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Jewish Radicals

A Documentary History

Tony Michels

Publication Year: 2012

Jewish Radicals explores the intertwined histories of Jews and the American Left through a rich variety of primary documents. Written in English and Yiddish, these documents reflect the entire spectrum of radical opinion, from anarchism to social democracy, Communism to socialist-Zionism. Rank-and-file activists, organizational leaders,  intellectuals, and commentators, from within the Jewish community and beyond, all have their say. Their stories crisscross the Atlantic, spanning from the United States to Europe and British-ruled Palestine.
The documents illuminate in fascinating detail the efforts of large numbers of Jews to refashion themselves as they confronted major problems of the twentieth century: poverty, anti-semitism, the meaning of American national identity, war, and totalitarianism. In this comprehensive sourcebook, the story of Jewish radicals over seven decades is told for the first time in their own words.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. xi

I would like to thank a number of people who played important roles in the publication of this book. I am especially grateful to New York University’s Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, under the directorship of Professor Hasia Diner, for inviting me to spend the academic...

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Introduction: The Jewish-Socialist Nexus

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pp. 1-24

1890: New York City’s knee-pants workers go on a general strike, forcing their bosses to sign union contracts for the first time. 1892: an anarchist attempts to assassinate one of America’s leading industrialists. 1916: eight hundred workers assemble in a Philadelphia hall to hear a...

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How did young men and women first encounter socialism? What did socialism mean to them? To shed light on these questions, this section features excerpts from the autobiographies of five prominent radicals. The Communist leader Alexander Bittelman became radicalized as a...

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1. “When I Went Home I Was Aflame” (memoir; c. 1925)

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pp. 27-40

One fine day—it must have been in the month of April [1886]— Mother came from the butcher shop and informed us all at the shop that there was going to be a meeting in De Koven Street Hall. I asked her what the meeting was and she said she didn’t know but it was her understanding...

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2. “I Saw a New World Opening Before Me” (memoir; 1931)

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pp. 41-48

It was the 15th of August 1889, the day of my arrival in New York City. I was twenty years old. All that had happened in my life until that time was now left behind me, cast off like a worn-out garment. A new world was before me, strange and terrifying. But I had youth, good health, and a...

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3. The World of Socialism and Revolution (memoir; 1963)

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pp. 49-58

I was 13 years old at the time. Naturally, I couldn’t yet know or fully understand the program and theory of the “Bund.” But I knew Isaak—the man who enrolled me into membership. I knew him as the man who used to come to my father’s house, usually in the evening, to speak to the shoeworkers about...

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4. “Rebellion Raged within Me” (memoir; 1948)

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pp. 59-69

Father had lived in Chicago during his first, brief stay in America. My mother’s brother, whom Father had helped across the border, was living there, and so were other relatives, pioneers who had blazed the trail from Korostyshev to the metropolis of the Middle West. The dominant figure on...

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5. “It Wasn’t Difficult for Me to Reject Judaism” (memoir; 1965)

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pp. 70-80

I didn’t become a radical because my early childhood was unpleasant or because I suffered from anti-Semitism. My parents were nonintellectual middle-class German Jews who had emigrated to the United States in the years before World War I and spoke English with only a faint accent...

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A hopeful conviction radiated from the very core of socialism and roused people to action. This was a belief in the capacity of the poor and exploited to rebel and create a just society. The imperative to act could lead in any number of directions, and with mixed results. A socialist-Zionist named...

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6. “Strong, Firm, and Correct Propaganda” (1886)

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pp. 83-85

As a worker, his situation is directly connected to all workers of the world; his destiny hinges on the destiny of other workers; his future is the future of all his comrades; his hopes are the same as theirs. He sees, knows, feels that in the chain that binds the labor world together, he is a ring equal to all...

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7. “Socialism Is Not a Dream” (1888)

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pp. 86-87

We in New York live at a remarkably fast pace. In a single day you often experience so much, as much as you would experience and ponder in five whole years in the calm, peaceful city of Cincinnati. In this letter, I want to share with you all the impressions that have flooded into me, like a boiling...

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8. The Birth of the Knee-Pants Makers’ Union (memoir; 1924)

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pp. 88-90

Nine hundred knee-pants makers went on a general strike with the demand that bosses and contractors provide sewing machines for their work. Until then, every knee-pants maker had to bring, in addition to their own feet and hands, their own “katerinke” [sewing machine], needles, thread, and...

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9. “The Whole City Seethed” (1892)

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pp. 91-92

The socialist demonstration in New York, which took place on Saturday evening, was a glowing success. The whole city seethed with marching workers who walked to the huge gathering in Union Square under the red flag. According to the newspapers, between 8,000 and 10,000 people...

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10. Working Women Unite (1893–1894)

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pp. 93-94

Under this name, a group of more or less goal-oriented women have established a society in Paterson to cultivate the spirit of freedom in working women. The first meeting took place at the Proletariat Club, 59 Hamburg Ave. It was decided that, on every Saturday evening, formal readings and...

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11. The Attempted Assassination of Henry Clay Frick (memoir; 1912)

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pp. 95-96

I take the pasteboard, return it to my case, and walk slowly out of the reception-room. But quickly retracing my steps, I pass through the gate separating the clerks from the visitors, and, brushing the astounded attendant aside, I step into the office on the left, and find myself facing...

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12. The Prophet Karl Marx (c. 1910s)

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pp. 97-98

Marx was a prophet, no less so than Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Ezekiel. With honest conviction and courage he proclaimed the economic liberation of humanity. He appealed to the workers of the world and inspired them with his conviction that they are destined to fulfill the great task of...

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13. “Our Mecca” (memoir; n.d.)

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pp. 99-103

The Square was our Mecca; the place where East met West, . . . where Uptown came Downtown. We gathered to make revolution and stayed to talk. And how we talked—anarchism, atheism, against the military, for birth control, against injustice, for socialism, for the rights of the workers to...

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14. “The Right to Control Birth” (1916)

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pp. 104-108

We have met here in protest against the law which operates to keep the knowledge of contraception from the mothers of the poor and blinks the fact that the comfortable classes obtain that knowledge from their highly-paid physicians and from one another. We demand that the law which...

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15. A Personal and Confidential Letter to Louis Marshall (1917)

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pp. 109-110

In reply to your kind inquiry of this date concerning the policy of the Jewish Daily Forward, I wish to say that it has been its desire to stand for strict obedience to the laws of the land. Whatever its policy may have been before the enactment of any particular law, it regards it to be its duty as well...

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16. Gangsters and Socialists on Election Day (memoir; 1944)

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pp. 111-119

Election Day in this age of the voting machine is the day when a popular candidate, even if he belongs to a minority party, casts his vote to the click of news cameras and relaxes from the strain of his campaign. But when I first encountered politics, New York elections were often dirty...

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17. “If I Were a Colored Man What Would I Do?” (1919)

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pp. 120-123

If I were born of Negro parentage, either full blooded or only mixed in part with the blood of other races, [. . .] I would hold high my head and steady my feet and say very proudly, very happily, very plainly: It is my best fortune to be counted one of those that are not the exploiters, the...

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18. The Meaning of Labor Day (1921)

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pp. 124-125

In point of fact, the radical labor unions in this country have two labor holidays to celebrate. On May First they demonstrate their solidarity with the workers of the entire civilized world who adopted the first day of Spring as the day of demonstration and protest, a day on which they reassert...

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19. An Encounter with a Klansman (memoir; n.d.)

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pp. 126-128

At the end of 1925, following the Fifth Convention of the Worker’s (Communist) Party, I was invited to remain in Chicago where the National headquarters was situated, to serve as a member of the National Committee of the Communist youth movement. I found the atmosphere unbearable...

