4.17.2016

a petition to exonerate ethel rosenberg

Of all the outrageously unjust moments in United States history - and dog knows there are many to choose from - the execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg holds a special place in my political underpinnings. It was an event I learned about early on, one that came up in many different contexts throughout my childhood. That was partly because the Rosenbergs were Jewish, and their case was rife with anti-Semitism. It was partly because of my parents' thorough and utter disgust for McCarthyism. And it was partly because my parents had very clear, first-hand memories of the case, the execution occurring in the early years of their marriage. They remembered the media frenzy, the protests attempting to save their lives, and finally, the Rosenbergs' deaths.

My mother always mentioned thousands of people packing into New York City's Union Square on the night of the execution, pleading with the government to commute or stay the sentence. My mother and I both read The Book of Daniel, E. L. Doctorow's fictional imaginings of the Rosenberg orphans, and my mother bought (and gave to others as gifts) We Are Your Sons, written by the Rosenbergs' children, Robert and Michael Meeropol.

In recent years, declassified information showed that Julius Rosenberg had spied for the Soviet Union. He did not, however, pass secrets about the atom bomb, the crime of which he was accused and convicted. And no similar evidence came to light about Ethel Rosenberg. Despite these details, the US media was only too happy to declare the case closed.

When I saw the subject line in my inbox Sign the petition: Exonerate Ethel Rosenberg, I was very interested. But I was also wary. If we want Ethel Rosenberg to be exonerated, does that mean we are condoning Julius' conviction? If we say, "Ethel was not a spy and her execution was wrongful," do we imply that the execution of Julius Rosenberg was justified? Or that some executions may be justified?

I care about the Rosenbergs. I care about government-led persecution and witchhunts. But I also care about the death penalty: I am against it, for any reason, ever. (Don't Godwin me. Any reason ever.) I've known about the Rosenbergs my entire life. I wanted to sign this petition, but I wasn't sure I should.

I wasn't alone. This was forwarded to me by an activist friend who received the petition before I did.
Many people who’ve signed the petition to exonerate my grandmother, Ethel Rosenberg, have asked why the campaign doesn’t include my grandfather, Julius. My father Robert Meeropol answers that question in a blog, here.

My dad’s outlook on life and his drive to create something positive from the terrible tragedy of his early years continues to be inspiring, both for those who are new to his story and for those of us who know his journey well.

As you can imagine, my father’s life was profoundly affected by his parents’ execution. He was three years old when they were arrested, and six years old when they were killed. He visited his parents in prison and still remembers what that felt like. He also remembers the executions, and the trauma of being bounced from home to home, and in and out of an orphanage. Relatives were too scared to take in him and my uncle. They were even thrown out of school in New Jersey where sympathetic friends of the family had tried to give them shelter.

Luckily my father and uncle were eventually adopted by Anne and Abel Meeropol. This loving couple, who were teachers and artists, provided a nurturing home and shielded them from the public. And thousands of people who had tried to save my grandparents donated funds to pay for my father and uncle’s education, therapy, art and drama programs, and other services to help them grow up healthy and happy.

Decades later, my father started the Rosenberg Fund for Children to assist kids in this country who are experiencing similar nightmares to what he endured. This organization I now lead aids the children of today’s targeted activists. Their parents are being attacked because they’re struggling to combat racism, wage peace, preserve civil liberties, safeguard the environment, organize on behalf of workers, prisoners, and LGBTQI people, and more. . . .
Incidentally, the children of US war resister Kimberly Rivera received some assistance from The Rosenberg Fund for Children. I'm proud that some part of my life intersects with some part of the Rosenbergs'.

I signed the petition with a clear conscience and I hope you will, too.

If you are interested in both a progressive and factual reading of the executions, I recommend this long piece by Robert Wilbur, writing in Truthout: The True Crime of the Rosenberg Execution.
Federal District Judge Irving R. Kaufman was a pious man. He visited his synagogue to commune with whatever god he believed in before making up his mind to condemn Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to die in the electric chair, making orphans of their two young boys. That, however, was not the full reach of his piety. Under pressure from the Justice Department to end the Rosenberg case quickly, after two years of delays in the courts, Kaufman set their death for a Friday. This created an unanticipated complication, as Sam Roberts recounts in his grisly description of the execution in "The Brother": New York State traditionally carried out its executions at 11:00 PM. But this would mean the Rosenbergs would burn several hours into the Sabbath - the Jewish holy day. What to do? Kaufman sought the advice of a rabbi to ascertain the exact time when the Sabbath began, then ordered the executions moved up to a more comfortable hour.

The judge must have gotten satisfactory advice, for there were no complaints from organized Jewry in America. Julius died from the traditional three jolts of electricity; Ethel required an additional two jolts, perhaps the only shred of evidence that she was really the tougher member of the spying duo.

