Subject Matter Expert (SME) - Civil Rights Blog #7:

Records Regarding American Anti-Semitism in the National Archives

Ray Bottorff Jr


Anti-semitism, the act of discrimination or hatred towards people of Jewish decent, can be traced in Europe as far back as the times of the Roman Empire. Those centuries old views carried over to the American colonies, even though the number of Jewish immigrants was small during the colonial period of the 16th and 17th centuries. Eventually, what started out as a religious bias morphed into a racial and/or ethnic bias in Western Europe and in North America during the 18th and 19th centuries. The rise of modern views of what race is and increased public and political secularism made religious-based discrimination less common. But it didn’t stop anti-semitism, it just changed from a religious bias to a racial or ethnic one.

The Jewish experience in American history is a long one. The earliest known members of the Jewish community in America participated in the 1500’s Spanish exploration of what would later become Texas. In 1621 the first known Jewish settler arrived in Virginia and many more arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now known as New York. South Carolina’s colony charter specifically granted liberty to Jews, creating one of the largest Jewish communities at the time in Charleston. Every major coastal city in America had a Jewish community and Jews both served and died during the American Revolution. George Washington praised the community in his 1790 letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation, in which he cited that American religious freedom also applied for the Jewish people in, “a government which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance…”. Thomas Jefferson specifically singled out the Jews in his defense of religious liberty (though he was critical of Jewish religious doctrine and thought).

George Washington (1732-1799) to Moses Seixas (1744-1809)”. Letterbook copy in the hand of Washington's secretary, 1790. Page 2. George Washington Papers. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Washington replies to the Newport Hebrew Congregation which had written to him a congratulatory letter after his visit to Newport, Rhode Island.

After gaining independence, many states repealed laws that prevented non-Christians from holding office or voting. The remaining laws were effectively made moot by the passing of the Bill of Rights in 1781 with the First Amendment granting religious liberties to all Americans. However, it took until 1871 for the last state, New Hampshire, to officially repeal its law.

Due to religious freedom laws and the rather small Jewish population, anti-semitic discrimination did not take on the same character as it did in Europe during this time. However, this does not mean that stereotyping and restricting Jews did not happen-it did. Discrimination in hiring practices, admissions to universities and colleges, and restrictions in housing and land ownership affected Jews as it did to other minority groups throughout the 19th century.

There would be a change as the 19th century came to an end. Large increases of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe started in the 1880s and lasted until the early 1920s. Almost 3 million Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, had emigrated to the United States during this period. This increase in immigration also increased nativist attitudes and overt racism that would be codified into law with legislations like the Chinese Exclusion Act. Hysteria would also come into play against Jews in the United States after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917.Jewish people became targets as possible Communist revolutionaries. Many political radicals of Jewish descent were expelled from the United States during the First Red Scare after the First World War. In newspaper employment advertisements it was common for would-be employers to preclude Jews, African-Americans, and other minorities applying. At the time, this was a completely legal practice. The rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the 1920s aimed its hatred not only towards African-Americans, but Jews and Catholics as well.

During the 20th century, the rise in different forms of popular culture, like music, movies, magazines, comics, radio, and so on, not only provided opportunities for members of the Jewish community, as many creators and entertainers were of Jewish ancestry, but the mediums also served as an avenue to promote and reinforce negative stereotypes of Jews. The most notorious examples of this were Father Charles Coughlin’s radio broadcasts (which included regular anti-semitic screeds during the 1930s) and the fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion (published in The Dearborn Independent, the newspaper owned by automobile manufacturing pioneer Henry Ford.).

Anti-immigration attitudes culminated with the national origins quotas in the Immigration Act of 1924, which curtailed immigration from Eastern Europe, including the great bulk of Jewish migrants. This law and the anti-semitism behind it had deadly consequences for the Jews of Europe. It prevented the immigration of those trying to flee persecution in Nazi Germany, and an untold number who might have lived died during the Holocaust. Though some loosening of migration for Jews took place post-1945, the 1924 law would remain on the books until 1965.

Just because these events were taking place does not mean that the Jewish community was passive bystanders, however. Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech afforded the Jewish community in America opportunities to fight back against discrimination - opportunities which were not afforded to large swaths of the Jewish community in Europe. When it comes to anti-semitism in the United States, the roles of these groups would be a significant counterweight against the tides of discrimination.

