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A History and An Analysis
by Lawrence Bush
THE STREETS WERE PAVED with stones and cement, not gold, in the so-called goldene medine, “golden land,” of America, but at least a Jew could walk those sidewalks with “none to make him afraid,” as President George Washington had assured the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island in an historic letter in 1790. One century later, between 1881 and 1924, more than two million Eastern European Jewish men, women, and children took Washington at his word, joining the 50,000 Jews who had been trickling here from Western and Central Europe since colonial days. In the course of a trans-Atlantic voyage — most often in steerage, the lowest decks of a steamship — a people that had spent a thousand years as a self-governing, severely persecuted “race” was suddenly transmuted into free, individual citizens.
For the great majority of them, the U.S. represented, in the words of Cleveland’s Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, “a continent of glory... filled... with treasures untold.” There was no census category for “Jew” here, no walled ghettos, no laws enforcing vocational restrictions for Jews, no state-sanctioned church with a history of riot-making and Inquisitorial torture against them — and there were lots of new names from which to choose, for camouflage. Flush with ambition, Jewish immigrants called the place “America ganef,” “America the thief,” with a combined sense of affection, awe, and scandal about a system that could unleash human beings from the confining rules of the Old Country. Then they waded into the entrepreneurial mob to help invent movies, department stores, shopping malls, credit cards, Barbie dolls, candy bars, suburban tract housing, discount stock brokerages, and other mass-market products that democratized the economy, blurred the class gulf, and shaped the American Dream throughout the 20th century.
Their sense of enthusiasm is embodied in an old joke about a “greenhorn,” just off the boat, in a Horn & Hardart Automat — the original fast-food restaurant, founded in 1912 and hugely popular among New Yorkers and Philadelphians. He puts a nickel into the pie dispenser and takes out a slice of pie. He puts another nickel in and takes out another slice. He does this again and again until another customer comments, “Wow, that’s a lot of pie you’ve got there!”
The greenhorn looks at the man and sniffs: “And why should you care if I keep winning?”
AMONG THESE IMMIGRANT “WINNERS,” however, there was a brilliant and vocal minority for whom slices of pie and personal liberation from the constraints of traditional society were not enough. Instead, they were ambitious to liberate America ganef from its own constraints: poverty, racial violence, religious prejudice, sexism and sexual exploitation, child labor, municipal corruption, and overall narrow-mindedness. First arriving during what Mark Twain named “The Gilded Age,” which saw the concentration of enormous wealth in the hands of a few, activist Jews quickly joined the ranks of a broad coalition that sought to shift control of the country from robber barons to reformers — and, in some cases, revolutionaries.
For this coalition, “Americanism” meant “not only an opportunity to do better... but an imperative duty to be nobler.” This encapsulation of the Progressive Era credo was enunciated on the floor of Congress, with traces of a Lithuanian Yiddish accent, by Meyer London (pictured at left), one of two Jewish members of the Socialist Party elected to the House of Representatives in the first two decades of the 20th century. Vowing not to “rest until every power of capitalism has been destroyed and the workers emancipated from wage slavery,” London was twice reelected by the predominantly Jewish workers of New York’s Lower East Side.
His Socialist colleague, Milwaukee’s Victor Berger, was reelected four times, even after being jailed for his opposition to U.S. entry into World War I. In 1911, Berger introduced America’s first legislation for old-age insurance — twenty-four years before Franklin Roosevelt established Social Security as part of his New Deal.
