Women of Valor


Anti-Semitism & the Elite

Emma Lazarus, 1849 - 1887

Explicit acts of discrimination were rare during the early years of Emma's life. However, in 1877 the highly publicized refusal of the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, NY. to admit Joseph Seligman, a wealthy Jewish banker of German extraction, was a sign of change. Anti-semitism had begun to sweep over Europe; as the rates of Eastern European Jewish immigration climbed, the American climate became less tolerant.

Judge Henry Hilton, the Grand Union Hotel's owner, explained he had no objection to the Sephardic elite. Those like Emma Lazarus' family, who had lived in America since before the Revolution, were the refined, "true Hebrews." According to Hilton, only the dirty, greedy, German immigrant "Seligman Jews" were unwanted.

While Emma's devout ancestors and relatives were actively involved with the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, her immediate family was "outlawed" among the extended Lazarus clan because it was no longer religiously observant. Moses Lazarus, Emma's father, sought to secure a place for his family among the Christian elite.

Although Emma's friends were almost all Christian, she was usually referred to and seen as a "Jewess." As Emma knew, prejudice often lurked beneath the polite surface of wealthy society. Despite her father's efforts and her elite Sephardic background, her outsider status was never entirely erased. As she wrote in one letter, "I am perfectly conscious that this contempt and hatred underlies the general tone of the community towards us..."

  1. On the Sephardic community's privilege and elevated position, see Stephen Birmingham, "Our Crowd”: The Great Jewish Families of New York (New York: Harper and Row, 1967) 29, 127.
  2. On shifting American attitudes towards Jews, see Francine Klagsbrun, forward, Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters by Bette Roth Young (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1995) xi .
  3. On the Grand Union Hotel and Hilton, see "Hotel Discrimination," New York Times (June 20, 1877): 1.
  4. For Lazarus's religious background, as well as her outsider status, see Ellen Emerson, "My dear Edith," 6 September 1876, The Letters of Ellen Tucker Emerson, vol. 2, ed. Edith E.W. Gregg (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1982) 225. Also see Young, 44-5.
  5. For Lazarus's quote on the community's contempt see her letter in Philip Cowen, "A Budget of Letters," American Hebrew 33 (Dec. 9, 1887): 8.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Women of Valor - Emma Lazarus - Anti-Semitism & the Elite." (Viewed on April 19, 2014) <http://jwa.org/womenofvalor/lazarus/antisemitism-elite>.