Jews in Radical Politics

America's Communist movement owed a lot to Jewish support.

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Jewish Influence

So it was, during these years of communism's resurgence, that the Jewish component surfaced even more vividly than it had a decade earlier, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution. By now, New York accounted for about one-fifth of the party's national member­ship, and that one-fifth was predominantly Jewish. All the senior edi­tors of the Daily Worker were Jews. If the party failed to make headway in the ILGWU or the Amalgamated (well immunized by the events of the 1920s), it successfully infiltrated white-collar unions, with their extensive Jewish membership of teachers, social workers, office workers, government employees, and retail clerks. It organized a spe­cial section to penetrate Jewish community centers, Jewish federa­tions, national Jewish organizations.

The West Coast office of the American Jewish Congress was almost entirely compromised by fel­low travelers. At the annual conference of the Federation of Jewish Social Welfare Agencies in 1932, the much-respected chairman, Jacob Billikopf, was nearly unseated in favor of a hard-core Communist. In 1934, radicals in the Jewish Social Workers Association defected to form the Association of Practitioners in Jewish Social Agencies--a Communist front.

Altogether, tens of thousands of Jews throughout the country were drawn to Communist-front organizations, particularly to the various "anti-Fascist" groups. One of the most popular of these, founded in 1937, was the American League against War and Fascism, later to be renamed the American League for Peace and Democracy. The Jew­ish People's Committee against Fascism and Anti-Semitism was formed in 1939, when the American Jewish Congress rejected applicants from the leftist International Workers Organization.

Impres­sionable and idealistic, students were uniquely susceptible to these leagues and alliances. In 1936, the American Student Union--later the American Youth Congress--listed 200,000 members, of whom possibly a fourth were Jews. For these young people, witnessing the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe and experiencing raw discrimina­tion at home, almost any "progressive" movement would have claimed their loyalty. But with their own strong Jewish cultural traditions, they were particularly impressed by the intellectualism of the Left, by a movement that included so many admired thinkers, writers, and other individuals of cultivated tastes.

Few of them joined the Communist party outright but large numbers were drawn to front organizations, oblivious to the hard-edged Stalinism that lurked behind the façade. There was nothing cynical about their commitments. When civil war broke out in Spain, possibly 1,000 of the 3,000 volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade who departed to fight for the Loyalist cause were Jews. A third of them never returned.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.