What We Did: How the Jewish Communist Left Failed the Palestinian Cause

Portside Date:
Author: Dorothy Zellner
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Jewish Currents

I WAS SEVEN YEARS OLD when World War II ended, but I remember the way the war lived in our house. Both my parents were secular, non-Zionist Jewish immigrants and lifelong followers of the Soviet Union, which they believed would end exploitation, poverty, and racism. My siblings and I have memories of blacked-out windows and air raid sirens and the sound of incessant war reports on the radio, which my father turned up as loudly as possible to drown out the normal din of childhood. He raved almost daily, waving his fists in the air, cursing the “Nazi swine!” and obsessively following the progress of the Red Army, which he hoped would save not only the Jews but the entire human race. I cannot recall my parents talking about what many American Jews of that period considered the promised land, the Zionist project in Palestine.

Until the late 1940s, the Soviet Union and its Communist followers in the United States opposed the partition of Palestine to create a Jewish state, advocating instead for the establishment of a single state that would confer equal rights on everyone who lived there. In the US, this Jewish Communist left was small in number but influential. Thus it was significant that in 1947, the year I turned nine, the Soviet Union abruptly altered its position, throwing its support behind the creation of what would become the State of Israel. After a brief period of shock and confusion, the Jews of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) followed suit.        

I learned of these events only a few years ago, when I went searching for a record of how my own political forebears reacted to the founding of the State of Israel. The impetus for my research was the 20 years I spent living in the American South, five of them spent working for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the early 1960s. What I learned from SNCC is still firmly planted in my head, especially the wisdom that if you are white and anti-racist, you need to organize inside the white community, where racism lives. After a few decades of denial, I became a Jewish activist in the Palestine solidarity movement 18 years ago. In the past few years, I’ve sought in particular to reckon with how the community of my own origins, the American Jewish Communist left, acted in 1948, and how it might be implicated in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. 

Facing the mistakes of the Party that I so respected remains an incredibly painful task. All these years later, I still applaud its pioneering role in organizing interracial labor unions during the Great Depression, its heroic participation in the Spanish Civil War, its courageous fight against fascism during World War II, and, most importantly, its constant, uncompromising struggle against racism. Yet I am deeply critical of the way the CPUSA followed the Soviet party line—both when it came to Israel and on other occasions—to the detriment of its own internal democracy and stated principles.  

In the process of researching the Communists’ support for the founding of Israel, I discovered the magazine Jewish Life, which played a significant role in shaping the way American Jewish Communists viewed that event. Somewhat to my surprise, I learned that Jewish Life was the precursor of Jewish Currents, which was renamed in 1956 when it severed its relationship with the CPUSA. It occurred to me that the magazine—and today’s Jewish left—confronts a similar challenge: As in the 1940s, the idea of a single state in Israel/Palestine that confers equal rights on all its inhabitants is again part of the political discourse—and, as in my childhood, the pull of Jewish nationalism stands in the way of making it real. We would do well to confront the forces that led to the Jewish Communist left’s about-face in the days before the establishment of Israel, and which still impact our work today.  

WHEN JEWISH LIFE WAS FOUNDED in November 1946, it joined two other English-language publications aligned with the CPUSA in New York. Alongside the monthly magazine Political Affairs, where the CPUSA held its theoretical discussions, and the daily newspaper The Daily Worker, the community’s paper of record, the new monthly hoped to become the Jewish cultural hub of the left. Its first issue, for example, contained contributions from such icons as the playwright Arthur Miller and the artists Marc Chagall and Ben Shahn. (My research is confined to East Coast, English-language papers, excluding the CPUSA’s West Coast newspaper, The People’s World, and the Morning Freiheit, a Yiddish-language daily newspaper.) 