General Orders No. 11

On December 17, 1862, Union Major-General Ulysses S. Grant issued General Orders No. 11. The Order was written to expel all Jews within the military district that comprised portions of Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee during the Vicksburg Campaign.


Ulysses S. Grant” from the series Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 - ca. 1981, in Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 - 1985.

National Archives Identification Number (NAID): 531118. Local Identifier: 111-SC-103309.


Cotton was the economic backbone of the Confederacy and its sale anywhere to anyone helped the struggling Southern economy. At the same time, Northern textile producers needed cotton to produce war materiel, cotton which only the Southern cotton farms could provide. This dispute between economic need and fighting a war led to a regulated system of trade with Southern plantation owners and the Northern textile industry. These rules proved to be difficult to enforce as the regulated legal trade in cotton was quickly supplemented by an exploding black-market trade in cotton. 


Grant saw trading in cotton as nothing but aiding the enemy, and grew to despise the trade. His anger about the situation was further exasperated in learning his own father was trying to become involved in the trade with partners who happened to be Jewish.


To combat the illegal trade, Grant issued General Orders No. 11, ordering the expulsion of all Jews within the Tennessee Department area. Of course, more than just Jewish traders were involved in the illegal cotton trade. Nearly every group living in the region, including members of the Union military, were involved. But in singling out the Jewish community, Grant let his own frustrations tap into anti-semitic stereotypes of the “corrupt and greedy Jewish businessman” that resulted in an order which only impacted the Jewish community.


The first group to be expelled were Jewish traders at Grant’s supply depot in Holly Springs, Mississippi. On December 28th, thirty Jewish families in Paducah, Kentucky were forcibly expelled north across the Ohio River, on foot.


Cesar Kaskel, a Paducah resident, along with other Paducah Jewish traders, sent a telegram to President Abraham Lincoln protesting the general order. In quick order, the word spread in the press and in Congress. Across the Union, Jewish communities began to write to Washington in protest of the order. Congress began the process to censure General Grant. Grant quickly found himself dealing with the backlash his order created.


President Abraham Lincoln” from the series Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, 1921 - 1940, in Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 - 1985.

National Archives Identification Number (NAID): 526517. Local Identifier: 111-B-2323.


Kaskel led a delegation to Washington DC to protest the order, which arrived on January 3, 1863. They conferred with local Jewish leaders and a member of Congress. Lincoln eventually would meet the delegation whereupon he directed that the order be revoked. Grant would officially rescind the order on January 17, 1863.


Grant appears to have regretted his actions in later years. His order became a political issue during his 1868 campaign for President, forcing him to address the matter. Grant would publicly apologize for his actions and appoint more Jews to political appointments than any President before him. He would also be the first President to place the matter of human rights on the American foreign policy agenda when he criticized anti-semitic activity in Europe, especially in Russia. He would also become the first American President to attend a synagogue service and a synagogue dedication, all in what appears to be an effort to make amends for his order in 1862.

Immigration Restrictions and Frances Perkins

The rise of immigration from non-Western European countries after the Civil War through the First World War was used as an excuse for racists, xenophobes, and anti-semites to push legislation to curtail immigration from non-Western European countries. These restrictions began with the Chinese Exclusion Act, then followed by the Gentlemen’s Agreement with the Japanese government to limit Japanese immigration. Prompted by the fears of enemy agents entering the country, Congress passed the 1917 Immigration Act which created an “Asiatic Barred Zone.” This banned immigration from Asia with the exception of China (already barred), Japan (already curtailed), and the Philippines (an American colony at this time). This act also created literacy tests meant to curtail immigration based on an immigrant’s levels of education.


But these acts didn’t lessen immigration much from Southern and Eastern Europe, which continued to rise significantly after the First World War. The Johnson-Reed Act, better known as The Immigration Act of 1924, specifically targeted that group and Central and Eastern European Jews. Congress had already passed immigration quotas in 1922 limiting the overall number of immigrant visas as well as how many from what country could be allowed of that total.


The 1924 Act lowered the number of immigrants allowed. It also changed what census was being used as the baseline for the quotas from the 1910 census to 1890 census. Since the vast bulk of Jewish immigration to the United States occurred after 1890, this resulted in a quota system that was heavily skewed towards immigration from Western Europe, Great Britain, and Ireland. The law also banned citizenship to not just the Chinese but to Japanese and other Asian immigrants.


