Jews in Radical Politics

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

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Reprinted with permission from A History of Jews in America, published by Vintage Books.

The Depression accelerated a process of radicalization that had begun in the immediate aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In the early post-revolutionary years, a left wing sprang up with the American Socialist party, favoring affiliation with the Comintern [the international Communist movement]. When the radicals were defeated at the Socialist convention in 1919, they bolted and attached themselves to the Communists.

Among Jews, this element was always a minority, even within the extensive Jewish Socialist movement. But they were a hair-shirt minority. It happened that the early postwar immigration of East European Jews included many veterans of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian civil wars.

radical politics

In the early 1920s, it was these militant newcomers who dramatically augmented the radicals' leadership. Their first and principal target was the large reservoir of Jews still laboring in the garment industry. Among the needle workers, the old flaming Socialist idealism had been fading steadily during the 1920s. At the same time, unwilling to risk union treasuries or their own salaries, officials of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers had become perfunctory in their negotiations' with management. Their flaccidity in turn proved raw meat for the Communists. Dogmatic and fiery, the latter now hurled themselves into the effort to capture the ILGWU's and Amalgamated's central offices and committees....

Jewish Leadership

Yet, if the Communists evoked little support from American Jewry at large, the party leadership continued to include a disproportionate number of Jews. Among these were Jay Lovestone, Benjamin Gitlow, William Weinstone, Bertram D. Wolfe, and Israel Amster. Well before the Depression, too, Jews contributed a significant share of the Communist party's votes (although, again, this represented a distinct minority of all Jewish ballots cast). In the presidential elections of 1924 and 1928, about one-quarter of the 50,000 votes cast on both occasions for William Z. Foster, the Communist party's nominee, came from New York, and almost certainly most were cast by Jews.

In 1925, the 22,000 circulation of Freiheit, the journal of the Jewish Socialist (Communist) Federation, actually exceeded the Daily Worker's 17,000. The tight Jewish nucleus re­mained in place throughout the 1920s, despite the party's relentless opposition both to Judaism and to Zionism as "reactionary" influences. It was this group, too, that saw its best opportunity following the Wall Street crash.

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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.