Post-War to Present
by the Editorial Board
Adapted from the Spring and Summer, 2015 issues of Jewish Currents
THE RAPID TAKEOVER of Central and Eastern Europe by Soviet-backed communist parties; the testing of a nuclear bomb by the USSR in 1949; the success of the Chinese communist revolution; the growth of indigenous communist movements in decolonized countries: World War II had turned into a victory for global communism as much as for global corporate democracy (at huge cost for both the Soviet and the Chinese people). While the war’s end would inaugurate the start of “The American Century” (as publisher Henry Luce called it), in the eyes of America’s business and political class, communism had matured into a major national and international security threat. By 1950, America would wage anti-Communist war abroad — in Korea — and anti-Communist war at home, in the form of “McCarthyism” (so named by another mass media icon, the Jewish political cartoonist Herbert Block, pen-name Herblock).
The prosecution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would mark the zenith of that domestic war, but McCarthyism actually began well before Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) made his paper-waving speech in February, 1950 about his “list of 205… members of the Communist Party… who nevertheless are still… shaping policy in the State Department.” As early as 1941, state investigations in New York, California, Oklahoma, and Texas had harassed leftists out of the teaching profession, and some 21 states had passed legislation requiring loyalty oaths for teachers. In 1947, the loyalty oath went national, as President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9837 required it for all federal workers and barred Communists and anyone guilty of “sympathetic association” from government jobs.
That year also saw five million American workers setting aside their wartime no-strike policies and taking to the picket lines. Cooperation among big business, labor and the government had brought unionization to 69 percent of production workers in manufacturing, and to at least 25 percent of the country’s overall labor force. In 1947, a Congress controlled by Republicans for the first time since 1933 responded by cracking the whip against labor with the Taft-Hartley Act, which restricted strike tactics, established “open shop” and right-to-work laws, and required unions to drive out Communist leadership.
By 1950, investigations of teachers had spread to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Michigan. The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) was soon questioning the influential movie industry, and ten prominent writers and directors were cited for contempt of Congress. Rightwing political and business associations instituted a film industry blacklist, which ruined or postponed careers in Hollywood.
McCarthyism’s impact on American Jews was particularly acute. Of the nearly 100,000 Communist Party members at the party’s height during the 1940s, close to 25 percent are estimated to have been Jewish. Jews were also disproportionately employed in the persecuted professions of teaching and entertainment. According to Aviva Weingarten’s 2008 study, of 124 people questioned by McCarthy’s Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in 1952, 79 were Jews.
McCarthy himself carefully avoided any anti-Semitic innuendo linking Jews and communism (and hired two Jews, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine, as visible staffers), but mainstream Jewish organizations responded to the Red Scare with a panicky effort to create a firewall between their own liberal stances and Communist views in such areas as civil rights, immigration, and the social safety net. In fact, a 1948 survey by the American Jewish Committee found that 21 percent of Americans did believe that “most Jews are Communists.” Jewish organizations responded by collaborating with HUAC, holding their own internal purges, and defending the death penalty in the Rosenberg case. “Future historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz” was representative, writes historian Edward S. Shapiro at myjewisshlearning.com, when she “warned America’s Jews not to be duped by the Communists into supporting a ‘war against America.’ The failure to go through with the execution of the Rosenbergs, she wrote, would mean that the American judicial system had caved in to the Communists’ ‘moral blackmail.’”
But however much McCarthyism devastated the Communist wing of the American Jewish left, the realization about what the “dictatorship of the proletariat” had wrought in the USSR hurt it even more. When Nikita Khrushchev’s speech “On the Cult of Personality and Its Consequences,” delivered in a closed session of the Soviet Communist Party Congress in February, 1956, was reported in the Communist press abroad, Jews quit the CPUSA in droves, reducing the circulation of the Yiddish Morning Frayhayt and its English-language junior partner, Jewish Life (the predecessor to Jewish Currents) by more than a third.
BY THE LATE 1940s, the attention and passion of most American Jews had been captured by the nascent State of Israel, which came to life through the 1947 UN Partition Plan (a rare moment of Cold War rapprochement) and then in a cauldron of war. Zionism, once rejected as too Jewishly assertive by much of the American Jewish community, too secular by much of the religious establishment, and too nationalistic by much of the Jewish left, became a catalyst of Jewish pride. Israel’s existence provided an ‘explanation’ for the just-ended genocide, a sign of the enduring possibility of there being a redemptive God in the universe, and an escape for Jews from their millennial fate as stateless, persecuted wanderers. As a young, courageous, and socialist-oriented state, moreover, Israel was immensely worthy of progressive Jewish admiration.
It had women soldiers. It had Holocaust survivors fighting for independence. It had experiments in collective living and collective industry, socialism without Stalinism. It had Jewish immigrants of many colors arriving from all over the world, and gave selfless aid to the newly independent, decolonized countries of Africa. It had physical labor, folk dancing, and a sexy, Mediterranean vitality. For Socialist Zionists in America, Israel was a glory and a romance.
So it would remain until the Six-Day War in 1967. During the years and decades that followed, leftwing Jews were deeply upset by Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands, its spread of Jewish settlements there, its refusal to acknowledge the reality of Palestinian peoplehood, and its policy of overkill in response to terrorism. Many young progressive Jews fell out of step with the American Jewish community, which was focused far less on Palestinian self-determination than on Arab rejectionism, Israeli vulnerability, and international anti- Semitism.
As Labor Zionism lost its hegemony in Israel with the election of Menachem Begin in 1977, and as Israel more and more served the Cold War agenda of the United States — by helping to arm the South African apartheid regime, for example, and providing military training to Latin American dictatorships — leftwing Jews found themselves torn between their disdain for this alliance with the U.S. military-industrial complex, on the one hand, and their nuanced understanding of Israel’s claims to legitimacy and self-defense, on the other. “There is nothing for us to apologize about,” insisted M.J. Rosenberg, a Brandeis student who became an important Mideast commentator and two-state advocate. “The accomplishments of Zionism… can well serve as a model for every oppressed and downtrodden people.” Such sentiments, however, eluded non-Jewish allies within the progressive movements of the 1970s as well as leaders of Third World countries, who tended, like the United Nations, to equate Zionism and racism.
In an effort to serve as a progressive voice within the Jewish community and a Jewish voice within the broad left, Jews founded a series of Jewish publications (Chutzpah, Jewish Radical, Genesis 2, Jewish Socialist Review, Moment, Sh’ma, Bridges, and Tikkun, among others) and organizations and philanthropies (the Boston Committee to Challenge Anti-Semitism, the Chutzpah Collective, Breira, the Shalom Center, the Shefa Fund, the New Israel Fund, and New Jewish Agenda, among others) in the 1970s and ’80s. They gave support to the emerging Israeli Peace Now movement; they challenged the role of wealth within organized Jewish life; they “criticized the priorities of the American Jewish establishment,” writes Edward S. Shapiro (in Volume 5 of The Jewish People in America, 1992), “and insisted that American Jewry take the social and economic teachings of Judaism seriously.”
New Jewish Agenda, a chapter-based organization that was founded at the end of 1980 and lasted for some fifteen years, was strongly interested in a land-for-peace solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also made sure that Israel did not become the organizational “kiss of death” that it had been for other progressive groups squelched by mainstream Jewish attacks. Agenda took on South African apartheid, sanctuary for Latin American refugees, and gay and lesbian inclusion in synagogue life as key issues. Many progressive Jews who went on to create their own Jewish organizations, or to enter the rabbinate, or to innovate in the realms of Jewish theology, liturgy, gay and lesbian inclusion, Mideast peace activism, and more, came ‘up through the ranks’ of New Jewish Agenda.