Japanese and European protests over the law were generally disregarded by the U.S. government. As the 1930s and the Great Depression took hold, the issues of dispute over the law waned due to pressing matters concerning economic hardship.


With the rise of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist (Nazi) party in Germany, requests for immigration visas to countries all over the world exploded for German Jews. Fortunate immigrants made shore in countries as far flung as Argentina, Cuba, China, and Palestine. Many others aimed for Western European countries like France and Great Britain. Additional thousands of Jews began to turn to the United States and family members in America to help them escape Nazi rule with attempts to obtain immigration visas.


In 1933, Frances Perkins became the Secretary of the Department of Labor, which oversaw the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) The INS was in charge of handling immigration laws in the United States. After the *** obtained power, she began to receive correspondence from German Jews and their American relatives begging for help in obtaining visas. Perkins, who had been a politically active progressive politician, began to sympathize with the plight of German Jewry.


Photograph of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins in an automobile, apparently at the White House shortly after President Roosevelt's death.” from the series Photographs Relating to the Administration, Family, and Personal Life of Harry S. Truman, 1957 - 2004, in Collection HST-AVC: Audiovisual Collection, 1957 - 2006.

National Archives Identification Number (NAID): 199065


While the INS handled the ports of entry, it was the Department of State that handled the initial review of immigrant visa applications. Since the start of the Depression, the State Department had been under instruction from President Herbert Hoover’s White House to aggressively deny visa applications for anyone “likely to become a public charge.” With the anti-semitism and xenophobia rife in the country, it is no surprise that it also plagued those who worked in the embassy and consular offices - those in charge of visa approval. Perkins and the State Department frequently clashed over the situation.


Short of being able to rewrite the law, Perkins’ Labor Department suggested creating a “charge bond”, which allowed the immigrant or their American sponsor to write a check to the Department of Labor to be cashed if that immigrant should need government assistance. Basically, it was a form of insurance that helped protect them from being a potential public charge. Eventually the Attorney General settled the dispute between Labor and State Departments to allow such bonds. However, no such bonds were ever issued. The Commissioner of Immigration, Daniel MacCormack, refused to issue them.


Perkins would offer help in other ways, like lowering the cost of student visas; allowing international students to work; helping secure the immigration of 400 Jewish children to the United States; and, in the wake of the November 9–10, 1938 Nazi pogrom Kristallnacht, convincing President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow German Jews on temporary tourist visas to extend their stay.


Frances Perkins' tried to help Jews in Europe escape to safety in the United States, but her efforts were limited not only by the laws but also by the prevailing attitudes of anti-semitism.


The 1943 Bermuda Conference


The mood towards Jewish immigration into the United States to escape *** persecution did not change despite Perkins’ efforts. From the events surrounding the failure to allow Jewish refugees to disembark from the MS St. Louis and legislation that would have allowed 20,000 Jewish children to immigrate above the existing quotas dying in a Congressional committee, Americans' general sympathies for the plight of the Jews of Europe failed to translate into help for them.


By the end of 1942, the United States was fully involved in the Second World War, emerging as a key industrial “arsenal of democracy” for itself and the other members of the United Nations allied coalition. But also, by then, the *** effort at the “Final Solution” to murder all Jews in Europe was also in full swing and word of the scale of the horror had reached the Western allies.


The concentration camps had been known, as had the acts of violence and hostility towards Jews, but the reports about the industrial scale of murder at the death camps originated from the Polish Government in Exile stationed in London, England via the Polish Underground. The reports worked their way to the British Government and then the U.S. Government and eventually the British and American public. The Archbishop of Canterbury spoke up for action in the British House of Lords. Jewish organizations in America began to pressure President Roosevelt to do something as well.


From April 19 to 30, 1943, a British and American delegation met in Hamilton, Bermuda to work out details on what to do with Jews who were liberated by the Allies and what to do about those trapped under *** rule. Proposals included allowing Jews temporary immigration to Eastern Libya and British Honduras.


