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  • The Red Divide: The Conflict between Communists and their Opponents in the American Yiddish Press*
  • Matthew Hoffman (bio)

Secular Yiddish culture thrived in America since the emergence of a major Yiddish-speaking, Jewish immigrant population in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Through the early decades of the twentieth century, the Yiddish cultural scene in the United States flourished, with poets and playwrights, philosophers and publicists, socialists and communists all contributing to a vibrant and predominately secular Yiddish culture. From its beginnings, this Jewish immigrant culture in America was profoundly shaped by political and ideological concerns and the pressing questions of how to reconstitute Jewish identity and culture in an American context. These issues were hotly debated in the Yiddish popular press and wider intellectual circles, and one of the defining features of Yiddish-language cultural life in America—as in other places and times—was intense factionalism and ideological competition. As Ezra Mendelsohn has shown in his important study of modern Jewish politics, these “new and fateful divisions within the Jewish community… grew in intensity and complexity from generation to generation.”1 The competing factions that emerged in the Yiddish press mirrored these conflicting political ideologies and varying approaches to the existential problems of Jewish immigrant life.

This article examines one of the most bitter and protracted conflicts that animated the American Yiddish press and its intellectual leadership in the period from the early 1920s through the Cold War era, one that might most aptly be termed the “Red divide.” The main factions at the heart of this partisan divide were the communists, who associated themselves with the daily newspaper Di Frayhayt (Freedom),2 edited by Moyshe Olgin (1878–1939), and the largely socialist, anti-communist camp, which aligned itself with the Forverts (The Jewish Daily Forward), edited by Abe Cahan (1860–1951), as well as with Der Tog (The Day), edited [End Page 1] by S. Margoshes.3 By the 1930s, the anti-communist camp expanded beyond the initial groups that surrounded the Forverts and Der Tog to include a number of additional factions on the Yiddish street.4 These factions and their corresponding newspapers did not always see eye to eye, but they were eventually linked by their virulent anti-communism.5 In responding to this opposition, the communists, even when seeking allies on the left, constantly pilloried their critics as a kind of bourgeois “united front,” which, to some extent, they had indeed become. The bulk of the communists’ animus, however, was always reserved for their longest-standing enemy, the Forverts.

The Frayhayt and the Forverts had been especially preoccupied with each other since the inception of the Frayhayt in 1922, shortly after members of the left wing of the Jewish Socialist Federation broke away to join the nascent Communist Party in America (CPUSA).6 In the years after the split and the establishment of clearly distinct communist and anti-communist camps, both sides engaged in venomous polemics, tarring the other side with vitriolic, ad hominem attacks and grave charges that it was working against the interests of the Jewish community, often going as far as calling its opponents antisemites, fascists, and Nazis. This polemical hyperbole and ad hominem style of attack was not an entirely new strategy in the history of Jewish cultural clashes. Examples of opposing Jewish factions bitterly lambasting one another and trading [End Page 2] incriminating accusations accompanied the political battles surrounding the rise of Hasidism in Poland in the eighteenth century, the emergence of the Reform movement in Germany in the nineteenth century, and the proliferation of socialist and Zionist movements in Eastern Europe during the early twentieth century. This type of severe polemical rhetoric was also commonplace within the context of the broader clashes between socialists and communists, both in America and worldwide, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s, when communists regularly referred to their socialist rivals as “social fascists.”7 In order to best understand the conflict between Jewish communists and socialists in the United States, then, we must situate it within both the Jewish cultural context and the larger political context of the communist-socialist schism that emerged following the Bolshevik Revolution.

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