The death this month of Emanual Muravchik, a lifelong socialist and the onetime leader of the Jewish Labor Committee, highlighted a world that no longer exists — much of it recalled at a memorial service at the JLC last Friday. It also put into sharp relief a contrast between two generations of American Jews.
Among the Muravchiks, that contrast played out in the sharp political disagreements between Emanual, known as Manny to friends and relatives, and one of his two sons, Josh, a scholar who, unlike his father, left the socialist fold and now calls himself a neoconservative.
The two adored each other, remaining close until Manny’s death at the age of 90. But their political disagreements were more pronounced than those between an older generation of American Jews, still seen as overwhelmingly liberal, and younger Jews who, according to many surveys, appear to be slightly less liberal and, at times, even conservative.
Instead, Manny and Josh differed over questions of broad outlook, with their conversations, at times, reaching such a pitch that they eventually agreed to avoid politics altogether, the younger Muravchik recalled in an interview earlier this week. It was a bargain that Manny would find harder to keep, although he largely honored the pact, said Josh, who noted that he’s a writer, with plenty of opportunity to express himself through books and articles, while his father was more of a talker.
Much of Manny Muravchik’s life was recalled by friends, relatives and associates at last week’s memorial service.
The son of secular Russian immigrants, he inherited his left-wing politics from his parents, active members of the Workmen’s Circle, and began exploring socialism at the age of 13, when he walked into the library of the Rand School, then associated with the Socialist party. The institution is now the Tamiment Library, a part of New York University, and houses Manny’s historical papers, along with the JLC archives.
Manny joined the Socialist party that year, speaking at street-corner rallies and getting to know many of the party’s leaders, including civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Norman Thomas, who ran as a Socialist for mayor of New York City and president of the United Sates. After graduate studies in political science and clinical psychology, he worked as an organizer for the Socialist party and various unions. He joined the JLC in 1947, starting out as the national field director, and became the agency’s executive director in 1967, a post he held until his retirement in 1984.
During his tenure at the JLC, Manny Muravchik emerged as one of the community’s most thoughtful leaders and an effective advocate of civil rights and civil liberties, said Theodore Mann, the prominent Jewish leader who worked with Manny through the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Committee. Now the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the agency carves out communal positions on scores of issues, mostly domestic. Manny also led the JLC in marshaling support for both Israel and Soviet Jewry.
At the same time, his home and office became places of intellectual ferment, where friends and colleagues from the Jewish world, the Socialist party and the labor movement would meet and often discuss the day’s great issues. “Manny never stopped arguing the world,” said one speaker at last week’s memorial, noting that he engaged in debates “between socialist and communists, anarchists, Trotskyites, liberals, secularists and believers, Bundists and Zionists — the eternal political struggles over how and where to strike a balance between democratic practice and collective action.”
It was in that orbit that Josh Muravchik grew up, he said, recalling how his parents would bring Josh, now 59, and his younger brother, Aaron, to some of the earliest civil rights protests and to the 1963 March on Washington. Josh, too, became active in the Socialist party, chairing its youth arm, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), from 1968 to 1973. Both Josh and Manny took staunch anti-Communist stands, siding with a faction of socialists who supported the U.S. role in Vietnam, but the younger Muravchik took that position much further than his father did.
“It became increasingly hard to think of myself as a man of the left,” Josh said, dating his move away from socialism to the late 1970s, when he attended graduate school at Georgetown University. A course on Marxism at the time “gave me a chance to examine the idea in a way that I had never done before as an activist. I realized it was all a pile of rancid rubbish.”
Another important question for the younger Muravchik involved how to evaluate America and the American experience. “It seemed to me as I got to know the world that America was as good a society as anyone in the world had created” and that rather than criticize the country, as many on the left are wont to do, “the main impulse should be to defend it.”
After his studies and a brief stint on Capitol Hill, Josh became a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, where he focuses on broad questions involving foreign policy, human rights and the spread of democracy.
The political break between the younger Muravchik, now a resident of the Washington area, and the elder Muravchik, a resident of Riverdale, N.Y., seemed to take epic proportions with the publication five years ago of Josh’s book on socialism. The book, “Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism,” takes a withering look at the movement, profiling the people who developed the idea, led it to power and presided over what he calls its collapse — and labels the theory an abject failure. Few people objected as strenuously to that conclusion as Josh’s father, who traveled to Washington for a May Day reunion of YPSL members — and a panel discussion at which Josh was speaking. Lugging a portable oxygen tank, a device he needed for an incurable lung disease, Manny Muravchik distributed copies of an open letter rebutting his son’s views — an episode Josh recounted in a humorous essay published by the National Review Online and, again, in an interview this week.
The incident caught the younger Muravchik by surprise, but perhaps the most telling part of the episode is that the father’s rebuttal discussed the naches, or pride, he had for his son and urged people to read Josh’s book.
What might be telling, as well, is the generous view Josh takes toward people who still call themselves socialist, an outlook some of his neoconservative colleagues don’t share. “Moving away from socialism to the right taught me about my own fallibility,” said Josh, who considers himself nonpartisan. “I was wrong before, and I could be wrong again.”
Father and son also parted ways on religion. Manny remained a diehard atheist his whole life, unable to fathom why anyone would believe in God. Josh has turned more and more spiritual over the years, now regularly attending a Conservative synagogue.
But the disagreements with his father have taught him about the power of family, Josh said, adding that if their story has any transcendent meaning at all, it’s a simple one: “That love is more important than politics.”