Anti-Semitism outside Europe


anti-semitism outside europe

The body of Leo Frank

Anti-Semitism also existed outside Europe, though to a lesser extent. Before the 19th century most Jews outside Europe lived in comparative peace, largely undisturbed by anti-Semitic persecution or violence. But ideas and prejudices cannot be confined to continents, so this isolation did not last. As the 19th century progressed and thousands of Europeans emigrated in search of a better life, anti-Semitic ideas and prejudices were transported to and found homes in new places. By the beginning of the 1900s incidences of ‘Jew hating’ and ‘Jew baiting’ were no longer confined to continental Europe. In the United States anti-Semitism reached its peak during the interwar period, as the Jews yet again became the scapegoat for a troubled world, full of tension, economic suffering and social unrest. Though this new American anti-Semitism was less widespread and intense than that of the Old World, it still caused exclusion, discrimination and suffering for many Jewish Americans.


The United States had relatively little anti-Semitism during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Prior to the American Revolution (1776-83) there were around 2,000 Jews in America, most living in the major cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charlestown. Jews in colonial America were prohibited from voting – but this was not specifically anti-Semitic since the same prohibition applied to other non-Christians, as well as Catholics, women, slaves, indentured servants and native Americans. These restrictions were gradually removed after the American Revolution and Jews began to enjoy political and economic equality with other Americans. These new freedoms enticed more Jews to emigrate from Europe. In 1845 two Jewish Americans were elected to the federal Congress (an event reported with scorn and amusement back in Europe). By 1850 the United States had approximately 50,000 Jewish citizens; some became prominent businessmen, chiefly in trade, banking and manufacturing. This number increased during the late 1800s as Jews fled persecution in Russia, Polish and eastern European and made their way to North America. Between 1900 and 1924 more than 1.7 million Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States.

This immigration boom markedly increased America’s Jewish population – but it also increased anti-Jewish myths and prejudices. Some of this was motivated by xenophobia and economic fears as much as anti-Semitism. The Immigration Restriction League, formed in 1894, was chiefly concerned about American workers being replaced by cheap labour imported from Europe. Some anti-Semitism was driven by envy, as Jewish bankers and businessmen were accused of acquiring disproportionate levels of power and profit. The more medieval forms of anti-Semitism also took hold in America, imported and circulated by non-Jewish immigrants from the Old World. Among these prejudices were stereotypes of Jews as swindlers; fears of Zionism and an international Jewish conspiracy; even tales of the notorious blood libel.

“The worst period of American anti-Semitism was sandwiched between the ends of World War I and World War II. Societal changes in the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s and the anxieties during the Second World War intensified and exacerbated attitudes that had already manifested themselves. These hostile feelings coalesced from the 1920s at such an accelerated pace that many Jews thought what had happened in Hitler’s Germany might very well occur in the United States.”
Sander L. Gilman, historian

This traditional Anti-Semitism was particularly acute in America’s southern states, still embittered by their defeat in the Civil War (1861-65). The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, formed in the late 1860s, became as anti-Semitic as it was anti-African American. Southern anti-Semitism led to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager from Marietta, Georgia. Frank had been charged with the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, in spite of strong evidence the factory’s African-American janitor may have been responsible. Frank’s trial was conducted in an environment of hostility and anti-Jewish prejudice. Angry crowds filled the gallery while mobs lingered outside open windows, staring menacingly at the defendant, trial witnesses and jury members. The trial itself was filled with racist commentary and innuendo. Much was speculated about Frank’s Jewish heritage, while Frank’s own lawyer described the janitor as a “dirty, filthy, black, drunken, lying nigger”. Despite the flimsy evidence tendered by the prosecution, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to hang. When the governor of Georgia commuted the sentence to life imprisonment, an angry mob stormed the prison, seized Frank, drove him back to Marietta and lynched him. Some later posed for photographs beside the body (see picture, above). Nobody involved in the lynching was ever charged or brought to trial; in some parts of Georgia they were hailed as heroes. The Frank lynching prompted more than 3,000 Jews to flee the state.

