A Brief History of
Antisemitism in the United States And Canada
The United States is home to the world’s largest Jewish community outside Israel—around five million people. Canada, with 335,000, also has a large Jewish population. Jewish immigrants first arrived in the United States in 1654 and in Canada about a hundred years later. Though anti-Jewish discrimination has always been present in the United States and Canada, North America has still been a haven from the violent, pervasive, and often state-sponsored antisemitism of Europe.
Historian Howard Morley Sachar wrote, “The Jews of America were free, profoundly free, freer than Jews anywhere else on the face of the earth.”
But is this trend changing? Given a comparatively positive history, the rising antisemitism in North America is particularly troubling.
The Early Twentieth Century
Modern antisemitism emerged in the Americas in the 1890s. The growth of American cities, where most Jewish immigrants settled, fostered some resentment among rural Americans. Associating Jewish people with the perceived immorality of the expanding urban centers caused some to believe many of the European conspiracy theories about the Jewish people.
These attitudes turned darker in the twentieth century. The rise of pseudoscientific notions of “racial purity,” first weaponized against African-Americans, expanded to include Jewish people. According to this view, Anglo-Saxons represented a superior race who needed to avoid contact with inferior races. One of the most antisemitic periods in American history was the time between the world wars when groups like the Ku Klux Klan targeted Jewish homes and businesses. Meanwhile, antisemitism “was ingrained in the fabric of Canadian society.” For example, a 1943 Canadian resort paper openly spoke of keeping “those unwanted people” off the beach.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a pamphlet supposedly exposing a global Jewish conspiracy, grew popular. Prominent citizens like Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, publicized The Protocols. During the early twentieth century, universities in North America adopted quotas for Jewish students, and some neighborhoods forbade Jewish residents. In the 1930s, the Nazis actively fueled antisemitism in the United States as Nazi supporters distributed propaganda and disseminated Nazi ideals in their areas of influence.
The Latter Half of the Twentieth Century
The Holocaust generally made Americans more sympathetic to the suffering of the Jewish people and horrors of antisemitism. In 1950, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported antisemitism had reached an “all-time” low. The founding of modern Israel in 1948 generally improved the global image of Jewish people. Many admired the country’s valor and democratic values. During the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel was likened to King David standing bravely against the Goliath of invading Soviet and Arab armies. In Israel, the trial of Adolf Eichmann further educated the world about what really took place in Europe during the Holocaust.
Overall, antisemitism declined in the United States and Canada during the second half of the twentieth century. Negative stereotypes of Jewish people existed, but they were not pervasive, nor did they gain a strong foothold in society. Hardcore antisemitism was essentially limited to extremist splinter groups. Antisemitism was never systemic or state-sponsored the way it was in Europe for so long. Even at its peak in the 1930s, North American antisemitism rarely posed an immediate threat to the Jewish community.
The Twenty-First Century
The earlier relative mildness of antisemitism in the United States and Canada makes contemporary incidents all the more disturbing. Indeed, the deadliest attack on the American Jewish community took place less than five years ago. The shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue killed eleven people and wounded six. In 2019, the attack on Poway Chabad Synagogue in southern California killed one and injured three others. The hostage situation at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, in January, 2022, again awakened the American and especially the Christian public to growing antisemitism, though it ended relatively well as all four hostages escaped.
Other less severe antisemitic incidents do not make the news. Assault, harassment, and vandalism against Jewish people, just for being Jewish, intensified in the past several years. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,717 incidents in the United States in 2021, the highest number since it began collecting this data in 1979. These incidents include swastika graffiti, harassment on college campuses, and street violence. In Canada in 2021, B’nai Brith, another Jewish organization that monitors antisemitism, reported 2,799 anti-Jewish hate crimes, including beatings, vandalism of synagogues, and swastikas painted on the walls of public schools.
Incidents surged in May 2021, when tensions flared between Israel and Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza, leading to conflict. No country is perfect, and criticism of Israeli policies is not always antisemitic. Still, negative perceptions of Israel often influence perceptions of Jewish people in the Diaspora. Nearly 40 percent of incidents in the United States reported during the May conflict featured “explicit references to Israel or Zionism.”
We are living in a time when antisemitism is a serious threat to Jews in North America. The United States and Canada are historically safe havens for Jewish people.
Unfortunately, trends today suggest this might be unravelling. We pray it will not, as God promised to bless those who bless the Jewish people and curse those who curse His chosen people (Genesis 12:3). Our Messiah Himself is Jewish, and we know of His great love for His own people. Only God knows what the future holds, but followers of the Jewish Messiah must be proactive in opposing antisemitism and in their support for the Jewish people.
As noted above, the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization monitoring antisemitic acts against the Jewish community, published a report in 2021 showing antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high. The incidents occurred in all fifty states, with 2,717 cases of assault, harassment, and vandalism. Additionally, attacks against synagogues and Jewish Community Centers increased by 61 percent. The ADL states, “This represents the highest number of incidents on record since [the] ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979—an average of more than seven incidents per day and a 34 percent increase year over year.”
The ADL determined one of the major reasons for these attacks centered on the Israel and Palestinian conflict in May 2021, which caused “a staggering 148 percent increase in reports of antisemitic incidents that month when compared in May 2020.” Anti-Israel sentiment, however, is not the only motivating factor for these incidents.
“When it comes to antisemitic activity in America,” writes Jonathan A. Greenblatt, the ADL’s national director, “you cannot point to any single ideology or belief system, and in many cases, we simply don’t know the motivation. But we do know that Jews are experiencing more antisemitic incidents than we have in this country in at least 40 years, and that’s a deeply troubling indicator of larger societal fissures.”
The digital world is now an active sphere for antisemitic activity. In 2021, a study from the Center to Counter Digital Hate (CCDH) found “five major social media companies, including Facebook and Twitter, took no action to remove 84% of antisemitic posts,” despite promises and flagged posts.
Social media companies neglected to act on 89 percent of posts associating Jewish people with conspiracy theories about 9/11, the pandemic, and controlling world affairs. These platforms also failed to act on 80 percent of posts denying the Holocaust, as well as 70 percent of posts dealing with neo-Nazi and white supremacist images, according to CCDH.
“If you allow [antisemitism] space to grow, it will metastasize,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of CCDH, to National Public Radio in 2021. “It is a phenomenally resilient cancer in our society.” Ahmed also wisely pointed out, “there is a reflexive interaction between online and offline racism, they reinforce each other,” and “the failure of these companies is a cost that’s paid in lives.”
Underscoring social media’s contribution to the spread of antisemitism, a group of scholars recently published a book entitled Antisemitism on Social Media, which examines how these platforms are fueling the rise of antisemitism.
What Can We Do?
Part of our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to purge any evil from our midst because we know a little leaven leavens the whole lump (Galatians 5:9). We do not fight against flesh and blood but against cosmic powers overseeing the spiritual darkness at the heart of antisemitism (Ephesians 6:12).