Reconsidering Antisemitism and Jewishness in Cold War America

AHA Session 27
Thursday, January 5, 2012: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Michigan Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Kevin M. Schultz, University of Illinois at Chicago
Nathan Abrams, Bangor University

Session Abstract

It is commonly assumed that antisemitism declined quickly in America in the years immediately following World War II and the Holocaust. Historians have thus often cast the postwar years as a “golden age” for American Jewry—as a period when exclusionary barriers crumbled, when affluence brought most Jews into the middle and upper classes, and when Jews embraced an unquestioned “white” identity. A synthesis has emerged within American Jewish history that has emphasized the ease and success with which Jews entered the American mainstream during the postwar period.

In recent years, however, scholars have begun to challenge this synthesis and the accompanying notion of American Jewish exceptionalism, which posits that Jews faced relatively few hardships in American society compared to other ethnic groups. As part of this historiographic turn, each of these panelists challenge the notion that antisemitism quickly faded into historical memory following World War II and that Jews easily integrated into American society in the 1950s. They move beyond the scholarly emphasis on whiteness, highlighting greater conflict and tension over Jewish identity as Jews and non-Jews alike debated the proper place of the Jews in American society. The panel contributes to the theme of “communities and networks” by looking at how antisemitism forced Americans to reconsider the boundaries between Jews and non-Jews. The panelists also answer a call by historians such as David Hollinger, Hasia Diner, and Tony Michels to better integrate the experience of American Jews into the larger field of American history.  They approach the topic of American Jews from both within and outside the field of Jewish Studies, and from a diversity of career stages. Meanwhile, Nathan Abrams, the commentator, brings a scholarly perspective from outside the United States.

Kirsten Fermaglich, associate professor of history at Michigan State University, examines the phenomenon of Jews adopting “American” names and challenges the widely held assumption that name changing was essentially a turn of the century practice among newly arrived immigrants. Finding that legal name changing swelled among second generation Jews from 1940 to 1960, she argues that this phenomenon was motivated in part by antisemitism, which continued to play a role in Jews’ daily lives and self-perception in the postwar years. Exploring antisemitism from outside the Jewish community, Andrew Warne examines how many within the Christian right found the supposed “Americanization” of Jews unsettling.  A Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, he explores conservative fears of disguised Jewish subversives during postwar debates about U.S. refugee policy--fears that continued throughout the Second Red Scare. Ronnie Grinberg, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder, examines how Jewish intellectuals in the 1950s sought to discredit the perception that Jews were communists. She analyzes antisemitism and anti-communism through the lens of gender, unpacking the multiple and overlapping discourses that tied Jews to communist subversion and communism to effeminacy and homosexuality. She reveals unease over constructions of Jewish masculinity that complicate the notion that Jews easily synthesized their Jewishness with the demands of citizenship in Cold War America.

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