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The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History-1654 to the Present, by Morris U. Schappes

Jewish History in Pictures
The Jews in the United States: A Pictorial History—1654 to the Present.
by Morris U. Schappes.
Citadel Press. 319 pp. $7.50.

 

Twenty-five years ago and more, Morris Schappes was contributing keen literary criticism to James Burnham’s old quarterly the Symposium and teaching English at New York’s City College. He impressed his classes by his logical grasp and by his conscientious attention to detail. He seemed to be beginning a promising academic career.

In the New York state legislative investigations of the colleges in 1940-41, however, Schappes was named as a Communist. His testimony before the committee led to his trial for perjury, and in June 1941 he was convicted and sent to prison. Schappes admitted that he had been a member of the Communist party until 1939, but insisted that he had resigned in that year. Nevertheless, his published Letters from the Tombs revealed him to be an orthodox Stalinist still, whatever the state of his party membership may have been.

Since his imprisonment, Schappes’s career has entered a second phase—as a student of American Jewish history. In 1947, he edited selections from the poetry and prose of Emma Lazarus. In 1950, he put together an ambitious Documentary History of the Jews in the United States, 1654-1875. The discipline imposed by the documents, and the fact that the history stopped at 1875, did not remove the book from the area of controversy, and careful reviewers like Harold Ribalow in the Saturday Review and Frank Rosenthal in the American Historical Review discerned evidence of its author’s bias. Nevertheless, as the dust jacket of this book indicates, Schappes’s scholarship won commendation in some Jewish quarters.

The present book is not likely to fare as well. Schappes is distinctly less happy as a writer of history than as a gatherer of historical documents. Nor does he gain anything from adding the last eighty years to the area of his consideration. The description of comparatively recent events demands qualities of objectivity which he lacks.

It is an attractive book on the surface, spacious in format and well printed and bound. Its defects are revealed only upon patient examination. The author tells us that he intends his book for the general reader rather than the scholar, but the inevitable mentions of Benny Leonard, Battling Levinsky, and Al Jolson seem to be almost afterthoughts, unassimilable to his more serious intentions. The pictures, which seem so interesting at first glance, prove to be a mixed lot. One is glad to find a photograph of Sholem Aleichem’s phenomenal funeral procession in 1916, or of the scene of the Triangle Factory fire in 1911, or a reproduction of Jacob Epstein’s Daumier-inspired 1901 drawing “At the Yiddish Theater”; but when in the space of three consecutive pages one is confronted with portraits of Moissaye J. Olgin of the Freiheit, Michael Gold, and Isidor Schneider, one wonders if the presentation is well balanced. Then one finds that Isaac Bashevis Singer, by common consent one of the most important contemporary Yiddish writers, is not even mentioned, while a dozen of his literary inferiors are named and pictured. Howard Fast’s novels are described as “excellent and ever more penetrating.”

The praise of Fast, despite his defection from the Communist party, would seem to indicate that Mr. Schappes himself is changing his political views. There are a number of such indications. The Communists in the labor movement in the 20’s, Schappes says, were characterized by “general sectarianism and revolutionary romanticism. They failed to study the specific political and industrial conditions in the United States. They disregarded major objective differences between American industrial and class relations and the situation in Russia. . . .” Schappes also criticizes the reaction of “the Jewish left” to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, and he makes some revealing comments on Russia’s crackdown on Yiddish culture in 1948-49 and the dissimulation which followed: “By 1950, a cloud of confusion, doubt, fear, bitterness, disbelief, dismay, and furtive worry . . . settled upon the scene. This cloud was not to be dispelled until the blasting revelations of the grim truth of the unjust imprisonment and even in many cases of the execution of these Soviet Yiddish writers began to appear in 1956.”