Over the course of five generations, Jewish thinkers, artists, and activists would variously help to define, catalyze, organize, finance, and fill the ranks of the nation’s tumultuous social-change movements and creative cultural awakenings. The labor movement, the socialist movement, the civil rights struggles, the student uprising against the Vietnam War, feminism, the movement for gay and lesbian equality — these campaigns for increased democracy would be disproportionately populated and influenced by Jews. They flocked to leftwing parties, from the communists to the socialists to the anarchists, all of whom got nowhere electorally but had impact in the streets. Jews helped take the Democratic Party out of the hands of Southern segregationists and lent it a social-democratic tinge. They also entered, like no other people, such “helping” professional fields as psychology, social work, medicine, and education. They infused a social conscience into groundbreaking innovations in music, poetry, theater, painting, dance, fiction, comedy, radio, television and film. All told, Jews would have a transformative influence on America’s social fabric wholly out of keeping with their numbers, which never exceeded 4 percent of the country’s population.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT JEWS in America that caused them to identify with progressive ideals and undertake difficult, sometimes dangerous work for social change? Kentucky-born Louis Brandeis ventured an opinion only a year before being appointed by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916 as the first Jew ever to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. “America’s essentially democratic conditions,” Brandeis wrote in the premiere issue of The Menorah Journal, naturally suited Jewish “qualities of mind... and character,” which is why “a people coming from Russia, the most autocratic of countries, to America, the most democratic of countries, comes here, not as to a strange land, but as to a home...” In short, he summed up, “The ideals of 20th-century America have been the ideals of the Jew for twenty centuries.”
A vociferous opponent of corporate power, Brandeis (pictured at left) knew perfectly well how far from ideal the American reality truly was, with its lynchings and sweatshop fires, sharecropper shacks and tenement slums, its denial to women of the vote and of control of their own bodies, and its funneling, by 1900, of 45 percent of its wealth to 1 percent of its people. He had personally experienced anti-Semitism, which nearly derailed his appointment to the Court and provoked his fellow Justice, James Clark McReynolds, not to speak to him for three years. Nevertheless, like many of the Jewish idealists who shaped American culture, Brandeis sincerely believed there to be an essential harmony between his best hopes for the country and his most cherished values as a Jew.
Crucially, a majority of Jews in America agreed with him, which is why Jewish activists could find a base of support in the Jewish community and see their activism reproduced from generation to generation. Within a few decades of the immigration flood, in fact, a sizable majority of American Jews had come to equate Jewishness with liberalism, urbanism, open-mindedness, tolerance, and good deeds. They believed, moreover, that such a mind-set could be exported to America at large, through creative culture and political activism.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, for example, Lillian Wald (pictured at right), who headed New York’s Henry Street Settlement House, helped create the world’s first public nursing system. Sidney Hillman emerged as a leader of a militant Jewish working class as founder and first president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union, which created a workers’ bank and affordable housing. Rose Schneiderman, a leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), rallied tens of thousands of her fellow seamstresses to abolish sweatshop conditions in their workplaces. It was the heyday of Jewish socialism, and the Yiddish Forverts, the socialist newspaper edited for half a century by Abraham Cahan, had a circulation ranging between 120,000 and over 200,000 — more readers than the New York Times.
In the aftermath of World War I, however, conservative forces lashed back through mass arrests and deportations of thousands of “red” immigrants — including anarchist leader Emma Goldman, whose speeches and writings had made her one of America’s first “public intellectuals.” Newly restrictive immigration laws targeted Jews, along with Catholics and Asians, for exclusion; the Ku Klux Klan’s membership rose to nearly four million; automobile magnate Henry Ford published anti-Semitic ravings in his weekly Dearborn Independent (read by 900,000); and Harvard’s President Abbott Lowell established a quota to limit Jewish admissions to his university.
From the vicious to the genteel, these atavistic reactions to social change were met by reformers who created the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920; fought the racist scourge of lynching; illegally educated women about birth control; organized to preserve struggling labor unions and reduce poverty. Jews gained a place in these efforts by forming secular Jewish organizations, separate from synagogues — issue-oriented groups like the American Jewish Congress (1922), led by Rabbi Stephen S. Wise for more than twenty years, and the socialist-oriented Workmen’s Circle (peaking at nearly 100,000 members in 1925). Jews also solidified an alliance with African-Americans by helping to launch and fund the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Through such activism, Jews became, en masse, permanent members of the civil rights and civil liberties coalitions that would end, or at least greatly curb, the terror of white supremacy and the hegemony of WASP culture in America before the century was out.
NEXT CAME THE ROOSEVELT YEARS, in which America was tested and transformed by the Great Depression and World War II. In four short years after the 1929 stock market crash, the country’s Gross National Product fell from $104 billion to $56 billion, and unemployment gripped “One Third of a Nation” (as the Jewish playwright Arthur Arent would note in his play of that title for the government-funded Federal Theater Project). Widespread unrest was triggered by this mass misery, and Jews played important roles in the social agitation that pushed President Franklin Roosevelt towards the government interventions that would earn him the rightwing epithet, “traitor to his class.”
