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Jewish Radicalism and the Red Scare: Introductory Essay

by Lori Shaller and Judith Rosenbaum

Introductory Essay for Living the Legacy, Labor, Lesson 7

There is a strong tradition of Jewish radicalism, which began in earnest in the late 19th century. Some Jews became radicals in Eastern Europe, but many first encountered radical politics such as Socialism or Communism as immigrant workers in American cities. The Jewish radical community swelled after 1905 as Jewish immigrants fled persecution from the revolutions sweeping across Russia. In America, radical politics and the labor movement became new forms of Jewish expression—“purely secular” and “thoroughly Jewish” as activist Yankel Levin described it in 1918.[1] Jewish socialists saw themselves as creating a new model of the Jew: worldly, activist, and broad-minded. Yiddish culture, expressed both in political activities and in cultural forms (literature, theater, etc.), was at the center of this new Jewish world. From this cultural flourishing emerged a new image of the Jew as radical—an influential characterization during the Progressive Era.

Yet even in such an open political environment as the democratic society of the U.S., radicals have been persecuted in certain periods. This often occurred during or after wars or other periods of vulnerability; the 1920s, after the end of World War I, for example, saw the first “Red Scare,” an attack on Socialists, Communists, and labor organizers (named after the color of the flag of the newly created Soviet Union). Another Red Scare occurred after World War II, a period also referred to as the “McCarthy Era” after Senator Joe McCarthy who made his name pursuing and persecuting “Communist sympathizers.” From 1946 through the early 1960s, American citizens suspected of being sympathetic to the Soviet Union or Communism, or who were thought to have radical political views in general, were investigated, arrested, imprisoned, fined, fired from their jobs, and barred from future employment in their fields. People lost their careers, their friends, and sometimes even their families. Ordinary people were encouraged to spy on their neighbors and friends and to report any suspicions of “subversive” activity (any activity that could in some way be seen as undermining American political democratic and capitalist culture). This might mean saying something that sounded sympathetic to Communism or leftist politics, going to Communist Party (CP) meetings (it was not actually illegal to be a member of the CP), socializing with friends who were being investigated for Communist activity, etc.

Suspected Communists were pursued across society, but two areas in particular were considered fertile ground for finding Communist sympathizers: education and the entertainment industry. Increasingly educated and therefore no longer limited to work in the trades, Jews moved into white collar professions such as teaching and writing, and many became involved in unionizing these industries, just as they had the garment industry. Jews were frequent targets within these fields. Some 90% of the teachers “blacklisted” from working in the public schools in this period due to their alleged subversive activities were Jewish.[2]

Jews went into film, television and radio for the same reason many went into the garment industry earlier in the twentieth century: these were financially risky business ventures that weren’t already saturated by non-Jews. Jews were often closed out of businesses due to anti-Semitism, but at the start of first the film and then the television industries in particular, there was opportunity at all levels, from owning a production company to script writing to acting. Jews jumped into the void, and then brought friends and relatives with them.

Another path for many Jews into film, radio, and television was their experience in the Yiddish theater. From the time of the earliest large-scale Eastern European immigrations to the U.S. in the 1880s, Jews had established music and theater companies. While Yiddish theater wasn’t itself inherently politically radical, it was created by and performed for the working class Jewish immigrants whose political associations tended to be on the left of the political spectrum. When the motion picture industry was developing in the early twentieth century, many of the producers, directors, writers, and actors went into it directly from Yiddish theater.

Many, such as the actor Paul Muni and the director Edgar G. Ulmer, the latter whose financial backing came partly from the garment industry trade unions, made the move from New York to Hollywood with a stop on Broadway first. In Hollywood, they found a more open society in which they could both shed their immigrant personae and bring their Jewish influences and styles into the new popular culture they were creating. Ironically, Jews—who in some ways remained outsiders and were barred from certain kinds of social access (for example, quotas limited Jewish entrance into universities)—played a key role in shaping American culture. This also meant that Jewish culture began to permeate American culture, bringing certain stock Jewish characters, such as the guilt-inducing mother or the traditional, bearded Jewish rabbi, from the Jewish theater and into mainstream popular culture.[3]

As Nazism grew in Germany in the 1930s, eventually leading to the Holocaust and the military aggression that would become World War II, American Jews began to put pressure on the U.S. government to intervene on behalf of Europe’s Jews. Though it delayed entry into the war, the U.S. ultimately chose to ally with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. After the war ended, some politicians, such as Representative John Rankin, remembered Jewish lobbying for U.S. entry into the war, particularly by those in Hollywood making films sympathetic to the Soviet Union, and interpreted these efforts as a pro-Communist ploy. This led Rankin and others to conclude that Hollywood was a nest of Jewish Communist sympathizers. The Congressional hearings that were organized to root out Communist influence in Hollywood took particular interest in the role of Jews at all levels in the entertainment industry.

