Samuel H. Friedman: An Anti-Communist, Zionist, Synagogue-Going Socialist

February 7, 2019 | Elliot Jager
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With U.S. politicians like Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib creating renewed interest in socialism, Elliot Jager reminisces about Samuel H. Friedman (1897-1990), who was the Socialist candidate for vice-president in the 1952 and 1956 elections. Late in his life, Friedman became a regular at the synagogue the young Jager attended on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He writes:

Friedman, like many left-leaning Jews during the 1960s, engaged in civil disobedience on behalf of African-American and Puerto Ricans. To my mind, at the time, this agenda seemed perverse. Yet in this respect, he was very much in the acculturated Jewish mainstream.

Here is the place to point out that, for poor working-class Jews like me living in Alphabet City on the Lower East Side, it was not the blacks and Puerto Ricans who needed help from the Jews; it was we who needed to be saved from them. During the 1960s and 1970s, [these] communities were the main source of violent anti-Semitism in New York City.

There were 10,000 mostly elderly Jews living under the poverty level in my neighborhood. Most Jewish establishment organizations (the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, for instance) were spending the money they raised within the Jewish community on programs and institutions (like the Educational Alliance) that mostly catered to non-Jews—at a time when these monies were needed, desperately, in our community to fight poverty, to relocate at-risk elderly people, and help with yeshiva tuition. . . .

Like all democratic socialists, [Friedman] loathed Stalin for creating a genocidal totalitarian polity. By contrast, the U.S. Communist party led by Gus Hall was slavishly pro-Moscow. We once had a conversation about the Lower East Side congresswoman Bella Abzug who served in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1977. . . . Friedman disparaged Abzug as a Stalinist fellow-traveler, [while] he supported NATO as a bulwark against Soviet aggression. I doubt [Friedman] would have been comfortable with the direction taken by today’s American socialists and self-identified progressives as they maneuver to realign the Democratic party into an illiberal and anti-Zionist orbit.

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