Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties. 
By Stuart Svonkin.
Columbia University Press. 364 pp. $32.50.

The political behavior of American Jews has long been puzzling to political scientists, historians, and sociologists. Where the laws of political sociology posit an inverse relation between high economic and social status and support of left-of-center political candidates, it would appear that Jews are an exception. Contrary to the experience of other ethnic groups such as the Irish and Italians, the ascent of Jews up the economic and social ladder has not been accompanied by a political move to the right. As Milton Himmelfarb noted some three decades ago, Jews earn money like Episcopalian but vote like Puerto Ricans.

Himmelfarb believed that the romance of American Jews with the left was becoming increasingly counterproductive to Jewish interests; scholars and political commentators for the past thirty years have been predicting an imminent transformation of Jewish political behavior. As yet, however, voting statistics have given little comfort to Republican operatives salivating over the prospects of a mass conversion of Jews and their checkbooks to the party of Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott. In the last two presidential elections, less than 20 percent of Jews voted for the GOP candidate. The same pattern is true regarding voting for Congress. Not only have Jews voted overwhelmingly for Democratic, and particularly liberal Democratic, candidates for Congress, but they have personally identified with the Democratic Party through financial contributions and political participation. Of the ten Jewish United States Senators, only Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is a Republican. The rest, including Barbara Boxer of California, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, Ron Wyden of Oregon, and Carl Levin of Michigan, are members of the dwindling liberal bloc in the Senate. The same is true of the nearly thirty Jewish members of the House of Representatives. Not surprisingly, the only Socialist in Congress, Rep. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is a Jew.

For nearly a century the political liberalism of American Jews contained economic and social elements. During the past two decades, however, the Jewish support for economic liberalism has waned as the benefits of a free market and the deleterious effect of social and economic engineering have become obvious. On the other hand, their support for cultural liberalism has intensified at the same time.

Stuart Svonkin’s incisive and well-researched examination of American Jewish political attitudes after World War II, a reworking of his 1995 Columbia University dissertation, helps explain why Jews have been so sensitive to violations of civil liberties and so distrustful of the abuse of private and public power. Part of the answer is that American Jews, despite their remarkable social and economic ascent prior to the Great Depression, continued to see themselves as victims threatened by malevolent forces, whether these emanated from town hall, the military, the White House, or the corporate boardroom. As a result, they identified their interests with other oppressed groups such as blacks, the working class, and the falsely accused. Jews also reflexively feared political and economic power as inimical to Jewish interests. When the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof is asked by one of his congregants to say a prayer for the Czar, he is momentarily nonplussed by the request to bless such a notorious anti-Semite. He quickly recovers, however, and prays, “May God bless and keep the Czar... far away from us!”

The Holocaust deepened this psychological insecurity and put Jews on the alert for any threat to their civil rights and to the civil rights of others. Despite all evidence to the contrary, American Jews believed that what occurred in Europe could happen here. Recalling that opposition to Jewish emancipation and equality in the nineteenth century had been led by conservative forces, including the Church and the military, they believed National Socialism and fascism to have been right-wing movements. Little wonder then that Jews argued, and have continued to argue to this day, that Jewish interests and values require that they identify with the left and distrust those in power.

Jews Against Prejudice chronicles the activities of the three major national Jewish “defense” organizations––the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, and the American Jewish Congress. After World War II, they refocused their work from the defense of purely Jewish interests to a broader assault on all forms of prejudice. They now argued that anti-Semitism was not unique but part of a broad phenomenon involving bigotry and authoritarianism, and that the fate of America’s Jews was inextricably tied to that of other minority groups, particularly blacks. Just as America had emerged victorious from the war as a result of the contributions of all ethnic, racial, and religious groups, so the war against prejudice could not be won in isolation. Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, president of the AJ Congress, told the United States Congress in 1947 that his organization considered “ethnic discrimination, whether directed against Jews, Negroes, Chinese, Mexicans, or any other group, as a single and indivisible problem and as one of the most urgent problems of democratic society.”