Jews were also particularly vulnerable to charges of radicalism in this period because of the high profile case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Arrested in 1950 on charges of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, the Rosenbergs were convicted and executed in 1953. The specter of McCarthyism and the execution of the Rosenbergs haunted a generation of Jewish radicals.

Some of those involved in the House Un-American Activities Committee (the Congressional committee charged with investigating subversive behavior) were overtly anti-Semitic. For example, Representative John Rankin was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and known for his blatant anti-Semitism toward fellow Congressmen. Many Jews suspected that HUAC chose to focus on Hollywood because of its large Jewish presence and the prominent role of Jews in building the studio system. Six of the “Hollywood Ten”—the ten original “unfriendly witnesses” (those who would not cooperate with HUAC’s demand that they identify Communists) indicted and imprisoned by HUAC in 1947—were Jewish. They were all blacklisted until the 1960s or 1970s.

The blacklist began when the Hollywood studios pledged not to hire anyone under suspicion by HUAC; while the film industry proclaimed outwardly that it did not have a blacklist, the television industry institutionalized their blacklist by creating specific procedures that determined whether or not a potential employee was suspected of Communist sympathy.[4] Being questioned by HUAC was sometimes all that was needed to be blacklisted, and many worked hard to get the Committee to write letters on their behalf so they could return to work. Those who could afford to sometimes hired “fronts” to put their names on blacklisted writers’ scripts so the writers could continue to make a living; this was obviously not possible for actors and directors.

There were those in the entertainment industry who cooperated with HUAC. Known as “friendly witnesses,” they agreed to identify people they believed to be Communists (referred to in shorthand as “naming names”), as director Elia Kazan did, or offer other information, as did the author Ayn Rand (see primary sources). While these “friendly witnesses” were able to continue to work in the industry, they often lost the respect of their peers. For example, when Elia Kazan won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Academy Awards in 1999, nearly 50 years after his HUAC testimony, some members of the audience refused to stand and clap for him. Even the organized Jewish community cooperated with HUAC, checking the names on the list for accuracy to “protect” innocent Jews from questioning and possible indictment, and in the case of the American Jewish Committee, developing a strategy of counter-propaganda to positively influence Americans’ attitudes toward Jews. [5]

Not all of those blacklisted considered themselves Communists or even sympathizers. While some were former members of the Communist Party and many considered themselves politically leftist, others said they associated with Communists mainly for social rather than political reasons. The screenwriters were known especially for their membership because the Party had a writers’ group many attended for the companionship, given their lonely occupations. The screenwriters had also already drawn considerable animosity for their leftist leanings during tense union negotiations in the 1930s and 1940s. But particularly after Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected, those who had identified with Communist or Socialist values had thrown their support to his New Deal and become Democrats.

In 1972, director Adrian Scott, the last of the more than 300 blacklisted artists, was able to return to work using his own name. Once their names were cleared, many who had been blacklisted and had not been fronted (meaning, had their work submitted by a “front” whose name appeared on their work and who took a cut of the pay for “fronting”) were still unable to get work because they hadn’t published anything for over twenty years. Others had to continue to work under their pseudonyms or the names of their fronts because they were unknown by their real names.


[1]Tony Michels, A Fire in their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 179.

[2]American Social History Project, Who Built America? Working People & The Nation’s Economy, Politics, Culture & Society, Volume Two: From the Gilded Age To The Present (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), 503.

[3]“The Social Film and the Hollywood Blacklist,” Dave Wagner, 37-59 in Buhle, Paul, ed., Jews and American Popular Culture, Volume 1: Movies, Radio and Television (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 37, 48.

[4]Bowie, Steven W., “Intellectual Pogrom: How the Blacklist Purged Political and Cultural Discourse in Early Television,” pp.199-211 in Buhle, Paul, ed., Jews and American Popular Culture, Volume 1: Movies, Radio and Television (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2007), 201.

[5]Navasky, Victor S., Naming Names (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), 124.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Jewish Radicalism and the Red Scare: Introductory Essay." (Viewed on December 7, 2023) <https://jwa.org/teach/livingthelegacy/jewish-radicalism-and-red-scare-introductory-essay>.


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