Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pgs. 79-80
The Forward Is Backward: New York's Unclassifiable Jewish Weekly
By Lenni Brenner
It's a story we would expect to come out of Moscow: A Jewish journal, founded in 1897, which had busts of Marx and Engels on its building facade, gets taken over by an eccentric millionaire fond of his pet emu, and now it's in favor of Israel and the CIA. But the ex-socialist paper is New York's Yiddish-language Forverts, and Michael Steinhardt, half-owner of the English-language Forward, is a stockbroker, worth $300 million.
Poland's kings gave refuge to German Jews persecuted during the Middle Ages. They were sought as merchants and artisans who would build up the peasant country. When a middle-class population immigrates into an undeveloped country, they keep their religion and language. Yiddish (Jewish) is written in Hebrew script, but it is about 85 percent medieval German, with admixtures from Hebrew and various Slavic tongues.
When 18th century Poland was partitioned, Russia acquired most of these Yiddish speakers. By 1880 nearly 5 million Jews lived in the "prison-house of the peoples." In 1881, the Tsar was assassinated and pogroms, fomented or tolerated by the regime to divert attention from itself, triggered a folk migration. One-third of Eastern Europe's Jews voyaged to America. The migration continued until 1925 when Washington imposed discriminatory immigration quotas.
In the late 19th century a Yiddish press appeared in the Russian empire, and then in the U.S. Given the Russian repression, many journalists became revolutionaries. Conditions in Manhattan's Lower East Side Jewish community, the world's most densely populated slum, produced more radicals.
At its height in 1920, the Forverts had 11 daily editions as far west as Chicago and it was America's leading Jewish publication. The de facto organ of the predominantly Jewish garment industry unions of the American Federation of Labor, in 1914 it helped elect a Socialist Party congressional representative from the Lower East Side.
What remains of the Jewish labor movement is so pro-Israel that it shocks Jews to learn that at its prime it loathed Zionism. It had powerful arguments: 1) Ottoman Turkey would never give Palestine to the Jews. And, even if they got it, Palestine was too economically backward to absorb world Jewry. Workers had to fight for their rights in the countries where they lived. 2) Nowhere outside of the minuscule Zionist settlement in Palestine was Hebrew a living language. It could never be the language of world Jewry. 3) Zionists came to their Jewish bosses for donations. They knew that the money really belonged to them because capitalist charity comes out of profits which workers produce by the sweat of their brows.
At its prime, the Jewish labor movement loathed Zionism.
The long march to Zionism had more to do with Marxism's contradictions than with Zionism's attractive powers. Poverty pushed workers into unions organized by the revolutionary minority. But as strikes improved conditions, most workers wanted to enjoy the fruits of their efforts. They stopped attending meetings. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, after 1910 their leaders adapted to the decline in militancy: "The International Ladies Garment Workers Union [ILGWU] and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers remained explicitly socialist, but the revolutionary content of their socialism was relegated to rhetorical flourishes about a vague, ultimate end." The union tops were pleased with that inactivity. It meant they could raise their own pay without much opposition. Some used gangsters to intimidate their members and made sweetheart agreements with the bosses at the expense of the ranks.
Many unionists resisted. Some became supporters of the more radical Industrial Workers of the World. After the 1917 Russian revolution, others joined the Communist Party. But the Forverts stayed loyal to the union hacks and the Socialist Party.
During this period of decay, in 1925, editor Abraham Cahan visited Palestine and cried at the Wailing Wall. He returned in 1929. He still wasn't a Zionist, but he began to praise the colonists in Palestine as idealists.
The Forverts backed the SP candidate for president in 1932, but the Judaica says that in 1933 Cahan became "the first member of the SP to hail Franklin Roosevelt for moving in a socialist direction." This really meant that Cahan was moving in a capitalist direction, and by 1934 the Forverts and the bureaucrats split from the SP. They still couldn't swallow New York's Tammany Hall. So they organized the American Labor Party to provide another lever to pull for Roosevelt. After the CP captured the ALP, the bureaucrats set up the Liberal Party. A Feb. 24, 1997 New York Times editorial called it "A Party for Hire," its ballot slot for sale to Democrats and Republicans.
