Pre-World War II Antisemitism in America

Pre-World War II Antisemitism in America

Zoe Nalepa

         Antisemitism in America was not only widespread but went almost unnoticed in regard to the media prior to the Holocaust. This ideology was likely a result of the hold that Christianity had on many people’s lives, coupled with traditions of American culture. Dr. Baruch Braunstein spoke about this phenomenon in his speech A Symptom of the Disease that Kills Great Nations in December of 1939, right as the Second World War was beginning in Europe. Dr. Braunstein explained antisemitism within America and how it should be America’s greatest concern due to its relation to the persecution that was happening in German-occupied Europe. Dr. Braunstein does this through his use of powerful messages, such as how “if a nation closes itself off from others, it will fall and not be able to progress,”[1]suggests that America is attempting to keep different ideas, religions, and cultures out, and in doing so is only harming themselves. Dr. Braunstein exclaimed that Americans should change their opinions on and reaction to Jewish people, in order to help further America by increasing tolerance of different people and their cultures.

Antisemitism within America was rising leading up to World War II because of the notion that Jewish people and other minority groups were the cause of America’s greatest issues even though they had been persecuted for centuries. Many Jewish Americans chose to ignore antisemitism and the persecution that was happening in America and abroad leading up to the war believing that they were not the ones being harmed.2 This led to a cultural separation of Jewish people and helped the American Jewish people look past what was going on abroad. This disconnect allowed antisemitism to continue in the United States because Jewish people were less likely to point out or condemn it when they saw it happening. But antisemitism was not only happening in Europe and in American cities, it was prevalent in the American government.

The American government continued to stay out of the Second World War physically, yet by allowing widespread antisemitism to continue, the American Government made a statement about where the nation stood when it came to antisemitism. Many politicians at this time were known to have had antisemitic ideologies, even President Roosevelt had antisemitic ideologies during his presidency, believing that Jewish people should not immigrate to America or seek refuge here.  The Roosevelt administration also refused to allow refugees that were fleeing German-occupied nations, never increasing their quotas for the number of Jewish refugees.

While Roosevelt’s antisemitic ideologies were not always public, many came to light because of the Morgenthau Project after Roosevelt’s death.[2]The Morgenthau project, created after FDR’s presidency, discloses many private conversations the President had with colleague Henry Morgenthau through the digital archiving of Morgenthau’s private diary entries and letters.[3]These letters revealed some of the policies and ideologies that President Roosevelt held which might not have been formerly made public. Included in these documents was a letter that Roosevelt had sent to Morgenthau about his idea to “spread thin” the Jewish and other immigrants that came to America. Roosevelt believed that immigrants of the same ethnicity or background should not settle together, but instead should be spread thinly around America in order to not “disrupt” the original cultural and political ideologies of the areas they settle.[4]This ideology was not only anti-immigration but antisemitic, as well. Roosevelt believed that the Jewish people entering America would somehow alter and degrade the ways in which America would continue to run.

President Roosevelt in liaison with other government officials had a plan he called the M-project, not to be confused with the Morgenthau Project that was previously discussed. The M-project or “migration project” was an idea of what to do with the European migrants, particularly Jewish migrants, that were expected to be displaced at the end of the Second World War. The M-project was created in 1942, years prior to the end of the war, and was greenlit in secret by the president, who commissioned journalist John Franklin Carter and anthropologist Henry Field to create a survey of regions that would be suitable for Jewish people to live. President Roosevelt created this project in an attempt to find places in and out of the United States for Jewish refugees to be placed after the war. This concept was created in secret due to the antisemitic and controversial nature of the project. This project perpetuates the antisemitic and anti-immigration ideologies that Roosevelt had throughout his presidency.