The three publications often shared the same writers, and always followed the same political line. If any of their editors or writers had openly objected to a Party position, they would have faced an uproar, and perhaps even expulsion, which would have cost them precious political and personal relationships. That didn’t mean that CP members were expected to fall in line like zombies. Positions were supposed to be informed by vigorous debate among the rank and file, to ensure a measure of democracy. Likewise, if the debate started at the top, it was supposed to work its way down. But once a position had been agreed upon, members were expected to uphold it, even if it contradicted their own views. This structure was supposed to allow the international party to execute its program effectively. But the reality was different: The rank and file were most often bypassed, while leadership—especially the Soviet leadership—made the decisions, expecting members to follow without complaint.  

When Jewish Life began publishing, Europe was still in ruins, and vast numbers of displaced people were locked out of safe havens like the US, with many thousands of Jews trying to reach Palestine. This made it all the more striking that the new magazine positioned itself as a non-Zionist, if not anti-Zionist, voice. From its first issue, its support for a single democratic state in Palestine with equal rights for all made it an outlier in the American Jewish world. “Only the blind among us . . . will agree to support anything else but an independent Palestine in which both Jews and Arabs can live in peace and freedom,” wrote Alexander Bittelman, a frequent contributor to the Party press and an editor at Jewish Life, in the magazine’s inaugural issue, adding that partition into two states would “violate every single precept of democracy.”

Jewish Life distinguished itself from other Jewish media with its insistence that the Jewish people were not a “nation,” which would have required them to share a common territory, language, economy, and culture, according to the standard Communist definition. The magazine argued that Jews did not satisfy all these conditions, but had enough common history and cultural characteristics to be classified as a “people.” On these grounds, the magazine advocated for directing Jewish energy toward life in the diaspora instead of toward the creation of a Jewish state, arguing that Jews should struggle where they lived for full equal rights and safety. (The Communists were not alone in promoting binationalism in Palestine; influential individuals like Rabbi Judah Magnes, Martin Buber, and Albert Einstein and organizations like the American Council for Judaism held similar positions in the 1940s but were unable to gain political traction.)

Jewish Life also criticized developments on the ground within the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine. The Yishuv’s leading institution, the Histadrut, also known as the Jewish Federation of Labor, excluded Palestinian Arab workers from membership and refused to organize or represent them. In 1947, an early editor of Jewish Life, Louis Harap,referred to the Histadrut as a “Jim Crow” institution. Since anti-racism was central to the American Communist world—being charged with “white chauvinism” was grounds for expulsion from the CPUSA—the term “Jim Crow” was the strongest imaginable form of condemnation.

Then, on May 14th, 1947, the Russian delegate to the United Nations, Andrei Gromyko, suddenly announced to the UN General Assembly that, while the Soviet Union still supported a single state in principle, it would be “necessary to consider an alternative solution” if this plan was “unrealizable on account of the deterioration of relations between Jews and Arabs.” Since the UN’s special committee had already concluded that there was no way the two communities could coexist, the only “alternative solution” was partition—in other words, the creation of a Jewish state.

Gromyko’s speech marked an “astounding” shift in policy, in the words of historian Gabriel Gorodetsky—one that may have “changed entirely the history of the Middle East.” Most historians have generally viewed the USSR’s decision to throw its support behind the Zionist cause as a realpolitik effort to undermine Britain’s imperial power in the region. But the greatest beneficiaries were Zionist leaders such as Abba Eban, a future Israeli foreign minister, who commented: “Such a position was an incredible opportunity; in a moment all our plans on the discussion at the UN were completely changed.”  

THE ZIONIST COMMUNITY in the US was thrilled by Gromyko’s speech: The Jewish Telegraphic Agency called it “sensational” and “welcomed.” The US Communist left was dumbfounded. In an unusual comment, a columnist at The Daily Worker remarked on the Soviet “departure” from its traditional line; usually such zigs and zags were studiously ignored. Both Political Affairs and Jewish Life were silent in their June issues; when they responded in July 1947, Bittelman wrote both articles. In Political Affairs he wrote that Gromyko had laid out a “just and democratic set of principles for the solution of the Palestinian crisis.” In Jewish Life, he wrote, “Gromyko’s heart is with the Jewish people because we had suffered from fascism more than the others.”