On the other hand, some of his old antipathies remain. President Truman’s immediate recognition of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948 is played down (“acknowledging an accomplished fact when he saw one”), while the real credit, according to Mr. Schappes, goes to Russia (“the first big power” to extend de jure recognition). “The policy of the Soviet Union,” we are told, “was forthright.” Truman’s administration was responsible for “the postwar chill, which . . . replaced the combat warmth of the Rooseveltian Grand Alliance with the Soviet Union. . . . The Truman Doctrine was proclaimed on March 12, 1947, pronouncing the regimes of Greece and Turkey, widely known for their terrorism, to be outposts of American democracy. . . . And, significantly, some Zionist leaders here and in Palestine, eager for support from the United States, promptly offered the services and lives of the Jews of Palestine in the cause of the Truman Doctrine.” In analyzing statistically the fund-raising campaign of the United Jewish Appeal in 1946, Schappes comments: “Only four out of a thousand donors gave $5,000 or more, but these big contributions made up more than 30.8 per cent of the $103,000,000. Of course these big donors influenced the policy governing the distribution of these vast funds, and some criticism developed when this policy became tinged with Cold War aims.”

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It is interesting, too, to follow the fortunes of the Jewish Daily Forward in the course of these pages. From its inception in 1897, we are told, “the Forward developed its own characteristic weakness: in tight situations, it would opportunistically and timidly hold the workers back from the sharpest struggles, demobilize them, and disillusion them. From the beginning the Forward was a mixed blessing.” In 1898, by taking a stand in support of the Spanish-American War, “the Forward began a practice, in critical situations, of subordinating the national interest of the American people and workers as well as the interests of the Jewish masses to the class needs of the imperialists.” In the time of Hitler, “The Jewish Daily Forward, its vision distorted by bitter anti-Communism, carried a Berlin report by Jacob Lestchinsky, published February 16, 1933, that Goebbels had ordered an end to pogroms and that Hitlerism, now that it was in power, would ‘have to become well-behaved.’”

But if the Forward and Mr. Lestchinsky were victimized by their humanitarian hopes in this instance, other historians might have found examples of many Communist false political appraisals during the Hitler period which were far more sinister. Mr. Schappes has not. Anyone who can write, more than forty years after the event, that the effect of the Bolshevik coup in 1917 was to replace “the rule of landlords and capitalists” with “the rule of workers and peasants” is obviously still in the grip of some powerful prepossessions.

The author’s bias—it is what he elsewhere calls that of a “historical materialist”—is evident even in his discussions of the earlier history. He speaks, for instance, of “the Federalist cold war against France” which followed in the wake of the Reign of Terror. The Mexican War provides him the text for a short sermon: “In this first war of aggression by the United States against a foreign country, Jews among other Americans drew a distinction between two kinds of patriotism: that which involves blind loyalty to an administration, no matter how reactionary its policy, and that which involves enlightened loyalty to the basic democratic ideals of the American people in which love of country is fused with devotion to justice.”

But the only literary evidence Mr. Schappes can muster about the division of Jewish opinion on that war is a personal letter by Rebecca Gratz; the public pronouncement of Isaac Mayer Wise, hailing the heroism of Zachary Taylor, he dismisses as rather fawning. He tells us that Emerson, Thoreau, Lowell, Webster, and Lincoln opposed the war. But he does not indicate that Whitman enthusiastically supported it as editor of the Brooklyn Eagle, nor that, as Allen’s recent life of Whitman puts it, “most Americans, outside of New England, were convinced that the Texas problem could only be solved by military force.” In other words, Reverend Wise was at least as representative as Rebecca Gratz.

In the later sections of the book, one discovers a disproportionate emphasis upon the labor movement and a consistent favoring of the “progressive” elements within it. The religious, cultural, and nationalist manifestations in Jewish history are not absent from the discussion—nor are they even consciously slighted—but they are seen dimly and from a distance, while unions, parties, and statistics emerge in intimate and enlarged detail. The over-all result is that, for large sections of the book, we seem to be reading a labor history rather than a Jewish history—and, indeed, a labor history of a very special kind.

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