And, while the evidence remains much disputed, the preponderance suggests that spies they were. Eventually, even the Rosenberg's journalistic cheerleaders, Walter and Miriam Schneir, acknowledged that Julius Rosenberg was ringmaster of a busy espionage collective that was passing electronic and aeronautical intelligence to the Soviets during the Second World War. Julius himself - unlike the nerd depicted in photographs - was a brazen cowboy who scored a daring espionage coup by stealing the proximity fuse from its plant of manufacture piece by piece: this device uses an electromagnetic wave guide to identify a nearby aircraft, vastly increasing the efficacy of anti-aircraft batteries.

Schneir acknowledged that Julius was a spy - but not an atomic spy. And, so, the case has dragged on to this very day, and two important questions remain unanswered:

- Were the Rosenbergs framed to break up their spy ring in a distinctly conclusive manner (and, relatedly, what was Ethel's role in the ring)?

- If the death penalty is ever appropriate, was it called for in this case?

. . . .

But when everything seems to be tied up in a neat package, Schneir has a quote from Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and one-time death penalty battler turned post-9/11 advocate of torture, citing a conversation with Rosenberg prosecutor and mob lawyer Roy Cohn:
"Roy Cohn ... proudly told me shortly before his death [in 1986] that the government had 'manufactured 'evidence against the Rosenbergs, because they knew Julius was the head of a spy ring. They had learned this from bugging a foreign embassy, but they could not disclose any information learned from the bug, so they made up some evidence in order to prove what they already knew. In the process, they also made up the case against Ethel Rosenberg." ["America on Trial" (NY: Warner Books,2004.p/323)]
In right-wing quarters, especially those where "kike" and "yid" are words of currency, the Rosenberg case is still considered the crime of the century, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. . . .

So, while the Rosenbergs probably did break a law that was passed amid the hysteria of an earlier world war by passing non-atomic intelligence on to the Russians, the statesmen committed a monumental blunder in underestimating the Soviet Union's imperialistic intentions. The Rosenberg's crime was probably to break the 1917 Espionage Act; by far the greater crime was to kill husband and wife on June 19, 58 years ago. The execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg is the true crime of the century - an abomination that casts an ineradicable black mark on the American criminal justice system and on the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose own crime was a failure to grant mercy.
This story on the World Socialist website sees the Rosenbergs' persecution clearly, through a present-day lens.
June 19 [2013] marks the 50th anniversary of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on charges of conspiracy to commit espionage on behalf of the Soviet Union.

Many of the Rosenbergs’ contemporaries, for whom their persecution and state murder was the most searing episode in one of the darkest chapters in US history, have passed from the scene. Yet still today, for millions of people around the world, the name of the young couple evokes the Cold War, the McCarthyite witch-hunt in the United States and all of the crimes associated with Washington’s global crusade against communism. The execution of the father and mother of two young children, residents of New York City’s Lower East Side — he 35 years old and she 37 at the time of their deaths — is testimony to the savagery of which the American ruling establishment is capable when it perceives its vital interests to be at stake.

Despite the passing of five decades, the issues surrounding the Rosenberg case are in many ways posed more sharply today than at any time since the execution itself. Once again, a US administration is seeking to terrorize the entire population as a means of suppressing dissent and exercising control on behalf of a wealthy elite. Under the guise of a global “war on terrorism,” it has rammed through the USA Patriot Act — modeled in part on the anti-communist McCarran Internal Security Act of 50 years ago — assuming vast unconstitutional powers to arrest without charges, detain without trial and conduct unrestricted police surveillance.

Today, as then, the government’s fear-mongering and attacks on democratic rights are aimed at suppressing widespread opposition to American military aggression abroad.
You can sign a petition to exonerate Ethel Rosenberg here.

19 comments:

johngoldfine said...

I very much liked 'The Book of Daniel'--really the only Doctorow I do like. And I'm with you on capital punishment, the Patriot Act, and the FBI trashing due process, not to mention simple human decency.

But I don't feel much sympathy for spies, even idealistic ones with good intentions, even ones spying for our wartime allies.

laura k said...

Definitely a nasty business. Reflexively I would say I don't care about spying, but when I think of a spy working - for example - in my union, spying for management, I get it. The person's entire life and everything they say and do is predicated on deceit and lies.

Of course, much of the evidence against Julius Rosenberg was fabricated, and there was no evidence against Ethel Rosenberg.

But separating the McCarthyism and state-sanctioned murder and anti-Semitism and all the other nastiness from spying... yeah, spying is not good.

David Heap said...

The evidence (recently released Grand Jury transcripts etc.) is that Ethel was never a spy: she was framed by another witness (her brother) who made a deal with the prosecution to protect himself and his wife.

There is another connection between the Rosenberg fund and Canada: one of the children of the Secret Trial Five (men imprisoned without charge pending deportation to torture) received help to study at university from the RFC: http://www.homesnotbombs.ca/mallickkafka.htm

My views on the death penalty (here or anywhere) are summed up by Ariel Dorfman's Open Letter to Pinochet (at the time of the latter's arrest in 1998): http://www.progressive.org/news/1998/10/2688/ariel-dorfman-interview "I want you to know, General, that I do not believe in capital punishment. What I do believe in is human redemption. Even in yours, General."

