The American Jewish Yearbook and Postwar American Jewry

For my project I used Zotero and the add-on Paper Machines to analyze the American Jewish Yearbook (hereafter AJYB) for the years 1939 until 1981. During that period of publication, the AJYB was owned by the American Jewish Committee, one of the largest Jewish organizations in the United States, and thus provides a very good indication of the direction of that American Jewish leadership is trying to push the community. The AJYB began publication in 1899 and was intended to bring the diverse communities of American Jewry together. There was a concern that Jews further out in the hinterlands would not maintain their Judaism if they were not connected to the wider Jewish world. For this reason, the publication attempted to de-centralize itself from a focus on larger cities with substantially more Jews, and instead focused on American Jews overall.
From its earliest publication, the AJYB had the purpose of situating American Jews in the wider Jewish world.

The American Jewish Committee also posited the AJYB as a work that supported reaching out to broader American population. (Sanua, Marianne Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee 1945-2006 Boston: Brandies University Press 2007. P.15.) Because of its intended purpose of chronicling matters of importance to the Jewish community both at home and abroad, because of this, a digital analysis of it is a great asset to larger work on American Jews in the twentieth century. This study focuses on the AJYB in the years 1939 until 1981. This was done in an attempt to better understand the changing American Jewish relationship with Israel, and how the civil rights movement altered, or did not alter, that relationship.

The historiography of American Jews in the twentieth century is one of triumph. Historians such as Hasia Diner and Leonard Dinnerstein detail an American Jewry who were collectively upwardly mobile and part of the mainstream liberal coalition of twentieth century American politics. In describing American Jewry in the mid to late twentieth century, Hasia Diner writes: “In this era dominated by a new kind of Jewish mobility-the move from the cities to the suburbs-American Jews found ways to combine middle class comforts, social activism, and commitments.” She continues “The newly independent state of Israel, while not the primary influence on communal identity, inspired pride among American Jews.” (Hasia Diner The Jews of the United States 1654-2000 Berkley: University of California Press 2004 p. 260) While this represents the traditional narrative of American Jews as a model minority, other scholars have complicated this idea. Michael Staub argues: “Precisely because of the painful paradoxical doubleness of increasing security and prosperity in the United States alongside the acute awareness of the potential ferocity and tenacity of antisemitism, postwar American Jews struggled over the issues of assimilation and acculturation with particular anguish and ambivalence.” (Michael Staub Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America New York: Columbia University Press 2002. P.10.) This tension between touting the successes of the American Jewish community and concern that too much success could increase assimilation to the point where the American Jewish community might cease to exist as a result of its own success defines the struggles of 20th century American Jewry.

General Results

Broadly, my research using the American Jewish Yearbook indicates that Jews were very concerned with upward mobility. In addition, there was a collective anxiety about issues such as high levels of assimilation and integration, as well as threats of antisemitism emanating from both the political left and right. The findings from my study reflect a great deal of disjointment on the part of American Jewry. This could be because the AJYB itself is an attempt to codify all information pertinent to American Jews. However, the lack of a decided focus and the mixture between national and international issues can also indicate a group identity that, while increasingly focused on the United States, still had a strong international component to it.

As an example, a .tif filtered word cloud had such desperate words as “Israel”, “Soviet”, and “negro” featured as prominent words in the collection. The combination of these three as major topics seems to indicate that the focus of the American Jewish community was not specifically on the United States, but on wherever Jews lived in major communities especially communities that seemed threatened. It is notable that the sections examined for this project did not mention countries with relatively stable populations in the twentieth century, such as South Africa or Argentina. Instead, the emphasis is on communities outside of the United States that are inherently unstable such as Israel and the Soviet Union. Given the emphasis on demographic concerns that also play a major role in the AJYB, I would posit that this concern is a reflection on the internal instability of the American Jewish community. Although the argument could be made that American geopolitical concerns were likely at the center of this concern for the Soviet Union and Israel, that does not necessarily hold true for the state of Israel. As John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write in their work The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy “When Israel was founded in 1948, U.S. policy makers did not consider it a strategic asset. The new state was regarded as weak and potentially vulnerable, and American policy makers recognized that embracing Israel too closely would undermine the U.S. position elsewhere in the Middle East.” ( John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy Farrar, Straus and Giroux publishers 2007 p. 151)

