Muravchik, 90, Socialist and Jewish Labor Committee Leader


By Ralph Seliger

Published January 12, 2007, issue of January 12, 2007.
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When Emanuel Muravchik, a son of secular Russian Jewish immigrants, recalled his “bar mitzvah,” he was not thinking of a religious ceremony, which he didn’t have. He recalled the day in 1930, at age 13, that he was given free rein in the library of the Rand School, then associated with the Socialist Party, and later the Tamiment Library. He had gone there to research a school paper, but he was captivated and spent all 10 days of spring break reading everything he could on socialism. It was there, he would recall, that he decided on his life’s course as a socialist activist.

Today the Tamiment, now associated with New York University, is the home of Manny’s historical papers. It is a rich history. He spent three quarters of a century living and breathing democratic socialism, as a party leader, a union organizer, a staffer and then director of the Jewish Labor Committee, and as a volunteer leader of the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and of the Forward Association. When he died January 8 at age 90, he left a world indelibly changed for the better by his work.

Muravchik threw himself into his chosen career immediately after that crash course in the library. Joining the Socialist Party at 13, he began to speak at street-corner rallies (he said he was big for his age). Occasionally he wandered from his home in New York City’s Washington Heights area to visit the party local in nearby Harlem, where he got to know unionist and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph and his lifelong associate, Bayard Rustin.

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

Perhaps surprisingly, this champion of the working class was educated at elite private institutions: the Ethical Culture and Fieldston schools, followed by 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 NYU. But he learned his most profound lessons as an organizer.

Working for the SP in 1940, he barnstormed New York’s rural upstate counties with Norman Thomas to gather signatures for Thomas’s presidential run that year. Those six intense, 18-hour days began a friendship that lasted until Thomas’s death in 1968.

Afterward, Muravchik was dispatched by David Dubinsky’s International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union to unionize workers in Kingston, N.Y. He later worked for a time in an aircraft factory in Newark, N.J., where employees were represented by United Auto Workers.

He served in the U.S. Army during World War II. Ever the organizer, he worked even before discharge to establish a progressive, anticommunist veterans’ organization. After the war, he became executive secretary of the Veterans League of America, which later merged with the American Veterans Committee.

In 1947, following a brief stint as a party staffer, he began his long career at the Jewish Labor Committee, becoming national field director in 1949 and executive director in 1967, finally retiring in 1984. The JLC speaks to organized labor about Jewish issues — such as combating antisemitism and supporting Israel’s security — and to the Jewish community about labor issues, such as fair labor standards and the right to organize. Muravchik oversaw the committee’s anti-discrimination work and its relations with Jewish federations.

In 1962, he delivered a groundbreaking report on Soviet antisemitism at the world meeting of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. His work led the world organization later that year to make the first-ever representation on the topic to the United Nations, a year before the United States and Israel raised the issue.

Muravchik recalled being asked once by Norman Thomas why Jews felt the need for a state. Manny did not consider himself a Zionist, but he visited Israel frequently and had a granddaughter who lived there for a time. “I don’t believe in principle that the Jews should have to have a separate state,” he said, “but it’s good that they have one.” Yet he spent years fighting for Israel’s rights and security within labor and the larger political arena, making this a signature cause of the JLC. It is largely due to Manny’s effective work that organized labor in this country remains solidly allied to the Jewish state.

But Israel was not the JLC’s only cause. A pioneer in civil rights, the organization was a central player in the black-Jewish alliance of organizations that worked during the 1950s to pass fair housing, employment and education acts around the country. When the civil rights movement reached its crescendo with the 1963 March on Washington, Muravchik worked closely with his old SP comrades, Randolph and Rustin, the march’s main organizers. The JLC helped mobilize union and Jewish community turnout, and Manny Muravchik was there, marching proudly with his two young sons.

Some of Manny’s stormiest years were during the 1960s and ’70s, when the party was torn by disputes over the Vietnam War and the growing strains in the civil rights movement. Manny had been a strong anticommunist independent of Max Shachtman breaking with Trotsky on the long march of his disciples from being independent radicals to being social democrats, and then (many) becoming neoconservatives. When the Vietnam War began to heat up in the early 1960s, Manny was one of those who saw the antiwar movement as soft on communism. He was friendly with the young activists of the SP-affiliated Student League for Industrial Democracy, including Tom Hayden, who split off in the early 1960s to form Students for a Democratic Society. But the friendships faded as SDS became more militant.

When the SP itself finally split in two in the early 1970s, Muravchik remained with Rustin in the Social Democrats USA, which supported the pro-war position of George Meany’s AFL-CIO. The antiwar faction, led by Michael Harrington and Irving Howe, left to found the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and later the Democratic Socialists of America.

Civil rights was also a divisive issue. In 1968, when black community activists in New York City pressed for neighborhood control of schools — including hiring and firing teachers — a clash developed with the United Federation of Teachers, quickly escalating into a black-Jewish ethnic feud. The JLC sympathized with the teachers’ union and its fiery president, Al Shanker, whom Muravchik would describe as a “very close” friend. Shanker served as secretary of the JLC.

Manny’s son Joshua, who had served in the 1960s as head of the SP’s youth wing, the famous Young People’s Socialist League (better known as Yipsel), took up his father’s anticommunist cause and carried it much further than Manny ever did. Joshua became a leading figure in the neoconservative movement, serving as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and writing frequently for Commentary. Father and son remained close, though Manny remained resolute in his advocacy of democratic socialism.

In a May Day 2002 posting on the Social Democrats Web site, titled “Socialism in My Life and My Life in Socialism,” Manny mused on the beauty of Wave Hill, a city-run park near his rent-stabilized apartment in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, and on other benefits of the welfare state — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — that the socialist movement bequeathed to this country. “Our impact,” he wrote, “was epitomized by Franklin D. Roosevelt who, after initiating the New Deal, whispered to Norman Thomas, ‘Norman, I stole your platform.’”

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

A memorial for Emanuel Muravchik is scheduled for Friday, January 12, at 11 a.m. at the Atran Center for Jewish Culture, 25 East 21st Street, Manhattan. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to the Jewish Labor Committee or to the Workmen’s Circle Multicare Center.

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