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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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St. Louis Jewish Light

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Confronting the Lindbergh legacy in St. Louis


On Dec. 13, 1930, about 2,000 people representing the elite of St. Louis society gathered at the Bridle Spur Hunt Club in Huntleigh Village to celebrate the dedication of a newly paved highway. What was once Denny Road was re-named Lindbergh Boulevard.

The luncheon at the club included speeches from state senators, representatives, judges and mayors. It was followed by two “processions of automobiles’’ that convened at Kirkwood High School where alumni of Kirkwood and Webster Groves High Schools played a game of football, according to the Naborhood Link News.

All that fanfare was in honor of Charles A. Lindbergh, the aviator who made history by flying solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927 in a plane named the “Spirit of St. Louis.” Lindbergh didn’t attend the dedication ceremonies in 1930. But his ties to the region come from his stint living here from about 1926 to mid-1927. It was in St. Louis that he nurtured relationships with a handful of wealthy aviation aficionados who ultimately provided the funding Lindbergh needed to buy the plane that would launch him into history.

Just 11 years after Lindbergh Boulevard was named, a new movement was afoot to change the name back to Denny. By 1941, the high regard Lindbergh had enjoyed for so long was besmirched by his opposition to entering World War II and by his open disdain for Jews.

That name change never happened. Nor has there been any calls to do so since.

Yet the past few years, American society has re-examined how we think about the legacy of slavery, racism and the Native American genocide. There is little evidence that a similar examination has occurred with people who espoused a different kind of hate: antisemitism. As a result, Lindbergh — and many men like him — get to keep their legacy, and the broader culture doesn’t question it. His views are excused because he was simply a man of his time. 

“I wouldn’t say that St. Louis has a love affair with Lindbergh,” said Frances Levine, former CEO and president of the Missouri Historical Society. “I’d say St. Louis has an unexamined relationship with Lindbergh.”

It’s relatively easy to scrutinize the legacies of Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson and even King Louis IX, St. Louis’ namesake.  Each of those men’s accomplishments came at the violent expense of other people. But Lindbergh represents a different kind of hatred, one that isn’t as easy to villainize. 

In a few years, the world will once again recall the amazing feat of a single person flying from New York to Paris, paving the way for modern commercial and private aviation. To mark the centennial anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight on May 21, 2027, there will probably be exhibits in museums, commemorative films and articles written about the aviator’s adventures and the tragic kidnapping and murder of his first-born son. 

But Lindbergh’s legacy is complicated. He had great admiration for Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler. He was ardently opposed to U.S. involvement in World War II and was on the lecture circuit in the 1930s and early ’40s of the America First Committee, the foremost isolationist pressure group of that time. His unprecedented celebrity status meant he had a microphone and he used that microphone to subtly and, eventually, overtly voice antisemitic opinions. 

Many years after his death, it was discovered that Lindbergh had at least two other families from affairs that started in the 1950s in Germany — ties that his American family knew nothing about.

Before the centennial commemoration of Lindbergh’s flight, it’s time to step back and take Levine’s advice: Examine our relationship with Lindbergh, understand his attitudes about Jewish people and reconcile what it means today that we aren’t questioning his legacy of antisemitism.

A very brief history lesson

Lindbergh was born in Detroit in 1902 and grew up in rural Minnesota, the son of a U.S. congressman. As a young man, he fell in love with aviation. He learned to fly and served in the U.S. Army Air Service. He worked as a barnstormer in the early 1920s, showing off his fearless flying capabilities to crowds across the Midwest. 

In the mid-1920s, he landed a job with the U.S. Postal Service, establishing the first air mail routes between St. Louis and Chicago. The job based him in St. Louis where he befriended some of the city’s wealthy aviation fans, including at least one name still recognizable today: Albert Bond Lambert, namesake of the city’s airport.

Aviation was a young, untested technology in the 1920s and there was a lot of anticipation to see who could be the first to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. There was, in fact, a literal competition for the feat: The $25,000 Orteig Prize. 

Lindbergh was determined to win the prize.

He turned to the connections he had made in St. Louis. In all, nine men (none Jewish) footed the money Lindbergh needed to develop the airplane that would propel him into the history books and into a paparazzi-plagued celebrity status the likes of which the country had never seen before. 

He called his plane the Spirit of St. Louis.

Charles Lindbergh stands beside the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927.

Lindbergh maintained ties with his St. Louis friends after he completed the transatlantic flight, but his direct connection to the region mostly ends there. Still, it wasn’t long before the region’s leaders wanted to honor him — for the first time. On Dec. 4, 1930, the St. Louis County Court (now the County Council) passed the resolution to rename Denny Boulevard, Lindbergh Boulevard. 

Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow, garnered even more fame when their first-born child was kidnapped — and murdered — in 1932. The subsequent trial of the kidnapper in 1935 (and his execution, in 1936) grabbed the country’s attention in a manner akin to its obsession over O.J. Simpson’s trial 60 years later. 

Lindbergh found the limelight of fame exhausting. After the kidnapping trial, he received threats against his family. So, in the mid-1930s, he moved to Europe, settling in a cottage about an hour outside London, where he worked with Pan American World Airways and pursued other scientific interests.

At the behest of the U.S. State Department, Lindbergh accepted invitations to tour German airplane factories, test state-of-the-art fighter planes and review the country’s air force. He felt certain no other nation could compete against Germany’s air power. In 1936, he was the guest of Field Marshal Hermann Göring at the Berlin Olympics. Two years later, Göring gave Lindbergh, on behalf of Hitler, the Service Cross of the German Eagle — a medal that Lindbergh kept for years and later bestowed to the Missouri Historical Society, along with acres of correspondence, diaries and other mementos from his life.

He visited Nazi Germany six times between 1936 and 1938 and wrote effusively about how ordered the country was. 

“I have come away with a feeling of great admiration for the German people,” he wrote to his friend Truman Smith after his first visit. “The condition of the country, and the appearance of the average person whom I saw, leaves with me the impression that Hitler must have far more character and vision than I thought existed in the German leader who has been painted in so many different ways by the accounts in America and England.”

The Lindberghs enjoyed their time in Germany so much that they were planning to move to Berlin in 1938 and had even found a house to stay in. But the events of Nov. 9, 1938 — Kristallnacht — changed their plans. Lindbergh wrote to a friend that he didn’t want to take any actions “which would seem to support the German action in regard to the Jews.” Then, as Hitler’s aggressions into the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia pushed Europe into war, the Lindberghs moved back to the U.S. in 1939. 

Lindbergh and antisemitism

Once home, Lindbergh joined the debate over whether or not the U.S. should get involved in the European war. Lindbergh was firmly in the isolationist camp. He publicly sparred with President Franklin Roosevelt and fell in with the America First Committee, an organization known mostly for its isolationism, but also for its belief that white people were under siege. 

Lindbergh gave radio addresses and speeches all over the country advocating against involvement in the war. While America First had only 800,000 members at its height, Lindbergh gave the group both clout and visibility.

In his speeches, personal correspondence and diary entries, it is clear that Lindbergh believed and trumpeted age-old, antisemitic tropes. Sometimes, his antisemitism was merely a dog whistle.

“We must learn to look behind every article we read and every speech we hear,” he said in a radio address on Sept. 15, 1939. “We must not only enquire about the writer and the speaker — about his personal interests and his nationality, but we must ask who owns and influences the newspaper, the news picture, and the radio station.”

Other times, as in this speech from June 15, 1940, the antisemitism was more direct: “The only reason that we are in danger of becoming involved in this war is because there are powerful elements in America who desire us to take part. They represent a small minority of the American people, but they control much of the machinery and influence and propaganda. They seize every opportunity to push us closer to the edge.” 

For the thousands of people who attended America First rallies, heard Lindbergh’s speeches on the radio, or read them in the newspaper, this was familiar territory. Letters and postcards archived at the Missouri History Museum reveal that a lot of people found Lindbergh’s speeches inspirational, and they heard his dog whistles quite clearly.

“I have listened to every one of your radio programs so far, the only one I failed to catch was your program last Monday which was cut off of station W.O.R. New York City,” wrote Albert K. Dawson of Jackson Heights, N.Y.  “This station is run by a bunch of Jews who want to drag us into this war in order to take out their spite on Hitler — and I would appreciate very much receiving a copy of this speech if you have a spare available.”  

America’s willingness to either endorse, tolerate or ignore Lindbergh’s antisemitism changed after the speech he delivered on Sept. 11, 1941, in Des Moines, Iowa.

“The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt Administration.” Of the Jews, he said, “Instead of agitating for war, Jews in this country should be opposing it in every way, for they will be the first to feel its consequences. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”

Americans knew enough about what was happening to Jews in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries to know that Lindbergh’s comments went too far. The mainstream newspapers filled with letters to the editor decrying Lindbergh’s speech. Several newspapers had editorials condemning Lindbergh’s speech for its antisemitism.

“The assertion that the Jews are pressing this country into war is UNWISE, UNPATRIOTIC AND UN-AMERICAN” intoned an editorial on Sept. 15, 1941, in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph. In Carthage, Mo., the Carthage Democrat’s editorial headline read “Farewell to Lindbergh,” and the author called Lindbergh a “sucker” for his admiration of the German Luftwaffe and a dupe who is being used by domestic groups, “elements whose interests are diametrically opposed to the United States.” 

In the aftermath of the speech, St. Louis newspapers reported that there was an effort to return Lindbergh Boulevard to Denny Boulevard — albeit a fairly anemic effort. In an opinion piece in the St. Louis Star and Times, the writer noted that only 15 people showed up at a “rally” to advocate for the name change, noting one of the people at the meeting “walked out on the principal speaker, saying: ‘That’s a lot of boloney.’” 

WWII seems to have obliterated the memory of Lindbergh’s rhetoric for most Americans. Yet when his name is mentioned today in Jewish circles, the first word that comes up is “antisemite.” But what does that really mean for someone living at that time?

Lindbergh in Lindbergh’s time

To be Jewish in America in the 1930s and ‘40s was to live with the understanding that you were never considered fully American. Whether a family could date its ties to the U.S. from the 17th century or if it was among the thousands who immigrated around the turn of the 20th century, Jews knew that they were accepted into American society conditionally. 

To be Jewish in America at that time meant that elite universities had a cap on how many Jews they would admit; Jewish doctors couldn’t practice at many hospitals; country clubs wouldn’t accept Jews as members; and Jews were barred from certain restaurants and resorts. 

In reaction to the systemic antisemitism, Jews created their own enclaves. They founded hospitals where Jewish doctors could work and law firms for Jewish lawyers. They created Jewish country clubs and resorts.

Many Jews had no choice but to live among fellow Jews. In St. Louis and around the country, housing deeds had restrictive covenants that prevented Black people and people of “Hebrew descent” from owning homes. As a result, where you lived determined the level of antisemitism you were exposed to.

Just take the disparate experiences of one married St. Louis couple, Lou and Evelyn Cohen of Clayton. Lou, 91, grew up in St. Louis County and recalls almost no brushes with antisemitism. 

“I know there were quotas in schools and for getting jobs, which I never felt,” he said. “My first experience was in the army and it was only with one particular officer who had some pretty nasty things to say.”

Evelyn Cohen, 87, however, experienced life as a Jew very differently. She grew up across the river in O’Fallon, Ill., population 3,000 with one Jewish family.

Her father owned the dry goods store in town and was mostly well-respected. But every now and then, she said, people would call her family “dirty Jews” or spit at them on the sidewalk. And, in some cases, Evelyn said, they were barred from participating at all.

“I couldn’t learn to swim,” Evelyn said. “They didn’t have a pool in O’Fallon, but they did in Lebanon. But there was a sign up at the pool in Lebanon: ‘No Jews or dogs allowed.’ ”

This is the zeitgeist in which Lindbergh lived. His diaries reflect what many Christian Americans likely felt about Jewish people. In one 1939 entry, Lindbergh reflects on a visit he had with one Dr. Flexner. “He is a wonderful old man, and one of those Jews who makes you wonder why his race has been persecuted throughout history — until you remember the other kind, the kind that crowd clothing stores, the refugee ships, and beaches and New York streets.”

Or, as he wrote in his journal in August 1939: “Whenever the Jewish percentage of total population becomes too high, a reaction seems to invariably occur. It is too bad because a few Jews of the right type are, I believe, an asset to any country.”

The right kind of Jew is fine … in small numbers. This attitude was not unique to Lindbergh.

“Even if you associated with Jews during the day, there was a 5 o’clock shadow,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. “After work ended, you didn’t associate with them. This was true of Lindbergh, but it was true of many others as well, including [Harry] Truman.”

The “5 o’clock shadow” represents the genteel side of mid-century antisemitism. There was an ugly side as well. 

