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Jewish Radicalism, Broadly Speaking

Lawrence Bush
January 15, 2004

by Jeffrey Dekro and Lawrence Bush
The Jewish presence in America has created a cross-fertilization of two civilizations that has been profoundly democratizing to both.
‘Democratization’ was stirring within both cultures by the time their encounter truly began. Perhaps it is jarring to think of George Washington and the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, as historical contemporaries, but they were: George had only just married Martha in Virginia when the Baal Shem Tov died in Poland in 1760. Both figures were at the crest of a revolutionary impulse to break loose from traditional hierarchies and feudal relationships. In the case of the Hasidic revolution, this meant the breakdown of rabbinic authority (replaced, all too soon, by the near-deification of the Hasidic rebbes) and the empowerment of individual Jews in their relationship to God. From its inception, Hasidism stressed the individual soul and, in a sense, liberated it.
Even more so did the American revolution liberate individuals from the web of feudal and colonial relationships that bound them (although African-Americans were to remain in bondage until the 19th century, and women’s full citizenship was to be denied until the 20th). Historian Gordon S. Wood describes the “radicalism of the American revolution,” in his book of that title, as its “full-scale assault on dependency” — its transformation of “subjects” into “citizens.”
Jews partook in that transformation from the beginning. Asser Levy successfully fought Peter Stuyvesant for the right of Jews to become burghers in New Amsterdam in the 1650s. Haym Salomon supplied the Army of the Continental Congress with food and equipment in the 1770s. We could freeze our camera upon those two figures and see, encapsulated in their roles, nearly the entirety of American Jewish history — for it is as agitators and as capitalists that Jews have most affected the social history of this country.

Jewish agitator history runs as a blue thread throughout the fabric of American social reform. Revolutionary war veteran Benjamin Nones of Philadelphia, a Jeffersonian Democrat, defied Federalist anti-Semitism in 1800 and declared it his duty as a Jew to be in the forefront of the democratic struggle: “I am a Jew, and if for no other reason, for that reason am I a republican” (small “r” republican, a word that meant “radical” in its day). Ernestine L. Rose, daughter of a Polish rabbi, became known as “Queen of the Platform” for her orations against slavery and on behalf of the civic emancipation of women, including the right to own property (a right that New York, the first state to do so, extended to women as late as 1848).Drawing of Ernestine L. Rose
The abolitionist movement also received support from the pulpit from Baltimore’s first great Reform rabbi, David Einhorn, who was driven from the city by pro-slavery mobs. Meanwhile, the armed revolutionary John Brown was accompanied in Bloody Kansas by August Bondi, an Austro-German Jewish veteran of the failed European revolutions of 1848.

Then came the East European immigrants, one and a half million of them in the period from 1899 to 1914 alone — and with them came the ideologies of the socialist left, and the insurgent, working-class culture of Yiddish. Yiddish-speaking Jews organized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and a dozen other trade unions. The first national strike of women, the shirtwaist makers’ “Uprising of the 20,000” (1909-1910), was a Jewish- (and Italian-) led struggle. By 1914, the United Hebrew Trades in New York had 104 unions with 250,000 members. Ten years later, the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward had a circulation of a quarter-million and was a prominent editorial influence in New York. Jews also formed a large plurality of both the Socialist Party and the Communist Party that emerged from a Socialist split in 1921.
Throughout the 20th century, Jews transformed America through agitation, dissent, cultural creativity and sacrifice. Simply by listing names of a dozen landmark Jewish figures — Emma Goldman, Rose Schneiderman, David Dubinsky, Allen Ginsberg, Betty Friedan, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, Lillian Wald, I. F. Stone, Saul Alinsky, Bella Abzug, Abbie Hoffman — you can develop an effective outline of contemporary social history in America. To what extent were these influential Jews themselves influenced by their Jewish identities? To what extent can we rightfully say that the words of the Prophet Isaiah found conscious fulfillment, say, in the muckraking newsweekly of I. F. Stone or the feminist politicking of Bella Abzug?
Clearly, for a religiously-rooted Jewish activist like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — who reported that his “legs were praying” when he marched against segregation with Martin Luther King, Jr. — acts of conscience and courage were rooted in the Biblical teaching that human beings are b’tselem elohim (made in the image of God). Likewise, for activist Jews who were imbedded in an immigrant milieu awash with Yiddishkayt, the question about Jewish values is moot. The sweatshop poet Morris Rosenfeld made no reference in his poetry to the Ernestine L. Rose Judaic teaching against withholding pay from workers (osek) — but he wrote about sweatshops populated by Jewish workers and bosses, and his poems were published in Yiddish papers read by Jews. Even Abbie Hoffman, two generations removed from the immigrant generation, was capable of scolding Judge Julius Hoffman during the Chicago Seven Trial by calling him a “shandeh far di goyim” (an embarrassment in front of the gentiles). The great majority of notable American Jewish activists have been secular or cultural Jews whose creativity and life-force bridged the Jewish and American worlds. Their Torah was mentshlikhkayt (human decency), their idea of worship was to exercise chutzpah, and their God was Liberation. Abbie Hoffman best summarized the essential Jewish content of their activism by writing in his book, Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, that

