Death of a Jewish socialist

Death of a Jewish socialist

Emanuel (Manny) Muravchik died on Monday at the age of 90. I worked for him briefly in the 1970s, when he was executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC). I recall also being supervised by May Bromberg, the mother of Charney (executive director of Meretz USA) and the daughter of a founder of the JLC, B. Charney Vladeck.

Manny criticized the anti-Vietnam war movement for being soft on Communism, but he later fell out politically (but not personally) with his son Josh, who embraced the Reagan administration and the neoconservative movement that emerged, in part, from Socialist ranks. You can compare the obituary article published in today’s Forward with a modified version of what I actually submitted below:

Emanuel Muravchik (1916-2007): Retired Director of Jewish Labor Committee, Disciple of Norman Thomas By Ralph Seliger

When Emanuel (Manny) Muravchik, the son of secular Russian-Jewish immigrants, recalled his “bar mitzvah,” he thought not of a religious ceremony (which he didn’t have) but of having free rein in the Rand School’s library, then the domain of the Socialist Party USA, now the Tamiment Library associated with the Wagner Labor Archives at NYU where his oral history and personal papers reside. He recalled spending the ten-day spring break of his 13th year reading all he could on the nature of socialism for a school research paper. It is then and there that he decided upon his life’s course as a socialist activist.

His father, Chaim, worked as a “corrector” — a combination of copy editor and proof reader — for the Forward and other Yiddish publications. His mother, Rachael, wrote “at least once a week” for the Forward, and also lectured frequently for the Workmen’s Circle — where they were “active members” — on child-rearing and family issues.

Perhaps surprisingly, this champion of the working class was educated at private institutions: the Ethical Culture and Fieldston Schools, undergraduate studies at the University of Chicago and Columbia, and post-graduate studies in political science at the New School for Social Research and in clinical psychology at New York University. But he learned his most profound lessons as an organizer.

He began almost immediately, upon joining the Socialist Party (SP) at the age of 13, to speak at street-corner rallies (he said he was big for his age). Occasionally, he’d wander from his local Washington Heights branch of the SP to visit the nearby Harlem local, where he got to know the unionist and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and his associate, Bayard Rustin.
Working for the Socialist Party in 1940, he barnstormed Upstate New York’s rural counties with Norman Thomas to gather signatures for Thomas’s presidential run that year — six intense 18-hour days that touched off a friendship which lasted until Thomas’s death in 1968. Muravchik recalled in later years being asked by Thomas to explain why Jews felt the need for a state.

Muravchik did not consider himself a Zionist, but visited Israel frequently and had a granddaughter who lived there for a time. Of Israel, he said thoughtfully: “I don’t believe in principle that the Jews should have to have a separate state, but it’s good that they have one. This is not the same thing as saying they should have to have one.”

After working with Thomas, Muravchik was dispatched by David Dubinsky of the International Ladies’s Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) to unionize workers in Kingston, New York. Later he worked in an aircraft factory in Newark, New Jersey, where employees were represented by the United Auto Workers.

He served in the US Army during World War II. Ever the organizer, even before being discharged, he worked to establish a progressive anti-Communist ex-servicemen’s organization. After the war, he became executive secretary of the Veterans League of America, which later merged with the American Veterans Committee.

In 1947, he began his long career at the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), becoming national field director in 1949 and executive director in 1967, a post he held until his retirement in 1984. The JLC represents Jewish issues to organized labor — such as combating antisemitism and support for Israel’s security — and labor issues — e.g., the right to organize and for fair labor standards — to the Jewish community.

It has also been closely allied with the civil rights movement. For example, the JLC worked closely with Muravchik’s Socialist comrades, A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, for the 1963 March on Washington. The JLC mobilized union and Jewish support and Manny Muravchik was there with his two young sons.

During the Ocean Hill-Brownsville dispute in 1968, the JLC sympathized with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) and Al Shanker, its president. Muravchik described his relationship with the pioneering union leader as “personally very close” and Shanker served as secretary of the JLC.

Muravchik went through the Socialist Party’s transition from electoral politics into seeking influence within the Democratic party. He was a strong anti-Communist even before the growing influence of the ex-Trotskyist, Max Shachtman, a fierce anti-Stalinist who sowed the seeds of what became known as “neoconservatism” within a diminished and splintering SP. Muravchik was not sympathetic to the anti-Vietnam War movement, which he regarded as soft on Communism. But he befriended Tom Hayden for a time, then the paid head of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), which started out as the youth wing of the League for Industrial Democracy, an SP-allied agency that included Muravchik on its board.

In the formal split of the Socialist movement in the early ‘70s, Muravchik remained with Bayard Rustin in the Social Democrats (SD) USA, while Michael Harrington joined with Irving Howe to found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and eventually the Democratic Socialists of America. The most contentious issue between the factions was the SD’s alignment with the pro-Vietnam War position of the George Meany-Lane Kirkland leadership of the AFL-CIO.

Manny’s son, Joshua Muravchik, headed the SP and then SD youth wing, “Yipsel” (the Young People’s Socialist League). Following the defeat by Jimmy Carter of the SD’s favorite Democratic politician, Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson, and his death a few years later, prominent SD’ers joined the Reagan administration. The former SD chair, Carl Gershman, became counselor to the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick, herself a social democrat turned neoconservative and Pres. Reagan’s pick for ambassador to the UN. A number of SD’ers teamed up with Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz, moving on from their own association with Sen. Jackson, (eventually) into the Republican fold. (The rest is history, one might say.)

Josh Muravchik has long been a neoconservative intellectual associated with the American Enterprise Institute and writes frequently for Commentary. He and his father remained close personally, but Manny stayed resolute in his advocacy of democratic socialism/social democracy, which his son had renounced explicitly in one of his recent books, “The Rise and Fall of Socialism.”

In a posting on the Social Democrats Web site, dated May Day 2002 and entitled, “Socialism in my life and my life in socialism,” Manny muses at the beauty of Wave Hill, the park administered by the City of New York near their rent-stabilized apartment in Riverdale and on such other benefits of the welfare state as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that he feels the socialist movement has bequeathed this country: “Our impact was epitomized by Franklin D. Roosevelt who, after initiating the New Deal, whispered to Norman Thomas, ‘Norman, I stole your platform.’

Manny turned 90 in September. He was staying with his wife Miriam, at the Workmen’s Circle Rehabilitation Center where she is recovering from a fall. She reported that he died peacefully on Monday, January 8. He is survived by his wife of 67 years, their sons Joshua and Aaron, four grandchildren and four great grandchildren.

By | 2007-01-12T05:41:00-05:00 January 12th, 2007|Blog|0 Comments

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