Jewish labor leaders abandoned their support for socialist candidates and instead brought socialist perspectives into the emerging New Deal coalition. They also served as strategists, organizers and fundraisers for the industrial unions of the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which organized millions of workers in steel, auto and other industries. Inside the White House, Jews did their share, too: Harvard law professor Felix Frankfurter was a key adviser even before FDR appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1939, while Ben Cohen wrote much of the decade’s regulatory legislation and economist Leon Keyserling drafted much of the Social Security Act.
Only two weeks into FDR’s first term, the same Depression that was wracking the U.S. brought to power in Germany a blatantly racist dictator who had a vision of conquering the world and the Jews lined up in his gunsights. Americans Jews were among the first to warn about the Nazis’s threat to democracy. While conservatives and many of their big-business allies proved to be tolerant towards the Nazis and their racist ideology — and sometimes even cooperated with Hitler right up until America’s entry into World War II — Jewish radicals and liberals were very much united in the anti-Nazi cause. They understood the continuities between economic hardship and political reaction, even in the U.S., where they still faced vocational, residential, and social restrictions — all of which escalated during the Depression, as demagogues such as Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest from Detroit who had millions of listeners for his national radio broadcasts, scapegoated the Jews for the suffering of working Americans.
Many Jews became active in anti-fascist activity: Of the 40-45,000 volunteers, for example, who fought in the International Brigades against Hitler’s ally, Francisco Franco, in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), about 20 percent were Jews, including over a third of the volunteers from the United States. Baseball slugger Hank Greenberg, a generally apolitical celebrity, nevertheless reflected the sentiments of most American Jews when he said, “I came to feel that if I, as a Jew, hit a home run, I was hitting one against Hitler.”
The more progressive FDR became, the more Jews voted for him — from 82 percent in 1932 to 90 percent in his last two elections. “More than anything else,” writes historian Henry Feingold, President Roosevelt’s “welfare state had come to embody most Jewish assumptions about the purpose of politics, which is the reason the Jewish ‘love affair’ with Roosevelt assumed an almost religious cast. Rabbi William Rosenbloom of Temple Israel in New York City called him ‘the Messiah of America’s tomorrow’...”
A “messianic” spirit seemed also to inspire Jewish artists, who produced soulful and enduring American classics infused with a progressive patriotism during the Roosevelt years. Classical composer Aaron Copland wrote “Fanfare for the Common Man” in 1942, inspired by a proclamation by Vice-President Henry Wallace of “The Century of the Common Man.” Yip Harburg captured the shock of the Depression with “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” in 1932 (music by Jay Gorney/Gornetzsky), and then offered prayerful hopes for a better day with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in 1939 (music by Harold Arlen/Arluck). That same year, painter Ben Shahn and his wife Bernarda Bryson created a series of thirteen murals in the Bronx central post office inspired by Walt Whitman's poetry, which in turn inspired popular support for government employment programs. On the Broadway stage, Clifford Odets had audiences listening to plain-spoken denunciations of exploitative capitalism in Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! (both in 1935), while on the big screen, Groucho Marx and his brothers were tearing up high society and its costly pretensions with Duck Soup (1933), A Night at the Opera (1935), and other bits of inspired, contagious insanity.
IT WOULD TAKE the repressions of McCarthyism, as well as the precipitous decline of the wartime U.S.-Soviet alliance into a nuclear-tipped Cold War, to chase the “love affair” between Jews and the left into the closet in the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s — but not before the communist sportswriter Lester Rodney had helped gather hundreds of thousands of signatures on petitions demanding the integration of Major League Baseball; and not before Arthur Miller had shown, with Death of a Salesman (1949), the desperation of a people unable to compete in the corporate rat race; and not before Allen Ginsberg had “howled” against post-war alienation and the “Moloch” of corporate power; and not before Harvey Kurtzman had American high schoolers rolling with laughter over MAD magazine’s skewering of the inanities of advertising, television, conformity and middlebrow culture.