“There were so many times my father came home bloody,” said Elsie Shemin Roth, 94, who now lives at the Brentmoor Retirement Community in Ladue. Shemin Roth grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s. Even though New York City had (and still has) the largest Jewish population in the U.S, Roth said she didn’t live in a Jewish area.

“We lived in a very Italian neighborhood where a lot of our neighbors were also immigrants,” Roth said. “There was a high level of antisemitism. In school, I remember one nasty situation. A kid much smaller than I kept calling me a dirty Jew. He reached out and hit me and I smacked him back so hard. He fell down and his lip was bleeding.”

Roth recalled the park near her house that hosted American German Bund (group) rallies. “American citizens of German heritage would come in and there was terrible antisemitic rhetoric,” she remembered.

In St. Louis, a group called the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, or the American German Nazis, had a meeting house at 2960 Oregon Ave., and a summer camp near the Meramec River off of Lemay Ferry Road. American and Nazi flags flew at the summer camp, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on Aug. 9, 1937. The group held at least one rally in Forest Park, parading with a Nazi flag to the Friedrich Ludwig Jahn monument on a Sunday morning.

The group claimed not to have ties to Germany’s National Socialist Party, according to the Post-Dispatch article. But the article also cites the organization’s German language newspaper, which stated the group’s philosophy clearly: “… the National Socialist dictatorship is the best possible government for present day Germany, that Hitler has regenerated Germany, that the Nazis and the people who believe in Nazi-ism are persecuted in foreign countries, that Communism and the Jews are evil…”

While there may have been distaste for flagrant Nazism, most Americans were fine with low-level antisemitism, said Eric Goldstein, associate professor of history at Emory University and author of “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race and American Identity.” However, people weren’t comfortable with the large number of Jewish immigrants who poured into the U.S. from the late 1800s through 1923, and Lindbergh’s views were reflective of most Americans. People were deeply concerned about the way Jewish immigrants would change the character of America, Goldstein said. In 1924, Congress passed new immigration laws aimed at southern and eastern European immigrants. Jews were particularly targeted.

“That was an antisemitic policy, but it also hastened Americanization of the Jewish community,” Goldstein said. At some point in the 1920s and 1930s, the majority of Jews in America were born here. And that created a new conundrum for America’s antisemitic streak.

“I characterize it as acculturation without integration,” Goldstein continued. “Meaning, the American born, second generation were becoming American. They spoke English. Their dress and comportment were American. They were going to American public schools, consuming American fashion. From their exterior trappings, they were absorbing American culture.”

But this hardly led to greater acceptance.

The inter-war era in America was also a time of intense anxiety, Goldstein said. The emergence of communism and the success of the Russian revolution, labor unrest and the Great Depression combined to create a time of great uncertainty.

“People from all different classes and the leaders, they were all struggling with society and things that seem beyond their control,” Goldstein said. “And that is when antisemitism emerges. People are trying to blame someone for these problems in society.”

Sarna, from Brandeis, agrees. “Whenever a country or group experiences those kinds of rapid changes, there are going to be people — and Lindbergh was one of them — who worry that they are going to be displaced, that Jews are taking over.”

As the Jews — less than 2% of the country’s population — were blending into the larger society, other changes were occurring that deepened the country’s anxiety. Cars were becoming more commonplace, thanks in part to Henry Ford. Commercial aviation was beginning to seem like a possibility, thanks to national and international routes mapped by Lindbergh. And mass communication was moving into a new phase with the advent of the radio, a technology exploited quite successfully by a heretofore unknown Catholic priest, Father Charles Coughlin. 

In 1919 Ford bought a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, and used it to promulgate virulently antisemitic articles, frequently citing and promoting the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The Independent’s circulation was second only to the New York Times in the 1920s. 

Lindbergh was well acquainted with Ford and referred to him in his diaries as “one of the greatest men this country has produced.” 

Coughlin began as a local broadcaster but by the mid-1930s his national radio show had an estimated 30 million listeners each week, according to a 1972 biography by Sheldon Marcus. 

Following Kristallnacht, Coughlin gave a radio address in which he explained to his listeners that Jews were to blame for the attacks. “Jewish persecution only followed — only followed — after Christians were first persecuted,” he said.

While Lindbergh may not have been as blatant in his antisemitism as Coughlin or Ford, his views certainly aligned with theirs. 