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20. Communist “Criminals” in Los Angeles (1929)

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pp. 129-132

Southern California has acquired another lot of political prisoners. What a sense of security and relief must have been in the homes of the “orange belt” when they opened their beloved Times and read that five Russian Jewish working women have been sentenced to San Quentin, one for...

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21. “Unions with Brains” (1930)

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pp. 133-134

The two most interesting trade unions in the United States today are in the garment trades. The Amalgamated Clothing Workers in the men’s clothing industry and the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in the field of women’s wear have consistently applied brains to the solution...

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22. In Defense of the Kentucky Miners (1932)

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pp. 135-136

The following is a resolution unanimously passed at our Special Meeting held on Jan. 15, 1932, at Aristocrat Hall, 69 St. Marks Place, at which our Delegates reported about the Conference for the Defense of the Kentucky Miners1 called by the General Defense Committee, held on Jan. 6, at the...

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23. “The Obligations of Youth Today” (1932)

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pp. 137-139

Slaves, working, sweating, dying from the strain. This was the period when the Jews who were slaves in Egypt called for a leader. The Youth, the militant section of a people of a class realized that something was wrong. When a situation calls for a leader—a leader comes. Moses came. The Jews with...

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24. “Some Vital Problems of Negro Labor” (1935)

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pp. 140-143

In the past a great deal of criticism has been directed against organized labor for its alleged lack of interest in the special problems that face Negro workers. Much of this criticism, however, came from Negro leaders who possessed little or no understanding of the structural and functional...

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25. “Charlatans and Gangsters and Pompous Racketeers” (1938)

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pp. 144-145

Three years ago I went to work at Rosman & Sheer’s shop. As a faithful union member I regularly attended meetings of the local. Often I heard Brother Gold, trade manager of Local 25, and Brother Hollander, General Manager, appeal to the workers not to break union regulations against...

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26. “With Nazism We All Are at War” (1942)

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pp. 146-149

Between 1933, when Hitler took over in Germany and the outbreak of the war in 1939, 200,000 Jews were massacred in Germany, Austria, Rumania, Hungary, as these countries, one after another, fell under the Hitler yoke. From September 1, 1939 to September 1st of this year, the record...

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Socialists believed that workers needed to understand the world in order to change it, and immigrant Jews took this conviction to heart. Thousands of men and women embarked on a quest for knowledge and culture that often impressed outside observers. They became avid readers of...

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27. “Their Intense Desire to Study” (1893)

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pp. 153-156

Most men, if asked what class of immigrants they considered the least desirable, would answer, the Russian Jews. There is a preconceived idea that because most of the Russian Jews are dirty, cannot speak the English language, and live closely crowded in unwholesome, ill-smelling...

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28. The Power of Speech and Education (1893)

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pp. 157-158

The New Haven Educational Club held a banquet specifically for the intelligent public. Comrade Leontieff1 spoke to our group two weeks ago with so much success that we decided to invite him to give another lecture on Sunday, Dec. 17, 3:00 p.m. The gathering and banquet will be only for...

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29. “For That, We Found Time” (interview; 1965)

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pp. 159-161

I recall on Saturday nights we’d gather in each other’s apartments and try to read English. We were limited, naturally enough, because none of us went to school. We tried to go to school, and then overtime [at work] would interfere. Evening classes, when they were available, were useless...

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30. A Lower East Side Vacation (1903)

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pp. 162-167

Thus did our friend explain his strange disappearance and unusual absence from Boston for a whole week. For the first time since he came here from New York he had been missing from his home, his regular haunts, such as the cafés, Jewish book-stores and the debating club, and none of those whom...

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31. “Jewish Working People . . . Have Lost All Interest in the Synagogue” (1905)

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pp. 168-173

When I came to America, at the age of fifteen, I was fully equipped with a prayer-book, phylacteries, a “four-corners,” promising forelocks—with everything, in short, to indicate my strict orthodox training, and to insure its preservation in the “New Wanton World,” as America is often styled in...

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32. “Peripatetic Philosophers” (1910)

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pp. 174-178

There is Scriptural authority for the statement that the ancient Athenians were never content unless discussing some new thing. New York, all Pantheon-less as it is, is in this respect the legitimate successor of the glory that was Greece. It is the talkiest city in the world. There are more new ideas...

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33. Yiddish Lectures in Philadelphia (1916)

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pp. 179-182

It is true that we haven’t had the opportunity to complete the entire program we worked out. But we have our city’s policemen to thank for that because they did not allow us, not even for a single instant, to raise money on Sunday (thereby desecrating the holiness of the day of rest), which we...

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34. “A Language That He Wants to and Must Forget” (1918)

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pp. 183-184

I think that the work, as now conducted, is wasted. As far as the Arbeter Ring’s courses go there can be no discussion. I cannot imagine there is a single member of the Arbeter Ring interested in studying “geology” in Yiddish, if he already knows a world language. The same applies to...

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35. “America’s Most Interesting Daily” (1922)

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pp. 185-190

Which is the most vital, the most interesting, the most democratic of New York’s daily journals? If one should ask this question of one hundred New Yorkers and suggest that the answer involved the name of a foreign language newspaper there would be indignant protests. A good many...

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36. “The Strongest Weapons in the Hands of Jewish Workers” (1924)

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pp. 191-193

Twelve months ago the Cultural Society was no more than the sincere wish of a few to bring light and soul into the hardened life of the local Jewish working masses. Now it is the cultural expression of the healthiest part of the Chicago Jewish working class and its grass-roots intellectuals...

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37. The Aims of Workers’ Education (1926)

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pp. 194-197

The function of Workers’ Education is to assist in the all-important task of making our world a better place for all. The truth is clear that it is the mission of the workers themselves to abolish the inequalities and injustices which they suffer, and that they can accomplish this only through...

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38. Sexual Relations from a Communist Standpoint (1928)

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p. 198-198

We, a group of comrades, turn to you with a request to clarify for us the following question: what is Communist morality regarding married life? Is a couple, legally married or not, obligated [to be faithful] to one another? [. . .] Is it moral, from a Communist standpoint, to have sexual relations...

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39. “Sow the Field of Yiddish Cultural Tradition” (1939)

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pp. 199-203

At this difficult time, our hearts, wills, and might have been strengthened to withstand adversity and, with persistence, to build and establish a healthy, productive Jewish life. This persistence has also intensified our desire to study, to learn the Yiddish language and its literature, and...

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40. “The Responsibility of English-Speaking Jewish Intellectuals” (1946)

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pp. 204-208

Among many educated Jews today, Jewish culture is treated like an unwanted “poor relation.” When “important” guests, such as the cultures of other nations, arrive and are ceremoniously entertained in the parlor “the poor thing” is obliged to slink away and hide itself in...

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The overthrow of the czar on March 15, 1917 (February, according to the Julian calendar) caused immense joy among American Jews, many of whom had direct familial and political ties to Russia. Yet the Bolshevik seizure of power six months later bitterly divided Jewish socialists, as it...

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41. In Honor of Red Sunday (1906)

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pp. 211-213

Between 5,000 and 6,000 Polish, Roumanian, German, and Russian Jews gathered at Rutgers Square, in East Broadway, and to the step of the “Marsellaise” marched through the lower east side up to Union Square, where they assembled to hear half a dozen speeches denunciatory of the...

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42. Leon Trotsky on Second Avenue (memoir; 1944)

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pp. 214-218

Back in 1917 the Café Monopole, at the corner of Second Avenue and Ninth Street in downtown New York, was the hub of the social life of the East Side intelligentsia. Flowing ties, odd costumes, variegated beards and silver-topped walking sticks, set the habitués of this hangout apart from...

