The United States was founded on freedom of religion, right? Well, despite being one of the most religiously tolerant country’s of all times, something Jews should never take for granted, Jews did not have full rights as citizens when the country was founded in 1776, and even once we did, there was still much antisemitism baked into many institutions until only a few decades ago. While Jews have gotten a classification of being seen as white and privileged in modern times, not only do we carry intergenerational trauma from past atrocities, the insecurity of not knowing when our enemies will strike us next, here is a breakdown of where Jews were treated worse in US society, from our founding until the recent past.
1. Voting and Holding Office: Jews did not have voting rights in the United States in several states when this country was founded. When the Constitution was ratified in 1787, states were given the power to determine who had voting rights within their borders. A number of states restricted Jews and other minorities from voting. Maryland, South Carolina, Georgia and New Hampshire limited officeholding to men “professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect.” In Maryland, Jews weren’t allowed to vote until 1823. In New Hampshire, Jew were not allowed to vote until 1877. The Jew Bill formally known as, “An Act to extend to the sect of people professing the Jewish religion, the same rights and privileges enjoyed by Christians” was passed in 1826 to allow Jews to hold public office in the state.
2. Redlining: One of the requirements to be allowed to vote – state restrictions aside – was that the (white, male) individual be a landowner and pay taxes. Even in states where Jews were technically permitted to vote, there were other antisemitic laws in play that often hindered those rights. Those included deed restrictions, which prohibited selling property or land to Jews. While the Supreme Court ruled that racial restrictive covenants were unenforceable in 1948, many deed restrictions were active into the 1960s in states such as Arizona, Maryland, Washington state, California and more.
3. Segregation: For most of U.S. history, hotels, beaches, pools and restaurants were not all open for Jews. In 1917, the federation of Jewish Farmers of America published Jewish Vacation Guide to let Jews know where they’d be safe and welcome. This guide served as a vital tool in navigating the potential danger of Jewish travel in early America. It even went on to inspire the “Green Book,” a widely used guide for Black travelers. The danger and hostility towards Jews traveling throughout the U.S is what inspired the Catskills to become a safehaven for Jewish vacationers.
4. Expulsion: Yes, historically there have been both blood libels and the expulsion of Jewish communities in the United States. The most well-known of such expulsions is General Order No. 11, as issued by Union Major-General Ulysses S. Grant in 1862. This order expelled all Jews from Grant’s military district, comprising areas of Tennessee, Mississippi, and Kentucky. His reasoning? An effort to reduce Union military corruption, and stop unlicensed trade of Southern cotton, which he believed was being run “mostly by Jews and other unprincipled traders.” While the General Order was overturned by the Lincoln administration about a month later, cities fully implemented the order by forcefully expelling Jewish families.
5. Ellis Island Name Changes
While most of us grew up hearing that our ancestors’ Jewish names got changed to American sounding ones at Ellis Island because the immigration officers misheard them, Dara Horn’s research shows that the Jewish community, en masse, changed their names in the early 20th century because having a Jewish named turned out to be a liability in this country. So many Jewish immigrants had come here on the promise of religious freedom, but quickly found out that being too Jewish would make them the targets of antisemitism at work and beyond. So in order to protect themselves, many Jews took on a form of erasure.
6. Barring Immigration for Asiatic People
In the early 1900’s, Congress imposed immigration restrictions in order to return the US back to the white Protestant character that defined the 1800’s. The new policies entirely prohibited Asian immigrants, which some in government considered Hebrews to be. (See 1909 NYTimes article stating such.) When Nazism rose in Europe in the 1930s, most of the Jews who needed to escape were not able to flee to the US.
6. Ivy League Education: Many prestigious academic institutions in the United States instated “Jewish quotas” to limit the number of Jewish students accepted per year, or deny Jewish enrollment entirely. Such quotas were widespread in the 19th and 20th centuries, and affected some of the greatest minds of the era, who happened to be Jewish (see below). Many instead avoided Ivy League institutions in favor of those who had less rigid quotas or none at all – Jonas Salk who developed the first safe and effective vaccine for polio enrolled in NYU and Famed Physicist Richard P. Feynman enrolled in MIT. In fact, the establishment of the Salk Institute in California years later was the final push to end deed restrictions in San Diego. (As we recently wondered, Jewish quotas may have returned to the Ivy League as now Jews are considered not ethnic enough.)
7. Gatekeeping in Professions: Historically, Jews were not admitted into law firms for much of the history of the United States, particularly in NYC. White-shoe firms were convinced that only White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of prestigious background and education were the only viable candidates, and passed over Jews, Catholics, and other groups. After World War II, the number of Jewish lawyers increased due to the partial lifting of academic quotas, and ultimately started Jewish law firms or joined pre-existing ones. These firms began to excel in aspects of law practice that WASPs deemed undignified, such as real estate, litigation, antitrust, mergers and acquisition, and bankruptcy. Same thing with hospitals. It’s why a series of Jewish hospitals, like Mt. Sinai and Maimonides, were established. Same thing with publishing and many other professional industries.
8. Gatekeeping at Country Clubs: In a somewhat similar vein to the WASP law firms of decades prior, there are a shocking number of country clubs that to this day do not allow Jewish or Black entry. This is especially common in some of the prestigious New York sports and athletics clubs – supposedly by unwritten law and tradition rather than official regulations. Part of why this has been an ongoing issue is because applicants must be proposed by preexisting members, and those proposals can be shot down by a few negative votes to even a single negative vote. Such clubs include the New York Athletic Club, the Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, and Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck.