Dorothy Day: Fighting Anti-Semitism by Patrick Henry

This essay originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of The Catholic Worker—Ed.

Dorothy Day graduated from high school at the age of 16 and immediately began her studies at the University of Illinois in Urbana in the fall of 1914. During her second semester, she applied for admission to a writers’ club, the Scribblers, and was interviewed by Rayna Simons and her boyfriend, Samson Raphaelson. They immediately accepted her into the club. Rayna “stood out like a flame with her red hair, brown eyes, and vivid face,” writes Dorothy in From Union Square to Rome. She looked “honest and sincere,” and was beautiful, wealthy, joyous, and brilliant. But all this was not quite enough to get her an invitation to join a sorority. Why? Because she was Jewish. “It was the first time I came up against anti-Semitism,” Day tells us. Rayna would become her best friend. Dorothy spent her second and last year of college living with Rayna in a boarding house for young Jewish women in Urbana.

This initial contact with anti-Semitism marked Dorothy deeply. She would spend years fighting anti-Semitism inside and outside the Catholic Church. After her conversion to Catholicism, the founding of the Catholic Worker movement, and her editorship of The Catholic Worker newspaper in 1933, she informs us in The Long Loneliness that “In the sixth issue of the paper, we were already combatting anti-Semitism” in Europe and the United States. In 1934, Catholic Workers demonstrated in front of the German consulate against Hitler’s anti-Semitic legislation and elsewhere against Catholic priests in America who supported Hitler’s regime in Germany.   

More generally, during the 1930s when Jews were still routinely regarded as “Christ killers” and anti-Semitic incidents significantly increased in the United States, Day attacked the anti-Semitism among Catholics epitomized but certainly not limited to the rantings of the Michigan-based Basilian Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin. At a time when anti-Jewish legislation was rapidly increasing in Europe, Coughlin blamed the Jews for the Depression, attacked the so-called “international conspiracy of Jewish bankers,” and justified Kristallnacht and the state-sponsored violence of the Nazi regime. He was the leader of the anti-Semitic Christian Front and founded a magazine called Social Justice. It is estimated that 30 million people listened to his weekly radio rants. For her part, until the United States entered the war, Catholic Worker people picketed the arrival of German ships sporting their swastikas into New York harbor and Day used her newspaper to urge the United States to offer persecuted Jews “free access to American hospitality.”

I want to stress three specific, significant markers in Dorothy Day’s fight against anti-Semitism. First, in 1933, when Hitler was still only the chancellor in a multiparty cabinet, Day submitted an article to Jesuit-sponsored America magazine entitled “Our Brothers, the Jews.” The article was turned down by the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Wilfrid Parsons, SJ. The manuscript remained in her papers at Marquette University and was ultimately published by America in November 2009. In this courageous and prophetic text, Day denounces the race-baiting and “rabid anti-Jew speeches” of New York Catholics. The core of their street rantings, writes Dorothy, is that “All evils came from the Jew. Jewish materialism was the cause of all our ills. It was the Jew who brought about the revolution in Russia. It was Jews who ruined Germany. Hitler was merely trying to restore law and order.” Dorothy denounces this scapegoating of Jews—“It’s the old pogrom spirit being revived.”

Second, in May 1939, three months after 20,000 pro-Nazi Brown Shirts and their supporters rallied in Madison Square Garden to denounce President Roosevelt and so-called Jewish conspiracies, Dorothy Day co-founded the Committee of Catholics to Fight Anti-Semitism. The formation of this group followed two key statements by members of the Catholic hierarchy: in September 1938, Pope Pius XI denounced anti-Semitism explicitly and claimed that it was incompatible with Christianity; shortly thereafter a group of American bishops urged Catholics to “guard against all forms of racial bigotry.” The stated purpose of the group, which was overwhelmingly supported by the American Catholic Church’s hierarchy, was “to reach those who, contrary to the teachings of Christianity and the principles of democracy, are taking part, unfortunately, in spreading race and minority hatreds in the United States.” The committee’s activities included radio broadcasts, speakers’ bureaus, educational programs for schools, and information services, while its journal publication, The Voice, was disseminated in direct opposition to Father Coughlin’s Social Justice and its anti-Semitic propaganda.

Third, six months later in November 1939, Dorothy published her important review of Jacques Maritain’s A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question in The Catholic Worker. It had appeared a month earlier in The Jewish Frontier. In her review, she points out that, for Maritain, anti-Semitism is “the foremost problem of the day” and a violation of Christian beliefs.  He urges Christians to renounce fighting hatred with hatred and to seek “the real power of love and truth even over political and social relations.” Although Maritain considers emigration only “a palliative,” he insists that Jewish emigration must be facilitated.  Maritain was one of Europe’s leading Catholic intellectuals and by publishing his views in a Jewish periodical and then in a Catholic one, Day was widely signaling the plight of European Jewry and the complete incompatibility of all religious sentiment with anti-Semitism.

During the war years, years marked by papal silence regarding the plight of the Jews, The Catholic Worker drew attention to the persecution of the Jews throughout Europe and called for nations to open their borders to them. Dorothy Day’s diaries (The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2008) make it clear that, until her death in 1980, Jewish writers, the Jewish situation in Israel and Russia, “the latent anti-Semitism in Catholics and Protestants,” and the centrality of Judaism in her own spiritual life never disappear from her thoughts.

Dorothy Day openly opposed anti-Semitism, even when it was dangerous to do so. But this hardly tells the story of her relationship to Jewish people and to Judaism. We began with her friendship with Rayna Simons at the University of Illinois. Later during her bohemian years in New York City, her early romantic interest was Mike Gold (née Itzok Granich), author of Jews Without Money and future editor of The Daily Worker, who remained her closest friend during her years as a journalist. She would later fall hopelessly in love with a noted Jewish reporter, Lionel Moise, with whom she lived on and off in New York City and Chicago. In addition to these personal relationships, her diary reveals her as an avid reader of Jewish literature: Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire and Night, and Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev, In the Beginning, The Chosen, and The Promise. As regards Potok’s novels, she notes: “It fascinates me to read of the deep spirituality of the Orthodox Jews in Potok’s books. The devotion to Scripture, the Talmud, the Sabbath.” On May 8, 1977, after having finished three Potok novels over “these last months,” she writes in her diary: “I was again living on the East Side [on] Cherry St. with that Polish-Jewish family. And meditating on the Jews. It has made me devour the Scriptures, the Psalms with new intensity.” 

In her first autobiography, From Union Square to Rome, published in 1938, she describes the room she rented and tells her readers about the Gottlieb family and their four children with whom she lived for a year on Cherry Street. They lived in deep poverty, “no electricity, no bath, no hot water, no central heating . . . public showers around the corner.” But Mrs. Gottlieb was an excellent housekeeper and cook who knew Dorothy had little money and “left a plate of soup or fish for me at midnight so that I fared very well.” In 1952, in The Long Loneliness, Dorothy reminds us that “I always loved that little room of mine on Cherry Street.” But, now, here in the diaries, 55 years removed from “that little room” in the tenement, she dramatically explains the tremendous impact that this Orthodox family had on her sense of the sacred and her conversion to Christianity. “I knew nothing of Jews,” she writes in April 1972, “until I lived with a Jewish family on the lower East Side when I was eighteen.” She then relates that when the meal was left for her by Mrs. Gottlieb, there was often a note written by one of the children (“the parents knew only Yiddish”) explaining “no milk or butter, if I had meat.” This “ritual about food gave me a sense of the sacramental,” she explains; “living there brought my conversion to Catholicism closer.” Finally, she remarks, “I began to know the Jewish people then in the breaking of bread, as I was later to know Christ.”

Dorothy Day had an absolute reverence for Judaism and always considered Catholicism umbilically linked to it. She read the Psalms dutifully every morning of her post-conversion life and recognized that salvation for Christians came from the Jews. She notes in her diaries in October 1978: “[The Jews] are indeed God’s chosen. He does not change”; and, for her, as she insisted in her 1939 review of Jacques Maritain’s A Christian Looks at the Jewish Question: “All Christians are converts to the God of Israel who is the true God.” Finally, influenced by Saint Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians and the Romans, she stressed often in her writings that we are all members of the same body. As Pope Pius XI said and Dorothy Day was fond of repeating, “Spiritually we are all Semites.” Therefore, for true Christians, not only is there not a fundamental antagonism between Christians and Jews, but anti-Semitism constitutes a serious violation of Christian doctrine, a wound inflicted on the body of which we are all members.

Patrick Henry teaches in the Quest Program at Walla Walla Community College and is a member of the Walla Walla Immigrant Rights Coalition. He is the author of We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France during the Holocaust(2007) and editor of Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis (2014), both from the Catholic University of America Press.

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