Search This Blog

Friday, May 15, 2020

Anti-Semitism

by Harvey Strum, Sage Colleges
Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved by the author.

Albany’s Jews saw anti-Semitism as a rejection of their identity as Americans and Jews. Political anti-Semitism by local political leaders did not exist in Albany or in other communities in the Capital District. Local politicians valued Jewish immigrants and their descendants as potential voters and wanted to assimilate them into the political process. Social anti-Semitism, however, became a major issue for Jews in all communities. In 1877, the Grand Hotel in Saratoga Springs denied admission to Joseph Seligman, a major Jewish banker, and associate of former President Ulysses Grant. The phrase that began to appear as No Hebrews, No Dogs Need Apply. Jews visiting Saratoga had to stay in Jewish owned boarding houses or hotels. Saratoga became infamous for shunning Jews. This symbolized the emergence of social anti-Semitism by the Protestant Anglo-American elite who wanted to distance themselves from the increasingly upward mobile segments of German Jews. They also wanted to prevent working-class Jews from coming to hotels, theaters, and races. Many Protestants in Saratoga or Albany despised Jews, whether upper middle class like Seligman or members of the working class. This evolved as the norm in the last quarter of the 19th Century. 

Social and economic anti-Semitism lasted for over one hundred years in the United States. For decades the Fort Orange Club, Albany Country Club, and University Club barred Jews. Even the most successful Jewish businessman knew he could not eat lunch at the University Club or play a round of golf at the Albany Country Club. Albany’s Jews of German origin responded by creating the Adelphi Club in 1873 and the Colonie Country Club in 1914. Most of the members belonged to the Reform synagogue Beth Emeth. Conservative and Orthodox Jews of East European origin established the Shaker Ridge Country Club in 1930.[1] Fraternal lodges, like the Masons, refused to admit Jews into existing local branches, and Jews formed the Washington Lodge, an almost exclusively Jewish branch. For a time, restrictive covenants prevented Jews from living on certain streets in the Pine Hills neighborhood. 

Educational institutions, private schools, colleges, and medical colleges limited the enrollment of Jews. Quotas emerged as the norm at many private schools and colleges in the country, starting with Harvard in the early 1920s and ending with Princeton in the 1970s. 

Administrators at the Albany Academy for Girls strictly limited Jewish enrollment because the parents of Christian girls “threatened to withdraw their children if the numbers of Jews were not kept down.”[2] Albany Medical College, adopted a similar method of limiting the admission of Jews to the percentage of Jews living in Albany. Administrators reflected the anti-Semitic values of many Americans in the 1920s to the 1940s, and admitting too many Jews might scare away the right kind of student at educational institutions like Albany Academy for Boys. From private primary and secondary schools to graduate schools of professional education, setting quotas on Jews became the national and local norm. Protestant students and their parents did not want to attend schools with too many Jews, and in some cases, this concern extended to too many Catholics.

Widespread discrimination in housing and employment concerned the average Jewish resident of Albany. Rather than confront housing bias publicly, the Jewish Community Council’s Committee on Alleged Economic Discrimination tended to privately confront bigoted landlords and realtors and pressure the malefactor to change his or her ways. Usually, sending a prominent member of the community worked as a strategy to reverse discrimination in housing and real estate purchases in Albany. Members of the community also faced glass ceilings on the employment of Jews in the city’s larger businesses. Utility companies in the Albany area were notorious for resisting the employment of Jews. Other companies and stores in Albany had their own internal quotas on hiring Jews. Once again, the Jewish Community Council attempted to reach out to companies privately to expand job opportunities for Jews.[3]

Quiet contact to counter anti-Semitic incidents became the strategy of the Jewish Community Council. When incidents occurred in the public schools in the late 1930s or 1940s, a member of the Council would approach school authorities. When a coach at a local college began ranting anti-Semitic diatribes to his student-athletes a member of the Council contacted the Board of Trustees to silence the coach. When a public official made anti-Semitic comments in 1939, the Council approached his superiors to reprimand the offending individual. Members of the Council reached out to the publisher of the Albany Times Union when the newspaper published hate advertisements that offended the Jewish community successfully pressuring the paper to cease publishing offensive material.[4] Wanting to prevent publicity about anti-Semitic incidents in Albany President of the Council, Sol Rubenstein, refused a request in 1944 from Councilmember Samuel Caplan to provide a report on the Council’s actions against anti-Semitism.

