were plotting to overthrow all governments and take over the world. Many Americans, conditioned to negative beliefs about Jews, accepted the document as truth. By September, 1920, anti-Semitism was so widespread that the ADL and other Jewish groups met to consider action. One outcome was a manifesto denouncing anti-Semitism signed by 116 of the nation’s leaders, all of whom were Christians, including U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, former presidentWilliam Howard Taft, and Cardinal William O’Connell.

During the 1930’s, as National Socialism (Nazism) gained momentum in Europe, attacks against Jews in America increased. The Nazis spent millions of dollars on propaganda in America; the ADL estimated that by the end of the 1930’s there were more than five hundred anti-Semitic organizations in the United States. During the lowest point of the Great Depression, many non-Jewish Americans believed that the Jews were responsible for their economic woes. The anti-Jewish radio propaganda of Father Charles Coughlin, broadcast over 475 stations, fueled this conspiracy theory.

Following World War II, the ADL worked toward ending social discrimination against Jews, focusing on barriers against Jewish memberships in organizations and prohibitions in housing. The ADL also started a "crack the quota” campaign against anti- Jewish discrimination in college and medical school admissions. The league’s weapons were the media and the law.

Over the years, the ADL has fought discrimination against Jews and other groups. During the 1960’s, for example, the ADL was actively involved with the Civil Rights movement. Headquartered since 1947 in New York City, the ADL works to provide civil liberties for all. It continues its original mission to heighten awareness of anti-Jewish propaganda, such as Holocaust-denying Web sites. The ADL alerts people to white supremacist pronouncements and denounces those who defame Jews.

Marcia B. Dinneen

Further Reading

Forster, Arnold. "The Anti-Defamation League.” The Wiener Library Bulletin 28, no. 33 (1975): 52- 58. A detailed look at the background of the ADL and the league’s continuing efforts to combat anti-Semitism.

Friedman, Saul A. No Haven for the Oppressed: United States Policy Toward Jewish Refugees, 1938-1945. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1973. Discusses how the intensification of Judeophobia in the United States led to the founding of the ADL.

Grusd, Edward E. B’nai B’rith: The Story of a Covenant. New York: Appleton-Century, 1966. Describes the context that led to the founding of the ADL.

O’Brien, Lee. American Jewish Organizations and Israel. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1986. Includes general background on the ADL, including its founding, structure, and projects.

Svonkin, Stuart. Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. Focuses on the post- World War II activities of the ADL.

See also: Affirmative action; American Jewish Committee; Anti-Semitism; Israeli immigrants; Jewish immigrants; Ku Klux Klan; Stereotyping.

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Definition: Dislike of Jews, based solely on their being Jewish, sometimes expressed in public pronouncements and hostile actions

Significance: Except for isolated instances, most notably the lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1915, anti-Semitism in America never acquired the malevolent levels that it frequently reached in Europe. Discrimination had its greatest effects on U.S. immigration policies during the decades between the late nineteenth century and the era ofWorld War II. The refusal of the United States to admit European Jews trying to flee German Nazism during the 1930’s condemned most of these persons to murder at the hands of the Nazis.

Puck magazine cartoon lampooning Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe in 1881

Puck magazine cartoon lampooning Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe in 1881. (Library of Congress)

The lure of freedom for Jews can be found in the earliest decades following the founding of the first settlements in what became the United States. The first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, which would later become New York City, in 1654, when twentythree Dutch colonists fled Recife off the coast of Brazil after the Portuguese occupied the island. Despite the reputation of Jews as productive citizens in Holland, even in the New World they continued to face discrimination, and at times even hatred. New Amsterdam governor Peter Stuyvesant considered them a "deceitful race,” "blasphemers of Christ.” Jews were permitted to worship only in their private homes—a situation that did not immediately change even after the British replaced the Dutch as rulers of New Amsterdam in 1664.

The period from the mid-seventeenth century to approximately 1830 represented the first, albeit limited, immigration of Jews from Europe to the United States. A second period, of greater immigration levels, occurred between 1830 and 1880. It saw the arrival of mostly of German and other western European Jews. The third and largest influx of Jews took place between 1880 and 1924, when most Jewish immigrants were from eastern Europe, particularly from Russia. The search for religious and political freedoms as well as economic opportunities was a primary driving factor during each of these periods. However, the relative importance displayed by each of these issues varied during the respective eras.

Colonial Era and Early Independence

Most American settlers during the colonial era of North America were British. What little anti- Semitism they displayed was reflected primarily in attitudes or verbal attacks rather than in statutory legal restrictions. At the time of the late eighteenth century American Revolution, approximately two thousand Jews lived in the North American colonies. New York City and Charleston, South Carolina had the largest concentrations. Many of these people had immigrated from Spain and Portugal or those countries’ colonies, not from England, which was itself home to only about eight thousand Jews at that time. In the British colonies, Jews had been granted full rights of citizenry by an act of Great Britain’s Parliament in 1740—a privilege not then available to Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, while interactions between individual Christians and Jews were generally amicable, British attitudes toward the Jewish "race” often reflected contemporary prejudices about allegedly unscrupulous Jewish business practices.