The results of this project also reveal just how much American Jews were concerned with international affairs. All of the Paper Machines methods uncover different parts of essentially the same story: the centrality of external events and actors on American Jewry’s perception of itself. The Holocaust, Israel, and the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union dominated the discourse on the pages of the AJYB. The fact that these places and events are featured so prominently in sections that deal with American Jewry demonstrate both the international character of American Jews, and the attempts by American Jews to deal with their position as both Americans, generally liberal ones, who were focused on American issues, and as Jews who were concerned with the plight of their co-religionists across the world.

Dunnings-log Word Cloud

Interesting results also came from a tif filtered large word cloud. This word cloud showed the most used words in the corpus of what I was looking at. Because the sections of the AJYB that I looked at were centered on the United States, I expected to find references to mainly to domestic issues. Instead, I discovered that the largest word in the word cloud is ‘Israel’. This is very telling and, given that so many other words including ‘Palestine’ and ‘Zionism’ that are also related to Israel are also in the cloud, the centrality of Israel to the writers, editors, and presumably readers of the AJYB cannot be ignored. While a single publication obviously does not speak for the entire Jewish community, it does reveal larger trends in the American Jewish trend toward looking to Israel as a source of ethnic and religious identity. A Dunnings-log likelihood word cloud reveals a different finding however: while a concern for words related to Israel and Palestine appears where one would expect it to, with words such as “Displace Persons” and “Dr. Silver” (Abba Hillel Silver was a leading American Rabbi and Zionist), there is a notable drop off in the use of the terms before returning in the word cloud for the years 1963 until 1968 and becoming more prominent for the last several word clouds. This is likely because a Dunnings-log likelihood emphasizes the overuse of terms in a given data set and is better at exposing differences between groupings in a corpus. A tf*idf, however looks at the importance of the word when weighed against other words in the same set.
Present in the large word cloud are words and phrases relating to domestic issues such as the push for civil rights such as ‘federal’, ‘teachers’, and ‘housing’. The prominence of these two themes can be seen throughout this project. This speaks to the duality that defined American Jewry in the postwar. They were at once emphasizing their American identity, but also concerning themselves with the wider Jewish world. As with the Dunnings-log word cloud, there are many words that can be put into context by someone with experience in the subject that might be missed by someone who does not work extensively in it. Some of the words in the cloud can be seen as ambiguous, unless one knows the context of their likely use and can connect them with larger trends.

Phrase Nets

As part of my work, I also created multiple phrase nets. Paper Machines allows one to make custom phrase nets, as well as allowing one to use the standard ones that the program has set up. Phrase nets allow one to see how words and phrases are connected in a given text. In this study, I used both the standard phrase nets (x equals y, x the y) and I made my own using terms that were pertinent to my research, such as ‘Israel’ and ‘antisemitism’. All of the phrase nets revealed something interesting, but perhaps the most useful was the phrase net that I ran was for the term ‘antisemitism’. That net was much smaller than the others, but the words that it connected to were very telling. The two largest words were ‘combat’ and ‘negro’. While I was certainly expecting to find references to African Americans in a phrase net such as this, I also expected to find references to right wing antisemitism in the United States and abroad, or words such as ‘Egypt’, ‘PLO’, or ‘Arab’ in reference to Israel. In my research, I also took into account the fact that the word ‘antisemitism’ has changed over the decades. While the meaning has stayed the same, the physical construction of the word has undergone a change. Anti-Semitism is the original spelling, and antisemitism is much more modern, which could potentially skew the results. With this in mind, I also ran the phrase ‘anti-Semitism’ and the top word on that phrase net was ‘Soviet’. This was certainly not surprising, as there were several attempts made over the last half of the twentieth century to alleviate the sufferings of Jews in the Soviet Union.