During Roosevelt’s presidency, he attempted to show his support for the Jewish people being persecuted, but did not make headway in his efforts. Roosevelt set up an international conference called the Evian Conference in July of 1938 in order to address the issues arising in Germany at the time. At this conference, many nations agreed that Jewish people needed to be helped and that their laws about refugees should change. Despite this, most nations did not change the number of refugees they would allow, even though they “expressed sympathy for the refugees.”7 These nations would not allow them within their boundaries for fear of being taken over by Germany, and being dragged into the war. Instead of allowing more Jewish immigrants or refugees into the United States, President Roosevelt continued to display consistent performative activism by discussing the issue while making no legitimate attempts to help Jewish people. The lack of change after the Evian conference showed not only Nazi Germany that they could continue the persecution of Jewish people, but also showed Americans that there was no real movement to help Jewish people and that they could continue in their hateful ways. The United States continued to allow a limited number of Jewish immigrants during the war, and only ever approved 1000 Jewish refugees to enter America. President Roosevelt was more interested in performative activism than in supporting the Jewish people being prosecuted and murdered throughout German-occupied Europe. The lack of action from President Roosevelt influenced the way antisemitism and the holocaust were viewed in America until the United States joined the war.

Leading up to the Second World War, there was an abundance of antisemitism throughout America, much of which went ignored by the average citizen. Many Americans had very negative ideologies about Jewish people, and stereotypes ran rampant through the media. Historian Leonard Dinnerstein suggests that the increase in antisemitism at this point was in part due to the increased aggravation and suspicion of outsiders, with many other groups suffering from prejudice as well. Antisemitism at this time was not seen as an issue by non-Jewish Americans, and lacked media attention from gentile groups. Notably, a study done in November of 1938 showed that 52.5 percent of Americans believed there was very little hostility toward Jewish people in America, even though similar studies show that antisemitism was on the rise in the years leading up to World War II.[5]In an attempt to change the tides of antisemitism, small video and audio updates about the progression of the war in Europe–called Newsreels–would play before movies and on the radio during the Interwar years from 1934 to 1938. They often informed people about foreign affairs such as the Annex of Austria and other nations.[6]However, many Americans were wary about the specifics of the information that they consumed, due to the large amounts of misinformation and propaganda that Americans received during the First World War.[7] The American Institute of Public Opinion found that in January of 1943, 29% of people thought that it was untrue that 2 million Jewish people had been killed since the beginning of the war.With almost a third of Americans remaining unsure about the information they consumed about the war, a change in America’s views about Jewish people seemed unlikely.


1 Braunstein, Baruch. 1939 “A Symptom of the Disease that Kills Great Nations.” Transcript of speech delivered at Institute on Contemporary Jewish Affairs in Washington D.C., December 12th, 1939.

[2] Rafael Medoff, “What FDR Said about Jews in Private,” Los Angeles Times (Los Angeles Times, April 7,

[3] “Morgenthau Project,” FDR Presidential Library & Museum, accessed November 15, 2022, https://www.fdrlibrary.org/morgenthauproject.

[4] “FDR Wanted Jews ‘Spread Thin’ and Kept out of U.S., Documents Reveal.” The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com. Accessed October 30, 2022, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/fdr-wanted-jews-spread-thin-and-kept-out-of-us-documents-reveal-553336.

[5] Erskine, Hazel Gaudet. “The Polls: Religious Prejudice, Part 2: Anti-Semitism.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 29, no. 4 (1965): 664. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2747042.

[6] “What Americans Knew,” United States holocaust memorial museum (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum), accessed November 12, 2022, https://exhibitions.ushmm.org/americans-and-the-holocaust/main. 10 Erskine, Hazel Gaudet. “The Polls: Religious Prejudice, Part 2: Anti-Semitism.” The Public Opinion Quarterly 29, no. 4 (1965): 649–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2747042.

[7]Michael Wilson, “Nazis Warn World Jews Will Be Wipes Out Unless Evacuated by Democracies,” Los Angeles, November 23, 1938, pp. 1-1. Time magazine through Holocaust Museum