There have been two mysteries about my family origins that have preoccupied me from an early age. The first had to do with my last name, something I got the answer to about 20 years ago. Despite the Latinate sound, it is a Yiddish word that means the counting house of a tax farmer, a “court Jew” from the feudal era who collected taxes from the peasants for the royalty and received a cut. It was prevalent in the Slutsk region near Minsk in the mid 1800s. I learned about this from one of the Czarist annals in the YIVO Institute in NY.
The other mystery is how my maternal grandparents ended up in Kansas City, Missouri where I was born in 1945. Why didn’t they come through Ellis Island and end up on the Lower East Side like my paternal grandparents? A few years ago, when my mother was still alive, she told me that she understood that they came in steerage on a ship that landed in Galveston, Texas and from there they went to Kansas City, where they knew nobody. Why in the world would they book passage on a boat going to Galveston and why would they pick Kansas City of all places, where there was a vanishingly small Jewish community?
Ironically, it was a disgusting attack on the BDS student movement written by Kenneth J. Stern appearing in the Bard College Spring 2011 alumni magazine that solved this riddle for me. Stern, an attorney, graduated Bard 10 years after me and is now the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) director on anti-Semitism, a job that mostly involves writing garbage like the article in question. As a Zionist ideologue, Stern makes the same kinds of hasbara arguments you hear ad nauseam from Abraham Foxman, Malcolm Hoenlein and disgraced Bard College trustee Martin Peretz. In doing some background research on the AJC in order to help me respond to Stern, I discovered that Jacob Schiff, the German-Jewish Wall Street financier who founded the AJC in 1906, was worried that if too many Yiddish-speaking and “culturally deprived” Eastern European Jews flooded major cities on the Eastern seaboard like New York, it might create a backlash of anti-Semitism.
The answer was to disperse the vulgar riffraff throughout the United States in accordance with what would become known as the Galveston Movement. Schiff’s attitude toward Eastern European Jewry reflected the class and ethnic prejudices of the German-Jewish haute bourgeoisie that included financiers like Schiff, the Ochs family that owned the New York Times, and the rest of what Stephen Birmingham called “Our Crowd”. This is the same filthy rich and reactionary milieu that funds the AJC today and that Leon Botstein sees as his natural allies. In his own attempt to emulate the Galveston Movement, Botstein “dispersed” anti-Zionist professor Joel Kovel from his job at Bard College. Fortunately, Joel landed on Morningside Heights rather than Kansas City.
Before getting into the sordid history of the AJC, a word or two about Stern’s article would be useful even though the article is third-rate hasbara at best. Titled “Anti-Semitism and Education”, Stern makes the customary amalgam between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, something that is losing traction at your better colleges and universities, Bard of course being at the bottom of the barrel in terms of engagement with Middle East realities. In the article, Stern complains about pro-Palestinian professors at Columbia University “mistreating” pro-Israel students, an obvious reference to the harassment of Joseph Massad. Massad was hounded by Zionist students, including a veteran of the IDF who brought a video camera to class to catch the professor making anti-Semitic comments. Columbia president Lee Bollinger, whose commitment to academic freedom is real rather than verbal like the Pecksniffian Botstein, stood up for Massad, who is now tenured.
Stern’s other target is Evergreen State College, the school that the martyred Rachel Corrie attended. He claims that when a motion was made to divest from companies that did business with Israel, swastikas started showing up on campus. It turns out that the swastikas were drawn on the walls of bathroom stalls. If one uses such evidence as a litmus test for whether a school is anti-Semitic, then what would make of an incident at Bard College this year when the Anti-Racist Discourseʼs Black History Month presentation was vandalized in the Campus Center? Two photos were defaced, three were torn down, and a statement was removed. One would not judge Bard College on the basis of such isolated and anonymous deeds, so why judge Evergreen? Obviously, Stern has an ideological agenda that transcends the need for truth.
Stern claims that Jewish students at Evergreen were so intimidated that they were afraid to meet with him on campus and would only gather at a synagogue to avoid the neo-Nazi mobs that had apparently made this liberal arts haven a home. Stern, who has a flair for this kind of cheap demagogy, claims that Jewish parents would call him to ask whether they should send their students to Columbia with the same kind of trepidation “as if they were sending their child to Gaza”. What a shocking analogy. The IDF bombs Palestinian colleges in Gaza while Columbia hires Palestinian professors who defy the received wisdom of Zionist students? That is equivalent? What an exercise in Orwellian doublespeak.
Jacob Shiff was a partner at Kuhn, Loeb and Company. Interestingly enough, he was an anti-Zionist. As a founder of the American Jewish Committee, today one of the country’s most aggressive defenders of Israel, he would likely be absolved by the current leadership for being acceptably anti-Zionist as opposed to the dastardly young radicals of today, many of whom are Jewish.
Schiff became appalled by the conditions of life in the Lower East Side around the turn of the century, calling it a “disgrace to the name of the Jew”. Although this was primarily a reference to crime (this would soon become the spawning ground of people like Dutch Schultz and Meyer Lansky), Schiff made it clear that he also objected to the “peculiarities” of his Eastern European brethren. In “Jacob H. Schiff: a study in American Jewish leadership”, Naomi Wiener Cohen writes:
A symbol of the alien and hence un-American Jews who by sheer force of numbers warned of the ultimate “judaization” of New York, the ghetto appeared to threaten the security of the older settlers as well as the newcomers.
