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Jewish World Review March 11, 1999 /23 Adar 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The Lingering Romance of the Jewish Left: When naming names was a righteous cause

( FORTY SEVEN YEARS AGO, a famous motion-picture and theater director testified in front of a congressional committee. Today, the name of that director is well known only to connoisseurs of old movies. But the question of what Elia Kazan said and did decades ago still has the power to generate anger.

In the intervening decades, much ink has been spilled over Kazan's decision to "name names" of communists to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. This controversy has proved able to attract interest even for those who had not yet been born at the time of Kazan's testimony, as books and dramatizations of the so-called "McCarthy era" continue to be produced.

The particular case of Kazan, the 89-year-old son of Greek immigrants from Turkey, is back in the news. On March 21, he's scheduled to receive the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Honorary Award during the "Oscars" televised extravaganza. Though that part of the show is usually the moment when movie fans head to the refrigerator for more snacks, this year the segment may attract extra viewers, since protests by those who oppose Kazan's 1952 testimony are planned.

The years have been kind to those who opposed Kazan's stand. The romance of the Old Left has always been a popular theme in Hollywood. Films such as Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" have glamorized Kazan's opponents to the point where few today understand why Kazan felt it was important to denounce communism.

Thus, there is little surprise that among the glitterati at the Oscars, many say they will refuse to applaud or will otherwise demonstrate their disdain for the honoree. Hatred of Kazan is especially intense, because, unlike others who testified, he was not apologetic about it. He believed denouncing communism was the right thing to do.

The irony of this episode is that in spite of the victory of the side Kazan chose during the Cold War, this is one case where the history has not been written and told by the victors.

For most literate Americans, Kazan's testimony is just another tawdry episode of the dark ages of American politics called McCarthyism. According to popular mythology, wicked anti-communist demagogues rose up in the late 1940s and early 1950s to conduct witch hunts of liberals and nearly destroy American democracy.

Like all popular myths, there is some truth in this account. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a demagogue and a fool. As President Harry Truman said at the time, his lies undermined the efforts of those who were fighting the threat of communism, making him the Kremlin's "greatest asset" in the United States. Nor was there any justification for blacklisting artists and writers.

But, contrary to the myth, the fight against communism at that time was not a witch hunt. In 17th-century Salem, Mass., (the setting for Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible," which was his answer to anti-communism) there were no real witches consorting with the devil. But there were real communists in league with a real evil empire that was a real threat: the Soviet Union.

The apt comparison was the one made in a film masterpiece Kazan directed two years after his testimony - "On the Waterfront." In it, a dock worker played by Marlon Brando faces violence and ostracism for choosing to testify and expose the corrupt and murderous leadership of his union, which had betrayed everything it claimed to represent and all who believed in it. In the film, the stool pigeon who informs on his buddies is a hero, not a rat.

The essence of the Communist Party of the United States of America was conspiracy and silence. As Kazan wrote at the time, breaking that silence on which it thrived was the most effective way to resist it. That the party - and its followers and fellow travelers - were engaged in espionage plots on behalf of the Soviet Union is no longer a matter of dispute. With the unearthing of voluminous documentary evidence from the files of the FBI and the Kremlin, those who cling to the notion that Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Alger Hiss were innocent deserve to be compared to people who believe the earth is flat.

The Soviet Union that American communists served was a vast prison which threatened the freedom of the world. After the destruction of the Nazis, the regime of Joseph Stalin was also the greatest anti-Semitic power in the world. In the year Kazan publicly identified fellow communists, Stalin was prosecuting a real witch hunt - the so-called "Doctors Plot" in which many Jews were unjustly persecuted. Historians believe that had he lived (he died a year later)he would have attempted his own anti-Semitic genocide.

The truth is, those who aligned themselves with Stalin -- including many "victims" of the Hollywood blacklist -- were shameful apologists for an evil regime. American communists like the great African-American singer/actor Paul Robeson (who is today lionized as a hero) were ardent supporters of Stalin. A victim of American racial prejudice, Robeson was himself conspicuously silent about Stalin's anti-Jewish purges despite personal knowledge of the victims.

Another sad truth about this chapter of history is the fact that so many American Jews chose to identify with the false deity of communism. This includes some of those who fell afoul of the Hollywood blacklist. Though the communists were a small minority of Jews, most Jewish immigrant families in those days had their communist wing, including my own. While today veterans of the Old Left are portrayed as victims and liberals ahead of their time, the truth about their support of Stalin is much uglier.

Rather than romanticizing their misplaced idealism, which manifested itself in loyalty to the masters of the Gulag Archipelago, they still deserve condemnation.

Rather than denouncing Elia Kazan anew and demanding that he apologize, it is the unrepentant ex-communists who should still be apologizing.

That they don't is a product of the historical revisionism that characterizes treatments of the Cold War such as that shown on the recent CNN-television series on the topic. Moral equivalence between the Soviet Union and the United States is the keynote of that travesty. So how can we be surprised when many contemporary Americans think there was some kind of equivalence between regrettable abuses in the United States that caused a few hundred (mostly mediocre) writers and actors to change careers and the murder and imprisonment of innocent millions in the Soviet empire.

Just as we are rightly zealous in combating revisionism about Hitler and the Nazis, American Jews must not make the mistake of allowing the historical truth about communism to be swallowed up in nostalgia for the Old Left.

Kazan deserves his award for his movies and our gratitude for his courage in standing up against communism. His ongoing argument with the Old Left is not merely a difference of opinion about a long dead chapter of history. It is a question of right versus wrong.

The lingering romance of the American Left is an intellectual disease we American Jews ignore at our own peril.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

©1999, Jonathan Tobin