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Jewish Heritage Museum: Jewish Spies and Fort Monmouth Lies

The Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County hosted an educational program on August 6, entitled “Jewish Spies and Fort Monmouth Lies: The Fort Monmouth Hearings of 1953.” Nearly 75 people attended the presentation by museum Executive Director Jessica Solomon.

In 1953, Senator Joseph McCarthy conducted hearings at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, which resulted in 42 civilian employees at the Army base, 38 of them Jews, being falsely accused of communist ties. Some people close to the issue believed the “sanctioned witch hunt” was instigated by a high-ranking, antisemitic employee.

Solomon became interested in the topic when she noticed that Cold War politics of the early 1950s saw Washington politicians concerned about international prestige and overseas freedom, yet the U.S. Jewish community was facing oppression and discrimination while being positioned as being responsible for nearly every incident. “The notion of Jewish community members, who faced atrocious behavior in Europe and within the United States, being placed as scapegoats is what interested me to research this matter more,” said Solomon. “With Monmouth County being approximately 12% Jewish, the Fort Monmouth Hearings of 1953 having major antisemitic undertones became a shock to many.”

Solomon brought the audience up to speed on the historical events that enabled McCarthy’s accusations to gain traction and impart credibility to otherwise absurd claims. Much of the Jewish immigrants to the area came from European countries that had significant levels of radicalism. The new immigrants supported Israel and were therefore suspected of having dual loyalties. In addition, many Jews supported the Socialist Labor Party as unions began their rise to power.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created in 1938 to investigate alleged disloyalty and rebel activities on the part of private citizens, public employees and organizations suspected of having communist ties. Citizens suspected of having ties to the Communist Party would be tried in a court of law. McCarthy claimed to have lists of people who were communist employees at Fort Monmouth. Although the list was never shown to anyone and the number of names on the list was lowered continuously, the senator was allowed to question any Fort Monmouth employee at will—despite not having any definitive proof. Answering the question “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” with any hesitation was considered an immediate conviction.

Solomon was “surprised at how truly baseless the accusations were. One accusation that seemed incredibly far-fetched to me was when a Fort employee was put on leave as a security risk due to allegedly having been ‘influenced’ by Rabbi Gordis, a known communist sympathizer, who had prepared the employee for his bar mitzvah years ago. Many of the people accused during this era did not even have the high-security clearance level needed to be the proper spies they were accused of being.” People were influenced to deflect suspicion from themselves by accusing others and turning people in; personal rifts became a reason to report someone as a way of retaliation.

McCarthy initially conducted his hearings behind closed doors, but opened them to the public on November 24, 1953. Although ultimately failing to prove the existence of a communist conspiracy, the hearings brought grief to the employees who were dismissed from their jobs on mere suspicion. Charges against suspended employees included attending a benefit rally for Russian children and belonging to a group thought to be subversive. Even having a name similar to someone who was accused was enough to cause removal from a job. Ultimately, 42 employees, mostly Jewish engineers, were suspended for posing security risks. Forty were reinstated; two resigned. All of those reinstated received back pay. The last six to get their jobs back rejoined the workforce in 1958.

As fascinating as Solomon’s talk was, some of the most interesting parts were the audience comments. Paul Rosenheim noted that these events were not just history: “My family lived these events via my father, Irving Rosenheim.” Rosenheim brought transcripts of his father’s interrogation by McCarthy. Irwin Tepper, of Wall Township, noted that he was accused of being a member of the Communist Party because his family once rented space for his bar mitzvah party in a meeting hall operated by the group.

Manalapan’s Batsheva Salberg noted that there was underlying antisemitism at Fort Monmouth as late as 2016. Having been born in Israel, her loyalty to the United States was questioned. “It goes on in a different form, but it is the same thing as it has been throughout history.” Jean Hershenov, co-author of “Peddler to Suburbanite: The History of the Jews of Monmouth County, NJ” added that as a child she saw that people were afraid to point out any of the obvious acts of antisemitism for fear that it would “pass suspicion on the whole Jewish community.”

Solomon observed that she grew up in the area, with Camp Evans, Camp Earle and Fort Monmouth all very close to her hometown. “My neighbors worked at Fort Monmouth until its closure in 2011. Upon working at the museum, I learned more about the hearings and how much it affected the community. Accused Fort employees faced death threats and their children lost peers because they were deemed as unpatriotic or traitors.” She added: “One of the most interesting aspects I discovered while researching was how Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn [McCarthy’s chief counsel] twisted the words of people to better suit a ‘win’ for the HUAC and McCarthy. Transcriptions of critical interrogations were conveniently ‘lost.’ Years later the accused were able to offer rebuttal of the testimony, but it was too late.”

Located in Freehold, New Jersey, the Jewish Heritage Museum of Monmouth County is well worth a trip. In addition to interesting pictures, artifacts and interactive displays about the history of the local Jewish community, the current rotating exhibit features “The Eisner Family: From Stitching Military Uniforms to Stitching Together the Red Bank Jewish Community.” The museum is open on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. See https://www.jhmomc.org/ or call (732) 252-6990 for more information.

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