Jews and Anti-Semitism

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Black-and-white line drawing of the exterior of Congregation Mickve Israel in Savannah. Drawing signed by the artist Jemison Hoskins. Courtesy of Special Collections, College of Charleston Libraries via South Carolina Digital Library.

Jews first immigrated to Atlanta in the 1840s, soon after the city was founded. They came from Germany, and from coastal cities like Savannah and Charleston. Savannah’s Jewish settlers had established the first congregation in the South.

Most of Atlanta’s Jewish community was comprised of merchants, who emblemized Henry W. Grady’s “New South” vision to stimulate Southern industry by cooperating with Northern enterprises. As their businesses thrived, the Jewish population in Atlanta grew from 26 to 4,000 between 1850 and 1910. And by 1910, Jews comprised 2.6 percent of Atlanta’s population.

Southern Jews occasionally found that economic and social changes contributed to the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric and attitudes that portrayed them as outsiders. They were often held responsible for disappointments in times of crisis and uncertainty, such as the loss of the Civil War and agricultural depression in the late nineteenth century.

Such anti-Semitic resentment also appeared in the early twentieth century. Fear of the technological and social changes brought about by industrialization gave impetus to the Populist movement, which included its share of spokespersons who blamed Jews for financially exploiting farmers and laborers. Among those Populists was US senator and newspaper editor, Thomas E. (Tom) Watson.