McCarthyism and Antisemitism: The Execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg

Perhaps you have heard the names Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, perhaps have heard of the charges hailed against them and the severity of the punishment they received at the hands of the federal government of the United States. Convicted for “conspiracy to commit espionage” in 1951, the U.S. government charged that the couple had passed secret information to the Soviet Union concerning the building of an atomic weapon.

Before, during, and after the trail, widespread protests and claims of antisemitism ensued; however, these rebukes were far more common abroad than in the United States, and far more vocalized among non-Jews than Jews. Because of historic ties between Jewish communities and left-leaning politics, American Jews were often targets in the age of McCarthyism. Thus, many Jewish organizations and leaders refrained from defending the Rosenbergs, some even going so far as to endorse a “guilty” verdict. In one instance, the National Community Relations Advisory Council (now the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council) produced a statement regarding the case in which it denounced any attempt to “inject the false issue of anti-Semitism into the Rosenberg case.” Conversely, in 1952 W.E.B. DuBois wrote a letter to Rabbi Abraham Cronbach inviting him to sign a “Friends of the Court” brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.

During a time in which fears of communism ran rampant, the American Civil Liberties Union and other such Jewish organizations remained silent; perhaps it was fear of speaking up and facing retribution, or perhaps it was another motive entirely. However, it cannot be denied that many American Jews feared that by defending the Rosenbergs they would raise suspicion around themselves. 

The Rosenbergs maintained their innocence through the very end of their struggle; Ethel and Julius, however, were executed by the U.S. federal government on June 19, 1953. On the morning of their execution, the Rosenbergs wrote in a letter addressed to their two sons: “We were innocent and could not wrong our conscience.” On that day, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg became the first American civilians to be executed for espionage and the first to receive such an extreme penalty during peacetime years. Their sons later sued the government to release files related to the case and, in 2015, petitioned President Obama to exonerate their mother, Ethel. Debate over this case continues today.

Rosenberg – 1

A typed letter from Abraham Cronbach, renowned rabbi and pacifist, to President Harry S. Truman pleading for the Rosenberg sentence to be commuted from the death penalty to imprisonment. The second letter is addressed to Rabbi Cronbach from W.E.B DuBois regarding a petition of a appeal to the Supreme Court regarding the Rosenberg sentencing. MS-9, Box 4, Folder 9. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Rosenberg – 2

A written letter addressed to Rabbi Abraham Cronbach condemning the Rosenbergs for their “wicked…crimes” and upholding their “recent electrocution.” MS-9. Box 5, Folder 3. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Rosenberg – 3

Hand-written letters addressed to Rabbi Cronbach condemning the “commy spies” and disagreeing with Rabbi Cronbach’s efforts to petition capital punishment. Jan 18, 1954. MS-9, Box 5, Folder 4. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email