“Bad ideas are always in the atmosphere. The problem is that when people in high positions give voice to them, they do extraordinary damage,” said Ken Burns, a documentary filmmaker who created “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” 

Burns said even if Lindbergh wasn’t the most virulent antisemite in America at that time, he had a megaphone that others did not. 

“What happens when these ideas get in the hands of people who have broad followings? These ideas gain more traction when you substitute Kanye West for Charles Lindbergh,” Burns said.

Lindbergh’s radio addresses and speeches gave voice to the genteel antisemitism of the time. People generally didn’t take issue with his warning about an unnamed group having undue influence over the media. 

“That was another great American speech you made Sunday afternoon. Hurrah for you!” wrote Mr. and Mrs. C.M. Hunter of Houston in 1940. “There are plenty of red-blooded Americans that believe in you and know that you are not a Nazi agent because you know enough about airplanes to get a medal from Hitler. I feel proud that he thought enough of your ability to give you a medal.”

“What was important about Lindbergh — like Ford — he was a national hero,” Sarna said. “And when a national hero attacks Jews, that is very serious because lots of people think he must know a lot. He is a hero. In that sense, it was more serious than Father Coughlin.”

A hero’s fall (temporarily)

In the fall of 1941, newspapers were filled with accounts of the blitzkrieg in London as well as Hitler’s invasions of more European countries — Denmark, Greece, the Netherlands and France, to name a few. And some news of how the Nazis were treating Europe’s Jews — as well as artists and intellectuals — was making its way across the Atlantic. 

President Franklin Roosevelt, who was in public disagreement with Lindbergh about what role the U.S. should take in the 

European war, had launched a strategic campaign to prepare Americans for what he thought was the U.S.’s inevitable participation in the war, said Daniel Greene, curator of the “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

It was against that backdrop that Lindbergh gave his speech at the America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa.

“I also think something critical was coming to a boil,” Greene said of that evening. “The mood in the hall that night was already angry. Roosevelt gave one his fireside chats that same night. It was piped into the hall before Lindbergh spoke. Most of the negative reaction in the hall was when he talked about Roosevelt. People would jeer.”

But most people who heard the speech weren’t in the hall that night; they heard it over the radio. And somehow, to a broad swath of the public, Lindbergh crossed a line when he openly named Jews as one of three groups advocating for American involvement in the war.

It’s not that antisemitism went away as Americans became more aware of what was happening in Nazi-occupied countries. Rather, it’s that the tolerance level for what was acceptable changed. 

“When you confront history, you also have to look for a sign of hope,” Greene said. “One sign is that mainstream America responded so critically. Even if they might believe some of the things (Lindbergh) believes — that Jews have undue influence in America — you didn’t side with the Nazis if you are in the mainstream. The response to that speech is that Lindbergh is a Nazi.”

A few months after Lindbergh’s Des Moines speech, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America’s reluctance to join the war basically evaporated, and along with it, the memory of the role Lindbergh played in protesting American involvement in the war. 

In the years since, neither the country’s reverence for Lindbergh nor the existence of antisemitism have gone away. Rather they morphed into a different flavor.

What’s old is new again

Lindbergh fought in the war, although in an unofficial capacity. During the years leading up to America’s entrance into World War II, Lindbergh’s spats with President Roosevelt and his ardent opposition to entering the war had prompted him to very publicly surrender his position as colonel in the Army Air Corps.

Once the war started, Lindbergh tried to convince his friends in the military to reinstate him. But the years Lindbergh spent as part of the America First movement undermined the administration’s faith in him. Even though he was not allowed back in, he managed to find ways to help the war effort. 

According to A. Scott Berg’s seminal biography, Lindbergh worked for Henry Ford, advising his company on construction of its B-24 bomber. He also served as a guinea pig for scientists to advance their understanding of high-altitude flying. He eventually made his way to the South Pacific where he advised various air force commands and eventually, surreptitiously, joined numerous combat missions. Such activities were against regulation, but Lindbergh’s skills and charm caused even Gen. Douglas MacArthur to look the other way.

Once the war was over and the public learned of his contributions, Lindbergh was, once again, receiving accolades and honors. 

In St. Louis, a south county school district named its high school after Lindbergh in 1952. 

According to the district history, last updated in 2014: “On September 14, 1952, the new Lindbergh High School was dedicated with the reading of a letter from Col. Charles A. Lindbergh and the presentation of his autographed portrait, which is currently displayed in the administration building.”