The United States gained its independence in 1783. The U.S. Constitution that was ratified in 1789 contained no clauses discriminating against Jews or members of any other religious group and specifically guaranteed that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which was ratified two years later, specifically guaranteed that the federal government would not interfere in the free exercise of religion. However, while federal laws did not discriminate against Jews, some state laws restricted Jewish officeholders into the nineteenth century. In 1780, as prominent a figure as John Quincy Adams, the son of one of the nation’s Founders and a future president himself, said that Jews were willing "to steal the eyes out of your head if they possibly could.”

Even during this period, Jews in the public eye could be subject to personal attacks. Benjamin Nones, a Revolutionary War hero from Philadelphia and a member of Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party, was forced to defend himself against Federalist attacks denouncing him not only for being a Jew, but for being poor as well. New York politician Mordecai Noah, whose father and grandfather had fought in the American Revolution, was likewise denounced as an "enemy of Christ.” His position as a diplomat in Tunis was revoked because of his Judaism. Despite such obvious examples of antipathy toward Jews, Jew willing to convert to Christianity were generally accepted into what was considered polite society.

Nineteenth Century Immigrants

Between 1830 and the 1880’s, the number of Jews in the United States rose to approximately 200,000. Most of this increase was the result of immigration of Ashkenazi Jews from central and western Europe, in contrast to the Sephardic immigrants from Iberia of earlier years. Many of these transplanted Europeans settled in the cities along the East Coast, from which they gradually moved inland to the growing cities of Cincinnati, St. Louis, and New Orleans. In this they differed little from the millions of other European immigrants then entering America.

Complex reasons prompted the emigration of Jews from Europe through the mid-nineteenth century. Before the 1870’s, most of them left Europe for economic or political reasons, in contrast to later immigrants who fled from lethal pogroms. The decades of the 1830’s and 1840’s were a period of political turmoil that culminated in a series of mostly unsuccessful revolutions around the year 1848. After these revolutions failed, many young Europeans filled with revolutionary ideals looked elsewhere for their future. During this same period of political change, a population explosion was taking place in Europe while economic changes were limiting opportunities for young people. Jews were particularly affected, as merchant, trading, and skilled artisan occupations at which they had historically worked were disappearing.

Meanwhile, American attitudes toward Jews were undergoing changes as new German, Irish, and other immigrants brought their own prejudices against Jews to America. Attacks on Jews became increasingly common, and acts of discrimination against Jews increased. In Cincinnati, Ohio, for example, Roman Catholic priests told domestic workers not to work for Jewish employers. The speaker of California’s state assembly tried, unsuccessfully, to levy a special tax on Jews to induce them to leave the state.

Some eight thousand Jews fought in the U.S. Civil War. Most fought for the Union army, but the most prominent Jew during the war was arguably Judah Benjamin, a former U.S. senator who became secretary of state for the Confederacy. Early during the war, Union general Ulysses Grant issued what may have been the most blatantly anti-Semitic official statement in American history. In December, 1862, he issued an order in which he accused Jews "as a class” of war profiteering and ordered all Jews to leave certain parts of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Mississippi within twenty-four hours. However, after the order was brought to the attention of President Abraham Lincoln, it was revoked. During the decades following the CivilWar, Jews increasingly integrated into mainstream American society. Many became prominent merchants. Nevertheless, anti-Semitic discrimination persisted. For example, the prominent businessman Joseph Seligman was refused admittance to an upscale hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, because he was Jewish. However, Jewish communities were becoming increasingly accepted as part of the American landscape.

Twentieth Century World Wars

Wholesale changes in the demographics of American Jews, and the response of the country at large, began with the mass influxes that began during the 1880’s and continued into the 1920’s. During those years, nearly 2.4 million Jews immigrated to the United States. Most came from eastern Europe, and most of them settled in the cities of New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. Poverty was among the forces that drove Jews to emigrate from Europe, but increasingly virulent anti-Semitic nationalism in some eastern European countries was rising to the level of lethal pogroms against Jewish communities.

Educated Jewish immigrants from western Europe integrated into American society relatively easily, but more poorly educated immigrants from Russia were considered by many Americans as less intelligent and of poor genetic stock. As these immigrants’ names revealed their Slavic ancestry, many immigrants changed their names to appear more American. It was common for these persons to change their names to reflect their "Americanization.” For example, the name "Pakerevich” became "Baker,” and "Israel Baline” became "Irving Berlin.”

