We’re used to politicians mangling history, whether out of carelessness or partisanship. So it was a breath of fresh air when New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang recently shared a powerful historical truth about people who boycott Jews.
Yang has been pilloried by supporters of the BDS movement. But he got it right. “A Yang administration will push back against the BDS movement, which singles out Israel for unfair economic punishment,” he wrote in The Forward.
And then came his most controversial—but most important—sentence: “BDS [is] rooted in anti-Semitic thought and history, hearkening back to fascist boycotts of Jewish businesses.”
The best known “fascist boycott” against Jews was waged by the government of Nazi Germany, beginning with a one-day nationwide action, on April 1, 1933, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power. Throughout the Reich on that day, stormtroopers were stationed at entrances to Jewish stores and offices, and above the doors, they posted a yellow circle—the medieval symbol associating Jews with gold and prostitution. The boycott was intended to demonstrate that the Nazis could readily threaten Jews’ economic survival. In subsequent years, the Nazis avidly enforced local boycotts of Jewish-owned businesses across Germany.
Elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe during the same period, anti-Semitic political parties and grassroots movements promoted anti-Jewish boycotts, although generally, they were local initiatives, lacking the imprimatur of government approval. A notable exception was Poland, where, beginning in 1936, Prime Minister Felicjan Skladkowski openly endorsed “economic struggle” against Polish Jews.
Here in the United States, the pro-Nazi German American Bund and the neo-fascist Christian Front organized and aggressively promoted boycotts of Jewish stores. The Friends of the New Germany, from which the Bund evolved, originated the boycott in 1934, establishing a German-American Business League to promote and police it.
In the heavily German American neighborhood of Yorkville, in Upper Manhattan, Jewish businesses “are boycotted quite as thoroughly as in Germany,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that spring. A Jewish bookseller told the JTA his sales “have fallen off almost one hundred percent.” Previously, his business was so successful that there were “frequent robberies.” But now, “not even the burglars come anymore.”
To intimidate non-Jewish shopkeepers, those who failed to pledge loyalty to the boycott had their front window “marked with large swastikas”; in many cases, “the Hitlerite insignia has been cut into the bay windows of the stores, apparently with a diamond.”
Over the next several years, in New York and Boston, the Christian Front, organized by followers of the anti-Semitic Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, distributed guides for shoppers identifying stores not owned by Jews. These guides carried the statement that “Christ Himself” sponsored the anti-Jewish boycott. The Christian Front posted fliers featuring Nazi-style anti-Semitic imagery in subway stations and on shop windows and buildings, urging passersby to boycott Jewish stores and to “Buy Christian.” These fliers included genocidal threats, such as “Destroy the Jews!” and “Kill the kike vermin!—Wake up Christians!”
As in Germany, the boycott and the circulation of anti-Semitic propaganda precipitated frequent violent attacks on Jews in the streets and parks of Boston and New York, on Jewish homes and stores, and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries. Commentators referred to these attacks as “mini-pogroms.” They reached a peak during World War II but continued for several years after the end of the war.
Obviously, there are many differences between the anti-Jewish boycotts of the 1930s and the BDS campaigns of our own time. Yet we dare not ignore the parallels.
Today’s BDS advocates heatedly deny that they are fascists or anti-Semites. They claim they are “only” boycotting Israelis, not Jews. Likewise, advocates of “partial” BDS say they are boycotting “only” Israeli settlers, not residents of Israeli towns within the pre-1967 areas.
If that were true, the BDS movement would boycott Israeli Arabs as well as Israeli Jews. And the “partial boycotters” would target Israeli Arab residents of communities beyond the pre-1967 lines. They would also refrain from boycotting foreign-born Jewish “settlers” who are not Israeli citizens.
Have you ever heard of BDS activists boycotting Israeli Arabs in general, or Israeli Arab residents of settlements, or exempting non-Israeli settlers? We haven’t. The reason is simple: They are targeting Jews. And that makes their actions uncomfortably similar to the behavior of the fascists to whom Andrew Yang referred.
Stephen H. Norwood is a professor of history and Judaic studies at the University of Oklahoma; his latest book is “Prologue to Annihilation: Ordinary American and British Jews Challenge the Third Reich.”
Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies; his most recent book is “The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the Holocaust.”
This article was first published by the Jewish Journal.