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Paul Robeson (center) with Soviet Yiddish poet Itzik Feffer (left) and Soviet Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhoels (right), representatives of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), on tour in the West to raise funds for the Red Army. The photograph was taken at the Soviet Consulate in 1943.
Photo: Jewish Public Library Archives, Montreal

As Rutgers’ celebration of the centennial of Paul Robeson’s graduation continues, the Allen and Joan Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life is bringing together four leading historians to examine Robeson’s relationship with the Jewish community, socialist movements, and the Soviet Union in the 1940s.

The Oct. 6 panel discussion, moderated by Rutgers historian and journalism professor David Greenberg, sheds light on some seldom explored aspects of Robeson’s life. The conversation will explore his involvement with the Jewish left, which shared his commitment to fighting racism and discrimination against African Americans, his friendship with Soviet Yiddish writers and his role in building an alliance between American Jews and African Americans.

Nancy Sinkoff, an associate professor of history and Jewish studies in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and academic director of the Bildner Center, talked about Robeson’s connection to the Jewish community and the importance of highlighting this aspect of his legacy in advance of the event.

Why was Paul Robeson drawn to Yiddish culture and the Jewish community?

Sinkoff: Groups on the Jewish left fought against racial discrimination and were committed to African American equality. Most Jews on the left defined themselves in secular terms, yet still identified with the biblical narrative of the redemption from slavery in Egypt. For them, the message of the Bible and story of liberation informed their contemporary fight against the legacy of American slavery. It was a natural fit for them.

African Americans were very familiar with the Hebrew Bible, and found particular resonance in the references to Egyptian slavery and its dramatic end in the Exodus narrative. The gospel culture of African Americans is deeply wedded to the Hebrew Bible. Paul Robeson sings “Let my people go,” a song based on a phrase from the Old Testament. So, his musical heritage from the black church is also very linked to the narratives of the Hebrew Bible.

He was drawn to the Jewish left because, like him, some Jews—those associated with the Communist Party—believed that the Soviet Union had ended racial discrimination. They also believed that their alliance could combat the persistence of racial inequality in the United States.

What are some of the questions the panel will address?

Sinkoff: People will be challenged by the big question of Robeson’s political legacy: how much did he know of Stalin’s oppression against his own people and the subject nations in the Eastern bloc? When did Robeson understand that the Soviet Communist project was not, as he had hoped, a  utopian society free of exploitation, but a flawed society with deep problems, including systemic murderous antisemitism under Stalin?

Why is this aspect of Robeson's life important to highlight?

Sinkoff: As a university, it is our job to help people see how complicated the past is. It is perfectly understandable that Robeson, frustrated with the horrors of American racism, would have looked to the Soviet Union as a society in which people of color appeared not to be the objects of discrimination. He was abused as a black American. He, with leftist Jews, believed that Communism and Soviet society offered a model of freedom and equality for people of color. They fought hard to expand American democracy by fighting racism, and that legacy is very important. Yet, we need to acknowledge that Robeson – and many leftist Jews – were wrong about the Soviet Union and many felt betrayed when they learned about the purges in the 1930s, witnessed the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939, and most especially by the revelations of Stalin’s crimes after his death, which came shortly after the systematic murder of many Yiddish writers and artists in the Soviet Union, several of whom were Robeson’s friends.

What does this relationship add to our understanding of Paul Robeson's legacy?

Sinkoff: History is always complicated. No hero is unblemished. To talk just about Robeson as a great hero and ally in fighting antisemitism and racism would be historically dishonest. We also have to ask why he didn’t see, or ignored, the signs of the Soviet Union’s oppression both at home and abroad. We need to talk about the whole picture, what he was up against in the United States, what kind of discrimination he faced as a person of color, and why he was drawn to the Communist Party.