The main solution to this problem was to assimilate the newcomers by helping them learn English and to spread them throughout the country in places like Denver and Kansas City where they would not achieve the critical mass sufficient to arouse hatred from their Christian neighbors. I wonder if anybody ever explained this to my grandparents when they were told that they were headed for Galveston rather than Ellis Island.
It was not sufficient to wean them of their strange language, the guttural and uncouth Yiddish language that was also considered as an unfortunate relic of the ghetto in the Zionist state. They also had to be weaned of their unfortunate reliance on political protest, a typically Eastern European way to fight racism.
In “Not without honor: the history of American anticommunism”, Richard Gid Powers asserts that one of the primary aims of the AJC was to fight “Jewish Communism”. This job was assigned to Louis Marshall, an AJC leader and corporation lawyer who was president of New York’s prestigious Temple Emmanuel. Powers cites an October 20, 1918 cable by Marshall:
The American Jewish Committee deem it a duty…to express their horror and detestation of the mob tyranny incompatible with the ideas of a republican democracy which is now exercised by the Bolshevik government as being destructive of life, property, and the personal and political rights of the individual…The Lenin-Trotsky Cabinet has several members of Jewish ancestry…which led to the erroneous assumption that the Jews of Russia were identified with this bloodthirsty and irresponsible group. The Jews of Russia in overwhelming proportion are not in sympathy with the doctrines and much less the methods of the Bolsheviki.
As should be obvious by now, Leon Botstein and Kenneth Stern are the direct descendents of the red-baiting German-Jewish bourgeoisie. Not every AJC leader, by the way, went along with this crude anti-Communism. Judah Magnes, a leader of Reform Judaism, resigned in protest. He was more honorable than the Zionist scoundrels who would eventually assume leadership of the AJC as the wiki on Magnes reports:
Magnes’s responded to the 1929 Arab revolt in Palestine with a call for a Binational solution to Palestine. Magnes dedicated the rest of his life to reconciliation with the Arabs; he particularly objected to the concept of a specifically Jewish state. In his view, Palestine should be neither Jewish nor Arab. Rather, he advocated a binational state in which equal rights would be shared by all, a view shared by the group Brit Shalom, an organization with which Magnes is often associated, but never joined. When the Peel Commission made their 1937 recommendations about partition and population transfer in Palestine, Magnes sounded the alarm:
With the permission of the Arabs we will be able to receive hundreds of thousands of persecuted Jews in Arab lands [...] Without the permission of the Arabs even the four hundred thousand [Jews] that now are in Palestine will remain in danger, in spite of the temporary protection of British bayonets. With partition a new Balkan is made [..] New York Times, 18 July 1937.
In “Galveston, Ellis Island of the West”, Bernard Marinbach reports that Kansas City was by far the largest eventual destination of the Eastern European and Russian Jew who had arrived in Galveston. In Kansas City, the AJC helped to get the Jewish Educational Institute off the ground. This was one of those places where the immigrant could learn the English language, a skill that would allow them to be accepted as a True American. My grandmother, however, never managed to take classes there, being too busy peddling dry goods from door to door just as she did in Poland. When she died at the age of 87, she had mastered maybe 100 words in English and preferred to speak in Yiddish. I managed to have conversations with her despite the fact that I only knew about 100 words of Yiddish.
One of the people who went through the training class was Isaac Don Levine, who developed a hatred of Bolshevism as deep as the AJC leaders. Levine was a red-baiting columnist for the Hearst press and eventually provided testimony against Alger Hiss in a landmark Cold War legal case. This of course is the same Alger Hiss who was a family friend of Leon Botstein and in whose name an endowed chair was created at Bard College that Joel Kovel occupied for many years until he became an un-person for agreeing with Jacob Schiff and Judah Magnes on the need to oppose Zionism.
Although my grandmother found no time to study at the Jewish Educational Institute, my mother certainly did. This is where she came in contact with Irving Levitas, a self-described labor Zionist who became her guru and life-long friend. When he was dying of cancer, she looked after him in my upstate New York home. Levitas, like Levine, was a hardened anti-Bolshevik but would have no use for ratting people out like Isaac Don Levine.
Irving Levitas’s brother was one Sol Levitas who ran the New Leader in the 1950s, drawing upon CIA funding of the sort described in Frances Stoner Saunders’s “Who Paid the Piper”. Like Levine, he was one who took part in the witch-hunt against Alger Hiss. His son Mitchell, who was editor of the NY Times Sunday Book Review for many years, was incensed when he learned that the Tamiment Library at NYU had taken up the cause of Alger Hiss’s innocence. As a board member of the Tamiment Institute that had published New Leader in the ’50s and provided initial funding and archival material for the library, Mitchell Levitas spoke for the anti-Communist board members when he said, “To have the Hiss banner flown from the Tamiment flagstaff was just an insult.”
In keeping with the spirit of Mitchell Levitas and the general remolding of Bard College as a place where the ravings of a Kenneth Stern could be sanctified in an alumni magazine, Botstein has recast the Alger Hiss chair as a voice for the Isaac Don Levines and Sol Levitases of the world. Instead of having a radical like Joel Kovel, the seat is now held by Jonathan Brent, a hardened anti-Communist scholar whose primary goal is proving that American radicalism, particularly the wing associated with the CPUSA, was nothing more than an espionage network. This, of course, is like Ronald Reagan naming James Watt Secretary of the Interior, a creep who would have turned every national park into a lumber plantation if he could have gotten away with it.