But the delegation was hamstrung from the beginning. Representatives from the American Jewish community were not allowed at the Conference. President Roosevelt directed the Conference to not do anything that would change immigration quotas and the British refused open immigration to the British Mandate of Palestine. Instead, the Conference spent time worrying that Hitler and his Axis partners would flood the Western Allies with waves of refugees in an effort to slow down war progress.


The only thing the conference would issue was a communique stating that the only way to save the Jews of Europe was to win the war as soon as possible. That would become official Western Allied policy. Later, even requests to bomb and destroy rail lines leading to the death camps were rejected using the argument that it was a waste of resources that were needed to shorten the war. During the Summer of 1943, the idea to house Jewish refugees in temporary camps in either French or former Italian-controlled North Africa was discussed between Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, but came to nothing.


The demands of war, the hidden specter of immigration xenophobia, and anti-semitic attitudes encouraged inaction. The Allies failed to save an untold number lives which instead were ended during the Holocaust.


Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in Shangri La, May 14, 1943”. from the series Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882 - 1962, in the Collection FDR-PHOCO: Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, 1882 - 1962.

National Archives Identification Number (NAID): 196836


The Jewish experience in the United States is one of deep dichotomies. A nation that prides itself in religious freedom and gave many Jewish immigrants great opportunities that shaped American culture also embraced the worse stereotypes of anti-semitism. A nation that took pride in its immigrant history also embraced xenophobia and nativism to deny immigration to millions. A nation that embraced a world war to help end tyranny also failed to directly stop the mass murder of millions.


But there would be a reckoning. As American soldiers by the thousands would witness first hand, newsreel footage of the death camps would be shown in movie theaters to horrified audiences. After the end of the Second World War, changes in immigration laws allowed some Holocaust victims to immigrate to America.


The power of modern communication and the stories it told, through radio, television, music, movies, poetry, comic books, novels, along with the burgeoning post-war Civil Rights movement, all began to break down the general overt anti-semitism that had infected American society. Another sign of change was that after the Second World War, newspapers began to stop placing job notices that restricted the hiring of Jewish employees. Over the next two decades, most restrictions and covenants against Jews began to disappear in the United States.


Remembering these events are important so that we may never forget and always be vigilant against it happening again.


When searching for records involving anti-semitism in the National Archives Catalog, a researcher will need to search for the term twice. The way I am spelling it in this blog, “anti-semitism,” and the alternate spelling without the hyphen, “antisemitism”. Each search will bring slightly different results.


General Grant’s records as a Union army commander during the Civil War are found within several record groups, most notably in Record Group 107: Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, 1791 - 1948 and Record Group 108: Records of the Headquarters of the Army, 1828 - 1903. These and other records relating to General Grant’s time in the Union Army are located at the National Archives building in Washington, DC.


Any potential records concerning Cesar Kaskel’s delegation meeting with a member of Congress and records regarding the legislations concerning the numerous immigration bills of the late 19th and early to mid-20th Centuries might be found in Record Groups 46: U.S. Senate and Record Group 233: U.S. House of Representatives. The Center for Legislative Archives holds the historically valuable records of the U.S. Congress, including official committee records. To research congressional records and legislative history, start with the Center’s online search catalog or contact them directly at The Center for Legislative Archives is also located at the National Archives building in Washington, DC.


Frances Perkins served as the Secretary of the Department of Labor from 1933 to 1945 and her work there can be found under Record Group 174: General Records of the Department of Labor, 1907 - 2021. Specifically, records on her role in trying to improve immigration for Jews under *** control can be found in National Archives Identifier Number (NAID) 6600095: Subject Files of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, 1933 - 1944 and NAID 6882897: General Records, 1942 - 1960.


For records involving immigration restrictions and later the 1943 Bermuda Conference, the Department of State (Record Group 59), the Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State (Record Group 84), along with the records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (Record Group 85), and the Department of Labor (Record Group 174) are found at the National Archives at College Park, MD.


Records concerning the roles of the administrations of President Hubert Hoover and President Franklin D. Roosevelt in these events are found at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum and at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Records for all presidential libraries can be accessed both on-site and online and you can begin your research for them here.

Unfortunately, the nature of some of these records requires that some are fully restricted, and many others are partially restricted to the public. If a record has such a restriction, researchers must make a request under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Please note: Due to COVID-19 facility closures, schedule changes, and evolving arrangements pertaining to research, you should call or correspond with staff at each facility before visiting to be briefed on the status of current research and arrangements.