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43. “These Glad Days of Russian Freedom” (1917)

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pp. 219-220

In these glad days of Russian freedom my thoughts were with you many times. [. . .] It was Thursday afternoon March 15. I lay in bed racked by a crunching pain in the back; my throat was sore and my heart beat irregularly under the stress of fever. [. . .] Suddenly, Jay came in and beaming...

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44. New York Socialists Contribute to Chaos in Russia (1917)

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pp. 221-223

That some of the radicals who went from New York to join the Bolsheviki in Petrograd may have violated the passport regulations of the United States was alleged in a statement issued yesterday by the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, of which Samuel Gompers is the...

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45. “The New Man” (1921)

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pp. 224-227

[. . .] Perhaps the most striking feature of the new man is intrepidity. All those doubts, queries, forebodings which torture the old intelligentzia are unknown to him. His philosophy is quite definite, the philosophy of economic materialism. His social conceptions amount to a firm conviction...

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46. Communism and Freedom of Speech (1925)

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pp. 228-238

In 1925, Raphael Abramovich (1880–1963) a leader of the Bund and the Russian Social Democratic Party (then based in Germany) came to the United States on a speaking tour. Abramovich hoped to draw attention to political repression in...

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47. A Revolutionary Returns (1929)

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pp. 239-248

I had a very close friend in New York years ago. When the split between the Left Wing and Right Wing in our movement happened, he became a Leftist. He never belonged to the Communist Party, but he was friendly toward it, attended its gatherings, gave money, in a word, helped...

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48. Building Communism in the Ukraine (interview; 1981–1982)

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pp. 249-253

I arrived in Leningrad on December 1st, 1931. There were winter skies in Leningrad, you have an everlasting mid-night there during that period, so in wandering the streets, wet with snow, slushy, no lights, no store fronts lit so you look in the windows to see what they were selling...

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49. “G.P.U. Intrigues in America” (1938)

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pp. 254-257

That the G.P.U. maintains its spies in foreign countries has been known to many, but it was generally assumed that their main activities centered upon the tasks of informing on and denouncing each other or keeping track of the latest Moscow line. But several occurrences in the past...

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50. Fighting Stalinists and Chasing Girls (memoir; 1965)

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pp. 258-263

All of the headquarters looked alike and had the same general atmosphere. On the wall hung large pictures of Marx and Engels, sometimes flanked by photos of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the martyrs of the 1918–19 German revolution. But the places of honor on the walls of...

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51. The Murder of Ehrlich and Alter (1943)

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pp. 264-267

The Stalinist crimes against the international labor movement have not ceased with Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Nor has the preoccupation with the greatest war in Russian history eliminated murder as a political weapon in the labor movement by the infamous regime of Cain Stalin. This was...

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52. The Soviet Union Reappraised (1956)

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pp. 268-275

The wiping out of Soviet Jewish culture, confirmed in the past few months, horrified us. The revelations also impose obligations upon us. Why did this magazine in the past eight years fail to raise questions concerning the shutting down of Jewish cultural institutions in the...

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If there is a political issue from the nineteenth century that remains controversial to the present day, it is Zionism. In the Jewish labor movement’s early years, most socialists were opposed to Zionism, viewing it an impractical scheme, a violation of internationalist norms, a diversion...

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53. “The Whole Thing Is Ridiculous” (1906)

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pp. 279-285

The newest stream of Jewish immigration, driven to these shores by the waves of the Russian Revolution, and its counterpart, the atrocious massacres of Jews, has brought in its wake an undercurrent of new ideas and ideals which of late has excited the interest of the Jews in their old...

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54. “The Jewish Militant” (1906)

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pp. 286-287

[. . .] The Jewish militant faces a difficult struggle to liberate the Jew from his dual suffering as both a Jew and a human being. Even so, he will break down the walls of the old ghetto and those of the new ghetto, and unite with freedom fighters of all nations to struggle for the equal...

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55. Zionism and Transnationalism (1916)

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pp. 288-293

Before the American people at the present time there are two ideals of American nationalism, sharply focused and emphasized by the war. One is that of the traditional melting-pot, the other is that of a co-operation of cultures. The first is congenial to the ruling class, the nativist...

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56. “Should We Change Our Stance toward Zionism?” (1918)

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pp. 294-297

First of all, let us note that the Jewish Question does not exist anymore, not since Tsarism was destroyed in Russia. The Jewish Question was mainly a question about the Jewish lack of rights in Russia. This lack of rights used to compel Jews to flee to other countries and therefore raised the...

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57. “The Pogroms in Palestine” (1929)

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pp. 298-300

The pogroms against Jews in Palestine have taken on the character of a bloody catastrophe. Murderous attacks by Arabs against Jews have occurred several times in recent years. The hateful mood, which has recently been incited against Jews in Palestine, is also known. But nobody had...

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58. A Revolt of the Oppressed Arab Masses (1929)

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pp. 301-303

The Zionists, the longtime agents of British imperialism in Palestine, are looking to present the events in Palestine as an outbreak of “half wild Arab bandits, which . . . have in one week destroyed and ruined that which has taken many years for the Jews to build”—so writes the...

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59. “Jew and Arab” (1934)

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pp. 304-307

I made no scholarly study of the question. For that I had neither the time nor the specialist’s knowledge. However, while traveling about the country— visiting towns and villages, houses and hovels, observing women and children— I came to an inescapable, no longer theoretical conclusion: the...

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60. “Give Up the Illusion of Building a Jewish Homeland” (1936)

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pp. 308-311

The present situation in Palestine is the result of the three-cornered conflict between Jews, Arabs and English imperialism, a conflict of some years, and one which is growing steadily more severe. The situation must be considered in the light of the historic background from which the...

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61. Jewish Upbuilding Is Revolutionizing Palestine (1939)

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pp. 312-315

[. . .] Since 1920, the Jewish community in Palestine was subjected to four pogrom-attacks—each more violent than the preceding one. Now, if we have learned anything from Jewish history, we learned this: no pogrom occurs in any country whose government does not want it to...

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62. “The Jewish Problem Will Be Solved as Soon as the Jews Again Become a Normal Nation” (1943)

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pp. 316-318

The victory of Democracy (or Socialism, etc.) can achieve much and improve many things, but it will not produce one major result, i.e., the abolition of existing nations of mankind. To have a hope that one day all the nations of the world will disappear and that all men will enter one...

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63. The Final Emancipation of the Jews Is the Struggle for Socialism (1946)

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pp. 319-321

The development of anti-Semitism, the result of definite social and historic causes, is producing the spread of Zionist nationalism among the despairing and declassed petty bourgeois Jewish masses. The brutal equalization of Jews of all strata in the extermination camps sharpened...

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64. Jewish National Aspirations Are Not a Violation of Marxist Principles (1947)

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pp. 322-326

The reaction of the official Fourth Internationalist organization to the Jewish question and the problem of Palestine in the new situation produced by Hitlerism and the war is a measure of their incapacity to free themselves from outlived theories and political positions. This results...

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65. Israel and the World Struggle for Peace and Democracy (1948)

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pp. 327-331

It can be safely assumed that the struggles of the Jewish masses against national discrimination and for equal rights in countries where Jewish communities suffer from anti-Semitic persecutions and inequality, will become intensified and strengthened because of the rise of Israel. Depending...

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pp. 335-347

About the Editor

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pp. 349

E-ISBN-13: 9780814763469
E-ISBN-10: 081475743X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814757437

Page Count: 360
Publication Year: 2012

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Subject Headings

  • Jewish socialists -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- Sources.
  • Immigrants -- Political activity -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- Sources.
  • Jews, East European -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- Sources.
  • Working class Jews -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- Sources.
  • Labor movement -- New York (State) -- New York -- History -- Sources.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Ethnic relations -- History -- Sources.
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