Historians discuss Paul Robeson's ties to Jewish community, Soviet Union
A panel discussion on Sunday night, which was hosted by the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life, discussed the relationship that Paul Robeson, the distinguished Rutgers University alumnus whose centennial graduation is being celebrated this year, had with the Communist Party and Jewish community.
Featuring four historians all well-versed on Jewish history, they discussed Robeson’s relationship with the Jewish community on the political and the Soviet Union — two of the few groups that condemned racism during Robeson’s lifetime — and Robeson’s legacy itself.
The panel explained Robeson’s strong ties to the Jewish community, as the Jewish Left historically fought racial discrimination and supported equality for all races. Bundled with the oppression of Black people at the time, the two aligned on many political causes. This attracted Robeson to the Soviet Union, which many thought abolished racial segregation and represented an egalitarian society.
“Many Jews and Blacks on the Left believed that the Communist Party was the only political group that strongly and persistently condemned all forms of racism and white supremacy and created political action against it,” said Jennifer Young, a panel speaker and historian. “Because of this, many people remained on the party or remained affiliated with it because they couldn't imagine going anywhere else.”
This belief in fighting racial segregation led Robeson to become a devout supporter for Communism, Stalin and the Soviet Union. Ron Radosh, one of the speakers on the panel who is a professor of history emeritus at the City University of New York (CUNY), explained Robeson’s extreme support of Communism, citing one interview where Robeson claimed that anyone who didn’t support Stalin “should be shot” due to their non-commitment to socialism. Radosh described this obsession as a “horrendous blindspot.”
Robeson’s remarks about supporting Communism made parallels to historical figures who exhibited unscrupulous behaviour, like Thomas Jefferson owning slaves or Andrew Jackson’s treatment of Native Americans, and if they deserve memorials and recognition. Robeson has libraries, community centers and streets in his name, but the panelists said he should not be stripped of his memorials.
“I don't have the slightest doubt Robeson should be celebrated significantly,” said Tony Michels, a panelist and professor of American Jewish History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “He was an incredible talent and courageous. He's a human being as well a hero. Heroes are human beings. They're not perfect, but that doesn't make someone any less heroic.”
In the broader spectrum of historical cancel culture, others noted that the answers were not always clear.
“People are complex,” said David Greenberg, a professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies and the Department of History, who moderated the discussion. “People show us this complexity. Stripping of names is the wrong direction. I think we need to bring in more information, more knowledge and more complexity.”
Radosh noted Robeson's dual legacy, both fighting racism and being a "Renaissance man," whose shortfall was his devout belief in Communism.
"To me a tragedy is that his firm belief in Communism and the Soviet Union was so strong he could not pause to look back and say ‘Maybe I didn't see things clearly,'" Radosh said. “Had he done that, I think it would have been a greater accomplishment for him.”
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