The high school students became the Flyers. Its yearbook, the “Spirit.” Its marching band, “The Spirit of St. Louis.” In 1957, the entire school district took on Lindbergh’s name. 

In 2007, 50 years after its naming, the Lindbergh School District unveiled a 16-inch-tall bronze sculpture of its namesake by renowned St. Louis-based sculptor Don Wiegand. The sculpture and portrait sat outside the school’s auditorium until last year when it was removed for construction of a new auditorium. They haven’t been put back on display.        

And yet, when repeatedly asked for an interview about how the district thinks of Lindbergh the man, or how it uses his legacy as an educational tool, the district wasn’t interested in talking. 

“I’ve shared your email with our administrative team and the struggle we are having is that Lindbergh schools does not associate its identity with Charles Lindbergh at all and has not for many years,” the district’s communications officer responded in an email. “Anyone who would have been familiar with the district’s original decision to choose this name has long since retired. If people ask us how our district was named today, we tell them that it is a nod to the district’s location on and surrounding Lindbergh Boulevard.”

The school district wasn’t the only place that skirted talking about the problematic legacy of its namesake, although it’s the only one that wouldn’t engage at all. John Bales, the director of aviation at the Spirit of St. Louis Airport, insisted that the airport’s name is a reference to the city’s spirit of aviation. 

In Godfrey, Ill., Pam Whisler, the town’s first clerk, organized the effort to relocate the hut that served Lindbergh’s relay station when he was working for the U.S. Postal Service from an out-of-the-way farm to the front lawn of the city hall. Whisler said there were some people in Godfrey who didn’t care for Lindbergh, but they recognized that the city was capitalizing on “good history” by preserving the tiny cabin, she said. They supported the move by buying inscribed bricks to fund the project.

‘Antisemitism is like a virus that mutates’

Being uncomfortable talking about antisemitism — or refusing to talk openly about the sentiments of a man whose legacy is imprinted all over the region — isn’t a sign that people harbor antisemitic beliefs. But it is a sign that society as a whole still hasn’t reconciled its relationship with the Jews in its midst. Since Oct. 7, 2023 — when Hamas attacked Israel, murdering more than 1,200 Israelis and taking more than 250 people hostage — it’s become even more clear that antisemitism didn’t disappear at the close of WWII — a fact that is not surprising to anyone who is well-versed in Jewish history.

“Antisemitism never goes away. It’s more like a virus that mutates. It hangs around for a long time and then it crops up,” said Rabbi Diana Fersko, author of “We Need to Talk About Antisemitism.” 

“It’s an idea. And ideas have a way of lingering and returning,” Fersko added.

In many ways, antisemitism in the 21st century is still full of the tropes and assumptions that people in Lindbergh’s time held. But the war with Hamas demonstrates how it has morphed from a set of beliefs that mostly right-wing, white supremist groups espouse into an ethos that politically progressive people now embrace. It is easier to villainize Israel — and by default, Jews — than it is to learn about the complicated history of the Jewish people and of the conflict with Palestinians, Fersko said.

There was already an uptick in antisemitic incidents prior to Oct. 7. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 3,697 antisemitic incidents took place in 2022, the highest number since 1979 when the ADL started tracking it. They include things like vandalism at synagogues, harassment and personal assaults.

But there are other ways that antisemitism manifests itself, including attitudes. The ADL surveyed more than 4,000 Americans to gauge those beliefs in 2022 and found that 70% of Americans said Jews stick together more than others; 39% thought Jews were more loyal to Israel than to the U.S; and 20% thought Jews have too much power in the U.S.

“It’s fair to say that people are more aware of antisemitism in society than they have been in years. In some ways, this is due to increased reporting in the media and social media,” said Aryeh Tuchman, director of the center of extremism at the ADL. “But there’s also an increase in the number of incidents and the pervasiveness of attitudes. It’s facilitated by ways of communication, the spread of antisemitism in social media. We’re just one click away on Facebook into the fever swamp of 4chan.” 

Even in the face of rising incidents of antisemitism, people are less likely to report it if nobody is bleeding, said Dara Horn, author of “People Love Dead Jews,” an exploration of the modern face of antisemitism. Horn said that since the publication of her book in 2021, people have been confiding in her about their own experiences. One person wearing a yarmulke in public told her about being slammed from behind with a grocery cart at the supermarket. Another person reported being pelted by pennies, she said. Still another recounted a boss taunting her for being frugal.

