Why Do Nazis Hate Jews? How Christian Politics Fuels Anti-Semitism in the United States

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia, on the eve of a planned “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 12. Neo-Nazis were among those present. Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via REUTERS

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Again, Anti-Semitism" on February 16, 1981. In light of the recent neo-Nazi, white power and alt-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Newsweek is republishing the story.

Charles Benjamin, a leader of the Jewish community in his quiet, suburban New Jersey town, came home to find bright red swastikas painted on his back door. The outdoor furniture had been dumped into the pool. The mailbox had been looted. "My knees buckled," Benjamin later told a television interviewer. "I sat down on the ground, not believing that this could happen in... my little patch in the United States. "Anti-Semitism is an ancient story that is suddenly making news across the United States. The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith reported 377 anti-Semitic "episodes" in 1980, a nearly threefold increase in one year. Most of these sporadic incidents involved little more than scrawled graffiti or vandalism, but there were also 10 cases of arson, four fire-bombings and several death threats. No one has been killed or seriously injured, and no evidence suggests a campaign of any scale; most of the incidents have been juvenile pranks. Yet many American Jews are worried. "Hitler started with a handful of people and paint brushes," says Jeffrey Maas of the ADL in New Jersey. And many government officials agree that the incidents cannot be shrugged off. "There is a tendency... to treat incidents of anti-Semitic or racial vandalism as isolated acts of mischief," warns New Jersey Attorney General John J. Degnan. "Unfortunately ... these acts may represent deep-seated racial and religious hatred."

To combat the flurry of anti-Semitic incidents, Degnan and other law-enforcement officials around the country have stepped up their investigations, often forming special police and prosecution units. Many Jewish leaders have begun holding seminars on bigotry and rallies against anti-Semitism, such as one that drew 3,000 people in California's San Fernando Valley a fortnight ago. Not satisfied with these steps, Jewish militants have redoubled their own controversial efforts at self-defense—patrolling Jewish neighborhoods and training Jews in the use of high-powered rifles and pistols.

Some Jewish organizations are reluctant to read too much into the new statistics of anti-Semitism, noting that vandalism and violent crime are on the rise generally. "It will take another year of monitoring to find out what the numbers actually mean," says a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee in New York. Other Jews see the low-level violence and harassment as part of a larger pattern. With mounting alarm, they note the renewed organizing efforts of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party, the tone of some of the criticism of Israel in the United Nations and above all the bloody attacks on Jews in several European cities last year. "There is a feeling," says Murray Wood, an executive of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles, "that all roads somehow lead to Auschwitz."

Anti-Semitism in the United States today hardly compares in virulence with the anti-Jewish attitudes and actions in the 1920s and 1930s. Then, Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent (circulation: 700,000) ran anti-Semitic diatribes with headlines such as JEWISH GAMBLERS CORRUPT AMERICAN BASEBALL. More damaging, unstated quotas and restrictions kept Jews out of schools, jobs, neighborhoods and hotels. Today, most such barriers have fallen, and many public-opinion polls show a continuing decline in prejudice against Jews. In one survey last year, for example, only 8 percent of those questioned thought Jews had "too much political influence."

But other polls indicate a persistent suspicion and distaste for Jews as "pushy, clannish, unethical." In Anti-Semitism in America, published two years ago, authors Charles Y. Glock and Harold E. Quinley reported that a third of Americans share such negative attitudes—about the same number, according to a more recent poll, that suspect Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