A "Transfer Agreement" With Berlin
The labor unions set up the Jewish Labor Committee to speak against Nazism and this compelled them to return to denouncing Zionism. Most Jews boycotted German goods but in 1933 the World Zionist Organization made a "Transfer Agreement" with Berlin. Hitler allowed German Jews to buy goods which the WZO sold in Palestine and elsewhere. When the émigrés arrived, they were repaid for the wares. It was the least painful way of shipping wealth out of Germany. Forverts manager Baruch Vladeck, chair of the JLC, saw this as "double book-keeping of the most flagrant sort. That nobody should break the boycott but the Jews of Palestine! The Transfer Agreement is a blot on the Jews."
However, the JLC did little to help German Jewry. There was a high German immigrant quota, but Roosevelt administration rightists willfully misinterpreted the regulations to create barriers to full utilization of the allotment by Jews. Had the JLC mobilized, Roosevelt could not have withstood them. Jews and liberals were then too important in his party to be refused if they demanded proper enforcement of the existing rules.
Their inactivity continued in the Holocaust era. The Forverts did little to press Roosevelt to bomb Auschwitz or organize rescue efforts on behalf of European Jewry. After the war the impact of the horror produced a frenzy of nationalism which the Zionists channelized behind their cause. Whatever caveats it still had regarding Zionism as an ideology, the Forverts became fanatically pro-Israel. We know that most Jewish survivors in Eastern Europe wanted to come to the United States. But they ended up in Israel because the JLC and other establishment organizations made no serious effort to force open the American gates. Under the minimal Displaced Persons Act of 1948, only 63,000 Jews came in over the immigration quotas for Eastern Europe.
The Office of Strategic Services, the WWII spy agency, turned to Jewish labor in the U.S. for contacts among European socialists, and in 1944, Jay Lovestone of the ILGWU set up the AFL's Free Trade Union Committee. According to the Judaica, during the subsequent Cold War years, Lovestone "worked closely with the CIA. When the AFL and the CIO merged, Lovestone continued his activities within the merged labor movement's Department of International Affairs [and] vigorously supported military intervention in Vietnam." His hawkishness did not stop there. Lovestone, his protégé Irving Brown and Tom Kahn, Brown's successor, became obsessive promoters of Israel. The AFL-CIO is the world's largest non-Jewish holder of Israel bonds.
The Forverts began its long decline with the imposition of immigration quotas. It's a small weekly now, with a geriatric readership. But younger Jews remember it fondly as the paper of their grandparents. They don't know that it now rants against many of them. On Dec. 20 it was one of the first U.S. journals to 'out' Madeleine Albright: "Why are we dwelling so much on this 'personal' issue?"it asked rhetorically. "Because 'mixed marriages' and assimilation are destroying the Jewish future." In reality Jewry is the most educated stratum in the country, and the children of those marriages will have fine futures.
Although a Jew, Jay Mazur, is president of the newly merged Union of Needle-trade, Industrial and Textile Employees, few descendants of the Yiddish immigrants are blue-collar workers. Chronological and sociological distance allowed them to believe the myth that Jewish labor played a progressive role. But aspects of this epic of degeneration began to emerge again after 1990, when Seth Lipsky, a Wall Street Journal editor, prevailed on the Forverts to let him edit an English-language Forward. In 1995 Lipsky brought in Steinhardt.
The only thing they have in common with the 1897 Forverts is personal secularism. Lipsky loves ham and cheese on rye. He defines himself domestically as a "hardheaded liberal." The Forward deal almost died at birth when the Forverts Association bluntly asked him, "Where are you on Jabotinsky?" Lipsky idolizes Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940), the founder of Zionist Revisionism, Binyamin Netanyahu's ideological movement.