WHILE SOME LEFTWING JEWS worked within the Jewish community as innovators, reformers, and founders of alternative Jewish institutions, many others, especially secular Jews, worked in social movements outside the Jewish community. Of the seven hundred-plus young white volunteers, for example, who risked their lives during the Mississippi Freedom Summer campaign in 1964 (including Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were murdered alongside James Chaney by Ku Klux Klan members), at least a third were Jews — as was a large plurality of the lawyers, doctors, healthcare workers, performers, and religious leaders who assisted the many campaigns of the civil rights movement. Notable among them was Stanley Levison, an attorney and businessman who served as a key advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from the late 1950s until King’s assassination in 1968. Affiliated with the Communist Party in the 1950s, Levison’s presence in the civil rights movement helped to attract the unwelcome and repressive attention of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Many other progressive Jews worked both within and beyond the Jewish community. Arnold Aronson, director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights for thirty years from its founding in 1950, played a key role in the civil rights struggle by helping to coordinate lobbying for the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Two of these bills were drafted in the Washington, DC headquarters of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, founded in 1961 in part to enable progressive leaders of Reform Judaism, then the fastest-growing denomination of Judaism in America, to pursue social justice work without needing to garner approval from congregations and other movement funders. The strategy paid off, as Reform Judaism moved well in advance of much of the rest of the American Jewish community in its support of the civil rights movement and its opposition to the war in Vietnam. When President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 threw fear into the organized Jewish community by threatening (through the Jewish War Veterans) to withdraw U.S. support for Israel if American Jews did not get on board in support of his Vietnam policies, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, the president of the Reform movement, declared that “We transgress every tenet of our faith when we fight on another’s soil, scorch the earth of another’s beloved homeland, and slay multitudes of innocent villagers,” and published an open letter to President Johnson comparing him with the tyrant of the Khanike story, Antiochus Epiphanes.
Jews also remained in the forefront of the labor movement during the 1960s and ’70s, including Leon Davis of Local 1199, the Drug and Hospital Workers Union, which bucked the pro-Vietnam War consensus of the AFL-CIO and also gave notable support to the civil rights struggle. (Martin Luther King, Jr. would refer to 1199 as “my favorite union”). Sandra Feldman, the first woman to head the United Federation of Teachers (succeeding Albert Shanker in 1986), was also a civil rights stalwart who had helped her mentor Bayard Rustin organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The Jewish Labor Committee, with strong support from the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, gave strong support to that historic march and to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights — but remained in solidarity with the AFL-CIO in supporting the anti-Communist Vietnam War.
SUPPORT FOR THE WAR, however, became the exception more than the rule within the Jewish left. In fact, the anti-war movement, as well as the drugs-sex-rock-and-roll youth culture in which it swam, had many Jewish leaders. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin co-founded (with Paul Krassner, Anita Hoffman, and Nancy Kurshan) the largely conceptual Youth International Party (the Yippees) and stoked anti-authoritarian sentiment with their high jinks during the Chicago Eight Conspiracy Trial in 1968. Far more substantial — able to mobilize a nationwide student strike with over a million participants in 1968 — Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the core organization of what became known as the New Left, had a membership that scholars estimate to have been about one-third Jewish. Founded in 1960, its Jewish leaders included Alan Haber, the first SDS president; Todd Gitlin, who helped organize the first national SDS demonstration against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., on April 17, 1965; Dick Flacks, who helped write the Port Huron Manifesto, the founding document of the organization); and Mark Rudd, who led the raucous student takeover of Columbia University in 1968. Strongly influenced by the civil rights and Black Power movements, SDS led teach-ins, sit-ins, and other forms of protest at hundreds of college campuses, but fell into factional splits in the late 1960s, producing the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground), the October League/Revolutionary Youth Movement, the Worker-Student Alliance of the Progressive Labor Party, and other short-lived (and often Jewish-led) formations. Cartoonist R. Cobb satirized it all with a Los Angeles Free Press cartoon about the “Joys of Sects.”
