Marxism and Mountain Music: A Glimpse into the Political Discourse of 1930s Yeshiva College

By: Yitzhak Graff  |  February 26, 2023

By Yitzhak Graff 

The political discourse of the undergraduate students at Yeshiva University has shifted over time as new issues arise and older issues fade away. In this article, I attempt to look at the earliest records of political discourse and try to use the fragmented material to construct a picture of the issues that Yeshiva College students were worried about, and the solutions they offered. The almost 90-year distance makes it difficult for us to connect to the issues that motivated the students to speak out. Nevertheless, delving into the human aspect of political discourse for so long ago can be very meaningful. 

It would be easy to date the start of political discourse at Yeshiva College with the creation of the Commentator in March 1935, since the paper forum encouraged extensive written discourse. However, political discourse existed in formal settings on campus prior to this. The debate society’s first recorded debate was in December 1930 against City College, though they likely existed for a few months before this. Later, in December 1933, some students formed the International Relations Club, which brought in speakers to talk about global political issues. They focused on giving a balanced perspective, and invited speakers spanning the entire political spectrum, from a supporter of Mussolini to a hardline socialist. 

The creation of the Commentator was a significant development in the political discourse of Yeshiva College. Not only was its existence as a forum for political discussion significant, but the very process of its creation was also a political statement. The founding editor of the Commentator, Moses Feuerstein, deliberately worked to create a student newspaper that operated independently of the school’s administration. Feuerstein had contacts at the Spectator, Columbia’s student newspaper, who would help him to organize a student strike and pressure the Yeshiva College administration (should they take any action to silence the student press). Previously in 1932, the Spectator had fought and won the struggle for free speech against the Columbia University administration. 

The Columbia free-speech movement was associated with a broader increase in student activism during this era. Specifically, the National Student League, a communist-aligned group, and the Student League for Industrial Democracy, a socialist group. These two groups, the NSL and SLID, merged into the American Student Union in 1935. The National Student League was active in organizing the Columbia free-speech strikes.

Although Feuerstein felt that he would have to take extreme action against the administration, he was active in moderating his positions so as not to upset the administration. Nevertheless, some of the Commentator staff’s socialist interests peaked through some of the early issues. In the April 8th issue of 1935, Feuerstein published an editorial in which he expressed sympathy with the national student peace strike of 1935, which was organized by the NSL and the SLID. He doesn’t explicitly say it, but the Yeshiva College students were likely on Pesach vacation at the time, which prevented him from organizing some kind of demonstration of solidarity. 

Feuerstein was not deterred from participating in the national peace movement. He successfully organized a peace rally on November 13th, 1935. Working together with the YCSC president, Morris Dembowitz, they were able to get the administration and the student governments of all the colleges together to hold the peace rally on a Monday afternoon. The students saw their peace activism as a way to protect themselves from getting drafted into a purposeless war, and viewed war as means for the wealthy to enrich themselves off of government contracts for war machines. Moses Feuerstein decried the presence of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) and adamantly denied any glory in war. David Petegorsky, representing the SOY, called out the wealth-concentrating effects of war, stating, “we should declare war as making the world safe for plutocracy.”

While peace activism was developing in 1935, several students worked on organizing a chapter of Hapoel Hamizrachi. The founding chairman was Bernard Lander, though Moses Feuerstein and other Commentator staff were heavily involved in the club. Hapoel Hamizrachi was a socialist religious Zionist political party. On February 27th, 1936, Hapoel Hamizrachi brought in Shlomo Zalman Shragai to talk about his work in developing Torah V’Avodah (Torah and Labor) in mandatory Palestine. In response to this lecture, the Commentator published an editorial titled “Sinai and Capitalism” in support of Shragai’s ideology. 

Adding to the growing political activism scene at Yeshiva College, Moses Feuerstein formed the Yeshiva College chapter of the American Student Union in May 1936, right before he graduated. During his short time in charge, Feuerstein advocated for an end to military activity and the abolishment of the ROTC, as well as the need for racial equality and an end to Jim Crow policy. Feuerstein’s chapter of the ASU did not continue after Feuerstein graduated. 

The 1936 presidential election alerted the Yeshiva College students to the possibility of fascism arising in America. Popular pundits like the antisemitic radio host Charles Coughlin became worrisome for the Yeshiva men. Coughlin’s backing of the Republican candidate, Alf Landon, specifically seemed like a real threat to the security of the Jewish community in the United States. They responded to these stresses with satire. Columnist Eleazar Goldman wrote a satirical piece about the figureheads of the conservative movement of the 1936 election in the October 28th issue of the Commentator. Charles Coughlin; the antisemitic radio host, Alf Landon; the Republican presidential candidate, and William R. Heart; the owner of a politically conservative media empire, were all ridiculed for their political messaging. Goldman emphasized Coughlin’s conspiracy theories, Landon’s hypocritical criticism of every action of the Roosevelt administration, and Heart’s willingness to report on any rumor as if it were fact. The editorials of the October 28th issue and the November 4th issue balanced an optimistic satirical perspective of the election with an appreciation of the stakes at hand. The editorials confidently predicted the loss of the Republican party while recognizing the threat the party posed to the Roosevelt administration’s social programs. 

