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A Visual History of the American Jewish Left, Part 2
From World War I to World War II
by the Editorial Board
Adapted from the Spring and Summer, 2015 issues of Jewish Currents
Read other installments in this series here.
BY THE MID-1920s they were mirror images of one another, the Jewish socialists (di rekhte, rightists) and the Jewish communists (di linke, leftists). They each had a daily Yiddish newspaper that served as the sun around which various cultural bodies — publishing houses, choruses, theater groups, women’s organizations, and more — revolved. They each had a summer camp, Kinder Ring for di rekhte, Kinderland for the di linke, on the same small lake in upstate New York. They each sponsored housing developments in the Bronx — the Amalgamated for di rekhte, the United Workers Cooperative Colony, known as the Coops, for di linke (and the Farband Houses for the Socialist Zionists). They each sponsored fraternal groups that provided social services and social opportunities to their members. They each were linked to labor unions — di rekhte among garment workers, di linke among furriers and teachers.
[caption id=“attachment_39311” align=“alignleft” width=“225”] The 1920s Workmen’s Circle bulletin presents the Three Muses as the Arbeter Ring, Unionism, and Socialism. The organization had 85,000 members by 1925. It provided them with health insurance, life insurance, unemployment relief, burial services, educational and camping opportunities for their children, and Yiddish choruses and theater groups, and took a pro-Yiddish, anti-assimilationist stance towards Jewish culture (inspired, at least in part, by the presence of Bundist leaders within the organization). By the Roosevelt years, the Workmen’s Circle had abandoned its militancy in exchange for for a New Deal liberalism. It would move further right in the 1960s over issues such as the Vietnam War (when the AFL supported the war, so did the Workmen’s Circle).[/caption]
They battled one another all through the mid-1920s and beyond. Communists and their militant “fellow travelers” were purged from the unions of the American Federation of Labor — which did suffer, in fact, according to Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers, from “narrow-visioned, overcautious policies” and “undemocratic structures and practices against which ‘idealistic’ members might revolt.” Ostracized Communists, in turn, called their opponents “social fascists” and disrupted their meetings with women’s “fainting brigades” and “spitting brigades,” as well as more violent tactics. “In the whole immigrant Jewish experience, there was probably nothing to match the civil war” within the Jewish left “for sheer ugliness,” writes Howe. “... The ethos of Jewish socialism would never again have the moral glow of its earlier years.” The “years of poisonous factionalism” left the garment union leaders “badly shaken,” and a “rigid anti-Communism became a reigning passion” among them, while “the rhetoric of socialism became consigned to “nostalgic banquets...”
[caption id=“attachment_39314” align=“aligncenter” width=“455”] Examples of progressive Jewish culture, clockwise from top left: Edith Segal’s Red Dancers, part of the Communist-influenced Workers Dance League, which put on modern dance pageants and performances with heavy political messaging throughout the 1930s; two characters from Modicut Puppets, a partnership created in 1925 by Yiddish satirists and bohemians Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler, who found large, enthusiastic audiences in cities throughout the U.S. and Europe during their ten years together; Der Hammer (February 1931), a Communist Yiddish monthly in the 1920s and ’30s, which featured many covers by William Gropper; Maurice Schwartz, actor and director of the Yiddish Art Theater, as Bobe (Grandma) Yakhne in Abraham Goldfaden’s Di kishufmakherin (“The Witch”), 1925 Yiddish actress Ida Kaminska in the 1919 film version of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance; poster for the Depression-era Yiddish unit of the Federal Theater Project’s production of Clifford Odet’s Awake and Sing.[/caption]
[caption id=“attachment_39313” align=“aligncenter” width=“600”] William Gropper (1897-1977) was the Frayhayt’s best-known artist.[/caption]
Jewish Communist militancy, even while it lost its footing within much of the labor movement, grew in influence during the economically desperate 1930s, particularly after ’34, when the Communist Party finally recognized what the advent of Nazism in Germany meant for the left and adopted a “Popular Front” strategy of outreach to progressives of all stripes (most of whom were quite reasonably suspicious of di linke’s sudden change of heart). The change in policy brought a great sense of relief to many rank-and-file Jewish Communists (who made up at least 25 percent of the Party as a whole) — but it was not the first time, nor would it be the last, in which they would be subjected to sudden changes in policy.
[caption id=“attachment_39316” align=“aligncenter” width=“901”] On March 25, 1931, nine young black men, who’d been “riding the rails” looking for work, were taken off a freight train at Scottsboro, Alabama and accused of raping two white women. Within two weeks, an all-white jury had convicted the “Scottsboro Boys,” pictured above, who were sentenced to death (except for the youngest, age 13, sentenced to life imprisonment). The Communist Party, at the time involved in organizing against racism and labor exploitation in the South, used its International Legal Defense to lead a national protest campaign to overturn the conviction. The campaign, heavily promoted in both the Forverts and the Morgn Frayhayt, was eventually joined by the NAACP and the ACLU, and included sit-ins at segregated restaurants and other actions that presaged the Freedom Rides of the early 1960s. A northern Jewish attorney, Samuel Leibowitz, led the defense (and was nearly lynched for his efforts), and another, Walter Pollak of the ACLU, argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Two Alabama rabbis, Benjamin Goldstein of Montgomery and Joseph Gumbiner of Selma, spoke against the conviction, which cost them their jobs, as Alabama’s Jews went out of their way to distance themselves from what the prosecutor called “justice in the case [being] bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York.” Eventually, one the accusers recanted her testimony and joined the campaign for justice for the Scottsboro Boys. Twice the U.S. Supreme Court overturned their convictions, yet it would not be until 1946 that all of them were out of prison. The campaign helped to cement an alliance between black activists and Jewish leftists that would be crucial to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.[/caption]
[caption id=“attachment_39317” align=“alignleft” width=“219”] Angelo Herndon, author of this pamphlet, was an African-American labor organizer arrested for “insurrection” in Georgia in 1932. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1937.[/caption]
SOVIET ATTITUDES towards the growing Jewish presence in Palestine were generally hostile, rooted in distrust of Great Britain, the Mandatory power in the Middle East, and in paranoia about Jewish nationalism generally. Unfortunately, Communists in America consistently followed the Soviet “line,” resulting in self-defeating actions. When two weeks of pogroms in 1929 took the lives of eighty-three Jews in Hebron and elsewhere in Palestine and injured hundreds more — at the instigation of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, pictured above meeting Adolf Hitler in 1941 — the Frayhayt flip-flopped about the riots overnight, at first condemning them (as the Forverts did with great indignation), but then, once the Soviet view became clear, declaring the violence as an anti-imperialist uprising. The switch caused Yiddish writers H. Leyvik, Menahhem Boreysho, and Avrom Reyzen to quit the Jewish Communist movement, and the Frayhayt suffered a precipitous drop in readership.
When Hitler finally invaded the USSR after two years of “non- aggression,” Jews of the left were exceedingly relieved to end their crisis of faith and resume their anti-fascist activity. When the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, led by the prominent Soviet Jewish theater director Solomon Mikhoels and poet Itsik Fefer, was sent to New York in 1943 to organize support for the USSR’s war effort, fifty thousand Jews showed up at the Polo Grounds for a rally.
[caption id=“attachment_39320” align=“aligncenter” width=“750”] Paul Robeson, a hero to many leftwing Jews, conferring here with Itsik Fefer (left) and Solomon Mikhoels during their visit to the U.S. as representatives of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.[/caption]
Less than ten years later, Mikhoels and Fefer, along with numerous other Jewish cultural leaders, would be murdered on Joseph Stalin’s orders for being “Jewish cosmopolitans.”
[caption id=“attachment_39319” align=“aligncenter” width=“750”] Amin al-Huseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, closely allied himself with Nazi policies.[/caption]
[caption id=“attachment_39318” align=“aligncenter” width=“711”] If there was a unifying figure on the American Jewish left during the height of struggle between di rekhte and di linke, it was Dr. Khayim Zhitlovsky (1865-1943), whose political journey of transformation spanned the world of the Jewish left. He was a founder of the underground Russian Socialist Revolutionary Party, which used assassination as a political tool in Tsarist Russia. He attended the First Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in 1897. He helped to organize the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference in 1908, which inspired the standardization of Yiddish and the creation of a network of Yiddish schools for children throughout the U.S. and Eastern Europe; Zhitlovsky established the first such Yiddish folkshul in New York in 1910. He was a member and active advocate within the Workmen’s Circle,but was also widely embraced as a theorist by Communist Jewish organizations. “Zhitlovsky had an immense influence on many secular and assimilating Jews of his generation,” wrote the late Nora Levin in While Messiah Tarried (1977). “... Like the Zionists, he understood the economic deformities in Jewish life caused by centuries of persecution, and urged a more balanced economic existence, but unlike them, he embraced galut (exile). Nachman Syrkin, the socialist-Zionist leader, once pithily summed up their differences at a meeting: ‘We have divided the world between us. Zhitlovsky takes everything that exists; I, everything that still does not exist. He has chosen the Yiddish which we have; I, the Hebrew which we do not have. He has chosen the diaspora which we have; I, the homeland which we still do not have.” Within two more generations, however, Syrkin’s dreams would become real, while Zhitlovsky’s vision of a Yiddish language-based nationalism would be killed off by Nazism and assimilation.[/caption]
IF THE JEWISH LEFT was unified anywhere, it was in the desperate circumstances of the ghettos, forests, and camps of Eastern Europe, where Jewish armed resistance against Nazi genocide was primarily conducted by young leftwing Zionists, Bundists, and Communists, under a united command — at least in some instances.
In the U.S., Jewish leftist organizations would be among the first, immediately after the war, to commemorate the heroic Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 19, 1943. Hirsh Glick’s “Partisan Hymn” (“Zog Nit Keynmol”) written in the Vilna Ghetto before he was killed at age 22, became an anthem of Jewish resistance that was taught to American Jewish children in Yiddish shules. Nevertheless, Jewish leftists were no more effective at saving the Jews of Eastern Europe than any other American Jewish communities — and while the popularity of the USSR as a wartime ally that lost some twenty million souls during the defeat of Nazi Germany reached a peak in the U.S. during the 1940s, Cold War politics quickly polarized the Jewish community.
[caption id=“attachment_39321” align=“aligncenter” width=“682”] Above, a photo captioned by the Nazis as “Women of the He-halutz [Zionist youth] movement, captured with weapons” in the Warsaw Ghetto. Top right, 1966 drawing by Y. Benn of Hirsh Glick, the young poet who wrote “The Partisan Hymn” in the Vilna Ghetto in 1943. Bottom right, poster by Henryk Hechtkopf, a Polish Jew who survived the Holocaust in a Soviet labor camp, commemorating the fifth anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.[/caption]Our magazine, founded as Jewish Life by the Morgn Frayhayt Association in 1946, was soon campaigning against the importation of Nazi war criminals into the U.S. by its intelligence services, and against the rearming of Germany. The Zionist left was hard at work helping displaced Jews in Europe make their way past British blockades into Palestine. Both di rekhte and di linke were forced to reckon with enormous challenges to their own continuity following the destruction of the taproot of yidishkayt (Jewish culture) in Eastern Europe, and the dispersion of American Jews into suburbia, academia, middle-class status, and assimilation (all wrought, in considerable part, by the benefits of the G.I. Bill).
[caption id=“attachment_39322” align=“alignright” width=“300”] Morris U. Schappes teaching at the School for Democracy, a leftwing adult education school, in 1942. Schappes was an victim New York anti-communist investigations in 1941 and served thirteen months in prison for falsely testifying about his Communist affiliations. In 1958, he became the editor of our magazine, which he served for more forty years.[/caption]
On the horizon was the surge of Soviet anti-Semitism under Stalin during the dictator’s final years, and the rise of McCarthyism, which would suppress what was left of American Jewish Communist movement. More immediately, the United Nations’ establishment (with Soviet bloc support) of Israel as a Jewish state, which by the mid-1950s would be firmly allied with what President Dwight Eisenhower would call “the U.S. military-industrial complex,” would start a very slow rightwards shift in mainstream American Jewish politics that eventually altered the prospects of the American Jewish left.
To be continued.