Another phrase net using the term ‘civil rights’ reveal the intricacies of the civil rights movement, with words such as ‘federal’ and ‘state’ mixing with words describing the impact of legislation such as ‘major’ and ‘historic’. This phrase net was less valuable than I had hoped for, as it did not really say anything about relations between African Americans and Jews, but instead emphasized government legislation. In addition, A phrase net centered on the word ‘Israel’ was also less helpful than anticipated, especially considering how central Israel seems to be to American Jews based on the various word clouds. Most of the words linked to ‘Israel’ were organizations, such as the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) or dates such as 1967. Significantly, the word ‘American’ did appear as well as ‘United’, although United could possibly be referring to the UJA and not the United States

Topic Modeling

Finally, I ran multiple topic models that gave me graphs of a change over time in word usage in the AJYB. What I was most surprised about was the domination of words relating to Israel in the topic model. Nearly every three-word phrase in some of the topic models related in some way to Israel or Palestine, certainly much more so than any other country, including the United States. What makes the topic models most interesting is that they show a strong change over time by their word use and combination of words surrounding Israel. For example, the graph shows a very prominent use of the term ‘Palestine’ early in the sample study, alongside the words ‘refuge’ and ‘committee’. This is a reference Palestine’s place as a refuge for European Jews during the Holocaust. As a bookend to this, the words ‘peace’, ‘Carter’ and ‘Israel’ become more pronounced at the end of the graph. This is likely because of President Carter’s negotiations for a major peace treaty between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. While this combination of words is to be expected in a section focusing specifically on Israel, it is very notable that they appear in parts of the publication that are focused on the United Stats, especially since the AJYB’s stated goal is write on Jewish communities and not on political leaders.

In a stemming, .tif filtered 25 topic topic model, the word combination “black, Israel, and Soviet” makes an appearance in the 1966 AJYB and continues until the 1981 edition, which is the final edition studied for this project. This likely indicates an increased interest on the part of Jews to what was going on on the political left. This time period corresponds to the rise of the neoconservative movement among Jewish intellectuals. In this historiography, neoconservatism is generally seen as a reaction against international developments, however recent studies have questioned this narrative and shown that this strain of Jewish conservatism was influenced by a variety of factors, both foreign and domestic. The same time period shows a resurgence of use of the word phrases ‘Israel, Arab, Soviet’. That the Soviet Union would come into such prominence so late in the war is interesting. The 1940s and 1950s saw vicious Soviet antisemitism and a brutal crackdown on Jews as Jews. However, it was not until well after this that the Soviet Union started to be a major topic of conversation in the American sections of the AJYB. This is likely because it was during the 1970s that allowing Soviet Jews to leave the USSR became a viable option. Although many of the Soviet emigrants came to the United States, the majority ended up in Israel. The three word phrase could also allude to Soviet support for the Arab armies that invaded Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli War in which the United States supported the Israelis and the Soviet Union backing the Arab armies.

The program that offered the best general narrative history of American Jews in the postwar was a Dunnings-log likelihood word cloud. Using a word cloud filtered with the titles of sections as stop words and Dunnings-log likelihood, which helps to show over-represented words in comparison to the other pieces of data, I was able to create a rough sketch of how the topics that were discussed by American Jews changed over time. To someone familiar with American Jewish history, the topics revealed by the Dunnings-log likelihood do not come as a surprise. The earliest years in the study were dominated by a mix of words relating to both domestic and international threats to American Jews such as “German government” and “Father Coughlin” as well as significant political figures and institutions such as “President Roosevelt” and “British government”. These words reveal an American Jewish community that was concerned with the plight of European Jews, but was also focused on American interests.

