On the Eve of the Inauguration

With the inauguration just hours away, and many of us on edge about what lies ahead, we might want to look back to another inauguration, that of Warren G. Harding, in early 1921. Jonathan Sarna, not long ago a Beth El Scholar in Residence and arguably the dean of historians of the American Jewish experience, reminds us of the hatred that accompanied and followed Harding’s election, with an eerily familiar ring.

“America First.” “Return to Normalcy.” These were some of the slogans in Harding’s campaign. He represented a sharp break from the previous administration, the liberal presidency of Woodrow Wilson. His election was soon followed by the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, limiting the total number of immigrants for the first time in U.S. history and placing quotas from countries like Poland and Russia where Jews were hoping to escape the reality that followed the Russian Revolution. At the same time, more immigrants than ever were deported for politic views. Rings any bells? “The hatred of everything foreign has become an obsession,” complained Louis Marshall, the unofficial leader of American Jewry at the time.

Hatred was not confined to foreigners. Domestically, antipathy towards blacks, Catholics, Jews and others surged. The KKK flourished, with a membership of close to 5 million white males in a total U.S. population of only about 106 million. Catholic parochial schools were banned in many cities and in the whole state of Oregon. Discrimination in university admissions hit Jews especially, and clubs and hotels and resorts shut out Jews completely. And Henry Ford, one of the great anti-semites in all of U.S. history and one of Harding’s premier supporters, spewed his hatred of Jews and the “international Jewish conspiracy.” It was not Nazi Germany, for sure, and we don’t expect Trump’s election to lead to anything like that either. Nonetheless, we are chilled when bomb threats are called into dozens of JCC’s, Nazi graffiti appears on walls of schools and public buildings and Jewish homes, and a climate of intolerance for most if not all minorities seems to be gaining ground.

Three strategies were utilized back in the Harding period. One, Jews assisted and supported one another. Two, Jews fought back, with PR campaigns and books and articles exposing and rebutting anti-semitic charges – even causing Henry Ford to issue an apology in 1927 for “resurrecting exploded fictions.” And, third, Jews joined up with other groups like the NAACP and Catholic school officials in legal battles of all kinds, allies working together.

Prof. Sarna says that the most remarkable thing is that, despite all the negativity of this period, Jews managed to thrive in many ways. Economically, they took advantage of a rising stock market and built opulent synagogues and institutions like Yeshiva University. Deborah Dash Moore argues that during the 1920s Jews actually “became at home in America.” The hatred unleashed following Harding’s election worked in the end to make the American Jewish community stronger. One wonders what lies ahead for us, and other minorities, and our country as a whole.

Ponder this and hope, as I do, for silver linings in a pretty cloudy four year forecast. Bill Rudolph


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