This is my fifth blog in a series which uses "Unknown Secrets," a collage by Martha Rosler, as an organizing principle to explore how the popular press, the prosecution, the defense, supporters, politicians, and the highly charged political and cultural climate influenced how people perceived my grandmother, Ethel Rosenberg, then and now.
This blog is a bit of a departure from my previous focus on gender dynamics and their impact on representations of my grandmother. Here, I turn from a discussion of housewives, communists, representations of women in magazines, and fear of weak men and strong women, to an issue that affected both my grandparents: anti-Semitism.
Two of the men most commonly associated with the Rosenberg case appear in Rosler's collage: Judge Irving R. Kaufman and Attorney Roy Cohn, the chief prosecutorial assistant. These are Jewish men associated with a Jewish case. The execution of a Jewish couple so soon after the national attention paid to the millions of Jewish victims of the Holocaust was a sensitive subject in the United States. Although many have claimed that the fact that Jews were on both sides of this trial prove that anti-Semitism was not a significant factor in terms of cultural pressure, there is another way of looking at this almost totally Jewish production; the presence of Jews on both sides of the case allowed the public to, in essence, put all Jews on trial.
As historian Deborah Dash Moore noted in her essay, “Reconsidering the Rosenbergs: Symbol and Substance in Second Generation American Jewish Consciousness," in the fall 1988 edition of the Journal of American Ethnic History, the jury, which was intentionally devoid of any Jews, "had the opportunity to choose its Jews, which ones were believable, acceptable" (p. 28). The jury foreman in the case agreed with this description of the trial as a contest between the Jews: "I felt good that this was a strictly Jewish show. It was Jew against Jew. It wasn't the Christians hanging the Jews” (as quoted in Radosh and Milton, The Rosenberg File, p. 288).
But in many ways it was “Christians hanging the Jews.” It was a way for the public to separate out reliable (anti-Communist) Jews from spies (Communist Jews). And many anti-Communist Jews were more than happy to oblige the gentile public. In her essay, “The Rosenberg Case: We Are All Your Children” in Chutzpah: A Jewish Anthology published in 1977, civil rights and anti-war activist Vicki Gabriner, an active member of the Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case, wrote:
In the atmosphere of the anti-Communist hysteria which marked the fifties of Joe McCarthy, the 'good' Jews (read: most of the Jewish establishment) sought to get points by disassociating themselves from the 'bad' Jews. They saw this case as the ultimate shonda (disgrace) to the Jewish community," (p. 176).
With Jews on both sides of the case, and with Communism already linked in the public mind with Judaism, the Jewish establishment of the 1950s refused to support the Rosenbergs. When I interviewed Emily Alman (who with her husband co-founded the Committee to Secure Justice in the Rosenberg Case) in February 1994 as part of my research for my undergraduate thesis, she remembered that although, "we had Jews all over the place ... Jews were on our side," the Jewish establishment did not support the Committee’s work:
The official Jewish response to the case….was to say, “We are not Communists.” Let me give you one [example]. I was working at the 96th Street Y and Fretz, who was on my board, set me up to have a luncheon with Sultzberger and his family, who owned The New York Times. He was part of the Times family and also part of the Jewish establishment and I think their daughter married Kaufman’s clerk ... So I'm sitting at the table with them and we talked about the Rosenbergs.
He said, "They must be executed," and I said, "What if they are innocent?" I mean I was sitting as a guest at his table and his wife was trying to get him to listen to me a little ... And he said coldly, "Any Jew who is a Communist deserves to be executed."
That was it. They were traitors and Jews aren't traitors ... This was very much the attitude of the Jewish establishment.
But this was more than just a case of the Jewish community being divided over a trial. In her 1981 book, Declassified Eisenhower: A Divided Legacy of Peace and Political Warfare, and her later essay “The Rosenbergs and the Crimes of a Century,” historian Blanche Wiesen Cook discusses the astonishing CIA memo she discovered in the files released in response to my father and uncle’s Freedom of Information Act lawsuit.
Dated January 22, 1953, the memo suggested that the Rosenbergs be convinced to, “appeal to Jews in all countries to get out of the communist movement and seek to destroy it.” The memo goes on to discuss the advantages of this strategy:
The couple is ideally situated to serve as leading instruments of a psychological warfare campaign designed to split world communism on the Jewish issue, to create disaffected groups within the membership of the Parties, to utilize these groups for further infiltration and for intelligence work.
It even suggests the “ideal emissaries” to bring this idea to the Rosenbergs: “highly intelligent rabbis, representing reform Judaism, with a radical background or sympathetic understanding of radicalism, and with psychiatric knowledge.” In return for their agreement, the CIA suggested, “generous commutation appears indicated - both to encourage others to defect and to utilize the Rosenbergs as figures in an effective psychological warfare campaign against communism primarily on the Jewish issue.”
I believe this memo illustrates how anti-Communism and anti-Semitism were very much a part of the cultural climate surrounding my grandparents’ trial. How do you think anti-Seminitism influenced my grandparents' trial and conviction? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.
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