Undercurrent of Isolation: Newspapers and the Jewish Migration Out of Boston

written by Lior Zippel '22
edited by Joe Cataliotti '21 & Wendy Zhen '22

The Boston area hosts one of the largest Jewish communities in America, and yet it is for the most part now absent from the metropolitan area and moved off to the suburbs. This move, however, was not just a product of ‘moving up’ but a more forceful process due to rising Antisemitism in Boston. The vastly diminished Jewish community in the metropolitan Boston area was a product of a cross section of discrete and overt cultural forces that manifested in an undercurrent of isolation, both politically and socially. The transition period from 1941-1949, and specifically focusing on reporting done by newspapers and periodicals is key to understanding the Boston Jewish community today.

Conservative, isolationist newspapers were widespread and pushed conspiracy theories that took hold with tacit acceptance by Boston’s Catholic Church, who did not denounce them or in a lot of cases even address them.[1] Jewish Advocate and other Jewish newspapers tried to both call out injustices at home and advocate for help in the existential threat abroad all the while being forced to stay within the bounds of public (not just Jewish) frame of mind. The Boston Globe’s reluctance to report on anti-Semitic acts and conspiracies only left room for anti-Semitic attacks to continue unchecked. The final reversal of public anti-Semitism after the war was ultimately too little too late for Boston’s Jewish community as it had already been moving out of the city.

Boston’s Jewish community initially set its roots in the West End, which was predominately Italian and Jewish, where the two immigrant groups lived side by side. However, as part of Boston’s Urban Renewal, the neighborhood was torn down forcing tenants to scatter. This is the first major shift in the modern Boston Jewish community. Much of the community moved to Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan. These new communities, unlike that of the West End, had sharp walls. In the West End, Jewish immigrant families lived and intermingled with Italian communities. However, in Dorchester Jewish communities were in majority Irish Catholic neighborhoods, which were more closely tied to the church.[2] Though antisemitism in Boston predated this move, it is here and especially in the years 1941-3 where attacks peaked, and the most intense undercurrent of isolation unfolded.

One of the most fervent bases of antisemitism in Boston was the conspiratorial newspapers The Defender, the International Jew, and especially Rev. Charles E Coughlin’s Social Justice, all of which were well established in Boston. When Boston banned the Christian Front’s Social Justice in 1942, they trucked it into the city in personal vehicles.[3]These newspapers perpetuated the conspiracy of Jewish Bolshevism– the idea that Communism was a Jewish plot. Something often forgotten is that despite rising Fascism, the primary national concern leading up to the war was Communism. Catholic newspapers described Fascism as a benign offshoot of nationalism, whereas Communism was the ‘main evil of our time.’[4] In 1935 the Massachusetts General Court adopted a Teachers Loyalty Oath aimed to uncover communists. Only after Jewish protest did the oath search for fascist too.[5] So great was this myth in the public conscience that in a 1940 national poll 19 percent of respondents said that Jews tended to be radical or communistic.[6] The idea of Communism as the central enemy, which along with the notion of Communism being a Jewish idea provided fodder for anti-Semitic doctrine to flourish. This perception was ultimately subdued by the end of Second World War, for the demonization of Hitler also pushed his central conspiracy of the Jewish plot of Communism to the fringe of acceptable public dialogue. As George Bernanos said “Hitler has given anti-Semitism a bad name.”[7] However, anti-Semitism did not disappeared, but was rather pushed into the background of discrete forces.

This put Jewish newspapers and advocates in a tight spot during the Second World War, both in advocating locally against anti-Semitism, but also in addressing the crisis in Europe. Locally, they were constricted out of self-preservation and security, as attacks on Jews in Boston were very common, including on Jewish newspapers. When a group of thirteen Christian Front[8] members were arrested by the FBI, included in their plan was to bomb the Jewish newspaper the Forward.[9] The perceived linkage between Jewishness and Communism also complicated anti-fascism strategies for Jewish Newspapers. Since the main enemy of Fascism was Communism, it was easy to consider fascists as bulwarks against the Eastern communist threat, but this ignored the fascist threat in their own right. Thus, Jews had to walk a careful line not to be misconstrued as anti-anti-communist. They had to push for change but within the bounds of public perception or they would risk being ousted from the public eye. Newspapers like The Jewish Advocate chose to universalize the threat of Fascism, claiming it a threat to democracy and all free people. [10] This was ultimately a product of the limitations set upon an isolated Jewish community that, if they strayed too far from public opinion, would be ostracized and lose all possibility of action/ aid.

Wider news publications were also reluctant to publish on the rising anti-Semitism at home. No non-Jewish newspaper reported anti-Semitic attacks in Boston except for Northeastern News until Arnold Biechman broke the story in 1943 in the New York magazine PM.[11] The Boston Globe was silent until then. This was the first time that the city of Boston made efforts to curb attacks, assigning thirty-five officers to help protect Jewish residents in 1943.[12] The Boston Globe was subject to similar restraints as the Jewish Advocate, but for different reasons. Much of their readership was Irish Catholic, which was also the main base of anti-Semitic attacks.

Even though much of the Jewish community was on its way out of Boston since urban renewal, the metropolitan community did not last long. Throughout the 1940s it dwindled, a product of rising anti-Semitic attacks and an undercurrent of isolation. By the end of the war public displays of anti-Semitism became taboo, but it was too little too late, and the community had already moved out towards Brookline, Newton to the West, Sharon to the South and elsewhere.

[1] The Defender, the International Jew, and especially Rev. Charles E Coughlin’s Social Justice are among the most pertinent.

[2] Wexler Oral History Project.

[3] Norwood, Stephen H. “Marauding Youth and the Christian Front: Antisemitic Violence in Boston and New York During World War II.” American Jewish History, vol. 91, no. 2, 2003, pp. 233–267.

[4] Beim, Aaron, and Gary Alan Fine. "The Cultural Frameworks of Prejudice: Reputational Images and the Postwar Disjuncture of Jews and Communism." The Sociological Quarterly 48, no. 3 (2007): 380.

[5] Wolfson, Adam. “The Boston Jewish Community and the Rise of Nazism, 1933-1939.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 48, no. 3/4, 1986, 308.

[6] Beim, Aaron, and Gary Alan Fine, 374.

[7] Beim Fine, 387. Also, it is important here to make a distinction: it was not the acquiring of new knowledge about the horrors of the Holocaust that pushed it to the fringe, for public discrimination was well known and well reported at the time despite what some may believe [see Wall, Carl. "Inside Germany Today: Nazis Boast of Treatment of Jews." Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960)]. Rather, it is the public demonization of Hitler as the true enemy of the war shifting the collective memory to it being a moral war.

[8] An isolationist, antisemitic organization organized by Rev. Charles E Coughlin, the publisher of Social Justice.

[9] Norwood, 240

[10] Greenberg, Cheryl. “Black and Jewish Responses to Japanese Internment.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 14, no. 2, Winter 1995, pp. 3–37.

[11] Beichman, Arnold. PM, 18 Oct. 1943

[12] "35 Boston Police Assigned to Curb Anti-Jewish Acts." Daily Boston Globe (1928-1960), Oct 19 1943, p. 13. ProQuest.