The Jewish Impact on Communism in America

When mass immigration to the United States began in the late 19th Century, Jews began emigrating from Europe to acquire freedom and better economic opportunity. Many Jews came from countries such as Russia and Poland where they were poor and oppressed. The Jews, as well as the other immigrants, brought with them ideologies that were popular in their homeland. These ideas remained in their mind, and as more and more immigrants came with the same ideology, ideas spread, and political parties were formed around common traditions and cultures. Jews in particular were the leading force in the Communist movement. If it wasn’t for the immigration of Jews to America from the Soviet Union, Communism would not have spread in the United States during the 20th century.

One of the very popular political ideas during the 20th Century was Communism. Communism is a political structure that focuses on common ownership with an absence of social classes, money, and the state (Communism – Dictionary.com). Communism was a political movement started in Russia by Karl Marx. Many of his followers would later transform their countries and establish new governments based on the idea of Communism. While some disliked this style of government, many favored it because it was better than their previous forms of government. Communism offered jobless, poor and low class minorities a means to become equal in their society. Jews in particular felt that they were not treated equally in Russia, so they turned to Communism. In fact, the minister of Interior of Russia said in a speech in 1903 that, “In Western Russia, some 90 per cent of the revolutionaries are Jews, and in Russia generally — some 40 per cent.” (Belman – American Thinker)

In the United States, during the Depression, the Jews were poor and discriminated against so they had a strong inclination towards the growing Communist party. Immigrants experienced a harder time finding jobs because many couldn’t speak the language or did not have the experience needed for a job. Jews coming out of college, additionally, couldn’t find jobs due to discrimination as a minority. Many people believed that Communism would give them the equal resources and the equal social status that they needed to live a decent life. (Sachar – My Jewish Learning)

In addition, after coming to America, these immigrants were in search of a new form of expression of their Jewish identity that was not as rooted in religion. Radical politics soon became their answer. There were several forms of radical politics in America such as socialism, but the majority favored Communism because it focused on social equality in addition to economic equality. Many Jews described Communism as Jewish forms of expressions that were ’purely secular’ and ‘thoroughly Jewish’ (Jewish Women’s Archive). The Jews from Russia already had this radical notion in their minds as they came to America.

Jews were very involved in the Communist party in the United States. In both the 1924 and 1928 presidential elections, Jews contributed a significant share of the Communist party’s votes. One-quarter of the 50,000 votes cast for William Z. Foster, the Communist party’s nominee, came from New York. One of the leaders of the movement said, “Almost certainly most [votes] were cast by Jews.” New York accounted for about one-fifth of the Communist party’s national member­ship, and according to their records, one-fifth of them were Jewish. In 1919, the party leadership included “a disproportionate number of Jews.” (Sachar – My Jewish Learning) Among their Jewish leadership were: Charles Ruthenberg, a co-founder of the party; Jay Lovestone; Benjamin Gitlow; William Weinstone; Bertram D. Wolfe; and Israel Amster. (Simkin – Spartacu Educational) Many of the prominent Jewish members most likely convinced other Jews to join.

Communism was also spread through the presence of Jews in organizations. For example, many Jews were teachers, social workers, office workers, government employees, or retail clerks which meant that many were members of unions. Communism therefore infiltrated the unions. Communist ideas also spread through Jewish community centers, Jewish federations, and national Jewish organizations because some of their members had Communist political views. (Sachar – My Jewish Learning) Additionally, there were some organizations that were specifically created to promote Communism. One of the most prominent was the American League against War and Fascism. It was founded in 1933 as a coalition of organizations that opposed war and the fascist governments in Europe that threatened world peace. They would periodically sponsor huge demonstrations and send out newsletters. (Swarthmore College Peace Collection)

In response to the spread of Communism, the first Red Scare, an outbreak of anti-Communist propaganda in America occurred after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. It began through a mixture of national, social, and political tensions in the U.S. between radical immigrants and patriotic American citizens. The Red Scare included mail bombings to politicians and propaganda in news articles. The first Red Scare was mainly an attack on Socialists, Communists, and labor organizers that were associated with the Communist party. (Jewish Women’s Archive) One of the foremost ‘Red Hunters’ was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. In November 1919, Palmer and his agents arrested 250 members of the Union of Russian Workers. The majority of the workers were never charged with a crime but were only suspected of their affiliations. One of the famous suspects was Emma Goldman, a Jewish writer and activist. She had been in the United States for decades, and despite her allegiance to the country, her Communist connections through her Jewish faith led to her deportation.” (Who Built America? – pg. 265)

The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, another group of political activists from the United States volunteered to go to Spain to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Their professions included technicians, medical personnel and aviators fighting. These soldiers fought for the Spanish Republican forces against the Spanish Nationalists. There were approximately 3,000 volunteers from the United States who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and according some estimates, one-third of them were Jewish. They were children of European immigrants that had been an “Americanized”, but still felt family ties to Europe. Estimates additionally say that two-thirds of the volunteers in the Brigade were Communists. Hyman Katz was one volunteer from New York who was wounded in action in 1937. He wrote a letter home telling his mother his motives and the motives of many Jews who fought. His letter said, “Don’t you realize that we Jews will be the first to suffer if fascism comes?” The Jewish Communist supporters were afraid of fascism taking over the world and leading to oppression and even pogroms. (Albia!) The Jewish Virtual Library listed and described the Jews who fought in this war from international brigades. Nearly all of the Jews mentioned had some sort of connection or relation to Communist organizations. (Jewish Virtual Library)

Unlike the first Red Scare, after WWII, nearly everyone in the U.S. turned against Communism. This was an era dominated by McCarthyism and it was known as the second Red Scare. From 1946 to the 1960s, people suspected of being sympathetic to the Soviet Union or Communism, or those who were thought to have radical political views, were investigated, arrested, imprisoned, fined and often fired from their jobs. (Jewish Women’s Archive) No one was open about their radical beliefs anymore, and the Communist movement turned secret. Communism had completely changed in America.