Each of the defense organizations had a different approach to what was then called “human relations,” “intergroup relations,” or “community relations.” The AJ Committee subsidized research on the sources of racism and anti-Semitism; the ADL publicized acts of discrimination, kept records on anti-Semitic and racist individuals and organizations, and provided material combating prejudice to educators and the media; the AJ Congress focused on direct legal and political action to attack discrimination. These three organizations, Svonkin writes, “made vital contributions to the advancement of political liberalism and civil rights, to the development of strategies for combating prejudice and discrimination, and to the formulation of an ethnic identity for an American Jewish community increasingly distant from its immigrant roots.” For many Jews, the essence of American Jewish identity became the liberalism espoused by the AJ Committee, the ADL, and the AJ Congress.

Ironically, the postwar Jewish campaign against discrimination, which was rooted in the Jews’ perception of themselves as outsiders and victims, transformed them into major players in American politics. In describing their work, the defense organizations now used the term “community relations” rather than “Jewish defense,” reflecting their belief that their mission was broader than merely furthering Jewish interests. By the early 1960s, however, the universalistic liberalism that underlay this attack on all forms of prejudice was itself being questioned––Jews were becoming increasingly concerned with narrower ethnic concerns such as Israel’s security and the status of Jews in the inner city. The honeymoon between Jews and blacks was effectively over by 1970, and conflicts between the two groups over employment in municipal bureaucracies and community control over local schools took center stage. If the Jewish buzzwords of the 1940s and 1950s were “survival” and “equality,” their counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s were “identity” and “continuity.”

Svonkin wants to do more than tell the story of the postwar Jewish assault on prejudice. Three chapters detail the response of the defense organizations and American Jews generally to the challenge of domestic communism. The “liberal anticommunism” of the AJ Committee and the ADL led them to try to purge Communists from the American Jewish community. Svonkin believes that, except for the AJ Congress, the Jewish community had become “increasingly acculturated and middle-class [and therefore] rejected political solutions that required significant changes in the socioeconomic order.” While the American Jewish Congress made much of the social and economic factors at the root of prejudice, the other groups focused on the less revolutionary psychological factors. To Svonkin’s regret, the pressures of the Cold War convinced Jewish community relations organizations that “problems of prejudice and discrimination could be solved within the context of existing political and economic relations.” The AJ Congress, says Svonkin, took a more principled stand. Equally opposed to communism, it was more concerned than the other organizations with the abuse of the civil liberties of accused Communists and with the use that right-wing elements were making of the Communist issue.

Contra Svonkin, it is quite reasonable that the AJ Committee and the ADL did not want to become involved in a quixotic crusade to change the political, social, and economic institutions of a society that was becoming noticeably friendlier to Jews and other minorities. The postwar years saw a dramatic decline in anti-Semitic and racist attitudes and actions, and this happened without unduly disturbing the economic and political status quo. The openness and pluralism of American society, as well as the rewards which the economy offered to those exhibiting initiative and entrepreneurship, encouraged rather than impeded the social and economic mobility of Jews, blacks, and Hispanics.

Svonkin’s attempt to be politically correct as defined on Morningside Heights is rather ahistorical. Jews had good reasons, apart from the fear of right-wing reprisals, for wishing to eliminate Communists from their ranks. Despite what his American apologists claimed, Stalin had made it clear by the early 1950s––through the murder of Russia’s leading Jewish intellectuals, by talk of a Jewish “doctors’ plot” against the Soviet Union, by opposition to the state of Israel, and by the repression of Jewish cultural and religious activities behind the Iron Curtain––that he was no friend of the Jews. To expect American Jews to be dispassionate about Jewish apologists for Stalin or to go out on a limb for the likes of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg was to expect the impossible. The surprising thing is not that the Jewish establishment sought to eradicate all traces of Communist influence from its ranks, but that this was done with such concern for due process.

Edward S. Shapiro is Professor of History at Seton Hall University and author of A Time for Healing: American Jewry Since World War II (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992)

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift