David Evanier has done a great service in profiling Morton Sobell, one of the American Jews who spied for Stalin’s KGB. Though Evanier had already covered some of this ground in his 1991 novel Red Love, his account in Mosaic gives us facts and information unadorned by the arts of fiction.
The biggest fact is this: the Soviet project was founded on falsehood and sustained and exported through deceit. In some ways, the export version has been more successful than the native one. It has been easier for post-Soviet Russia to clean up after Chernobyl than for Americans to clean up from the decades-long Soviet infiltration into American politics, society, and culture. The only antidote is truth.
“Many of these American Communists were Jewish,” writes Evanier, truthfully, about the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which recruited agents and followers in many branches of culture as well as industry. He credits his own disaffection from Communism to his 1962 stay in an Israeli kibbutz where the combined presence of Holocaust survivors and dedicated pioneers jolted him into a fresh appreciation of his own Jewishness. By contrast, Sobell and his cohort showed no interest in “Jewish history, culture, or the birth of Israel”—or in their own complicity in Soviet crimes, including crimes against their fellow Jews. There is likewise no reason to think that most former American Jewish Communists and fellow travelers experienced Evanier’s thoroughgoing change of heart.
It is admittedly risky to raise the subject of Jewish involvement with Communism. Anti-Semitism trolls for excuses to blame Jews for anything and everything. After the fall of the Soviet empire, some citizens of countries that had been for decades under Soviet control found it convenient to explain their lingering anti-Jewish animus as payback for the Jewish Bolsheviks who had oppressed them.
On the American scene, Harvey Klehr in his response to Evanier’s essay very helpfully puts the numbers in perspective, showing what a small percentage of American Jews actually belonged to the CPUSA or supported Bolshevism. Still, there’s reason to worry that just raising the subject could provide fuel for dedicated anti-Semites. And yet, however legitimate the concern, it is dwarfed by the greater dangers of sustained self-deception.
Here, in three parts, is why I say that.
American Jews who joined the Communist party and spied for the Soviets betrayed the Jews before they betrayed America.
To become a member of the party was to undergo a kind of conversion—a voluntary conversion, and one not literally requiring baptism, but, particularly for a Jew, an act far more radical than any mere change in political affiliation. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 established the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the Communist International (Comintern) undertook “to struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic as a transition stage to the complete abolition of the state.” Yet whereas other nationalities were allowed to “transition” to self-dissolution, Jews, already scattered among the nations, were denounced as reactionary for wanting to retain their Jewishness.
Marxism-Leninism, ideologically incompatible with Judaism, specifically required the Jewish people to dissolve into the international proletariat. As part of its need to eradicate both the Jewish religion and Jewish nationhood, the Soviet Union forbade the teaching of Hebrew, a language essential to both. The “Jewish sections” of the party, the yevsektsii, enforced this program of Sovietization. As the historian Yuri Slezkine writes in his The House of Government, while Polish, Latvian, and Georgian high-ranking members of the party “seemed to assume that proletarian internationalism was compatible with their native tongues, songs, and foods,” high-ranking Jewish members did not speak Yiddish at home or try to pass anything Jewish on to their children. Many proved their new loyalty by pursuing their fellow Jews with special vigor.
When it came to Zionism, the Communist party under Stalin hailed the 1929 Arab pogroms against Jews in Palestine as the start of an Arab Communist revolution and created the watchwords of 20th-century anti-Zionism: a leftist version of anti-Semitism that condemned Jewish national aspirations as a crime against the international order.
The slogans of anti-Zionism were forged in Russia and exported to America with the aid of Jewish Communists in the years when Palestine was the only potential haven for Jews fleeing Hitlerism and continental anti-Semitism. Indeed, Jews were among the most passionate of all anti-Zionists; Isaac Deutscher’s invention of the paradoxical term “non-Jewish Jew” camouflages the many thousands who were vehemently anti-Jewish Jews.
Thus, there is nothing new or strange in the fact that, in today’s universities, Jews of the far left, including Israelis, are some of the most vociferously anti-Israel professors and agitators on campus. Where other minorities may freely display their special grievances and ethnocentric resentments, a percentage of Jews join the intersectional coalition of the “oppressed” in attacking the Jewish homeland for its determination to be, and to remain, the Jewish homeland.
The United States, which prides itself in its victory over the Nazis, will never countenance the anti-Semitism of the alt-right. Anti-Zionism, on the other hand, has become a linchpin of the left, with some Jews carrying its flag as they did in the 1930s. That is one reason why it is necessary to bring Jewish Communism into full view, if only to help slow the spread of its anti-Jewish venom under such current guises as “socialism,” “social justice,” and “voices for peace.”
Exposing Jewish complicity with Soviet criminality is essential to the reputation and the future of Yiddish.
The Communist appropriation of the Yiddish language as part of its war on Jewishness has not yet been acknowledged. When the Bolshevik leadership came to realize that it could not simply dissolve its Jewish communities overnight, it declared Yiddish the Jewish instrument of Sovietization, and toward that end it subsidized Yiddish education and culture. This won praise from those who either shared Soviet aims or were prepared to overlook them.
The results were morally catastrophic. Yiddish writers, scholars, dramatists, and actors eager to work in their professions adjusted to the demands of Sovietization, which included active promotion of the criminal regime. By this method, even as the Soviet constitution formally outlawed anti-Semitism directed against persons of Jewish descent, the Soviet Union strove to outlaw the propagation of a Jewish future. Yiddish was the instrument of doing away with Judaism and Jewish life.
