Morris Schappes, radical Jewish historian and editor emeritus of Jewish Currents, the left-wing secular Jewish magazine, has died at age 97. His teaching career at City College ended in 1941 because Schappes was one of 40 faculty members purged for refusing to cooperate with the Rapp-Coudert Committee’s investigation of alleged “subversive” activities. He was imprisoned for 13 months because of his refusal to inform.

Morris Schappes produced two major historical works, “A Documentary History of the Jews in the United States: 1654-1875” and “A Pictorial History of the Jews in the United States.”

Historian Herbert Morais reviewed both books in Jewish Currents, the first in December 1950 and the second in June 1967. According to Morais, with the publication of these volumes, historians could no longer hide behind the excuse that they do not have accessible material for presentation of the role of the Jewish people in building the U.S. nation.

In his preface to the first book, Joshua Bloch, director of the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library, wrote that it “may well serve as a foundation upon which to rear the structure of the history of the Jews in America.”

Schappes, a student of Marxism, gives the reader insights into the class character of anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has been with us from the beginning of U.S. history. On numerous occasions, the minority in power has used anti-Semitism to divert social unrest, gain partisan political advantage, and stay in power. The book shows how persistent and widespread anti-Semitism has been.

The second book gives a detailed description of the birth of the early Jewish trade unions, with their markedly Marxist orientation, and the rise of the Socialist Party, particularly the Jewish Socialist Federation, the left wing of which established the Morning Freiheit newspaper and joined the newly established Communist Party. Schappes discusses the introduction, after World War I, of anti-communism into the labor movement by the AFL leadership, and into the Jewish labor movement by the leadership of the Socialist Party, which was decisive in the decision by the left wing of the Socialist Party to establish the Communist Party.

Anti-Semitism in the U.S. assumed a more organized form following the Civil War, and also became more national in scope. During the 1920s, the first large-scale, nationwide anti-Semitic drive was launched by Henry Ford in the Dearborn Independent, which was connected to the anti-communist campaign of international capital after the Bolshevik Revolution. In the 1930s, anti-Semitic agitation was given further impetus by the rise to power of fascism throughout much of Europe, and by the establishment of 114 anti-Semitic organizations in the U.S. These organizations were allied with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany and were supported by a substantial part of U.S. capitalism.

The defeat of fascism in no way meant the end of anti-Semitism. On the contrary, it was kept alive by widely held bigotry, supported as always by the capitalists. In the pre-war period, U.S. support of Nazism combined anti-communism and anti-Semitism. This continued and intensified with the pro-Nazi House “Un-American” Activities Committee and McCarthyism. Discrimination in employment, housing, and social relations persists, as the promise of equality has not been fulfilled in relation to the Jewish people as well as others.

Schappes shows the overlapping, throughout U.S. history, of the problems of the Jewish and African American peoples. Both suffered at the hands of nativists, jingoists, and racists. Each text shows how Jews aided the African American people in their struggle for freedom by helping the fugitive slaves and fighting in the Union Army.

During slavery, Jews joined the abolitionist societies, fought in Kansas with John Brown, and 6,500 joined the Union Army. During Reconstruction, Jews supported the cause of the “Negro” in the fight for democracy and civil rights. Ever since, Jews have supported the unrelenting struggle of the African American people to end segregation and discrimination of every type. The books show the support of an ever-growing number of progressive-minded Jews.

Professor Morais also pointed out Schappes’ contribution to American Jewish history with his extensive discussion of the long struggle waged by the most advanced liberal and left-wing Jews, a significant sector of the Jewish people, for their rights and the fullest development of democracy. Another contribution of Schappes was his discussion of the role of the advanced liberal and left Jews in the development of Jewish culture in Yiddish and English, and in supporting the birth of Israel against U.S. and British imperialist schemes and the development of Israel along progressive lines and in peace with a viable Palestinian state.

Gene Schwartz is active in the progressive Jewish movement. He can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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