A pair of tweets—unfortunate at best, outright hateful at worst—have directed a spotlight on Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar, a newcomer to Congress and one of the first Muslim-American women to serve in the House of Representatives. Her tweets, alleging that Jewish money explains politicians’ widespread support for Israel, won condemnation from foes and friends alike, all of whom correctly identified the anti-Semitic undertone that harkened back to darker times, when allegations of Jewish financial control of the world fueled violent libels. The idea of anti-Semitic canards being floated by a member of Congress struck many as beyond the pale. For activists and members of the Jewish community who had long fought to put these types of expressions off limits, Omar’s tweets served as a rude awakening.
The shock, however, is also a useful reminder of just how far America has come in eradicating anti-Semitism from its public square. A century ago, blatant expressions of Jew-hatred were nothing unusual, even within the chambers of America’s highest legislative body. Just like the American people they represented, some elected officials in the first half of the 20th century were openly anti-Semitic (and misogynist, homophobic, xenophobic and racist).
Take, for example, John Rankin (D-MS), who served in Congress from 1921 to 1953. Rankin, known for his bigoted views, once used the House floor to call a Jewish columnist he disagreed with a “little kike.” From the podium, he accused Albert Einstein of being a “foreign-born agitator.” Or consider Pennsylvania Republican Louis McFadden, who in his 20-year tenure in Congress frequently gave speeches quoting the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and claiming that Jews dominated FDR’s administration. In 1935, McFadden launched a presidential bid. His key platform promise: “Keep the Jew out of control of the Republican Party.”
In the Senate, the notoriously anti-civil rights Theodore Bilbo, a Mississippi Democrat who previously served as the state’s governor, was known for using derogatory terms to describe Jews, African Americans and Italians. His fellow senator Robert Reynolds (D-NC) co-owned an anti-Semitic newspaper. At the time, little attention was paid to incidents of anti-Semitism in Congress, and bigoted members were never rebuked by party leaders. The Jewish community, and Jewish press, however, followed the issue closely. When confronted by a JTA reporter about his views, McFadden denied being anti-Semitic, stating, “Some of my best friends are Jews.”
And then there were the Ku Klux Klan members of the House and Senate. In the name of promoting a “100 percent American” nation, these members of Congress spewed hatred of African Americans, Catholics and Jews alike. Some, like Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who went on to become a Democratic party leader and the longest-serving senator, later denounced the group. Others, such as Bilbo or Edward Douglas White (D-LA), who went on to be a Supreme Court justice, wore their KKK membership as a badge of honor. A century ago anti-Semitism in Congress was bipartisan, says Rebecca Erbelding, a historian at the United States Holocaust Museum. She notes that only in the mid-1930s did the Democratic Party begin to split between Northern Democrats, who courted African-American, immigrant and Jewish votes, and Southern Democrats, who favored segregation and immigration restrictionism.
But anti-Semitism in the early 20th century was about more than expressing hateful sentiments. Rankin and others were the driving force behind the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas on immigrants allowed into the U.S. Lawmakers made no secret of their wish to preserve “homogeneity” in the U.S. by stopping the flow of Jews and Catholics. The anti-Semitic-driven law had real-life consequences for European Jews, who when seeking refuge from Nazi persecution were met by closed doors.
Perhaps for reasons of decorum, or because nothing—even anti-Semitism—is ever personal in the Senate, Jewish members of Congress were largely spared the hatred of bigoted colleagues. “There’s always been a sort of collegiality between the members,” says Kurt Stone, author of two major books on Jews in Congress. “There was not a tremendous amount of overt anti-Semitism shown on the part of members toward each other. It existed, but you noticed it only if you knew what you’re looking for.”
The American political system has come a long way in a century. Old-fashioned, overt anti-Semitism in its classic expression is no longer acceptable within the halls of power. Behind closed doors, the stereotyping of Jews died hard, as seen in the Nixon White House tapes, which revealed the 37th president’s deep-rooted belief in anti-Semitic conspiracies. Fifty years later, accusing the “Jews” of being “all over the government” could not pass unnoticed. In Congress, the same chambers that witnessed McFadden’s and Bilbo’s hate speech have united time and again to pass resolutions condemning anti-Semitism and have taken the lead in establishing the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Openly bigoted candidates in the recent midterm elections, such as Patrick Little in California or Arthur Jones in Illinois, never stood a chance of getting elected.
Still, under the guise of the alt-right, anti-Semites on the right have made their way to positions of influence in the outer margins of the administration, while progressive activists on the extreme left have engaged, perhaps unknowingly, in anti-Israel language that flirts with anti-Semitic speech. From House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s tweet accusing Jewish billionaires George Soros and Michael Bloomberg of buying the elections, to Michigan Democrat Rashida Tlaib’s hinting at dual loyalty among supporters of Israel in Congress, much still needs to be done. After all, Congress reflects the American people. Just as the public is still struggling to understand the dangerous nature of anti-Semitic stereotypes, so too has Congress yet to fully grasp historical Jewish sensitivities. It has come a long way, but the journey is not over.
Nathan Guttman is a Moment Institute fellow.