Five months after Sen. Joseph McCarthy entered the national spotlight, an event took place in New York City that shook American Jewry to the core. On Monday, 17 July, 1950, the Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested Julius Rosenberg and charged him with transmitting classified information regarding the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Rosenberg’s arrest had been preceded by the arrest of Harry Gold and David Greenglass, Rosenberg’s brother-in-law, and was to be followed three and a half weeks later by the arrest of his wife, Ethel.
The three-year Rosenberg case culminated in their execution on Friday, 19 June, 1953, just minutes before the onset of the Jewish Sabbath. J. Edgar Hoover called the Rosenbergs’ offense “the crime of the century.” If it was not that, it certainly led to one of the great American trials of the century, and was a cause célèbre of the cold war.
For Jews, the most important aspect of the Rosenberg case was the Jewish background of all four of the major defendants. All had obviously Jewish names. American Jews feared the Rosenberg trial would be a godsend to anti-Semites. What better proof could there be of the Communist sympathies of Jews and their support for the Soviet motherland? Never in American history was the hoary anti-Semitic association of Jews with Communism more believable than in the early 1950s.
The fear that the Rosenberg case would exacerbate anti-Semitism was heightened by the emphasis of European and American Communists on the couple’s Jewish background once it became clear that they were not going to talk. Anti-Semitism, their supporters charged, was behind the government’s prosecution and execution of the Rosenbergs. The Rosenbergs’ defenders wondered why the New York City jury that convicted the Rosenbergs did not contain one Jew, even though the city’s population was 30 percent Jewish. They also noted that, even if the Rosenbergs were guilty as charged, their crime had been committed during World War II, when the Soviet Union was not an enemy of the United States. At the worst, the Rosenbergs had provided information to an ally, and this did not warrant the death penalty.
For the left-wing defenders of the Rosenbergs there was a bitter paradox in claiming that they were victims of anti-Semitism. Stalin was then in the midst of his murderous campaign to destroy Jewish culture behind the Iron Curtain, the so-called black years of Soviet Jewry. Non-Communists pointed out that the accusation that the Rosenbergs were martyrs to anti-Semitism was designed to deflect attention away from the real campaign of anti-Semitism then being waged in eastern Europe.
Containing the Damage
Jewish leaders immediately attempted to contain any damage resulting from the Rosenberg case. They launched a propaganda campaign to convince the general public that American Jews were not tainted with Communism and that the Soviet Union was hostile to Jews, Judaism, Jewish culture, Zionism, and Israel. Testifying before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, a representative of the American Jewish Committee emphasized that “Judaism and Communism are utterly incompatible.” The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Jewish War Veterans cooperated with HUAC and opened their files to the committee.
The Jewish establishment was careful to distance itself from the Jewish Left and to make sure that Jewish communal leadership rested safely in the hands of staunch anti-Communists. The American Jewish Committee assigned a full-time staff member to investigate Communist infiltration into Jewish communal life. The Jewish Welfare Board strongly urged Jewish community centers not to allow radical speakers to use their facilities. Mainstream Jewish organizations refused to help the Rosenbergs, and they vehemently denied the charge of Herbert Aptheker, Howard Fast, and other Communists that the Rosenberg case was an American Dreyfus affair.
The National Community Relations Advisory Council–made up of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Jewish War Veterans, the Jewish Labor Committee, and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations — accused the National Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case (the Rosenberg Committee) of being a Communist-front organization and of fomenting hysteria among Jews by claiming the Rosenbergs were victims of anti-Semitism. Convinced of the guilt of the Rosenbergs, the American Jewish Committee openly supported their execution. Rabbi S. Andhill Fineberg, a member of the AJC’s staff, wrote a long exposé entitled The Rosenberg Case: Fact and Fiction (1953), which strongly championed the jury’s finding of guilt and the judge’s sentencing of the Rosenbergs to death.
Future historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz also argued against clemency for the Rosenbergs. Her 1951 article in the New Leader — “The Rosenberg Case: ‘Hate-America’ Weapon”–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 blackail.” Dawidowicz’s essay “‘Anti-Semitism’ and the Rosenberg Case: The Latest Communist Propaganda Trap” was an even more powerful indictment of the “insidious campaign” of the Rosenberg supporters to equate anti-Communism with anti-Semitism. It appeared in the staunchly anti-Communist Commentary. Dawidowicz concluded with a solemn warning to Jews: “It is well to be on guard; we have seen how similar campaigns of identification and accusation have strengthened the hands of anti-Semitic forces elsewhere.”
Even Jewish periodicals that opposed the Rosenbergs’ death sentences emphasized that they had no quarrel with the jury’s decision. The Reconstructionist as well as the Daily Forward and the Day, two Yiddish dailies, agreed that the Rosenbergs were guilty but maintained that the death sentence was too harsh, particularly in view of the jail terms received by the English atomic spies Klaus Fuchs and Allan Nunn May.
Decline of the Left
The Rosenberg case weakened the American Jewish Left, particularly that small number of American Jews who were Communist party members or fellow travelers. Coming at the same time as the murder of Jewish writers in the Soviet Union and the Slansky trial in Czechoslovakia, it undermined the efforts of Jewish radicals to weld Jewish culture to “progressive” politics. Jewish leftists were now ostracized by other Jews, denied employment by Jewish organizations, and subjected to legal attacks by the federal and local governments. Three years after the execution of the Rosenbergs, the old Jewish Left finally received its fatal blow when Soviet Communist party head Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous speech on the crimes of Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress….
The Rosenberg case neither resulted from nor increased anti-Semitism. Both Irving Saypol, the federal attorney who prosecuted the government’s case, and Irving R. Kaufman, who presided at the trial, were Jews. (The maiden name of Kaufman’s wife was Rosenberg.) Revelations in the 1980s that the FBI and the prosecuting attorney were in contact with Judge Kaufman prior to his sentencing of the Rosenbergs to death have led to questions regarding the fairness of the trial. Nevertheless, no evidence has ever materialized that the jury’s decision or the sentence would have differed had the Rosenbergs been Gentiles. Nor is there any evidence that the Rosenberg case created an anti-Semitic backlash.
Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).