American Jews Between the Wars

The character of the American Jewish community changed, as a nation of immigrants Americanized.

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Politics & the Holocaust

The 1930s also witnessed the alignment of the Jewish community with the national Democratic Party. While significant numbers of Jews continued their involvement in radical politics, interwar Jews were increasingly embracing liberalism.  In the 1920s, New York's local Democratic party, under the leadership of Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner Sr., succeeded in attracting many immigrant Jews and their children due to its championing of social welfare issues and economic reform.

But the Jewish allegiance to the Democratic Party was cemented through their love affair with Franklin D. Roosevelt. If they supported his New Deal policies, they adored F.D.R. because he opened government service to Jews and counted an unprecedented number of Jewish advisors among his inner circle.

As conditions deteriorated in Europe, American Jews fervently believed that Roosevelt would act to save their brethren. Here, their confidence was misplaced. Facing stiff Congressional opposition, Roosevelt's government did nothing to ease strict immigration quotas in the late 1930s. This indifference, or at the very least unwillingness to expend political capital, effectively consigned many European Jews to Hitler's Final Solution. Of course, in the late 1930s, Roosevelt had no way of divining the effects of his policies.

American Jews responded to Hitler's rise and America's immigration restrictions by embracing Zionism and increasing their support for building up the Jewish national home and the resettlement of refugees in Palestine. Membership in Zionist organizations and participation in Zionist youth groups grew rapidly in the mid-to-late 1930s. Zionist themes increasingly found their way into rabbinical sermons and religious school curricula. The blue and white charity boxes of the Jewish National Fund became a familiar fixture in Jewish homes. Even the Reform movement, which had been staunchly opposed to Zionism, officially reversed its position in 1937.

In retrospect, the Depression years turned out to be a minor setback. Economic instability and domestic anti-semitism largely disappeared after the Second World War. It was the 1920s, with its trends towards upward mobility and Americanization that set the tone for American Jewish community in the post-war era.

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Dr. Jonathan Krasner

Jonathan Krasner is an Assistant Professor of American Jewish History at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.