MORE ENDURING was the feminist movement, which transformed social norms, job opportunities, sexual freedom, gender and family relations, and much more, in the 1970s and ’80s. Of the many Jewish women who provided leadership and spark to the women’s movement, Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug were earthshakers. Friedan’s bestselling 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, gave voice to the powerlessness, isolation, and second-class status of American women, and her leadership in helping to organize the National Organization for Women — which now has some 550 chapters in all fifty states — helped turn feminist energies into a powerful lobbying, legal, and cultural force. Bella Abzug, for her part, not only co-founded Women’s Strike for Peace in 1961, in opposition to the nuclear arms race, but imported an eloquent and no-nonsense brand of feminism into the U.S. Congress. Abzug was one of the first Congressional representatives to support gay rights, and helped to defend reproductive rights after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision of 1970 — and her array of broad-brimmed hats always made for photogenic political moments.
Emerging simultaneously with the feminist movement, sometimes in tandem, sometimes in conflict with the women’s movement’s own homophobia, the contemporary gay and lesbian liberation movement began shaking things up with the Stonewall Rebellion of June 28, 1969, when a Jewish cop, Seymour Pine, found his squad pushed back hard when they tried to arrest patrons of a gay bar in Greenwich Village. (Pine would later apologize, saying, “If what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad.”) The following year, Brenda Howard, a bisexual Jewish woman, organized the first Gay Pride Day on the anniversary of Stonewall. (Howard would die before her time on the 36th anniversary of the rebellion.)
In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder, and in 2003 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws in Texas and thirteen other states that still defined homosexual sex as criminal (as it had been defined in all fifty states in 1960). With homosexuality no longer publicly defined as ‘sick’ or ‘criminal,’ Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgender-Queer Liberation had major stumbling blocks pushed to the side.
The AIDS scourge of the 1980s (notably brought to public attention by playwright Larry Kramer) brought visibility and sympathy to the movement — along with hateful scorn from the Christian right — and a heightened sense of political solidarity among gay men, lesbians, and other queer-identified people. By the late 1990s, same-sex marriage became, quite surprisingly, the cutting edge of GLBTQ liberation. Beginning with civil union statutes in California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii, the movement to end marriage discrimination, led in many cases by Evan Wolfson’s Freedom to Marry organization, has had victories in thirty-seven states in less than two decades — and at this writing, the cause of marriage equality has been sustained by the Supreme Court.
TODAY, LEFTWING JEWS in America remain active within Jewish groups that directly tackle Jewish concerns (especially about Israel) and cultivate Jewish culture: Partners for Peace, the Jewish Peace Lobby, Yiddishkayt L.A., Workmen’s Circle, the liberal denominations of Judaism, and others. Progressive Jews are also active in Jewish organizations that mainly address universalist concerns: Bend the Arc, American Jewish World Service, T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights), Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and a slew of young people’s groups oriented towards organic farming and environmental care.
Finally, Jews are active, with or without Jewish identifiers, in cutting-edge social and economic justice movements and in defense of the amazing gains in rights and opportunities that have been won been since 1945.
Conservative political ideology has been ascendant, however, since Ronald Reagan came into the White House defining government, not corporate greed and heedlessness, as the source of American decline. While Jews have remained steadfastly liberal in their voting and social-policy views (with three-quarters voting for Obama in 2008), they are not immune to the loudly amplified foreign-policy paranoia or the “greed is good” ideology of modern times — particularly now that the Jewish community has largely left behind its neighborhoods, unions, and working-class roots.
Israeli policies, realities, and rhetoric also provide steady reinforcement of an “us-against-them” view of Jewish existence. A community that was once answerable to its left has thus become significantly more answerable to its right, and progressive Jews may therefore find themselves playing more of a role as scorned prophets than as successful organizers, as they find it difficult to find a supportive base within the Jewish mainstream.
Ultimately, however, we believe that the words of Louis Brandeis — that the “20th century ideals of America have been the ideals of the Jew for twenty centuries” — will have staying power in the 21st, and that the American Jewish left will continue to play a critical role in creating a more sane, just, and cooperative world.