As the Second World War waged at full force, and American Jews began to better, if still not fully, understand the existential threats faced by European Jewry. Jewish leaders began to organize efforts to alleviate the suffering of their co-religionists in Europe. This included linking their efforts with Zionism and the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, a proposition that had hitherto been received largely with indifference on the part of American Jews. These findings are generally in line with the existing historiography with Historian Arthur Goren arguing, “American Jews confronted the enormity of the destruction of European Jewry and the urgent need to resettle and rehabilitate the one-third that had survived. This task merged almost immediately with the struggle for Jewish statehood in Palestine. Linking the solution of the problem of the survivors with the attainment of statehood created a unity of purpose on a scale unprecedented in the modern history of the Jews.” (Arthur A. Goren A Golden Decade: 1945-1955 in The American Jewish Experience edited by Jonathan Sarna New York: Holmes and Meier publishing 1997 p.296)

The results from the word cloud largely conformed to the link posited by Goren, although words relating to Zionism and European Jews begin several years before the time period discussed in his work. There is the added challenge that some of the words that come up in the word cloud do not explicitly reference Zionism or the Holocaust, but the implicit tie is clear if you have the historical background. For example, one of the words from the 1942-1943 AJYB “San Francisco” likely references the Biltmore Conference that took place in May 1942. The conference united American Zionist factions, that had previously been fighting and established Zionism as a dominate part of American Jewish discourse. In his work The Emergence of American Zionism Mark Raider describes the conference as an event that “epitomized the progress that American Zionism as a whole had taken since 1917.” (Mark Raider The Emergence of American Zionism New York: NYU Press 1998 p. 207) In addition, the same year features the words “Dr. Silver” likely a reference to Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, a prominent American Zionist leader. These words reveal one of the main challenges when working with word clouds, which is that they are most effective when one already has a background in the subject. It is easier for someone with experience to use these types of tools because there is an element of subtly to language and some words have connections or meanings that are decidedly implicit. The rest of the 1940s in this word cloud is largely dominated by words and phrases relating to European Jews and the aftermath of the Holocaust such as ‘Displaced Persons’, which, in the Jewish context referred to Holocaust survivors who were not able to return to their homes in Europe.

The words used in the clouds of the 1950s re-focus the American Jewish experience to the United States and center largely on the civil rights movement and gains made by African Americans. Issues such as school desegregation and Supreme Court decisions relating to African Americans dominate the word clouds. This is largely in line with the historiography that centers American Jews as part of the broader civil rights coalition and allied with African Americans. While this thesis has come under some scrutiny as of late, it still largely holds in the historiography. Cheryl Greenberg puts it best when she describes the alliance as “a cold war liberal attempt to end discrimination based on race or religion using the institutions of civil society: courts, legislatures, media, public schools and voluntary organizations.” (Cheryl Lynn Greenberg Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century New York: Princeton University Press 2006 p.115) The words featured in the word clouds for this time period generally feature words centering on government and liberal efforts to end discrimination such as ‘de facto segregation’ and ‘supreme court’.

Where the word cloud gets interesting from a historiographical perspective is in the mid-1960s. In particular, the word cloud for the 1963 issue features the phrase ‘intermarriage rate’ and the 1964 edition the phrase ‘negro antisemtism’. This is extremely telling and extremely important for understanding the American Jewish relationship with civil rights. By the late 1960s, the civil rights coalition was fracturing along ethnic lines, ultimately causing the rise of a unique brand of Jewish conservatism that centered on the projection of American power and the defense of the state of Israel in the form of neoconservatism. Like nearly all forms of conservatism, neoconservatism was based on a fear of losing position in society. In my larger dissertation argument, I argue that American Jews are concerned with rates of assimilation and intermarriage that are so high that they are potentially unsustainable to continued Jewish life in America. This is why the leaders of institutions such as the American Jewish Committee work to over emphasize this idea of antisemitism in the civil rights coalition. This connection from one year to the next would seem to indicate a correlation between the two topics.

