Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

When the Rosenbergs were charged with spying, American Jews feared an anti-Semitic backlash.

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Though the author concludes that anti-Semitism played no role in the trial and execution of Jules and Ethel Rosenberg, the matter remains a subject of debate. Reprinted with permission from A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press).

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.

Jewish Fears

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 Rosen bergs 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.

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Edward Shapiro is a Professor of History at Seton Hall University.

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