Although Jabotinsky once said that "buffaloes follow a leader. Civilized men have no leaders," everyone saw him as a fascist, including Benito Mussolini, who hailed him as "your fascist, Jabotinsky." In fact, 1930s Revisionism reeked of fascism. Wolfgang von Weisl, Zionist Revisionism's financial director, told the truth when he said that "although opinions among the Revisionists varied, in general they sympathized with Fascism." But Lipsky told his questioners that he didn't want to fight about the past, and they let him slip by.
A Memorable Figure
In the Nov. 25, 1996 issue Lipsky reviewed a biography of Brown: "One of the most memorable figures I encountered as a foreign correspondent was Irving Brown. [At the] beginning of the most secret phase of the Cold War funds were channeled through the Central Intelligence Agency....
Brown's life would be dogged by charges that he was a CIA agent, but Brown's achievements in retrospect tower over any controversy."
I once interviewed Tom Kahn. He denied that the AFL-CIO Department of International Affairs took CIA money. But on May 20, 1967, Tom Braden, an ex-CIA agent, had written a Saturday Evening Post article justifying personally giving money "from the vaults of the CIA....to Irving Brown." The AFL-CIO couldn't admit to taking CIA money because it is subversive of liberty to secretly take government funds. But Lipsky is so "hardheaded" that he hails what the AFL-CIO knows is shameful.
For the Forward, the Forvert's disintegration was its glory and Lipsky reminds us of it. An April 7, 1995 editorial, "Remembering Vietnam," boasted that "the editors of the Forward never lost faith in the fact that America was in the right in the war....The long view will no doubt see Vietnam as but one of the battles through which the Soviet empire was engaged and, ultimately, defeated....There is much in all of this to think about for those of us who spend a lot of time concerned with the fortunes of another small, embattled American friend, namely Israel." Outraged letters pointed out that two days later Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era secretary of defense, beat his breast for his involvement in that debacle.
Lipsky is a cosmic knuckles-on-the-ground militarist. A July 18, 1995 editorial praised the European Jewish Congress for backing France in resuming nuclear testing. "The same agitators that are trying to deny France its force de frappe will try to strip Israel of its nuclear weapons." The paper endorsed Clinton in 1996 because he "has shown a willingness to use military power to advance our interests." Albright's appointment pleased the Forward. "We have been looking forward to an elucidation of her remark about the appeasement that handed her native Czechoslovakia to the Nazis. 'My mindset is Munich.'" For Lipsky, "Munich was the mother of all peace processes." (Jan. 10, 1997)
Steinhardt is an atheist, but he sees fighting assimilation and defending Zionism as his calling. And when he gets bored with his pet emu he feeds money to his pet politicians. He funds the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with Clinton's Democratic Leadership Council. Such innocent pleasures are under attack, so Washington editor Ira Stoll acts as his political defense attorney: "The American political system, with its one-man, one-vote credo, puts the interests of minority groups at a disadvantage....To the extent that current laws limit political contributions, they limit the ability of hardworking minority groups to compensate with their prosperity for what they lack in numbers....The more money that flows into our political campaigns, the more vigorous the public debate." (Nov. 8, 1996)
"In this world," Sancho Panza taught us, "the follies of the rich pass for wise sayings." The Forward is a vanity press. The Jan. 10, 1994 New Yorker told how "Lipsky spins out a ditzy theory of how the English Forward could go from its current circulation" (then 13,500 nationally, about 23,300 in 1997) "to something five times, even 15 times, as big." In 1995, the Times reported that "publishing executives say the paper has lost more than $1 million a year." Steinhardt might invest $4 million, hoping to turn it into a Jewish-interest daily. He should stick to emus. New York's Observer says "his investment has thrust him into one of the most moribund industries around."
They labor in vain because nothing can convince their readers that the Vietnam War was noble, or that taking CIA lucre was virtuous or that the squalid campaign contributions system is in their interest. And if they publish every day until the sun grows cold, clocks still won't run backwards. The vast majority of young American Jews are racing away from Zionism and toward assimilation.