People in the US were afraid that Communist supporters were spying for Russia during the time of the Cold War. As a result, many were wary of their friends, and some even reported their friends to the government. Very few people were actually Russian spies, but with the dawn of the Cold War, fear had taken over. Most Jews were no longer involved in the actual party for fear of being interrogated. Many Jews were part of organizations and leagues that were secretive though they continued to read the Communist newspaper. (History)

In response to this fear, the House Un-American Activities Committee, HUAC, was established in 1938. Its job was to investigate people who had been associated with “disloyalty and subversive activities on the part of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having Communist ties.” (The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers Project) The questioning style and examination techniques used continued until Senator Joseph McCarthy came and conducted Communist investigations in the 1950s. The House Un-American Activities Committee accused many Jews of being Communist, and many Jews were therefore blacklisted. (The JC.com) The blacklist prevented Communist sympathizers from obtaining employment. According to the American Social History Project, “Of all ethnic groups, American Jews were most divided and devastated by Mccarthyism.” (Who Built America? – pg. 502). Anti-Semitism in America grew as more Jews were found guilty of Communist activity. In New York City, 90% of the teachers that were blacklisted from working in public schools were Jewish. (Who Built America? – pg. 503)

Many of those who were suspected of being Communists were Jewish. clarify language: The Rosenbergs became famous because they were executed for their crime.  In the summer of 1949, the FBI learned that information about the atom bomb had been stolen and turned over to the Russians. An investigation resulted in the identification of British atomic scientist and Harry Gold, a Philadelphia chemist. In May of 1950, Gold confessed his espionage. The investigation led to more and more people, and nearly all of them were Jewish. Their names included, David Greenglass, Anatoli Yakovlev, Morton Sobell and Max Elitcher. The case finally lead to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. (The Atom Spy Case – FBI) All of these people had Communist connections and felt sympathy towards Russia. They were also all Jews. As a result, many Jews were concerned that these high-profile cases would make it seem like they were all traitors.

As a result, the American Jewish Committee, an organization whose main goal in the 1950s was helping American Jews become accepted in American Society, tried to repair the reputation of American Jews.  In a report written in November of 1950 titled, “The National Committee of the Communist Party of the U.S.A. on Work Among the Jews,” representatives from AJC discussed what to do in response to “the Communist Party’s work among Jews.” This list of work includes: “mobilizing the Jewish masses,” “protests against the American Government,” “support of the Soviet Union,” and “struggle against anti-Semitism.” (AJC Archives – Work Among the Jews) This clearly shows that even the Jews realized that other Jews are leading the Communist movement in a direction that was at odds with the rest of the Country. The organization discusses the fact that Jews in particular were the ones that are leading the Communist party. During the time of the HUAC, AJC gave another report that said, “the question was raised whether the identification of Jews and the Communists has increased in recent months… By deduction from the fact that so many Jews have been involved… George Mintzer feels that the problem is serious.” (AJC Archives – Memoranda on Civil Liberties and Communism) One can make the assumption that since this is a ‘serious’ problem, Jews were not only involved, but they also had an influential part in the Communist movement. Later in that same report, they continued, “To the Jewish community, we must point out in particular the dangers to the Jews and Liberals of the association in the public mind of Jews and Communism.” (AJC Archives – Memoranda on Civil Liberties and Communism) The need to deliniate the problem of the public associating Jews with Communism points to the fact that some Jews were highly involved and were an embarrassment to the rest of the Jewish community.

Finally, another reason that Jews were connected to Communism was that the Jews who immigrated to the United States were highly educated in Jewish values in particular. Many Jews had lost a lot of their faith in Judaism, but they still kept traditions and values that they would apply to politics. (Jews in American Politics) One example is that Jews believed strongly in “tzadaka” or making sure that everyone has what they need. Another value says that, “All People are created in the image of God.” (JFS) In God’s eyes everyone is equal, and this is exactly what Communism aims to accomplish. Communism aims to make everyone equal economically in the society. Whether or not Jews were observant, they grew up with these ideas and values. So, it may have been hard for other cultures to drive the Communist movement if their values were not focused around equality.

When Jews came to America, they brought with them powerful ideologies, deeply rooted values and a history of persecution from their homeland. This led many Jews to promote Communism. In the first half of the 20th century, Jews from the Communist party as well as Communist organizations played a big role in influencing others. Later on, the Red Scares and McCarthyism proved that many Jews were in fact behind the spreading of Communism. Jews in particular led the Communist movement in America, and if they hadn’t come, Communism would not have spread in America.  

 

Works Cited

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