The final decade covered in the analysis, the 1970s sees a return to a focus on foreign policy, with issues related to Israel and Palestine dominating the word cloud, with the exception of one, “Andrew Young” who was an African American ambassador whose tenure was cut short after he met with leaders from the Palestine Liberation Organization, a move that vilified by American Jewish organizations and lead ultimately to Young’s resignation. In short, if one were to look at how American Jews viewed themselves via this word cloud analysis of the AJYB, one would surmise that their fate was closely tied to the fate of Israel. Although this word cloud was by far the most straight forward in terms of telling a pretty standard narrative of 20th century American Jewish history, it nonetheless helps to reveal some of the subtleties within that standard narrative and allows for an exploration of many of the external factors that influenced American Jewry.


While the bulk of this study focused on the American section of the AJYB, an attempt was made to get information out of the Israel section of the publication. Although it would have been very profitable to the overall project to have gotten more information out of that section, due to size limitations, it proved impossible to run anything more than a couple of word clouds. Although I struggled to get much information out of the Israel section of the AJYB, the word clouds that I did manage to get some significant results for comparison. Comparing .tif filtered word clouds for Israel and the United States over the corpus of each text, it is significant that both the Israel and American section have Israel at the center of them. In the AJYB sections on Israel, the words most used are ‘Israel’, ‘Israeli’ ‘Egyptian’, ‘peace’, and ‘immigrants’. In an American tif filtered word cloud, the largest words include ‘Israel’, ‘Hebrew’, ‘Soviet’, and ‘education’. While many of the words in the American section are focused on the United States, others are not and the words featured in it indicate an international focus on the part of American Jewry. In contrast, the sections on Israel focused much more on words that pertain to Israel in particular. While American Jews produced the AJYB for an American audience, this nonetheless demonstrates how secure American Jews were in their position in the United States. Unlike Israelis, who were forced to be concerned mainly with their own interests, American Jews could use their clout to assert themselves politically internationally. This relative safety and stability allowed American Jews to survey the Jewish world and offer their assistance wherever they saw fit.

Larger Trends

While the topic models produced demonstrate an emphasis on concern for European Jewry and the rise of Nazism in combination with an increased emphasis on the pre-state Jewish governmental structure in Palestine, a Dunnings .tif filtered word cloud produced results that demonstrate a concern for American issues such as Catholic Priest and antisemetic demagogue Father Coughlin, who was actively spreading propaganda about the Jewish role in both the Roosevelt administration, as well as arguing that Americans should not support American involvement in the Second World War. The same word cloud shows an emphasis on the Christian Front organization in the 1940 edition. This organization was a hard right militantly antisemetic organization that existed for several years in the late 1930s. While the role of antisemitism at home in the United States has not been emphasized in the literature as much, there is some indication that American antisemitism played a role in American Jewish support for Israel. Historian Michelle Marsh argues in her article Constructing a Universal Ideal: Anti-Semitism, American Jews, and the Founding of Israel that American support for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine was a reflexive action in favor of universalism: “The fight against anti-Semitism, a “universal” cause, helped justify the struggle to establish a Jewish state that was, at first glance, a narrow, particular cause.” (Michelle Mart Constructing a Universal Ideal: Antisemitism, American Jews, and the Founding of Israel. Modern Judaism 20.2 2000)

While there is little indication of this in the sections of the AJYB studied here, it is clear that a general concern about antisemitism was prevalent in American Jewish discourse. This concern manifested itself in multiple ways over the course of the AJYB, and most notably it shifted sides ideologically in the mid 1960s. The Dunnings-log likelihood five year word cloud discussed early in this work reveals a strong use of words related to right wing antisemitism such as the National Front, a Christian antisemetic organization, and Father Coughlin. The word cloud for the years 1963-1968, however shows a decided shift from concern about antisemitism coming from the right to a focus on the left. The 1963 until 1968 word cloud is key because it features both the terms ‘negro antisemitism’ and Ku klux”. This word cloud marks a turning point in American Jewish perception, and the word clouds for the years after this have a heavy influence of Israel-related themes and terms. Despite a resurgence of right wing politics leading to the election of Ronald Reagan 1980, there is no longer any mention of right wing antisemitism in the world cloud where it would be most expected to be seen.