As 1937 progressed, the Commentator began to become more conscious of the threat that fascism posed to the global Jewish community. The Commentator published a news article in February 1937, about the discrimination that Polish Jewish students were facing at the University of Warsaw. The administration and faculty were turning a blind eye to violence and intimidation that Polish nationalist student organizations were inflicting upon their Jewish peers. By this time, Hitler’s antisemitic policies were well known to the student body, so an article like this was likely published to spread awareness about the growing level of global antisemitism. In April 1937 Yeshiva College organized another peace rally, but it had a significantly different tone from the first peace rally in 1935. This rally was less interested in the domestic implications of militarization, and more interested in looking for ways to quell the growing tensions in Europe, which could involve some amount of military intervention. This perspective was much less hardline anti-war than two years earlier. 

The more established leftist American Student Union, also began to shift away from anti-war peace activism as Nazi Germany became more aggressively expansionist. This shift made membership to the ASU more palatable for Yeshiva College students, who were looking for ways to combat the spread of fascism. An anonymous letter to the editor, advocating for a chapter of the ASU to be formed at Yeshiva, was printed in the January 5th, 1938 issue of the Commentator. The anonymous author stated that the ASU was, “vigorously opposed to fascistic tendencies and racial discriminations in America.” He continued noting, “these issues are certainly worthy of the lively interest of Yeshiva students.” 

The anonymous supporter of the ASU was not without opposition. Irving Dlugacz, a member of the debate team, replied in the next issue with full force. Dlugacz was a staunch follower of Leon Trotsky, which, in short, meant that he opposed Stalin’s seizure of power in the Soviet Union and failure to institute democracy. Trotsky argued for an idea of continuous proletarian revolution and strongly opposed any actions that maintained the power of the ruling class. Accordingly, Dlugacz accused the ASU of being Stalinists who supported the imperialist democratic countries engaging in war for the purpose of enriching their ruling classes. Dlugacz’s alternative to directly fighting against aggressively expansionist fascist countries, was to encourage the proletariats of those countries to engage in an internationalist socialist revolution that would quell their desire for war. Though the leftist in-fighting certainly did not help efforts to reestablish a Yeshiva College chapter of the ASU, broader concerns about socialism’s ability to combat antisemitism were more likely to blame. 

In the same issue as Irving Dlugacz’s fiery refutation of the anonymous student’s proposal to join the ASU, Commentator columnist Gershon Appel wrote about the response of national student organizations in the United States to the spread of fascism and rising antisemitism. Appel argued the socialist ASU and the more liberal National Student Federation of America were completely ignoring the deteriorating situation of Jewish students in Poland. Public universities in Poland were effectively encouraging the segregation of Jewish students by preventing them from sitting on the benches in their classrooms. Appel’s brand of skepticism of non-Jewish organizations’ ability to defend the Jewish community likely increased with the event of Kristallnacht.

Following the news of the horrors of the Kristallnacht pogroms, the Agudath HaRabbonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada) proclaimed Monday, November 28th, 1938, as a day of fasting and prayer for the Jewish community of America. At Yeshiva College, the day ended in a two-hour ceremony held in the Lamport Auditorium that included prayers and speeches from prominent leaders in the Orthodox Jewish community. Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel was reported to have broken out in tears several times during his emotionally charged speech, as he described the horrific events of Germany’s recent pogrom. Though the news of Kristallnacht was likely jarring to many, it probably didn’t cause many Yeshiva College students to change their perspectives of the issues at hand. In January 1939, the Commentator published an editorial praising the ASU for its growth and continued opposition to the spread of fascism. 

The students who were more skeptical of socialism’s ability to defend the Jews eventually prevailed in campus discourse as the United States became more involved in the war. Jacob Goldman’s October 1939 column, following the Nazi-Soviet partition of Poland, was reflective of this trend. Goldman argued that the Polish Jews would fare worse under Soviet rule, since they outlawed most forms of organized religion. Little did he know that the Nazi regime would do so much more than pogroms and ghettos.

In some ways, the world of the Yeshiva College men of the 1930s parallels our own. The financial crisis and the rise of right-wing bigoted populism feel all too familiar. We may be tempted to excuse their strong opposition to candidates like Alf Landon, since if he were president during World War II, the United States may have had a less forceful opposition to Nazi Germany. The Yeshiva College men were just as blind as to what would happen farther down the line as we are today. Opposition to Landon was not done out of some foresight about how he would fight World War II, rather the students of Yeshiva College recognized that he associated himself with antisemites and conspiracy theorists, and chose to avoid him with the information that was available to them at that time.      

See the bibliography for my sources and further reading on the subject.