These aren’t the kinds of incidents that someone reports to police in part because no one was physically hurt and in part because Jews still feel powerless. Horn said there’s an embarrassment to reporting something seemingly minor when you feel that way.

“But there’s a bigger thing going on here,” Horn said. “American Jews have a profound belief in America as an exception to Jewish history. In some ways, they’re not wrong. There’s no state-sponsored violence and oppression. American Jews are not wrong to be grateful to this country compared to the rest of Jewish history. 

“But this dynamic creates a very deep belief that America is an exception to Jewish history. When you have a deep belief like that and something happens to contradict that belief, you settle that cognitive dissonance by finding excuses to explain it away, saying, ‘This is an exception’ in order to maintain a belief that is important to you.”

That belief could explain why, when Jewish people experience antisemitism in any form, they are reluctant to call attention to the problem. The ADL surveyed Jewish college students in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks and found that 55% did nothing after experiencing an antisemitic incident, mostly out of fear of backlash. 

Antisemitism vs. racism

As the Black Lives Matter movement has grown, so, too, have workplace and campus workshops in equity, belonging, inclusion and diversity. More than half of college students surveyed by the ADL say they have taken such training where they learn, among other things, about white privilege, the fact that simply having white skin imbues a person with advantages that people of color do not have. 

But what the training doesn’t explore is the status of Jews and white privilege because that same privilege has helped perpetuate antisemitism, said Goldstein, the Emory University professor and the author of “The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity.”

“American Jews have benefited from white privilege. But at the same time, that’s not the whole story. It’s more complicated. Antisemitism relies on Jews having a degree of white privilege. It opens them up to projecting societal problems onto them,” Goldstein said.

In other words, Jews are dangerous because they can infiltrate the white race without people noticing; Jews surreptitiously lurk in plain sight. White nationalists cannot fall back on the idea that whites are inherently superior when they are beginning to see greater equality between racial groups, Goldstein said. To them, that doesn’t make sense. So, they rationalize it by blaming the Jews. 

“It only could have happened if Jews were helping African Americans. Jews are moving within the corridors of white society and disrupting white society and are disloyal to it,” Goldstein said.

Structural antisemitism is gone. There are no restrictions on how many Jews can attend universities; Jews are partners in white-shoe law firms; they can join whatever country club they want. But, Goldstein said, the number of Jews who are U.S. representatives and senators is out of proportion to the number of Jews in larger society. Jews are also disproportionately represented in some professions, including education and entertainment. What’s more, Jews attain higher levels of education than the general population, according to Pew Research.

This level of success is precisely the reason antisemitism is perpetuated, said Horn.

“The way antisemitism works is so different from the narrative in America about how racism works,” Horn said. “It’s not the same because racism is social prejudice because you believe a group of people is inferior. But antisemitism is a conspiracy theory and it believes Jews are superior to you. Jews are evil geniuses manipulating things behind the scene. It’s that Jews are going to take my job. It’s Jews are bringing in immigrants and promoting Hispanics and getting those people to take my job. It’s a puppet master thing.”

Until Oct. 7, there was an assumption that when we talk about people who hold antisemitic beliefs, we are talking about the right wing, white nationalists. But since Oct. 7, it’s become clear that there is plenty of antisemitism to be found on the left and from progressives who seek justice for the oppressed. 

The latest variant

It took less than a day, in some circles, for people to blame Israel for the attack. By the time the Israeli Defense Forces invaded the Gaza Strip and the world saw the brutality of Israel’s retribution, support and sympathy for Israel waned, even in circles where many American Jews thought they belonged. 

For progressives, the framing of the Israel-Palestinian conflict has been one of settler/colonizer, said Rabbi Daniel Bogard of Central Reform Congregation. On the one hand, that lens reflects the reality of the power that Jews have in Israel. But to use this “one lens to understand the entirety of Israel is distorted and distorting,” Bogard said.

There is also a whiff of hypocrisy in the settler/colonizer construct, said Michael Berenbaum, distinguished professor of Jewish studies at the American Jewish University. 

Berenbaum refers to Natan Sharanksy’s “3D Test” to help people understand when criticism of Israel leaks into antisemitism. Delegitimizing the state of Israel’s right to exist; demonizing Israel’s actions as uniquely criminal or evil; and the double-standard of holding Israel responsible for actions but not applying that same standard to other countries.