In some ways the programs ran on the AJYB confirmed previous scholarship about the place of Israel in American Jewish discourse. The American Jewish relationship with Israel is highly touted and Jews on both the left and right have strong opinions on the state. Author Jo-Ann Mort writing in Dissent magazine in the Spring 2011 issue summed the relationship up succulently when she wrote: “It [Israel] is my home away from home, but it is also my home, the place where I feel a deep sense of connection even in the midst of a jumble of its own contradictions and my own, too. Were I to lose that “home,” the place for which I fight and keep my Jewish soul, I would finally be homeless.” (Dissent magazine vol.58 no.2 Spring 2011 p.25) This centrality of Israel to American Jewish identity can be seen in the digital analysis. One thing that is surprisingly absent, and should be noted however, is explicit references to the Holocaust. This could be because of the way that it was spoken about euphemistically, with phrases like ‘the death of the six million’ used to describe the events, or because it is hidden or implied in discussions about threats to Israel’s safety and concerns about demographics which in the discourse can sometimes emphasize a concern that high levels of assimilation might grant Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory vis-à-vis the end of Jews in the world.

The analysis also demonstrated a continuing concern with antisemitism, both on the political right and left. While it is impossible to say definitively without a close reading of the texts, the word clouds do seem to indicate a shift in concern about where antisemitism is coming from. In the beginning of the publication, it seems as if the antisemitism is coming from the political right. By the end of the timeframe of study, it is obvious that it the concern has shifted to antisemitism emanating from the left, specifically former allies in the civil rights movement. This could be due to legitimate concerns about fears of antisemitism manifesting itself as anti-Zionism, but it could also be due to the shifting place of Jews in American society, and the fact that Jews were collectively becoming more conservative, if not politically, than in defense of their culture and interests, specifically on issues relating to Israel and Affirmative Action, which was seen as a threat to American Jewish advances. (Friedman, Murray What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance New York: Free Press 1995 p.312)

One of the largest continuing controversies in the American Jewish studies historiography centers on the Holocaust and Peter Novick’s 1999 work The Holocaust in American Life that centers the event as defining American Jewish identity. Novick argues “In the 1970s, American Jews’ anxiety about Israel’s security, and their viewing Israel’s situation within a Holocaust framework, was the single greatest catalyst of the new centering of the Holocaust in American Jewish consciousness.” (Peter Novick The Holocaust in American Life New York: Mariner Books 1999 p. 168) That there have been large numbers of studies concerning American Jews and the Holocaust, and in my own work, I have come across references to the Holocaust extensively makes it seem odd that it is not discussed more in the AJYB. This could be because the AJYB was focused on stories that offer a breadth of knowledge and not an analysis of why events were happening, or it could be that other sections, such as ones discussing Israel have more references to the Holocaust. Either way, the analysis suggests that the AJYB does not entirely conform to the arguments of the existing historiography.

-Diner, Hasia The Jews of the United States, 1654 to 2000 Berkely: University of California Press 2006.

-Greenberg, Cheryl Lynn Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century New York: Princeton University Press 2006

-Friedman, Murray What Went Wrong: The Creation and Collapse of the Black-Jewish Alliance New York: Free Press 1995.

– Novick, Peter The Holocaust in American Life. New York: Mariner Books 2000.

-Raider, Mark The Emergence of American Zionism New York: NYU Press 1998

-Sarna, Jonathan ed. The American Jewish Experience New York: Holmes and Meier publishing 1997

-Sarna, Marianne Let Us Prove Strong: The American Jewish Committee, 1945-2006 Boston: Brandeis University Press 2007.

-Staub, Michael Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America New York: Columbia University Press 2002.