There is a rule in journalism that it takes three of a kind to make a trend. In the past two weeks there have been four anti-Semitic incidents in Chicago: the smashing of windows and the scrawling of swastikas on the front of the Chicago Loop Synagogue, the carving of a swastika on a bench inside the Illinois Holocaust Museum, anti-Semitic and racist graffiti painted inside Saint Cornelius School in Jefferson Park, and a bomb threat to a suburban Jewish community center. This does not include the tale of a New York City subway car vandalized with more swastikas that quickly went viral because of its heartwarming ending: all the passengers combined their resources of tissue and hand sanitizer to scrub it clean.
But anti-Semitism in Chicago is nothing new, says Irving Cutler, a professor emeritus at Chicago State whose book The Jews of Chicago is the definitive history of the Jewish community here.
“Now I think a lot of the anti-Semitism, some of it is open like the breaking of the windows, but most of it is covert,” he says. “People talk and make remarks.”
Back in the early 20th century, Cutler says, there was a period when anti-Semitism was especially vicious. “There was a lot of harassment back then because Jews looked different, they dressed in the European style,” he says. Most of this harassment took place on the near west side, near what is now UIC, where most of the new arrivals lived and many Jews worked as peddlers. Kids would pull their beards or throw gum at them, but sometimes the harassment crossed the line into violence. After a peddler and a rabbi were killed in 1905, Mayor Carter Harrison issued an edict against Jew baiting, threatening heavy fines and legal prosecution.
As the Jewish immigrants assimilated, the anti-Semitism took another turn in the 1920s and 30s. Henry Ford’s newspaper the Dearborn Independent and Father Charles Coughlin’s radio broadcasts spread anti-Semitism through the media, and Nazi groups began to appear in Chicago. “In one case that I know of, the German-American Bund in the 1930s,” says Cutler, “they were holding rallies and dressed up like the Nazis.”
But the Jews fought back. “Especially during the Nazi period, there were meetings denouncing what the Nazis were doing in Germany,” Cutler says. “There were boycotts of German goods. They were effective. Some Jews wouldn’t buy Ford cars. They had meetings to organize these things.”
Some also took justice into their own hands. Davey Miller, a boxing referee who owned a pool hall in Lawndale with a gambling room upstairs and who was said to be one of Al Capone’s men, organized a group of Jewish thugs who would break up Nazi rallies. (I can’t help it, I always feel a little bit proud when I hear about Jews punching Nazis, even if the Jews in question are also mobbed up.)
After World War II and the revelation of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism in Chicago became much more covert. “There was always some anti-Semitism in regard to jobs, in regard to where you lived, in regard to your ability to get into certain schools,” Cutler says.
Until a few weeks ago, though, the most overt incident of anti-Semitism in Chicago since the war was the 1978 march on Skokie where, at the time, one in six residents was a Holocaust survivor. The march was organized by the National Socialist Party of America and fiercely opposed; it took a yearlong legal battle that went all the way to the Illinois supreme court before it was determined that under the First Amendment the NSPA had the right to freedom of speech and to march with swastikas. The march was scheduled for June 25, 1978, but it never happened.
“Their organization was in Marquette Park, on the south side, and they were going to march into Skokie,” says Cutler. “They made it up to where they got off the expressway, and they were met by thousands of Holocaust survivors and their supporters and the police. So they just turned and went away. They knew what was going to happen to them. So they never did march in Skokie. But they tried to.”
(There were counterprotests in Marquette Park. Among the protesters was the future mayor Rahm Emanuel.)
Cutler subscribes to another axiom, about how history tends to repeat itself. Of the Jews facing anti-Semitism in the 1930s, he says, “They protested. They wrote to their congressmen, to the president, they had rallies. They raised money to bring over the German Jews, thousands of them, before the Holocaust. Chicago Jews like Julius Rosenwald, the founder of Sears, gave money and brought German Jews over, and after the Holocaust they brought over the leftovers. But they didn’t get much help from our federal government. They closed our doors to the ships that came here, and turned them away, like the government’s doing right now. People protested, especially the Jewish organizations, but it didn’t help very much, because they didn’t let a lot of Jews in. The Jews right now are really fighting the present action by the government, keeping out people from those seven Muslim countries. They’re siding with the Muslims, holding rallies with them, supporting them.”