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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 346-349
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Catholics and Jews in Twentieth-Century America. By Egal Feldman. (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2001. Pp. xv, 323. $34.95.)
Egal Feldman is professor of history emeritus at the University of Wisconsin. He has previously written on the Jewish-Protestant relations in Dual Destinies: The Jewish Encounter with Protestant America (University of Illinois Press, 1990). Here, he takes up the American Jewish-Catholic relationship and its remarkable development over the course of the twentieth century. In doing so, he has given a precious gift to both communities since, so far as I know, this is the first extended treatment of the subject.
As Feldman notes, Catholics and Jews saw themselves for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries essentially as immigrant communities in Protestant America, divided by religious beliefs and a bitter history in Europe, but freed from that history to relate to each other in a new way, a way without precedent in two millennia. He sets the stage for the dramatic encounter by sketching the ancient Christian "teaching of contempt" (the phrase is that of French historian Jules Isaac) against Jews and Judaism, and how the two communities confronted and coped with their emergence from medievalism to modernism in America in the first third of the century. Feldman notes that just as Jews faced anti-Semitism from the larger society on these shores, so did Catholics face strong social and political anti-Catholicism, with deep roots in nativist xenophobia and bigotry. Indeed, as Cardinal William H. Keeler wrote in his own, short survey of "Catholic-Jewish Relations in the Twentieth Century," "Perhaps no other American religious group has been the object, over so many years, of attacks from so many organizations that have seen as their chief mission the denunciation of Catholicism. These range from the Native Americans of the 1840's through the Know-nothing Party and the American Protective Association to Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, not to mention the Ku Klux Klan and other groups whose hatred encompassed Jews and Blacks as well as Catholics. Catholics have been pilloried, not only with crude ethnic stereotypes ('drunken Irish,' 'greasy Italians,' [End Page 346] 'dumb Polacks,' 'lazy Spics,' etc.) but consistently, and as a whole, for their religious beliefs." 1
Feldman thus passes too quickly over what Keeler called Catholic "similarities with Jewish experience" in this country. It is important to note that Catholics and Jews in urban America were both excluded from the "better" jobs, schools, neighborhoods, and professions, each meeting and overcoming the challenge, often separately, but sometimes in common, as in the American labor movement which was, over the decades, largely a Catholic-Jewish enterprise in its leadership as well as rank and file. This commonality of experience, I believe, is crucial to understanding the American Catholic community's generally positive attitude toward the Jewish community and its needs, including the Zionist cause, exceptions such as Father Charles Coughlin notwithstanding. Studies 2 have shown that the major Catholic journals, such as Commonweal and America, not only clearly condemned Coughlin's anti-Semitism but expressed strong outrage at Nazi persecution of Jews throughout the 1930's and 1940's, while American labor's support for the State of Israel had political consequences in the U.S. Congress. Feldman does note the way in which certain issues, such as the Spanish Civil War, which pitted Fascism against Communism, split the two communities, with the sometimes bitter feelings reflected in the pages of local Catholic papers such as the Brooklyn Tablet. Here, he might have analyzed the Jewish press as well. Likewise, the appeal of Father Coughlin is seen by Feldman, I think in general accurately, as reflecting a more widespread anti-Semitism within the Catholic community than many of us would want to admit. But that remnant of European anti-Semitism among American Catholics, it needs to be stressed, never manifested itself politically as it did in Europe. It remained pretty much in the parlors and...