If a Chilean who narrowly escaped death at the time of the coup and who saw so many of his contemporaries suffer under the junta could pardon Pinochet, then the U.S. can pardon Ethel Rosenberg.

johngoldfine said...

We had tale-bearers at our union meetings--disgusting brown-nosers and kiss-asses who regularly reported back to management. Hated those fuckers.

I suppose if we'd been smarter we'd have done the espionage thing and used the spies to sow disinformation.

David Heap said...

Our views on spies and spying tend to depend on which "side" we perceive them to be on. War-themed news & (more or less propagandistic) films regularly glorify "our" spies (from Mata Hari to James Bond) against "them", whoever the "them" tend to be at any given time. So, whether we view spying and spies as "good" or "not good" depends on whether we think of them as on our "our" side, or their object / enemy to be "us", or at least, our friends allies. Without putting ourselves in the position of "cheering" for the Soviet Union and their its allies / supporters, it is not obvious to me that I should feel about spying against the post-war U.S. military-industrial-government complex the way I would about (say) a spy in my union, working for my employer.

But for anyone who feels that spies against the U.S. were against us, the crucial facts that have now come to light make it clear: Ethel Rosenberg was never a spy, and should be exonerated.

laura k said...

I suppose if we'd been smarter we'd have done the espionage thing and used the spies to sow disinformation.

We do that in our union Facebook group. Not so much disinformation, but information we want to get back to management without actually telling them. We know there's a mole, and we count on her to do her job. :)

laura k said...

I am often an "ends justify the means" person, because the playing field is so completely not level, the system so rigged. Clarence Darrow used any dirty trick he could find (jury tampering, bribery, etc.) to save a defendant's life, knowing that his opponent was the government, with unlimited resources, his defendant had been scapegoated, and he was saving the life of a human who was being persecuted for their political beliefs. I admire this and would take any opportunity to do the same in my own activism.

Amy said...

Thanks, Laura, for posting this. I hadn't seen the petition or Robbie's blog or Rachel's. I may have told you that I know both Robbie and Michael. Michael was a colleague who taught economics at the university where I taught, and Robbie was my student when he was in law school. Both are remarkable men, especially given what they went through, but both would be even without that background. I will, of course, sign the petition.

Amy said...

That should have said Jennifer, not Rachel. You can edit if you want.

johngoldfine said...

For me, the only hope for civilization is to hew scrupulously to correct process (but to do our damnedest to change unjust or inhumane rules.) Once we give up on means and focus solely on ends to justify ourselves, we are looking into an abyss where anything goes in the service of the greater good, as we define it.

David Heap said...

It is easy to find spies for "the other side" against our union to be disgusting, fuckers, etc. The question is, what do we think of spies for "our side"? I have seen situations where a union in an academic institution benefited from information leaks from the employer (the result of what our employer could well have qualified as "spying") which we had no compunction in receiving and using, while even (quietly, discreetly) celebrating the individuals who leaked the info. Outside of union situations, there are a lot of journalist who (quite rightly) protect sources of information that might be called "spies" by their employers., but "whistleblowers" by the public.

johngoldfine said...

It dishonors and shames the USA, if such is possible at this point in our history, that we have tried and executed an innocent on trumped-up charges and phony evidence. It's right that the record, whatever that is, be set straight and that the truth about the Rosenbergs, the FBI, the Cold War hysteria, the politics, the injustice should all be part of the conventional understanding of the era.

So exonerate Ethel Rosenberg.

But the truth about the Rosenbergs is not simply the story of a society in disarray and of a government out of control. The whole history of the USSR, the Second World War, Stalin have to counterpoint the simpler tale of the hapless spy and his wife and brother-in-law and children.

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy. I cannot edit anyone's comments on Blogger, including my own!

laura k said...

Thanks, Amy. I cannot edit anyone's comments on Blogger, including my own!

laura k said...

Well I definitely would not say I've given up on means. I feel strongly about having guiding principles and lines that are not crossed. But until the day when we all have equal access to equal power, the means on each side cannot be equal. If they were, we'd still have slavery, apartheid, and all manners of evil. When one side has an army, the other side might need rocks and bricks.

johngoldfine said...

I confess: I do take "sides."

laura k said...

I see no reason to even bring that up, let alone counterpoint. The opposite of Julius Rosenberg is not Stalin.

johngoldfine said...

The Rosenbergs didn't happen in an historical vacuum. But I knew I was skating on thin ice here with that comment.

laura k said...

Heh, the ice is holding up, we each have our own perspectives, both valid, I think. If you were defending McCarthyism and the FBI and capital punishment... that there is some fragile icecapades. But pointing out another context for the alleged spying, not a problem.

I don't know why my replies didn't show up nested under the comment like they are supposed to. I was typing on my phone. #LeastImportantThing