Nativist organizations established chapters in the Capital District. In the 1890s, the American Protective Association ranted about immigrants, especially Catholics, and an Albany chapter of the Immigration Restriction League railed about Jewish and Catholic immigrants from inferior races polluting the superior Aryan Americans. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan appeared in the Capital District harassing Jewish farmers in neighboring Rensselaer County, and the Klan held a convention in Albany much to the annoyance of the Jewish community. In the 1930s, the German American Bund, a pro-Hitler group, attracted enough local German Americans to start several chapters of the organization. Veterans of World War I established the Jewish War Veterans in 1935 to combat the anti-Semitic activities of the Bund. Albany Jewish Veterans joined with their Troy colleagues in March 1938 to block a meeting of the Bund in Germania Hall on River Street, in the Jewish section of Troy. Bund members wanted to celebrate Hitler’s forced union of Austria with Germany. Members of the Jewish War Veterans took a more militant approach with the Delmar branch of the Bund and drove to the Bund’s headquarters, getting into a donnybrook with Bund members.[5] Because of the upsurge in anti-Semitism in the late 1930s, several Jewish organizations banded together to form the Jewish Community Council in November 1938 (now the Jewish Federation).

Entrance into World War II produced a collapse of the Bund due to its pro-Hitler tendencies. Social and economic discrimination against Jews lingered but gradually declined by the 1960s due to civil rights legislation. Isolated incidents of vandalism and bomb threats have been the public manifestations of anti-Semitism. For example, in 1981, vandals defaced the shoe repair shop of Michael Shkaf, a Russian Jewish immigrant, and the Bagel Baron, owned by Joe Lewis with anti-Semitic stickers, both stores located on New Scotland Avenue, not far from five of the city’s six synagogues. In 2019 the Albany Jewish Community Center evacuated its building due to a bomb threat.6 Several bomb threats have been made to Jewish institutions in Albany since 2001. While none of these threats appeared real, they did lead to several synagogues and Jewish Federation adding to their security protocols. In 1963 Rabbi Naphtali Rubinger of Conservative Ohav Sholom, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on the history of Albany’s Jews, expressed concern that public institutions in Albany discouraged Jews “from observing the faith of their fathers.”[7] Rabbi Rubinger voiced his concern about two issues valid in 1963 and 2020---how sensitive are public institutions, like public schools and colleges, to the needs of Jews trying to maintain their adherence to Judaism and how can Jewish residents of Albany feel American while maintaining a separate identity as Jews, a tiny minority in upstate New York. 

After World War II, other Jewish organizations joined in the fight against anti-Semitism. SUNY Albany created a Jewish Studies program and a Jewish Studies Department offering courses and public lectures on anti-Semitism like the appearance at SUNY in 2019 of author Edward Berenson, The Accusation: Blood Libel in an American Town, who spoke on the blood libel charges against Jews in Massena, New York in 1928. The Holocaust Survivors and Friends sponsored lectures on the Holocaust in Albany and throughout the Capital District. A prominent Jewish family, the Golubs of Schenectady through the Golub Foundation-sponsored activities of the World of Difference in public schools. Several synagogues in Albany sponsored talks on anti-Semitism, including Reform B’nai Sholom, Reform Beth Emeth, and Conservative Temple Israel. 

Reform synagogue Gates of Heaven in Schenectady and Conservative Agudath Achim in Niskayuna also sponsored lectures about anti-Semitism. To commemorate the most savage example of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, the Jewish community of the Capital District started in 2017 designing a memorial to the Holocaust in Niskayuna, on ground donated by the Roman Catholic Church. When completed, it will become an educational tool to combat anti-Semitism and one of the few local memorials to the Holocaust.[8]

