Dreams of Nation­hood: Amer­i­can Jew­ish Com­mu­nists and the Sovi­et Biro­bidzhan Project, 1924 – 1951

Hen­ry Felix Srebrnik
  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
Read­ing this intrigu­ing book remind­ed the review­er of heart­felt com­ments from Jew­ish for­mer Com­mu­nists in Pater­son, New Jer­sey, some years ago: We nev­er hurt any­body. We only tried to do good things.”
Like the oth­er Yid­dishist CP” mem­bers and sym­pa­thiz­ers,” Prof. Sre­brnik, a British schol­ar, stud­ied inten­sive­ly. Ardent sup­port­ers of Russ­ian Com­mu­nism, they were thrilled at the sug­ges­tion that a nation­al home in east­ern Rus­sia (Siberia) might be carved out for Jews flee­ing from the Nazi per­il. The author painstak­ing­ly details the fundrais­ing efforts of Jew­ish Amer­i­can CP groups, and their gifts of machin­ery, med­ical equip­ment, children’s cloth­ing, even a com­plete den­tal office. Biro­bidzhan, the des­ig­nat­ed site, was to be a Yid­dish-speak­ing gem of the labor move­ment, in pref­er­ence to fascis­tic” cap­i­tal­ist Israel, which was sure to fail.
Vis­it­ing was not per­mit­ted, but the donors were giv­en glow­ing descrip­tions of a bustling cul­tur­al cen­ter with hos­pi­tals, uni­ver­si­ties, the­aters, fac­to­ries, and out­ly­ing agri­cul­tur­al areas.
Final­ly, in 1954, an Amer­i­can news­pa­per report revealed that, with few Jew­ish res­i­dents, Biro­bidzhan was actu­al­ly a crude out­post. Russ­ian was the pop­u­lar lan­guage there. Ask­ing why the project had failed, the author sug­gests that the empha­sis on build­ing social­ism had over­shad­owed any ges­tures at cre­at­ing a Jew­ish fla­vor.
After rev­e­la­tions of vir­u­lent anti-Semi­tism at the high­est polit­i­cal lev­els in the Sovi­et Union, The Move­ment” in the U.S. died a nat­ur­al death. Most mem­bers now sup­port­ed Israel and oth­er Jew­ish caus­es. Prof. Sre­brnik con­tends that McCarthy sim­ply dealt a final blow to the Jew­ish far-left on top of mas­sive dis­il­lu­sion.
Aca­d­e­m­ic libraries should, of course, stock this well-researched vol­ume. But if the con­tents are made clear beyond the cov­er, it should attract all kinds of read­ers.
Abbre­vi­a­tions, appen­dix, index, intro­duc­tion, list of illus­tra­tions, pref­ace, select­ed bib­li­og­ra­phy, table of contents.
Jane Waller­stein worked in pub­lic rela­tions for many years. She is the author of Voic­es from the Pater­son Silk Mills and co-author of a nation­al crim­i­nal jus­tice study of parole for Rut­gers University.

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