American anti-Semitism reached its peak in the 1920s and 1930s. The Russian Revolution and the anti-communist Red Scare of 1918-20 was a contributing factor, as many Americans associated Jews with the emergence of communism. The rising popularity of the Ku Klux Klan was a significant factor; so too was the circulation of The Protocols of Zion and anti-Semitic articles published by car manufacturer Henry Ford. In 1924 the US Congress responded to anti-Semitic paranoia by limiting immigration from eastern European nations with large Jewish populations. Though public expressions of anti-Semitism were not common, Jewish Americans encountered more subtle forms of prejudice in employment, education and society. Prestigious universities tightened entry requirements to limit enrolments of Jewish students; golf clubs and country clubs denied entry to Jewish members, usually without cause or explanation. Opinion polls conducted in the 1930s suggested that between 30 and 40 per cent of Americans held negative views or clung to insulting stereotypes about Jewish people.

Great Britain

Britain was home to very few Jews between the High Middle Ages to the 18th century, due mainly to Edward I’s expulsion of Jews in 1290. This situation began to change in the 1700s when the government agreed to accept thousands of Polish refugees who were fleeing Russian persecution. Most of these refugees were Jewish and by 1830 Britain had a small population of around 40,000 Jews. Like English Catholics, Jews faced restrictions that prevented them from voting or entering parliament. They formed lobby groups to campaign for the removal of these restrictions, a reform that was finally accepted in 1858. Ten years later Benjamin Disraeli, a Briton of Jewish heritage, was elected prime minister – though he had to convert to Christianity to do so.

These reforms and freedoms, along with the absence of any intense anti-Semitism, made Britain a haven for Jews fleeing persecution in mainland Europe. In the 25 years after 1880 Britain’s Jewish population more than quadrupled. By the outbreak of World War I there were more than 250,000 Jewish Britons. This influx of Jewish immigrants was not without its problems, nor did it fail to cause a public backlash. A great number of Jewish arrivals took up residence in London’s already cramped East End, placing pressure on existing accommodation and facilities and increasing competition for work. The first decade of the 1900s saw the formation of anti-immigration leagues; these groups were small but vocal and organised several unruly street protests. But while the anti-immigration leagues contained a few anti-Semites, these groups were opposed to immigrants in general, not Jews in particular.

The Middle East

Perhaps the most notable increase in modern anti-Semitism occurred in the Islamic world. Through the Middle Ages and into the 1700s, large Jewish populations lived in the Ottoman Empire, in Turkey, Iran, Yemen, Syria and North Africa. They lived in these places in comparative peace and under the protection of Muslim rulers. Jews were deemed to be dhimmi [‘people of the book’] and therefore shared a religious heritage with Muslims. Though they did not enjoy full equality with Muslims, Jews in the Ottoman Empire enjoyed greater freedoms than those in Christian Europe. They were permitted to live, work and trade with non-Jews, with little or no restriction. Jews were also permitted to worship, provided they did so privately.

This co-existence deteriorated gradually during the 1800s as anti-Semitism seeped into the Islamic world. Some of it was spread by Christian Arabs, who imported conspiracy theories and tales of ‘Jewish wickedness’. But some was the product of political instability and economic deterioration. As the Ottoman Empire went into decline and then disintegration, many local rulers found it easier to blame Jews for their domestic problems. Not for the first time in history, Jews became a convenient scapegoat for problems they had not caused. This led to exploitation and then persecution of Jewish populations. In some parts of the empire Jews were subject to additional taxation, legal and business restrictions and humiliating social customs. In Iran, Jews were deemed to be ‘unclean’; they were banned from appearing outside at certain times. At royal ceremonies and celebrations, groups of Jews were thrown into tanks of water and mud for public entertainment. Through the 1800s there were massacres of Jews in Baghdad (Iraq), Meshed (Iran), Damascus (Syria), Marrakesh and Fez (Morocco), Tunis and Djerba (Tunisia) and Tripoli (Libya).


anti-semitism outside europe

1. The growth of European anti-Semitism in the mid-1800s was exported to other parts of the world.
2. The United States had no history of intense anti-Semitism, though it grew there in the late 1800s.
3. Discrimination against wealthy Jews and the lynching of Leo Frank are examples of it in the US.
4. Britain, despite its fast-growing acceptance of Jewish migrants, was comparatively free of anti-Semitism.
5. The decay of the Ottoman Empire led to increases in hostility, mistreatment and violence against Jews.