On November 29th, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in favor of partition. Both the US and the USSR voted in favor. Fighting broke out between Palestinian Arabs and Jews. With the likelihood of a Jewish state looming, Jewish Lifedescribed partition, which it had previously decried as “undemocratic,” as a “great and historic event.” The cover of the magazine’s January 1948 issue exhorted: “Safeguard the Jewish State!” 

In the winter and spring of 1948, the US Communist publications became more and more militant in their support of the Jewish state. The Daily Worker ran no substantive articles about the lives of Palestinian Arabs, and ignored essential context, like the fact that the indigenous people of Palestine constituted a majority of the population and had lived in the country for uncounted centuries. When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed the creation of Israel on May 14th, 1948, the American Jewish left joined in the rejoicing. The publications noted that the USSR was the first to offer de jure recognition of the state, three days later. (The US recognized the new state within minutes but took nine months to bestow de jure recognition.)  

It is likely that there were some dissident writers and editors who did not altogether accept the Party’s or the publications’ new position. Bittelman hinted at this in Political Affairs in February 1948 when he wrote that some critics had wondered whether “Communist support of a Jewish State in Palestine became possible only through a departure from Marxism”—only to declare that no, this was not the case! In another allusion to internal criticism, he wrote some months later, in August 1948: “Some comrades had difficulties for a while in seeing that the Jewish people in Palestine had the right to self-determination.” In a third exception to the general exuberance over the state’s founding, a columnist for The Daily Worker wondered if in fact Arab–Jewish cooperation could have worked, since it had “never been tried.” The strongest dissent from the growing nationalist fervor came from A.B. Magil, the lone journalist for Jewish Life and The Daily Worker who seemed to have any degree of political independence or empathy for Palestinians, and who wrote from Israel that he feared that “chauvinistic anti-Arab practices” were “being encouraged or ignored by the dominant Zionist leadership, which play into the hands of the British and American imperialists and their Arab agents.” But such acknowledgement of disagreement or uncertainty remained rare, and there is no evidence that dissidents on this issue ever cohered into an internal faction.     

When the armies of seven Arab nations invaded within days of Israel’s declaration of statehood, the leftist publications cheered on the Zionist militias. Jewish Life’s June 1948 cover bore the title “That the Jewish State May Live” over a photo of picketers in front of the White House, holding signs saying “Arms to Haganah” and “Halt Arms Shipments to the Arabs.” The magazine cried, “The blood of patriots must be replaced,” and urged everyone to donate blood to replenish that shed by the Zionist forces. 

The Party publications printed not only nationalist calls to arms, but also, shockingly, outright falsehoods. The Daily Worker ran one story reporting that Arabs had planned a gas attack on Jews (this never happened) and another alleging that Haganah soldiers killed by Arab forces had been decapitated (also untrue). All three journals, like most US publications, blurred the accuracy of their coverage by using the word “Arab” to include both indigenous Palestinians and armies from neighboring Arab states, as if all “Arabs” were interchangeable, undifferentiated by geography or culture. This made it nearly impossible for readers to understand who was fighting whom and why. But the central message was clear: The Jewish State was what counted to the Party and the broader Jewish left. 

Meanwhile, a human calamity was taking place. In the spring of 1948, the Communist journals said virtually nothing about the huge numbers of Palestinians forced to leave their homes—an event now referred to as the Nakba, which means “catastrophe” in Arabic. (No Jewish Life reader could claim ignorance: The New York Times ran many stories about the desperate refugee crisis.) The first acknowledgement from the Communist left came in July 1948, when A.B. Magil wrote in The Daily Worker that by that date over 250,000 Palestinians had been displaced. Later, he wrote in Jewish Life that some 400,000 “are refugees, homeless and wretched.” These numbers vastly understated the actual scale of the suffering: Modern historians agree that more than 700,000 Palestinians were driven from their homes between 1947 and 1949.

Throughout, the USSR continued to serve as Israel’s staunchest ally—a dynamic that would persist throughout the state’s early years. When the UN sought to establish a “right to return” for Palestinians in a December 1948 vote, the US voted yes and the USSR voted no. (The Daily Worker’s sole mention of this staggering vote was an oblique reference to a “committee to establish peace in Palestine,” only one part of a complex resolution.) The Soviets even funneled arms into Israel by allowing the Czechs, whose foreign policy they controlled, to sell armaments and airplanes to the fledgling IDF. Historian Martin Kramer quotes Ben-Gurion as saying that the Soviets “saved the country, I have no doubt of that. The Czech arms deal was the greatest help, it saved us and without it I very much doubt if we could have survived the first month.”

A GENERATION LATER, how can we account for the startling enthusiasm with which the Jewish Communist left embraced the new state, knowing only too well that Israel was compromised with “Jim Crow” institutions from the start? Perhaps a significant degree of sympathy for Zionism, exacerbated by Holocaust trauma, had always existed within the CPUSA, and the rank and file, previously unable to express this sentiment, were suddenly granted permission by the Party leadership. Given our people’s near-extermination in Europe, I’ve wondered if I may be holding the Jewish Communist left to an impossibly high standard by insisting that they should have stood up for someone else in that era—in addition to standing up to a cherished organization that was central to their lives. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect them to have been immune to the fear and panic and grief that resulted from World War II, and to resist the promise of Jewish statehood. 

But I remain heartsick and ashamed that the editors of Jewish Life, and American Jewish Communists more generally, showed so little empathy for Palestinians in the months surrounding Israel’s founding. Bound as they were to follow the Party line, they could still have sought to humanize the Palestinian Arab community in their pages, interviewing Palestinians about their lives and their vision for Palestine. The magazine could have cleaved to its stated Communist principles about the rights of Indigenous people, unity of all workers, and equality. Expressions of humanitarian concern about the huge number of refugees would have been welcome. 

Historians do not say “what if?” but luckily I am not a historian, so I can wonder what might have happened had the USSR stayed true to its original support for a single state. Although it would have been outvoted in the UN, it could have used the moment to promulgate its declared beliefs about equality. Its position would have altered the political environment and perhaps mitigated some of the disastrous effects of the Nakba. If the Soviet Party had expressed public concern for Palestinians—via statements, delegations, even demonstrations—the Communist Parties of the world would have followed its lead. Some national parties were highly influential; Italy’s, for example, was the second largest political party in the country. 

Or, another alternate history: What if the Jews of the American Communist left had been willing to stand up not only to Zionist forces but to their own comrades? It does not seem unreasonable to expect courage and solidarity from people who, a few short months before they cheered Israel’s founding, had imagined Jews and Palestinians living side by side.

I believe the time is not far off when the creation of a single state with equal rights for all will again be on the agenda. Facts on the ground have destroyed any pretense that a two-state solution is possible. And now that the two leading human rights organizations in the world have used the word “apartheid” to describe Israel, it is obvious that Israel can never become a real democracy if it remains only a Jewish state. When a single democratic state becomes a serious political alternative, Zionists and other supporters of the Israeli state will throw everything they have at us—they’ll say that not only are we self-hating Jews, but that we advocate a second Holocaust, in which all Jews living in Israel will be slaughtered by vengeful Palestinians. In that moment, we will need to have conquered our own latent nationalism if we are to act as true allies to Palestinians and Israelis who advocate a single state. They will need support from around the world. To provide it, we will need daring solidarity, steadfast commitment to our principles, and independent thinking. If we learn from what happened 73 years ago, maybe we can do better the next time around.

The original version of this article, including footnotes compiling the author’s extensive research, is available here.

Dorothy M. Zellner is a longtime social justice activist who worked for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Conference Educational Fund in the early 1960s, and at the Center for Constitutional Rights and CUNY School of Law. She has also contributed several articles to Jewish Currents. She is one of six editors of the prize-winning book, Hands on the Freedom Plow: Personal Accounts of Women in SNCC.

Source URL: https://portside.org/2021-05-15/what-we-did-how-jewish-communist-left-failed-palestinian-cause