Schenectady

As in neighboring Albany, political anti-Semitism did not create problems, but social and economic anti-Semitism limited opportunities for Jews. Employment discrimination prevailed at large employers like General Electric until after World War II. Some smaller merchants would not hire Jews as well. Local public schools were not always sensitive to Jewish students. Union College, like many other academic institutions, imposed a quota on Jewish students despite the fact that Jewish students played a prominent role in student activities. In the 1930s, the president of the student council, David Yunich, tried to persuade Union College’s President Dixon Ryan Fox to combat anti-Semitism in college fraternities. Still, Fox refused to leave it up to each individual fraternity to eliminate discrimination, which lingered through the 1960s. While Fox showed his sympathy for the plight of Jews in Germany, he remained indifferent to local anti-Semitism. As a college president, Fox defended the Union’s use of quotas on the admission of Jews and endorsed the discrimination of fraternities against Jews. Only a few Jews, like Louis King, who graduated in 1888, attended Union College in the late 19th Century, but as the numbers rose to fourteen percent of the student body in 1929, Union imposed a quota of ten percent restricting Jewish admission for the next thirty years. Officials defended the practice as in the best interest of the Christian students at Union and as necessary to avoid an increase in anti-Semitism at the college if too many Jews attended. Oddly, Union never imposed a quota on the acceptance of money from Jewish alumni or donations from wealthy members of the Jewish community in Schenectady or elsewhere.

Social discrimination at Union College played a role in the establishment of Jewish fraternities, like Zeta Beta Tau, as early as 1909. When Jewish editors staffed the student newspaper, it would make more public attacks on the anti-Semitism at fraternities, and there were several exposes in the late 1940s and 1950s of prejudice at Union, especially during the 1952-53 academic year. In the 1960s, several fraternities still excluded Jews, and one Phi Delta Theta only allowed white Aryans to join as late as 1964. While the college finally took a stand against discrimination in 1960, fraternities and sororities ignored it until the 1968 Civil Rights Act forced Union College administrators to demand an end to discrimination against Jews, Catholics, Asians, and African Americans. Federal law and the fear of loss of financial aid and not the “goodwill” of Gentile college students and college administrators ended organized anti-Semitism at Union College. In the 1960s, Union lifted its quota, and Jewish numbers more than doubled over the next thirty years. Ironically, Union’s current library, Schaffer Library is named after a Jewish trustee, Henry Schaffer, the son of the first cantor and religious leader at Agudat Achim, who donated millions of dollars to Union College.[9]

In Schenectady, residents found themselves at odds with members of the Polish community in 1919 over pogroms aimed at Jews in Poland. Some members of the Polish Catholic community denied the existence of anti-Semitism in Poland, and they denied the attacks by Poles against Jews. Schenectady’s Jews protested the murder of about 30,000-40,000 Jews in Poland and organized a mass protest meeting in May 1919. Jews of the Capital District joined together in a second protest against pogroms in Ukraine in December 1919. Jews sent telegrams and petitions of protest to Secretary of State Robert Lansing and President Woodrow Wilson. The first Jewish defense group, the Jewish Citizens Committee formed in the wake of this confrontation in 1919, but it disbanded in the early 1920s.[10]

Actually, the first recorded incident of perceived anti-Semitism occurred in 1904 when a new minister, George Lunn, later Schenectady’s mayor and a congressman, delivered a sermon, “Unreasonableness of Jews Duplicated Today,” at the First Reformed Church. Rabbi Edward Chapman of Gates of Heaven immediately responded to this anti-Jewish Christian diatribe. An exchange developed in the press with some of the Gentile press siding with Lunn. Ironically, a decade later, Lunn became a leading local supporter of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Ku Klux Klan met in Schenectady in 1925, and there were concerns of possible conflict with a Jewish meeting of the Y.M. and Y.W.H.A.s in the city at the same time, but apparently, no clashes took place. Fear of anti-Semitism in 1935 led to the formation of Jewish War Veterans in the Capital District and the creation of a Schenectady chapter. Several chapters of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi group, got organized in the 1930s, and this outraged Jewish war veterans. The local JWV chapters monitored the activities of the Bund and served as a catalyst within the Jewish community to organize against anti-Semitism. When Union College invited Fritz Kuhn, leader of the German American Bund to speak in December 1937, Jewish students joined with representatives of the Schenectady Jewish and Catholic communities to protest Kuhn’s appearance. President Fox citing freedom of speech refused to cancel Kuhn’s talk, and Schenectady’s Jews continued their protests against the American Nazi.[11]

In 1948, representatives of the Jewish community took part in an area-wide conference on prejudice in the region. Residents expressed concern in April of 1948 when a Polish spokesman, Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, gave a talk in Schenectady because his past indicated an anti-Semitic background. The community became outraged in February 1949, when Union College’s drama club put on the Merchant of Venice. The Jewish Community Council protested against it and met with Union College President Carter Davidson, who declined to intervene in the student production. Rabbi J. Leonard Azneer of Agudat Achim and Harold A. Friedman, president of the Jewish Community Council, voiced the concerns of the Jewish community that the play promoted anti-Semitism. Still, the students staged the play in early March. Social anti-Semitism remained a problem well into the 1960s at the elite WASP Mohawk Club. City Manager Erwin Shapiro refused to attend a meeting of mayors at the club to protest its continuing restrictive admissions policies. Shapiro’s stand against social anti-Semitism and prejudice made the local press in February 1968. A related problem for local Jews was the continuing promotion of Christmas observances in public schools. This presented problems for Orthodox and Conservative Jews since it showed the indifference of public officials to the diversity of the community. Supreme Court decisions in the 1960s made clear that public observance of religion had no place in American public schools.[12]

Troy and Rensselaer County

Stereotypes published in the Troy press about Jews using sharp business practices served as the rationale for the emergence of social and economic discrimination against Jews starting in the 1860s. Escalating in the 1870s with the famous incident at the Grand Hotel in 1877 in nearby Saratoga Springs--- hotels, restaurants, resorts, clubs, and businesses barred or limited Jewish customers and employees until the 1960s. While the press described Jews as inoffensive immigrants, it did not prevent discrimination against Jews because Christian Americans viewed Jews as the “other.”[13] Even children felt the disapproval of their Christian schoolmates. In the 1870s and 1880s, a jingle popular in Troy and sung by school children across the United States went this way:

I had a piece of pork, I put it on a fork

And gave it to the curly-headed Jew

Pork, Pork, Pork, Jew, Jew, Jew.


Morris “Marty” Silverman, son of a tailor, grew up in Troy during and after World War I. Priests delivered sermons denouncing Jews as Christ-killers on Sundays. “and on Monday mornings, we Jewish public-school students were sometimes beaten up.”[14] Christian students at Troy HighSchool barred Jews from membership in fraternities and sororities. Jews remained the other.

Jews also faced occasional violence. In the late 19th Century, Troy was not “the spiritual home of National Brotherhood Week.”[15] Jewish immigrants, like peddler Hyman Bernstein, became the targets of “ugly incidents that victimized” Jews on the streets of Troy. A “group of streets urchins attacked him with stones “and presumably anti-Semitic epithets” in November 1883, and a French-Canadian saloonkeeper stole his peddler’s pack. Four years later, during the Fourth of July celebrations, Hyman and his son Sam “were in the center of a brawl on River Street that appeared to break down on religious lines---Jews versus Catholics.”[16] 

Jews found relations with their Catholic neighbors a confusing mix because individual Catholics might attack them. At the same time, other Irish, Polish, Ukrainian, or Italian Catholics in adjoining neighborhoods showed no animus to Jews. Gentile neighbors developed friendly relations with Jews who lived in South Troy, where there were few Jewish families since most Jews lived in the Jewish neighborhood near downtown. Catholic leaders, both religious and secular, worked with Jewish leaders and showed sensitivity to the concerns of the Jewish community. Troy’s Irish mayors in the late 19th Century, like Mayor Dennis J. Whelan, seeking the votes of Jewish immigrants, “religiously attended synagogue dedications.”[17] Political leaders in Troy kept a lid on public expressions of anti-Semitism because they wanted Jews to become political supporters and to assimilate them into the political process. Irish American political leaders embraced the Jewish community.