Still, McCarthyism’s attack on the left-liberal New Deal coalition was no laughing matter. As government witchhunts drove “reds,” including many Jews, out of teaching positions in public schools and colleges, and as the Hollywood blacklist destroyed the careers of famous film artists (again, many them Jews), and as the prosecution and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as atomic spies caused Jews throughout the country to shudder at the thought of being seen as disloyal or unpatriotic, liberals sought to put daylight between themselves and the left, especially the weakened Communist left. At the same time, post-war suburbanization facilitated by the G.I. Bill eroded Jewish neighborhoods, which had been the bases for progressive Jewish organizing.
Nevertheless, Jewish identification with progressive politics remained vibrant enough that when the civil rights movement erupted in the South in the second half of the decade, Martin Luther King, Jr. and his cohort could reliably count on northern Jewish organizations for material and moral support. By the early 1960s, more than half the civil rights attorneys in the South were Jews, as were more than a third of the young Mississippi Freedom Summer volunteers who headed South in 1964 — most of them with the blessings of their parents, professors, rabbis, and communities.
This participation in the brave and dignified — and successful! — civil rights struggle brought a new sense of honor and imperative to Jewish activism as the McCarthy period waned. When a “New Left” emerged in opposition to American savagery in Vietnam, young Jews were prominent among its leaders — as they were within the folk music revival and the psychedelic rock and roll movement that provided its soundtrack.
Emerging only a step behind, the women’s movement also had an abundance of Jewish leaders and participants, starting with Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, jolted women into rebellion against their dependency, infantilization, and oppression. Bella Abzug, who had already mobilized thousands of housewives to protest the nuclear arms race through Women’s Strike for Peace, won election to Congress and helped translate feminism into law. Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin helped to create Ms. magazine and attract mass-media attention to women’s issues. Feminism made powerful sense to Jewish women who were, in the main, educated and hungry for opportunities beyond the nurse-teacher-mother roles assigned to their sex. When some of them accosted the Jewish community with demands to become rabbis and cantors, write gender-neutral liturgy, and have equal status in ritual practice, resistance from the Jewish male establishment was weak, in recognition that the rising of the women was “good for the Jews,” especially for depopulated synagogues.
Soon after, gay and lesbian Jews began voicing demands for recognition and acceptance, inspired in particular by the 1977 election and then the homophobic murder in San Francisco of Harvey Milk, the country’s first openly gay officeholder. Again, when Jewish radicals pushed hard, the Jewish liberal base opened its doors: The head of the million-member Reform movement, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, was soon making speeches about the Jewish star “containing within it the symbol of the triangle,” the symbol of gay struggle.
ALL OF THIS CHANGE, much of it advanced through the courts, helped Richard Nixon to mobilize “the Silent Majority” of white American voters to give him the White House in 1968 and 1972. As the fight for progressive ideals once again became defensive, Norman Lear sought to stem the tide of white working-class reaction by laughing at it on television (All in the Family, 1971-79). Howard Zinn shored up popular understanding of the historical foundations for social change movements through his 1980 bestseller, A People’s History of the United States. Neither kibitzing nor scholarship, however, could stop the conservative upsurge towards respectability known as the “Reagan revolution.”
Yet even in 1981, shortly after Reagan’s election, a survey by the American Jewish Committee showed Jews to be tenaciously liberal: 73-17 percent in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, 56-26 percent in favor of affirmative action, 67-23 percent in favor of allowing non-heterosexuals to be public school teachers (this before same-sex marriage or even the decriminalization of gay sex), 76-18 percent against government aid to private and parochial schools, 58-33 percent against cuts in social welfare spending, and so on.
Likewise today, the American Jewish community still polls to the left of the white American population (and much of the non-white population as well) on nearly every social and economic issue, and 70 percent of American Jewish voters voted for Barack Obama in 2012 (78 percent in 2008), despite rightwing defamations of him as anti-Israel, a secret Muslim, and a socialist. As the conservative writer Don Feder remarked before the Heritage Foundation some years ago, it seems that “shrimp will learn to whistle ‘Hava Nagila’” before American Jews “escape... the liberal ghetto.”