While it is justifiable to object to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, it is also necessary to acknowledge that the situation in Israel “sounds like the United States and Canada and Australia and 27 other countries.” It doesn’t make it right. But it is also a double standard to pretend like Israel is unique, he said.

The same framework explains why many people say calls for a cease-fire are antisemitic.

“If you call for a cease-fire now, where the outcome of the war is still in dispute, then you leave Hamas in place,” Berenbaum said. “Then you are saying that they have the right to attack Israel, but Israel doesn’t have the right to respond.”

Berenbaum added, “Anybody who sees the casualties of this war would like peace to be prevalent. But one of the problems is that Israel is in a lousy neighborhood to be unable to respond.”

What do we do about Lindbergh?

The Black Lives Matter movement prompted a long-overdue questioning of why we, as a society, commemorate some people but not others. 

As Confederate monuments and statues came down, scrutiny over who we venerate turned to people whose legacies aren’t as clearly problematic as Confederate soldiers. 

There is Thomas Jefferson, the man who authored a doctrine asserting that “all men are created equal” also enslaved hundreds of human beings. Christopher Columbus, the explorer whose “discovery” of America brought Europeans to this continent who went on to conduct a brutal genocide against Native Americans. King Louis IX, the city of St. Louis’ namesake, spent fortunes to create art and churches, but he also fought in the Crusades in northern Africa, convinced that violence would wipe out Islam.

But for all the interrogation of historical figures for their racism, there is silence when it comes to historical figures who were antisemitic. The silence may come from Jews’ own discomfort with bringing attention to the issue. Or it might be a recognition that taking down a statue, or changing a street name, doesn’t solve the underlying problem, said Helen Turner, director of education at the St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum.

“If you cancel or simply erase someone, we are actually denying that history and letting ourselves off the hook,” Turner said. “A better approach would be to fold it into our history.”

However, this is easier said than done, Turner said, because of the emotional and intellectual work this requires.

“We wrap a national narrative around people we hold up as heroes. If we reevaluate them, we have to reevaluate ourselves. It’s the idea behind it and our value system that we have to examine. It’s a challenge to our national identity,” she said.

Perhaps the void of discussion about Lindbergh might speak to the uneasy place Jews still have in the United States, said Daniel Greene, the curator of the exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It’s not comfortable to point out that individuals who are American heroes to so many people also both hated Jews and questioned whether Jews were real Americans.

“Multiple things can be true that make us uncomfortable,” said Greene. “It can be true that the U.S. is a land of opportunity to Jews and also a nation that closed its doors to Jews when they needed help. So, it can be true that Lindbergh is an aviation hero and the advances he helped create are a point of great pride. And also it’s true that he is someone who had a restrictive view of who should be an American and particularly hated the Jews.”

What’s the solution? Greene said the upcoming 2027 centennial of Lindbergh’s famous flight is “a chance to think about the past in a way that maybe could help us better understand the present.”

It’s unclear if that is going to happen. When asked what the Missouri Historical Society is planning for the 100th anniversary of Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Sharon Smith, curator of civic and personal identity, said the organization is tossing around ideas, but the plan is to keep things low-key. 

“We might have a book featuring items from the Lindbergh Collection published for 2027,” Smith wrote in an email. “We will also be doing some small installation within our larger permanent gallery called ‘Collected’ that will feature items from the Lindbergh Collection.”

Even the Lindbergh Foundation  doesn’t seem to have much planned to celebrate Lindbergh the man. Rather, its website is lauding its push to decarbonize aviation as part of 100th anniversary commemoration. 

The St. Louis Kaplan Feldman Holocaust Museum doesn’t have any plans to use the centennial as a launching pad for public discussion. But Turner said that given the increased reports of antisemitism and the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism, there is an opportunity to change one aspect of the narrative.

“We keep talking about antisemitism being on the rise, or spreading, which makes it sound inevitable,” Turner said. “But antisemitism is not inevitable. We are seeing a man who made an uptick in antisemitic language and violence. These are choices made by human beings. Our language around antisemitism is not doing us a great service. Rather, if we re-couch it in terms of human choices that are changeable, therein lies our power.”

Along with the River City Journalism Fund, Mont Levy and the St. Louis Jewish Light’s Bob Cohn Fund contributed to make this project possible. This story is being published simultaneously by the Riverfront Times in the hopes of informing a bigger and broader audience.

Evan Stewart provided research assistance. 

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