In much of Eastern Europe from the 16th century onward, Jews often obtained exclusive rights to distill and sell alcohol, and ran taverns where both Jewish and non-Jewish customers gathered. American Jews’ role in the trade of intoxicating beverages was less pronounced, but hardly negligible. Reviewing Marni Davis’s 2012 book Jews and Booze: Becoming American in the Age of Prohibition, Allan Arkush writes:
The story Davis tells of [those] Jews who made their fortunes in the alcohol business doesn’t heat up until the temperance movement begins to gain some traction in the second half of the 19th century. Jews then lined up mostly on the side of the “wets,” both because their own religion commanded the use of some alcohol and because they feared the Christianization of the public realm.
American Jews didn’t deny the dangers of alcohol abuse. They just recommended that other people drink moderately and “do as we Israelites do,” as Philadelphia’s Rabbi Marcus Jastrow put it in 1874, a decade before he began to publish his Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Talmud Yerushalmi, and Midrashic Literature, which remains quite helpful today even if his advice to Gentile drinkers may no longer be so.
Neither the stance taken by leading rabbis nor the growing presence of Jews in the alcohol industry provoked the advocates of temperance or the prohibitionists to retaliate. The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union “consistently extended themselves to Jewish sisterhoods and avoided anti-Semitic rhetoric,” and the early leadership of the Anti-Saloon League “eschewed direct criticism of Jews.” Things changed, however, with the gradual infiltration of populist anti-Semitism into the prohibitionist movement, especially in the South.
Prohibitionists didn’t win the day, or rather the decade of the 1920s, by targeting them, but once they succeeded in having the National Prohibition Act passed, American Jews found themselves in a rather unique situation, one that may have inspired a Ku Klux Klan-affiliated rabble-rouser to declare that, “My fight right now is against the Homebrew and the Hebrew.”