However, Protestant elites and many working-class Catholics and Protestants disliked Jews. As historian Hasia Diner concluded: “for them, Jews served as a collective symbol of alienness, of being different from everyone else, and at odds with the ideals of Christian America.”[18]

By the 1920s, 200 Jewish farm families lived in southern Rensselaer County, specializing in dairy, poultry, and vegetables. The Jewish Agricultural Society encouraged Jews to settle outside of large cities, like New York, and become farmers. In New York State immigrants who became farmers settled in Ulster and Sullivan counties, but by 1908 Rensselaer County had the second-largest concentration of Jewish farmers. There were two kosher butchers and a kosher bakery in Nassau in the 1920s. Jews established synagogues in East Schodack, East Nassau, and Nassau in 1925, 1927, and 1913, respectively. Local Jews did not publicize the dedication of the synagogues because they feared possible attacks from the Ku Klux Klan chapter in Chatham in northern Columbia County. Members of the Klan organized several chapters in Columbia County during the 1920s, posing a potential danger to Jewish farmers living in southern Rensselaer and northern Columbia counties. Their neighbors did not necessarily welcome the arrival of Jews as farmers. Local fraternal organizations, like the Odd Fellows and Masons, would not admit Jews. For their Gentile neighbors, Jews, even farm families, remained the “other.”[19]

Political anti-Semitism did not exist in the Capital District since local political leaders welcomed Jews as new potential voters. Mayors in Albany, Troy, and Schenectady, whether Protestant or Irish Catholic, attended every dedication of a synagogue, showing that Jews were an accepted part of the community. Jews faced relatively few barriers for running for office and served as aldermen, judges, and school board members. Nativist groups, however, targeted Jews from the 1890s to the 1940s, including the Immigration Restriction League, Ku Klux Klan, German American Bund, and the Christian Front. Jews became occasional victims of violence on city streets by local Catholics, usually French Canadian or Irish. Ironically, Roman Catholic leaders embraced Jewish causes and befriended the Jewish communities in Troy, Schenectady, and Albany. Many priests delivered anti-Semitic sermons on Sundays, as did some Protestant ministers. Still, individual Catholic priests in all three communities worked with the Jewish community and showed up at major Jewish events, like Jewish Relief Day during World War I or joined in protests against Kristallnacht in 1938. 

While political and religious leaders demonstrated tolerance, their constituents did not necessarily share tolerance. Jews found this out when they tried to join the Masons or Odd Fellows or other fraternal organizations that barred Jews from local chapters, whether in Albany or Nassau. No Jew could eat lunch at the Mohawk Club in Schenectady or the University Club in Albany. In 1877, the Grand Hotel in Saratoga Springs set the pattern for social discrimination that spread throughout the Capital District. Gentiles, primarily of Anglo or Dutch origin, wanted Jews excluded. Educational institutions, whether Union College in Schenectady or the Albany School for Girls, limited Jewish enrollment to avoid scaring away their good customers, Protestant Anglo-Americans, who cringed at the sight of too many Jews. 

Many educational institutions, from private schools to professional schools, adopted quotas to limit Jewish enrollment. Jewish children in public schools could not join high school clubs, fraternities, or sororities. Some Jewish kids, like Marty Silverman in Troy or Issur Demsky in Amsterdam, faced hostility from their Gentile classmates.

Jews faced restrictions in housing and employment. The Grand Hotel set the model for rejecting “Hebrews,” and local realtors and landlords would not sell or rent to Jews in certain sections of the Capital District, like the Pine Hills neighborhood of Albany. Employers would not hire Jews or limit the number employed. For example, a resident of Amsterdam, twenty-eight miles northwest of Albany, remembered his father could not get employment in any of the mills because they would not hire Jews. 

Issur Demsky recorded the anti-Semitism in Amsterdam in the early 20th Century in his autobiography, and his father became a ragman because of the limited job prospects. Large employers and smaller retailers in the Capital District tended to limit the number of Jews they hired. Employment discrimination limited opportunities for Jews until after World War II. Social, educational, and economic, not political anti-Semitism, became the way Jews faced rejection in the Capital District from the mid-Nineteenth Century until the 1960s. For some Gentile Americans, as historian Hasia Diner concluded, Jews remained a symbol of otherness that did not belong in Christian America. What happened in the Capital District represented the national patterns of discrimination in America.[20]

About the author: Harvey Strum is a professor of history and political science at Russell Sage College in Troy and Albany. His most recent publications include: America’s Mission of Mercy to Ireland, 1880, New York History, 2018; Schenectady’s Jews, Zionism, New York History Review, 2019.


