Ethel at 100 (part 5): Anti-Semitism and the Rosenberg Case

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.

*Martha Rosler's collage was part of the Rosenberg Era Art Project, a collection of art about the Rosenbergs and the 1950s, which resulted in a book and film.

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My family, my dad and mom were on 17th in New York pleading for the lives. Herb and I were in Washington equally pressing for justice. We are a Jewish family. Some people in my apartment building in Washington Hts refused, out of fear, to join us. They were holocaust victims. My cousin and her family moved out of Knickerbocker Village immediately after the Rosenberg's arrest. So there you have it .People were gripped with fear so reminiscent of Nazism.

Wow, this is fascinating, thanks Jenn -- hearing this very specific info about how anti-Communism also fed and was intertwined with anti-Semitism. I would also suggest that there was internalized anti-Semitism here: when Jews feed into the idea of "good Jews" and "bad Jews," as Gabriner writes above. (These dynamics can apply to any marginalized group, when the dominant group tries to divide them to serve the needs of the dominant group -- often leading to the marginalized group internalizing some kind of bias against them and then turning on each other.) I write about this in my book "Hope into Practice, Jewish women choosing justice despite our fears." Thanks again!
Penny Rosenwasser, Ph.D.

It has always seemed to me Kaufmann and Cohn were brought into the case purposefully to deflect charges of anti-semitism. How could it be anti-semetic if prosecutor and judge were Jews?

But the prosecution of the Rosenbergs could not have happened without the underlying, fundamental anti-semetism that accompanied
anti-communism at the time. Though I was only 14 at the time of the execution, I thought even then that this was an attack on Jews.
It certainly scared the hell out of my grandparents--very bad for the Jews was their stance.

My in laws to be were demonstrating on the night of the executions.
In discussions with them and my grandparents,one of their overwhelming concerns- fears actually- was that the case was the first step towards an officially condoned anti-semitism. I think the Jewish community was traumatized by the executions and the result was a move away from social activism- only partially reversed by support for the direct action activities of the civil rights movement.

I think that this was one part of a strategy to destroy the social base of progressive politics- destruction of the left unions was another.

I am old enough to have lived through the Rosenberg trial period and remember it vividly. In the days leading up to the trial, anti-semitism in this country was still at very strong. Hotels openly advertised that they would not accept Jewish customers. Colleges and universities had strict quotas. The math department at Harvard did not employ Jewish faculty members. Law firms on Wall Street were strictly divided into Jewish and non-Jewissh.
The advent of Sputnik in 1957 helped to change this. We needed all the talent we could muster to beat the Russians. However, that was too late for the Rosenbergs.

The Jewish judge, in the Rosenberg case, leaned over backwards to prove his Jewish impartiality. Only left-wing elements of the Jewish community had the courage to support the Rosenbergs. Let's remember that at the time Julius gave away some "secrets" of the bomb, the Russians were our allies, not our enemies. As for Ethel, with no background in science to speak of, how could she have known that what she was doing had any real significance?

The execution of the Rosenbergs was a vicious, vengeful act that shames our country. The British dealt with their WWII spies in a more civilized way. If memory serves, Dr. Alan May Nunn, a noted British physicist, gave away some really important secrets to the Russians and, as a consequence, served eight years in goal prior to his release.

Marian H. Rose, PhD

Jenn, huge thanks to you for sharing your insightful article! As always, this gives us much to think about and reflect on.

As another poster has previously stated, I agree it was no accident that Judge Kaufman and Roy Cohn were selected for your grandparents case, just as it was no accident that Kaufman presided over the trial for Miriam Moskowitz and her employer, Abe Brothman and Cohn was the prosecutor. I question if the agenda for Kaufman and Cohn was "justice" in either of these cases or if the agenda was to show their loyalty by supporting the "Red Scare" and those who were pushing this fear down America's throat in order to move up in the judicial circles.

It continues to stun me that there are those who believe your grandparents were guilty and deserved to be executed because "they read a book which proves they were guilty" yet these same people are unaware of the prosecutorial misconduct or the judicial misconduct Cohn and Kaufman inflicted on your grandparents during their trial, which led to further fear of being Jewish and being associated by religion to the alleged spy activity reported in this country.

Odd, that there is not much stated about David and Ruth Greenglass being Jewish, yet being Jewish was a huge part of your grandparents case. It certainly appears that as long as you lie and point the finger at someone else, being Jewish does not matter unless you are the one whose finger is being pointed at you.

I still hold on to the hope that Julius and Ethel will be exonerated and our country will recognize that your grandparents are among those who have been wrongfully executed in this country and our government must stand up and admit this horror that was allowed to be committed.

Jenn, again, thank you for your insightful article and please know that your family are always in my thoughts and prayers and that someday soon, we can all celebrate your grandparents exoneration!

Bonnie Longmire

Thanks Jenn as always for thoughtful input. I think you are on to something important. This post, however, may be regarded as somewhat off topic as it deals with today rather than then. I am insulted by the defenders of Israeli policy when they conflate opposition to the genocidal policies and actions of Isreal vs Palestinians with "anti-semitism," as if they were the same. This claim is profoundly dishonest and I hope others will point it out each time it occurs. It is easy to be totally at ease with Jewish people while roundly condemning the (frankly and ironically) fascist direction of the current Israeli government.

The Jan.22,1953 CIA.memo referred to by Blanche Weisen Cook
showed how the CIA, and doubtless other clandestine services.intended to and did utilize Jews in the service of anticommunism in and against the USSR. The Rosenbergs refused to help,and paid with their lives. Others lacked their courage or viewpoint and cooperated, such as Cohn, Saypol, and Kaufman.
Subversion within Russia did occur and was subsidized by us. The Soviets may have missed the memo, but they got the point and saw the results of these splitting activities. When they took action they could then be accused of antisemitism. We got to win both ways. Small point that a few lives were destroyed in the process.

The Jan.22,1953 CIA.memo referred to by Blanche Weisen Cook
showed how the CIA, and doubtless other clandestine services.intended to and did utilize Jews in the service of anticommunism in and against the USSR. The Rosenbergs refused to help,and paid with their lives. Others lacked their courage or viewpoint and cooperated, such as Cohn, Saypol, and Kaufman.
Subversion within Russia did occur and was subsidized by us. The Soviets may have missed the memo, but they got the point and saw the results of these splitting activities. When they took action they could then be accused of antisemitism. We got to win both ways. Small point that a few lives were destroyed in the process.

Jenn Meeropol ignores the fact that the Soviet and pro-Soviet press AT THE TIME ignored the Rosenberg case until after Stalin's death and their imminent execution- given the notorious campaign against "rootless cosmopolitanism"- which culminated in the notorious "Slansky trial" in November 1952 and the "Doctor's Plot" of January 1953- with their obvious anti_semitic overtones, the claim that it was an attack on Jews on a group by Julius and Ethel Rosenberg's support takes what Jews call "chutzpah" and the Irish call "brass neck"!.
Former US President Dwight Eisenhower for one found the claim of anti-Semitism totally ludicrous in his memoirs and i am inclined to concur!

Why talk at all about "Christians against Jews"? It was clearly conservatism vs communism. Kill the Jewish communists and maybe the Jews, who tended then to be even more socialist/communist inclined than they are today, will back off. McCarthyism was about nothing if it was not about destroying a nascent left-wing movement from gaining majority control in this country.

It seems to me that part of the reason for the persecution of the Rosenbergs was to continue divorcing the American public mind from seeing the Soviets a s good. If memory serves, during the war, the Soviet government moved about a half million Jews out of harm's way. But good treatment of Jews by Communists did not and does not fit the national narrative—hence the need to "expose" "bad Jews" through their communist affiliation.

My condolences. Maybe the trial should have lasted longer. I believe that there were non-Jewish people that disagreed with the death penalty. The Cold War was going on then. There are non- Jewish people that believe that it was antiSemitism. The Rosenbergs seemed like a nice couple. There is no justice when there is not a good enough reason to take the life of your Grandparents. You’re Jewish relatives weren’t the only people that had such a severe punishment. I don’t believe in the death penalty. It’s barbaric and nonsensical.

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