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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the fight for civil liberties
Stuart Svonkin

New York: Columbia University Press, 1999
364pp. Index. Bibl.Pb.: $21.50/14.95; ISBN 0-231-10639-4.



The good news is that Stuart Svonkin has written a searching and deeply interesting study of the three major Jewish civil rights organizations in America; the Anti-Defamation League, The American Jewish Committee, and the American Jewish Congress. . All three originally worked as "self-defense " groups, combating anti-Semitic attitudes and institutional restrictions. However, in the two decades following World War II, the principal focus of this study, these organizations shifted their interests from "self-defense" to "intergroup relations"; turning from their concern with prejudice against Jews to a more general interest in the broader issues of bigotry and social discrimination. Each of these organizations had its own style. The Anti-Defamation League, linked with some of the leading figures in America's mass culture industries, emphasized favorable publicity, information, and socially edifying entertainment. The American Jewish Committee, more intellectual in approach, looked to sociologists and social scientists for guidance. They sponsored social psychological studies in prejudice and a series of social surveys to chart the incidence of intolerance. Most feisty of the three organizations was the American Jewish Congress, led by strong-willed rabbis and managed by gutsy lawyers who directed much of its efforts to the courts. Svonkin's important contribution is his shrewd depiction of the differing organizational cultures of these groups and their shifting priorities in the two decade following World War II. Surprisingly, however, Svonkin does not discuss one of the most significant developments affecting these agencies--- the considerable and unanticipated decline in anti-Semitism after World War II, as marked by public expression and by the rapid decline of institutional restrictions against Jews. This happy decline did not fit the prevailing theories that found the source of prejudice deep within psychological or social structures. In the face of such positive advance in social tolerance, the defense organizations seemingly could not take yes for an answer. They remained active and even expanded their efforts. This clearly had some bearing upon their shift to the more general issues of intergroup relations that Svonkin describes. . To his credit, Svonkin places his story within the broader context of the '50s. This enables him to underscore some of the less admirable aspects of the history of these organizations. Although dedicated to the general advance of civil liberties and civil rights, Svonkin describes their complicity in the deprivation of Communists and their sympathizers of their civil liberties during the McCarthy era. Surely those Communists whom they purged from their staffs did not did not present any kind of danger except that of strengthening the widespread stereotype that linked Jews and Communists. The not such good news about this book is that Svonkin's general discussion of the McCarthy era is disappointing. He provides a '60s view of the '50s, intent on lambasting the "cold war liberals" (C. Wright Mills' term, coined with invidious intent). Such an animus led him to dubious assertions, like "most liberal anticommunists, were reluctant to criticize McCarthy until after he was censured,"(p.123)---which cannot be supported by any close reading of the record. By now, historians should be able to present a broader, less polemical, more complex understanding. of that era. Such an understanding would reach back before the '50s and beyond the borders of the United States to world political events. That account would surely include some examination of the infamous Smith Act of 1940, passed as America was gearing up for war, which made advocacy of particular ideas unlawful. When Trotskyites and others were prosecuted under this Act, the Communists applauded. Moreover few Americans objected when Japanese Americans were placed in concentration camps simply because of their ancestry. The conflation of foreign enemies with various domestic groups as the basis for crushing local civil liberties was well established long before McCarthy appeared on the political scene. When he did appear, the cold was being waged at its greatest intensity. Stalin, a murderous despot armed with atomic weapons, stood at the head of expansive authoritarian regime, that controlled half of Europe and with his allies much of Asia. The external danger was not imaginary. It was in this setting that opportunistic politician went hunting for domestic groups that could be linked to the enemy, and more important associated with their political opponents. To understand the complexity of the situation one must recognize that at the same time that civil liberties were in retreat, civil rights were advancing. It is a drawback of this work that the historical setting which Svonkin has provided for his study is over-simple. However, this does not undo the usefulness of the principal focus and discussion of his book.


Samuel Haber



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