EXTREMISMDecline of Golden Age for American Jews

By Clea Simon

Published 30 March 2024

Franklin Foer recounts receding antisemitism of past 100 years, but recent signs of resurgence of hate and historical pattern of scapegoating tell us that the golden age for Jews in America is coming to an end. “When things [happen] that are difficult to comprehend, like a pandemic, people begin searching for something to blame,” Foer explained. As happened in Europe during the Middle Ages when the Black Plague hit, that “something” was the Jews. “People may not even realize that they have this reservoir of narratives. But when events happen, Jews get depicted as the villains.” He cited Trump’s disparagement of former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and philanthropist George Soros. Once such antisemitism became acceptable, he said, “it started pouring out.”

The golden age for American Jews is in decline. At least, for now. 

That was the provocative proposition put forth in journalist Franklin Foer’s cover story for the April issue of The Atlantic. It was also the topic of an online discussion with the magazine’s staff writer Thursday night sponsored by Harvard Hillel.

Introduced by Dani Passow, rabbi and educator at Harvard Hillel, Foer jumped right into the history of Jews in America, noting the rise and apparent fall of antisemitism in the last century.

He recalled how as recently as the 1940s, “there was still this incredible amount of antisemitism in the United States. At institutions, including Harvard, there were quotas.” 

While some Jews had obtained power in various industries, he explained, they were still a minority. “Jews existed on the fringe of the elite,” he said. “But there was a Protestant monopoly that was preventing them from having full access.”

However, he continued, within 10 years — following the exposure of the horrors of Holocaust — antisemitism seemed to be in retreat. “In 1950, I think, there was not a single Jewish professor at Yale,” he recalled. “And by the end of the 1960s, 17 percent of the professors at elite universities were Jewish, which is an incredible change over a short period of time.”


“Jews didn’t have to accept the devil’s bargain [where] the cost of citizenship was assimilation. In the United States, you could be your Jewish self.”


What followed, he said, was a golden age for American Jewry. Unlike in Europe, “Jews didn’t have to accept the devil’s bargain [where] the cost of citizenship was assimilation. In the United States, you could be your Jewish self.” He described the decades that followed as feeling like a “bear hug.”

“It felt like for a period where the nation wrapped its arms around you,” he said. With a few exceptions, such as ex-Klansman David Duke’s campaign in Louisiana and statements associated with the Nation of Islam, “when I was a college-age kid in the 1990s, I felt like antisemitism had completely disappeared,” Foer said.