1 William Kennedy,  O Albany (New York: Viking Press, 1983), 225-26; Ira Zimmerman, Anti-Semitism in Albany, 

1933-1945 (Unpublished paper, November 22, 1975). 5-6, copy at Albany County Records Office, Albany, N.Y.

2 Zimmermann, Anti-Semitism, 6, citing an interview with Mrs. Anna de Beer, October 23, 1975.

3 Ibid, Zimmermann, citing an interview with a member of the Jewish Community Council, Judge Sol Rubenstein,     

  October 20, 1975. Also, he cited the Minutes of the Albany Jewish Community Council, October 15, 1940.

4 Ibid, Zimmermann, 7-8, citing Minutes of the Albany Jewish Community Council, January 1940. Also, citing 
 interview with Judge Rubenstein, November 6, 1975.

5 Ibid, 10, citing an interview with Sarah Jaffe and Louis Lieberman, past Commander of the Jewish War Veterans Post in Albany. 

6 Knickerbocker News, August 29, 1981.

7 Messenger, October 19, 1963, Records of Temple Ohav Shalom, Albany, New York. 

8 Albany Times Union, May 21 and 24, 2019.

Wayne Somers, ed., Encyclopedia of Union College History (Schenectady: Union College Press, 2003), 185-87, 189-91, 310-11, 417-19, 626-27, 682, 805. See for example, Lambda Chi Alpha Application From that bars 
candidates of Semitic blood, Special Collections, Schaffer Library, Union College, Schenectady, New York. 

10 Schenectady Gazette, May 15, 1919; Schenectady Jewish Community to Robert Lansing, May 16, 1919, 
Woodrow Wilson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Schenectady Union-Star, May 15,16, December 8,  1919; New Jewish Chronicle, June 1919, 156, November 1919, 282. Schenectady Gazette, December 8, 1919.

11 Schenectady Gazette, September 5, 7, 1925; Somers, Encyclopedia of Union College, 417; Concordiensis, 
December 1937 from the college newspaper;” Reverend George Lunn’s Sermon” Schenectady Gazette, February 1, 1904; “Rabbi Chapman Answers Mr. Lunn.” Schenectady Gazette, February 2, 1904.

12 Samuel Weingarten to the Jewish Labor Committee, April 23, 1948, Schenectady folder, Jewish Labor Committee, Robert Wagner Archives, New York University; Schenectady Gazette, February 10-12, 1949.
Schenectady Union Star, February 12, 1949; Schenectady Gazette, February 21-23, 1968; Jewish World, 40th
Anniversary, September 2005, 74-75.

13 Hasia Diner, A Time for Gathering The Second Migration, 1820-1880 (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 191-200; Howard Sacher, A History of the Jews in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992, 274-334; Naomi Cohen, “Anti-Semitism in the Gilded Age: A Jewish View,”  Jewish Social Studies 41  (Summer/Fall 1979): 187-220

14 Diner, Time for Gathering, 198.Interview of Rabbi Avraham Laber with Marty Silverman in 2000 when Silverman was 88 in Rabbi Avraham Laber, “Jewish Life in Troy, “ in Jim Richard Wilson, editor, An American Shtetl: Jewish History and Community in Troy (Albany: Rathbone Gallery of the Sage Colleges, 2001), 26.

15 Walter Shapiro, Hustling Hitler (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016), 27. Hyman was Walter Shapiro’s great grandfather. 

16 Ibid, 26-27.

17 Ibid, 27.

18 Hasia Diner, Time for Gathering, 193.

19 Jewish Agricultural Society, Jews in American Agriculture (New York: Jewish Agricultural Society, 1954), 16. 
Nassau Synagogue and Jewish Community Center, Sharing the Light (Nassau, N.Y.: Nassau Synagogue and Jewish Community Center, 2016), 6, 9-11. Chatham Courier, June 8, 1922; Hudson Columbia Republican, June 13, 1922.

20 Issur recently died at 103. His autobiography is The Ragman’s Son (New York: Pocket Books—Simon and Schuster, 1989). Issur later changed his name to Kirk Douglas but never forgot the rampant anti-Semitism he and his family encountered in what he described as WASP Amsterdam.

1 comment: