The difficulty Speaker Nancy Pelosi is having getting from the Democratic caucus an unambiguous resolution against anti-Semitism draws from me a pang of sympathy. She’s not the first figure to discover that this presents special problems for the left.
No, the first was probably Abraham Cahan, one of the most storied figures in American journalism. He was born in Lithuania in 1860, became a socialist, and, in 1880, fled to America, eventually to found, in 1897, the Jewish Daily Forward newspaper.
Before the Forward, Cahan came up through fierce debates among Jewish immigrants over socialism and the oppression of Jews in Russia. In 1891, the United Hebrew Trades sent Cahan to Belgium as a delegate to the Second Congress of the Socialist International.
With a new wave of anti-Semitism wracking Russia and Europe, Cahan surprised his fellow delegates by submitting an item for debate: “What shall be the stand of the organized workers of all countries concerning the Jewish Question?”
Infuriated socialists launched a campaign for Cahan to withdraw his question. Even the chief rabbi of Brussels tried to get him to back down. Cahan refused. So the Socialist Congress took up the question, and a bitter debate erupted.
Not unlike, in broad outline, what is happening in our Congress today in respect of what to do about the hostility to the Jews of a freshman Democrat, Ilhan Omar. It now looks like any resolution will be diluted by broadening it beyond Ms. Omar and anti-Semitism.
In Cahan’s case back in 1891, the socialist comrades reached a bizarre face-saving compromise — a resolution condemning “both anti-Semitism and philo-Semitism.” It opposed, incredibly, not only hating the Jews but liking them.
It was, the Forward’s long-time labor editor, Gus Tyler, would later write, “a not so subtle suggestion that while hating Jews was improper, it was necessary to see to it that the Jews did not take over.” Thus an anti-Semitism resolution was turned against the Jews.
What had alarmed Cahan in Brussels was, to paraphrase Tyler, this poser: If being a socialist did not inoculate one against anti-Semitism, how could anyone guarantee that once the working class came into power, it would not use that power to discriminate against the Jews?
This is what the Democrats in our Congress are grappling with today. Not only is it no coincidence that an anti-Semitism resolution is being opposed by, in Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a socialist. The proposed solution is an old socialist trick.
Not that all socialists are anti-Semites. Cahan called himself a socialist until the end (he died in 1951). For decades he himself had opposed — or at least sneered at — Zionism. That began to change, though, when, in 1925, he made his first trip to pre-state Israel.
There he was astonished to discover that the Jewish state-to-be was being built in part by Jewish socialists. What they were accomplishing floored him, and gave him a sense of pride. He returned to America to share his new enthusiasm with his vast readership.
My own view is that the lesson Cahan learned from his experience at the long-ago Socialist International informed his work at the Forward for the rest of his days. It began his long movement rightward into a leading position in the fight against Soviet communism.
This is also a strategic moment for the Democrats. Will they face down the pressure from the rising leftists in the party? On Wednesday, they flinched from passing a straightforward resolution against the kind of anti-Semitism Ms. Omar echoed.
No one seriously in the fight against anti-Semitism has any illusions about the meaning of the watered down resolution the Democrats appear to be bent on. It will not focus on anti-Semitism nor name the anti-Semites who triggered this crisis.
For Mrs. Pelosi and her camarilla history offers a lesson. The Socialist International’s failure to deal with anti-Semitism was one, if only one, of the reasons it lost any moral force. It collapsed in 1916 amid the upsurge in nationalism that came with World War I.
Mr. Lipsky, editor of the Sun, is the author of a biography, “The Rise of Abraham Cahan,” which was brought out by Schocken Books / Random House in 2013. Image: Abraham Cahan, editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. Detail of a photograph, via Wikipedia