Feb 2002 Journal

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A year of East-West Judeophobia

'May you live in interesting times' is the Chinese code for wishing somebody ill luck. Afghanistan, Kashmir and Palestine may make us think we live in uniquely interesting times, but a similar situation existed exactly half-a-century ago, with the 'Jewish question' obtruding on both hemispheres.

The post-war superpower conflict had climaxed in the Korean War - with both the USA and Russia showing symptoms of hysteria. The paranoid Stalin simultaneously targeted East European 'Titoists' and Russian-domiciled Jews. (Sometimes the two categories almost overlapped: 11 of the 14 accused in the 1952 Slansky trial in Prague were Jews.) For Soviet Jews themselves, 1952 was the 'black year'. The flower of the Yiddish intelligentsia was executed, the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia branded Zionists 'agents of imperialism', a group of Kremlin doctors were arrested, and Stalin planned the wholesale deportation of Russian Jews to Siberia. (Only the dictator's death early the next year prevented the implementation of his plan.)

In America antisemitism was - naturally - not state-sponsored. It resulted from the prevailing anti-Soviet psychosis, plus the fact that pre-war many Jewish intellectuals had moved sharply to the left.

As early as 1947 the partly Jewish-dominated motion picture industry had appeared in the gunsights of the McCarthyites. Of the blacklisted directors and screenwriters known as the Hollywood Ten a good half were Jews. (Not that Jews figured only as victims in all this; one of the witchfinders-general was MGM Studio boss Louis B Mayer.)

Next nuclear scientists came into the vigilantes' field of vision. Atomic research was an area where Jews were heavily represented - starting with Einstein, Szilard and Wigner, who alerted President Roosevelt to the Nazi nuclear threat and thus triggered the Manhattan Project under Robert J Oppenheimer. Several years later Edward Teller was to earn the sobriquet 'Father of the H-Bomb'. In the interim Oppenheimer had been stripped of his security clearance because of earlier associations with communists.

In the midst of all this a major espionage scandal involving Jews blew up. This was the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of transmitting wartime atomic secrets to Russia. They had obtained the top secret data from Ethel's brother David Greenglass, a scientist on the US atom bomb project at Los Alamos, and had forwarded them to Moscow. At the trial Greenglass, prompted by prosecuting counsel Roy Cohn, told blatant lies to exculpate himself, thereby tightening the noose around his sister's neck.

The Rosenberg trial became a worldwide cause célèbre comparable to the Sacco-Vanzetti case of the 1920s. In the United States it stirred liberal protests, but also a groundswell of antisemitism. Doubtlessly mindful of the latter, Judge Kaufman sentenced the Rosenbergs to death. They went to the electric chair in 1953, holding steadfast to their beliefs. Greenglass, who served seven years in jail, recently admitted having lied under oath, and added 'as a spy who turned in his family I sleep very well'.

The impenitent brother is only one of the villains of the piece. Judge Kaufman should surely have detected that Greenglass's evidence was a tissue of lies. As for prosecutor Roy Cohn, he remains a livid scar on the face of the American justice system.
Lastly, what of the Rosenbergs themselves? They faced death with dignity but deserve even more pity for having sacrificed themselves on the altar of 'The God That Failed'


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