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  • Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America
  • Riv-Ellen Prell
Torn at the Roots: The Crisis of Jewish Liberalism in Postwar America, by Michael E. Staub. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 386 pp. $29.50.

Michael Staub's important and fascinating cultural history of Post World War II American Jewish political life rests on a surprising proposition. He argues that intra-Jewish conflict in the United States is too often overlooked, and without understanding it, the political map of American Jewry is unreadable. Staub argues that the standard narratives of post-war Jewish life have smoothed out internal conflicts as well as overstating the liberalism and civil rights activism of the majority of American Jews. In so doing, he joins a recent and growing chorus of historians and cultural studies scholars such as Stuart Svonkin, Marc Dollinger, and Debra Schultz, among others, who have looked closely at the alliances and positions of Jewish organizations and activists on the important issues of the time.

Staub's contribution to this conversation is to broaden and lengthen it. By bringing this story up to the 1980s he demonstrates that American Jewish politics were even more diverse, complex, and contentious than others claim. He also weaves a generational struggle into a story that is otherwise told, when it is told, as simply left versus right. As such, Staub offers far more than a discussion of liberalism. In recovering and reintroducing a complex American Jewish political history, he clarifies the nature of a high-stakes debate about what it meant to be a Jew in America.

Staub found that any political issue on which Jewish organizations, magazines, and newspapers took a position was inevitably embedded in several debates simultaneously. Unquestionably, "Holocaust consciousness" was at the root of virtually every conflict within the Jewish community, but often so was the very meaning of an American Jewish identity. Many of the underlying issues in these debates changed with each decade. It is impossible to miss the fact that, at least to my reading, many of the political positions were the consequence of the transition through which Jews lived in the first decades following World War II. They had unprecedented access to American culture. Under circumstances so radically different than those before the war, what it meant to be an American and a Jew was very much in question. What Staub demonstrates particularly [End Page 181] effectively is that that all-encompassing question inevitably led to further questions about political alliances, the nature of the nation in which Jews wanted to live, and, to a growing extent, the place of Judaism in that synthesis.

The book begins by examining how attitudes toward racial equality in the late 1940s were linked to Jews' understanding of both communism and Nazi fascism. Staub's careful analysis of the shifting perspectives on that equation is a model for the analysis he undertakes so effectively throughout the book. In each of his "cases," he examines shifts in positions and attitudes, and carefully unpacks the larger political context in the United States as well as the positions of a variety of Jewish organizations.

In the early 1950s, Commentary Magazine and the Labor Zionist publication Jewish Frontiers both argued for a logical connection between racism and Nazi policies during the war. However, by 1958 when Martin Luther King offered the same claim at a Florida meeting of the American Jewish Congress, there is little evidence in Jewish thought and opinion of support for the analogy. The growing anti-communism of Jewish organizations in response both to Cold War patriotism and the reports of Russian antisemitism led to these same periodicals' distancing themselves from the analogies. By the 1949 Peekskill Riots in which the communist Paul Robeson's presence led to a violent attack on both Robeson and a working-class audience made up of many Jews, the major problem was the "provocation" of the left. Both the African American Crisis and most Jewish publications condemned neither the police nor the rioters, but only those who gathered for the two concerts. If communists and leftists drew regularly on this analogy, then a now anti-communist Jewish and African...


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