ANY ATTEMPT TO EXPLAIN this durability of Jewish progressive sentiment leads to the realization that the terms “liberal” and “conservative” are actually quite difficult to define today, amid the 21st-century global stew of religious fundamentalism, ethnic animosity, neo-liberal corporatism, anti-corporate populism, dynastic communism, and a dizzying variety of other political philosophies and realities. Throughout the 20th century, however, the divide between liberals and conservatives was marked by several clear fissures — and Jews were mostly gathered on the left side.
Conservatives, for example, tended to postulate that the interests of corporations are congruent with the public interest, and to associate regulation and taxation of big business with tyranny. Liberals advocated a strong role for government as an intervening force between powerful economic interests and the public interest. Again, Louis Brandeis gave voice to the prevailing Jewish viewpoint when he wrote, in 1914: “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."
Conservatives also saw poverty (and wealth) as a measure of individual virtue, sobriety, and fitness, and they distrusted the very idea of collective responsibility for much more than national defense. Liberals, on the other hand, saw poverty as fundamentally a social and institutional phenomenon requiring collective remedies. For Jews, religious and cultural training reflected a centuries-old tradition of mutual aid that emphasized communal needs over individual liberty. “Tsedoke equals in importance all the other commandments combined,” says the Talmud, the multi-volume collection of Jewish law and lore, using the word for “charity” that translates, more accurately, as “doing justice.”
Conservatives described themselves as “realistic” about human beings and their fundamental sinfulness, and believed that people are best controlled through well-enforced policies of dissuasion and punishment — the stick. Liberals tended to have an “idealistic” sense of people as basically good, and were inclined to endorse policies of encouragement and support — the carrot. For Jews, despite centuries of direct encounter with the very worst in human beings, “realism” had always been leavened by a religious and cultural emphasis upon compassion (rakhmones, in Yiddish, a word rooted in the Hebrew word for “womb”) as being coequal with harsh justice in making the world go ’round. Even in the Hebrew Bible, with its many scenes of a vengeful God, the classic dissent expressed by Abraham, the first and prototypical Jew, is for God to show mercy and not “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty” through collective punishment of the sinful city of Sodom (Genesis 18:16-33).
Finally, conservatives were defenders of traditional authority, morality, and hierarchy, which they saw as arising out of a natural order. They were also eager to control behavior in the private realm, in order to enforce morality and “keep the lid on.” Liberals, on the other hand, tended to be more supportive of social experimentation and challenges to tradition, particularly when that meant greater democratization of society — and to have a hands-off attitude towards the private realm.
It’s true, of course, that Jews emerged from a traditional society of their own, with hundreds of rules — which the great majority of Jews who came to America rapidly discarded or “reformed” into ethical precepts instead of behavioral mandates. Traditional or not, as a long-persecuted minority, Jews looked suspiciously on the entrenched non-Jewish traditions of society, which they experienced as oppressive and obstructing human progress. Sigmund Freud expressed this viewpoint well in 1926, on the occasion of his 70th birthday, when he wrote to the B’nai B’rith lodge in Vienna where he had delivered many lectures on psychoanalytic theory. Freud noted that he “owed two characteristics” to his Jewish identity: “Because I was a Jew I found myself free from many prejudices that restricted others in the use of their intellect; and as a Jew I was prepared to join the Opposition and do without agreement from the ‘compact majority.’”
For Jews in America, there was a clear continuity between the “compact majorities” of Europe and America: between the pogroms of Eastern Europe and Ku Klux Klan lynchings; between the nasty words of Martin Luther (a “base, whoring people,” he wrote in On the Jews and Their Lies, 1543) and the polite anti-Semitism of Protestant-ruled corporate and university boards. Even leading Jewish capitalists therefore found sufficient skepticism about “the system” to undertake notable progressive works. Julius Rosenwald, for example, who turned Sears-Roebuck into a mail-order powerhouse, would contribute more than $50 million in the course of his life towards projects of African-American education and uplift. Edward Filene, who invented the discount department store, would build and lead the credit union movement to spare workers from usury.
Overall, the American Jewish “success story” did not yield a dramatic rightwards shift within Jewish life — and will not for as long as the “right” is polluted by forces that loudly echo the anti-Semitic and racist “compact majority” of yesteryear.
To read the concluding part of this article, click here.