While overt hatred, particularly in the South, was generally directed against members of racial minorities, such feelings were also occasionally directed against Jews. The most blatant example was the 1915 lynching of the Jewish Atlanta businessman Leo Frank, who had been unjustly convicted of the rape and murder of an employee. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company and a major figure in business during the 1920’s, regularly published anti-Semitic editorials in his own newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. Father Charles Coughlin preached anti-Semitism to the nation from his pulpit in Royal Oak, Michigan.

The growing anti-Semitic attitude was reflected most clearly in changes in immigration laws that were directed against eastern and southern Europeans in general, but against Jews from those regions in particular. For example, the Immigration Act of 1924 established a quota system that severely restricted Jewish immigration from most of Europe. These new limits on immigration had an immediate impact on Jews attempting to flee Europe following the rise of fascism during the 1930’s. The appointment of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party to power in Germany in 1933 was rapidly followed by German legalization of discrimination against Jews. The anti-Jewish riots that began during November, 1938, were merely the prelude to the rounding up and eventual murder of Jews throughout Europe.

The resistance of the United States to Jewish immigration during the 1930’s was dramatized in the St. Louis affair in 1939. When the German ship St. Louis, carrying more than 900 Jews attempting to escape from Europe, arrived in Cuba, its passengers were not allowed to disembark, and they were ultimately refused permission to enter the United States. Most had to return to Europe, where they were eventually murdered. In 1939, the Wagner- Rogers Bill designed to admit 20,000 Jewish children from Europe was voted down in Congress. Despite the admittance of prominent individuals. such as Albert Einstein, few Jews were allowed to enter America during the 1930’s.

After World War II

Although there was strong evidence that Nazi Germany was trying to exterminate European and Russian Jews throughout the war, the full extent of German atrocities became widely known only after the surrender of Germany in May, 1945. Hundreds of thousands of European Jews who survived the Holocaust became stateless; even the idea that they might return to what was left of their prewar homes was unrealistic. Whether public awareness of the extent of the Holocaust changed American attitudes or merely rendered overt anti-Semitism no longer acceptable is unclear. Returning American soldiers regarded the elimination of racial and religious discrimination to be a major priority, and criticism of Jews as a people was significantly reduced. Although Jews within some individual professions continued to endure some discrimination, often in the form of hiring quotas, legal barriers against Jews were gradually eliminated. Even the Hollywood film industry addressed discrimination and hatred against Jews. In the film Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), for example, actor Gregory Peck played a reporter pretending to be Jewish in order to investigate discrimination, while the plot of Crossfire (1947) involved the murder by bigots of a Jewish war hero.

U.S. immigration policies that had historically discriminated against Jews began to change as well. A bill proposed by Congressman William Stratton of Illinois in 1947 to admit 400,000 displaced persons, including Jews, went nowhere. However, one year later Congress did pass a similar bill to admit more than 200,000 displaced persons, the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Efforts by members of Congress to establish into law provisions of the 1948 act that continued to create barriers to immigration of displaced Jews were defeated, and by 1960 an estimated 250,000 survivors had arrived. The Civil Rights movement during the 1960’s, while primarily addressing discrimination against African Americans and members of other racial minorities, ended most remaining legal barriers directed against Jews as well.

The last major influx of Jewish immigrants to the United States began during the late 1970’s and continued through the presidency of Ronald Reagan, as emigration barriers in the Soviet Union slowly beginning to lift. Approximately two million Jews had remained in Russia following World War II. An increasing number of activists, largely but not solely Jewish, began a campaign directed at the Soviet government to allow these Jews to emigrate. Pressure from the United States as well as internal Russian refuseniks eventually proved successful. Ultimately, nearly 200,000 Russian Jews immigrated to America between 1979 and 1990.

Richard Adler

Further Reading

Diner, Hasia. The Jews of the United States, 1654-2000. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. In addition to treating Jewish history from a religious viewpoint, Diner addresses economic and cultural changes within the community. A feminist perspective underlies much of the history.

Dinnerstein, Leonard. Antisemitism in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Comprehensive history of anti-Semitism that addresses the earliest European Christian biases toward Jews and the influence of those beliefs during the earliest years of Jewish immigration. Chapters divide American history into specific periods, emphasizing the evolution of anti-Semitism and effects on immigration policy during each period.

Gerber, David, ed. Anti-Semitism in American History. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1986. Collection of essays analyzing both the roots of anti-Semitism and resultant discrimination against Jews. Subjects such as mythological accusations against Jewish practices, and interactions among Jews and other minorities are covered.

Wenger, Beth. The Jewish Americans. New York: Doubleday, 2007. Comprehensive history of 350 years of Jewish history in America. The book contains extensive first-person accounts of the Jewish experience, accompanied by a large number of photographs.

See also: American Jewish Committee; Anti-Defamation League; Displaced Persons Act of 1948; History of immigration, 1783-1891; History of immigration after 1891; Holocaust; Israeli immigrants; Jewish immigrants; Nativism; Religion as a pushpull factor; Stereotyping.

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