Alan Sandler and his bride, Zipporah, had just returned from their honeymoon in New York City. The mailbox of their Cranston, R.I. home was brimming with congratulatory cards. One was decorated with two lovebirds on the front. But inside was a swastika and the words. "We are back. " Many experts blame the nation's economic problems for the new signs of anti-Semitism. "Times of distress, social unrest and economic depression [are] often preliminary to outbreaks of anti-Semitism," explains the Rev. Edward H. Flannery, author of another book on the subject, Anguish of the Jews. In hard times people find it comforting to have a scape-goat, Flannery says, "And they always look in the direction of the Jews." In the spotlight of full media coverage, one episode often leads to others. Says New York City police official Patrick J. Murphy: "The incidents feed off each other. The kids read about themselves...and any dope can see himself immortalized." In three days last month, officials at the University of Florida in Gainesville found thirteen examples of anti-Semitic graffiti on campus. After the wife of university President Robert Marston spoke out forcefully against such bigotry, her telephone rang. "This is the Florida-wide organization of Hitler," said the caller. "I am going to kill you." In fact few of the reported incidents seem directly connected with extremist groups. "If it were more organized," says Long Island ADL director Melvin Cooperman, "we could zero in and nail them." But both the Nazi Party and the Klan have run avowedly anti-Semitic candidates for public office—with disturbing success. Harold Covington, 27, chairman of the National Socialist Party of America in North Carolina, won more than 43 percent of the vote in the state's Republican primary for attorney general last year. The rise of racist groups also seems to create a climate favorable to individual extremists and a certain public tolerance for isolated incidents.

The dramatic growth of Christian fundamentalism—and Moral Majority politics—may also spur anti-Semitism. Just last week, the Rev. Dan C. Fore, Moral Majority leader in New York City, told a reporter: "Jews have a God-given ability to make money, almost a supernatural ability.... They control this city." Even without such stereotyping, the fundamentalist emphasis on "Christian politics" and efforts to convert Jews are threatening, says William Gralnick of the American Jewish Committee in Atlanta. "What it says is that the Jewish faith is not a valid path to salvation; it tends to separate us from grace." Last year in Macon, Georgia, says Gralnick, Protestant ministers refused to speak out when the head of the Southern Baptist Convention said, "God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew." It was shortly after 1 a. m. when two men drove up to the synagogue in Temple City, California. They pried open a window, poured gasoline over a wooden pew and set the synagogue ablaze. Seven stained-glass windows were shattered and other damage to Temple Beth David was estimated at $180, 000. The incident was followed" by nearly 30 more anti-Semitic outbursts in the Los Angeles area over the last eight weeks.

The randomness of anti-Semitic incidents, and the absence of links to organized groups in most cases, makes prosecution difficult. In the 377 cases reported by the ADL last year, only 20 arrests were made. Even when there are arrests, the charge is normally a misdemeanor State assemblymen in California and New Jersey have proposed legislation that would stiffen penalties for religiously motivated vandalism. "When a cross is burned or a swastika is smeared, the terror it generates is as intense as from a bomb threat," says New Jersey Assemblyman Byron Baer. But some judges prefer to sentence juvenile perpetrators to study Jewish history and the Nazi Holocaust. Said one such youth: "I am beginning to realize through these books the great deal of suffering I must have caused."

Many Jewish organizations have escalated their own programs of public education. Last week the ADL—working with the Urban League and the U.S. Justice Department—sponsored a conference in Providence, Rhode Island, on "extremist groups" and another in Boston on "religious and racial harassment." About 1,500 people attended an anti-Nazi rally last month at the Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies in Los Angeles, itself a target of three anti-Semitic attacks earlier this year. But education didn't seem to do much good at Great Neck North Senior High School in New York. Though the school has offered courses on the Holocaust for five years, vandals spray-painted the walls with "KKK" and "Hi'Hitler" last October, And police in many areas reported a flurry of similar anti-Semitic incidents after the "Holocaust" series on television.

Such incidents have only encouraged militant groups like the Jewish Defense League to expand their often provocative paramilitary operations. The JDL plans to offer 10-week courses in "warfare tactics" at secret sites in southern California, Michigan and upstate New York. Most mainstream Jewish organizations see these steps as an inflammatory overreaction. But equally dangerous, they agree, would be simply to ignore the current upsurge in anti-Semitic incidents. "There's no reason to panic; the country is not being overrun by anti-Semites," says Art Teitelbaum of the Anti-Defamation League in Miami. "But it is something to be vigilant about."