To be sure, from the beginnings of modern Jewish politics, Yiddish had been featured as the language of the downtrodden, associated with socialism and the labor movement and also with Zionism and Labor Zionism (the latter of which tried to amalgamate national and Marxist goals). Some of these movements genuinely valued Yiddish; for others, it was a means to an end. Only Communism seized upon the uses of Yiddish as an anti-Jewish language.
In 1922, to promote world revolution (while greatly exaggerating Jewish political influence), the Comintern established in New York the Yiddish daily Morgen Freiheit, controlling the paper from Moscow while proclaiming its editorial independence. Because it operated in Yiddish, the Freiheit appeared to be under Jewish auspices and responsive to Jewish concerns. But in synch with all Soviet-sponsored channels around the world, it maligned Judaism and turned hatred of “Zionists” into a virtue.
Anti-Jewish caricatures that appeared in the Freiheit were indistinguishable from those in the interwar Nazi press. American capitalism was second only to the Jewish bourgeoisie as a target of the paper’s editorial ire, and the Soviets encouraged its American Yiddish readers to betray both their Jewish homeland and their American home.
Yes, other Jews on the left, along with Zionists and traditionalists, mounted a stiff resistance to Communism in Yiddish (and in English). But the financial resources and support of Moscow gave Yiddish Communists a practical advantage. In this way, possibly for the first time in Jewish history, a Jewish language was employed to promote an evil regime.
There has so far been no reckoning from within Yiddish ranks of some of the hateful writings to which the language gave safe harbor. To the contrary, some students of Yiddish today are still seduced by what the author Vivian Gornick lauds as the “romance” of Communism. This obliges lovers of Yiddish like myself to assume, with discriminating intelligence, the admittedly difficult and unpleasant task of exposing and judging Soviet-stained Yiddish culture by the standards of Jewish civilization. As we share that culture’s moments of joy and fathom its losses, culling the wisdom contained in its vast literature, we should also undertake for Yiddish the same kind of truth-telling that David Evanier has done in the case of the Jewish spy Morton Sobell.
By far the most consequential aspect of Soviet spying in America was the sustained denial by the spies themselves of responsibility for their crimes, and by their supporters and fellow travelers of complicity in the shared turpitude. On the contrary, all continued to affirm their innocence.
Had spies like the Rosenbergs, Sobell, and the others admitted their deeds, they might have helped to restore a measure of moral clarity for Americans, and assisted in the task of demolishing the tyranny they had served. That they did not and could not tell the truth testifies to Communism’s grounding in lies and in its Orwellian inversion of evil for good.
Here the difference from fascism is instructive. Germany flaunted its jackboot intentions; the Soviet Union invaded the West behind Picasso’s dove of peace. By maintaining the lie of their innocence, the spies and their supporters hoped to damage America perhaps even more than they had through the treason of which they stood accused.
And, to some substantial degree, they succeeded. Thanks in part to the unwitting cooperation of their accusers, the charade of innocence made possible the perpetuation of the big lie.
The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), which was founded in the 1930s to investigate both fascist and Communist infiltration, focused exclusively on the latter after the allied victory over the Nazis in Europe, and by the 1950s had broadened its scope to include members of Moscow-directed Communist cells in Hollywood and elsewhere.
The prosecutorial overreach of HUAC and then of Senator Joseph McCarthy stirred sympathies both for the defendants and for those fired or blacklisted without having been proved guilty of any crime. The organized left then used “McCarthyism” to invert the accuser and the accused. Communists who refused to testify were hailed for their heroism, while those (like the director Elia Kazan) who told the truth were tarred as betrayers. The speed with which McCarthy was relieved of his post did not prevent his name and image from being used as evidence of American brutality. In this way, the attempt to root out the network of subterfuge backfired, or rather was hijacked by the very networks it had hoped to disrupt. The Communists who lied about their affiliation reinforced the damage of the spies who maintained their innocence.
It is easy to see why the same Hollywood that, rushing to satisfy public pressure, created a blacklist of Communists in the late 1940s would later give way just as spinelessly to the leftists it had once tried to expel. Movies like The Front, television programs like Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist, and an assembly line of books—of which Lillian Hellman’s Scoundrel Time and Victor Navasky’s Naming Names are only the best known—created a pro-Communist martyrology. The real collusion with Russia—the one we had good reason to worry about—was quashed by tales of American injustice.
This was a technique the Soviets perfected over decades, from the murder trial of the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, to the prosecution of the Scottsboro Boys, to the espionage trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and beyond, in each case using local propagandists to denounce the American justice system regardless of its actual results. Portraying America as the persecutor of powerless innocents silenced accusations of the Soviet criminal regime and undermined American national self-confidence.
The media, the intelligentsia, and the academy paved the way. The cold war was fought not only on the military and diplomatic front but also, especially in its later decades, in the cafeterias and on the playing fields of elite American universities. Every Communist who lied was a soldier in that war.
One could readily provide nuanced arguments about why Jews were attracted to movements that set out to achieve what the Hebrew prophets had prophesied, and other nuanced arguments about the genuine imperfections of America. But nothing changes the fact that a meaningful number of Jews tried to replace the American way of life by a system that claimed to be ostensibly better even as they conspired to conceal that it was indescribably worse.
Senator Bernie Sanders does not say what he saw on his honeymoon in the Soviet Union, instead coddling the dream of an imposed socialism as though it had never been tried. Many Communist sympathizers and their descendants, now joined by new recruits, still lack the courage to say the spies betrayed America, and in what evil cause.
We expect countries under foreign occupation, some of whose citizens committed evil, to air those offenses as a way of forswearing their repetition. Jews can expect no less of themselves, and for the same reasons. David Evanier’s admirable essay is one such attempt to reestablish truth.