Jews have to make a big choice very quickly in life whether to go for the money or to go for broke. Wiseguys who go around saying things like ‘Workers of the world unite’ or . . . ‘E=mc2′ obviously choose to go for broke. It’s the greatest Jewish tradition.

As we turn from the Jewish agitators to the Jewish capitalists, even that rudimentary Jewish imperative defined by Abbie Hoffman as “going for broke” is not always clearly identifiable. Yes, the pioneers of Hollywood, the innovators of the retail industry, the creators of the television and radio industries were, in the main, Jewish — but often with their Jewish names altered, their Jewish origins intentionally disguised.
Both their Jewish and business identities were defined, most of all, by anti-Semitism: both the historical anti-Semitism of the Old Country and the genteel anti-Semitism of corporate America in the first half of the 20th century and beyond [remember Laura Hobson’s Gentlemen’s AgreementY.S.], which forced Jews into experimental zones of American economic life. In 1936, when Fortune magazine examined the role of Jews in business, they were conspicuously absent as owners, directors or chief executive officers in coal, rubber, chemicals, shipbuilding, railroads, bus companies, aviation, utilities, telephone and telegraph, engineering and construction, heavy machinery, lumber, or dairy products. Where were the Jews?
Well, we might not have the Hollywood film - America’s most striking contribution, along with jazz, to world culture — were it not for Samuel Goldwyn, Cecil B. DeMille, Adolf Zukor, Louis Mayer, and Marcus Loew. It was David Sarnoff, founder of NBC, who transformed radio technology into a mass medium. Julius Rosenwald invented mail-order shopping through his creation of the Sears, Roebuck catalogue. Felix Warburg and his father-in-law Jacob Schiff were two of a handful of major financiers of North America’s industrial development, providing capital for Westinghouse, AT&T, the railroads, and much more. William Levitt invented mass-production building techniques that provided suburban homes at affordable prices for thousands of American families after World War II. Louis Blaustein responded to the spread of automobiles by inventing high-test gasoline and, with his son Jacob, Amoco. Muriel Siebert became the first woman member of the New York Stock Exchange in 1967 and promptly expanded popular access to stock ownership by launching one of the first discount brokerage houses. Michigan’s A. Alfred Taubman almost single-handedly invented the shopping mall.
Granted, each of these Jewish business innovations had dangerous side effects. The Hollywood films that have thrilled and entertained America have also fostered sexist, racist, and class-based illusions; mail-order shopping has contributed to idolatrous consumerism and credit-card glut; industrial development has led to pollution and sprawl; suburban homes have homogenized the American landscape and been marketed in a racist fashion — and don’t get us started on the stock market and shopping malls!
Nevertheless, it is striking how much the Jewish contribution to American business falls into the realm of democratization. It is striking, too, how, in seeking to circumvent the obstacle of anti-Semitism that loomed very large in American business until the 1960s, Jewish entrepreneurs blazed new paths that amplified the wealth and well-being of the many.
Many Jewish business pioneers, moreover, “sweetened the pot” by matching their impact as businessmen with their impact as philanthropists. Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck fame gave more than $50 million in tzedakah, much to empower black Americans, and was a founder of the NAACP. Edward Filene of the department store chain became a major force in the workers’ credit union movement, which saved thousands of workers from usury. Felix Warburg financed the Educational Alliance, the Henry Street Settlement House, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies in New York. Jacob Blaustein was instrumental in the creation of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on Genocide.
We are not saying that Jewish activists who sacrificed for change and often put their lives on the line are cut from the identical cloth as these innovative capitalists and philanthropists — only that America, and American Jewish life, have benefited tremendously from both “camps” — and both deserve koved, honor, in this 350th anniversary year.

Jeffrey Dekro is founder and president of The Shefa Fund, established in 1988 to encourage American Jews to use their tzedakah to create a more just society.
Larry Bush is Editor of Jewish Currents and other publications. His most recent book is the New Joys of Yiddish by Leo Rosten.

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.