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Review: the Trial of the Chicago 7


“Aren’t the Chicago 7 all Jews?”
President Richard Nixon

Richard Nixon was wrong when he assumed that every member of the Chicago 7 was Jewish, but he was close enough. The 1969 trial of seven leftwing activists for inciting a riot at August 1968’s Democratic National Convention was an intensely Jewish moment in American history. Of the seven activists on trial, three were Jews (Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Lee Weiner), and a further two (Tom Hayden and David Dellinger) lived their lives in a heavily Jewish milieu and dedicated themselves to Jewish causes. The judge in the trial, Julius Hoffman, was Jewish, as were both defense attorneys (William Moses Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass) and one of the prosecutors (Richard Schultz). For several reasons, I’ve always regarded the ultimately chaotic and clownish trial of the Chicago 7 as nothing more than a piece of degenerate Jewish political performance art, demoralising to the American justice system and energising to a new generation of Judeo-Anarchist activists. These shambolic events of 1968/9 have now been disinterred for Netflix’s propagandistic and revisionist account of the episode, The Trial of the Chicago 7, in which Jewish writer/director Aaron Sorkin attempts to refashion its “lessons” for application in Trump’s America. The result is both historically disingenuous and artistically bland.

Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 opens with a montage of eight [including Bobby Seale] activists preparing to protest at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. There are several clear dogwhistles to Black Lives Matter, with barely veiled justifications of violence, including an exchange in the opening montage between Black Panther Leader Seale and a woman named Sondra. Sondra attempts to reason with Seale that his presence as a Black leader at a potentially violent rally will be taken “out of context” by “every White person in America.” As Seale persists in his preparations, Sondra begins to invoke “Dr King” before Seale responds:

[King] Is dead. He has a dream? Now he has a fuckin’ bullet in his head. Martin’s dead, Malcolm’s dead, Medgar’s dead, Bobby’s dead, Jesus is dead. They tried it peacefully, we gonna try something else.

This “something else” isn’t explored in any significant way because the film proceeds from the understanding that the violence and unrest in Chicago was purely the result of police brutality and bad local government. Painfully unaware of itself, the film sits uneasily in the aftermath of catastrophic policing and government during Charlottesville’s 2016 rally, an event that has unfairly gone down in history and popular consciousness as an exemplar of a “bad protest.” The ghost of Charlottesville, for me at least, hangs heavily over The Trial of the Chicago 7, highlighting its hypocrisy and lending the film a somewhat satirical or parodic quality that is entirely unintended and which, to my mind, is never shaken off.

The necessity of portraying the radical defendants as sympathetic has required a remarkable taming of all the characters involved, to the extent that all appear innocent to the point of mediocrity. Almost everyone in the film is two-dimensional with the possible exception of Hoffman and Rubin who are nevertheless portrayed as harmless, big-hearted clowns. Noted in history for their vulgarity and aggression (Abbie Hoffman declared of his intentions on going to Chicago:” We are dirty, smelly, grimy and foul. … We will piss and shit and fuck in public. … We will be constantly stoned or tripping on every drug known to man”), Hoffman and Rubin are reduced by Sorkin to rather bloodless and timid comic relief. We are given no indication as to the motivations or life trajectories of either Jewish activist, or indeed any of the Chicago 7, presumably because we are meant to assume that they were simply “good people” who wanted only to end the war.

As The Times of Israel has noted, the film represents a trial bleached of its intensely Jewish qualities. I’ve written previously that the 1960s New Left was indisputably a Jewish subculture. Jerry Rubin, given no backstory in Sorkin’s film, had “solidly Jewish roots” and after receiving his baccalaureate “he attended Hebrew University and later returned to Israel to spend a year there with his brother.”[1] His ‘Youth International Party,’ or Yippies, was co-founded with fellow Jewish radicals Abbie Hoffman and Paul Krassner. He married a Jewish woman, Mimi Leonard. Rubin conceived of himself as being at war with the White race. By his own admission, Rubin stated that in forming the ‘Yippie’ movement he had “dropped out of the white race and the Amerikan [sic] nation.”[2] Rubin believed that Jews in particular were “obligated to resist the fascism of whiteness.”[3]
 He was motivated by narcissistic notions of Jewish moral superiority, indicating a strong identification with his fellows Jews. In a book he wrote while in County Jail, he noted that “It is the Jew who should always be on the side of the poor, the oppressed, the underdog, the wretched of the earth. … And thousands of ex-Amerikan, ex-Jews are. Three of the kids killed at Kent State were Jews. An unusually high proportion of hippies and revolutionaries are Jews.”[4]

Despite having no attachment to the religious content of Judaism, Abbie Hoffman was undoubtedly also deeply connected to his Jewishness and the “invisible” Jewish subculture. He attended Brandeis University (mentioned in the film) at a time when it was basically a refuge for blacklisted Jewish academics, such as the Frankfurt School’s Herbert Marcuse, that had been rooted out from Harvard and MIT as ‘subversive’ by McCarthy. Brandeis survived the purge unscathed because McCarthy refused to target the university for fear of being branded anti-Semitic.[5] One of Hoffman’s psychology professors was Abraham Maslow, who imparted to the young Hoffman that society needed changing, and that nonconformity was “a positive sign of mental health.” Hoffman adored Maslow, later reflecting on his Brandeis days by stating, “Most of all I loved Abe Maslow.” During Hoffman’s attendance at Brandeis, Maslow formed a committee of correspondence which widened the circle of Jewish intellectuals who would essentially incubate the younger generation of Jewish radicals who would comprise the new Jewish subculture. As Gerald Sorin puts it, “Jewish overrepresentation in New Left movements looked like Jewish overrepresentation in old left movements.”[6] Maslow began corresponding with fellow Jewish gurus Eric Fromm, Kurt Goldstein, Paul Goodman, Ashley Montagu, and David Reisman among others, and together they founded The Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Hoffman, awed by these fellow-ethnic subculture figures, referred to them as “giants” who “walked in the space of my intellectual world.”[7] Hoffman was clearly engrossed in non-religious expressions of Jewish identity and in the Jewish subculture, writing in his autobiography that “I came into this world acutely aware of being Jewish and I’m sure I’ll go out that way.”[8]

None of this is probed in the film, which altogether dodges the prospect of exploring Jewish radicalism in the New Left. What is offered instead is a watered down, ethnically ambiguous, court procedural designed to act as a feel-good movie for comfortable, immature, middle-class leftists who daydream about sticking it to an image of “the Man” that hasn’t had any relevance for over 50 years.

After the opening montage, the film shifts forwards to the trial, returning during key witness testimonies to important moments from the protest. This has the doubly negative effect of both stalling any potential for building tension within the courtroom setting, and splintering any coherent narrative of how and why the protest/riot was planned and executed. John N. Mitchell, the Attorney General, appoints Tom Foran and Richard Schultz as the prosecutors, while all the defendants except Seale are represented by William Kunstler and Leonard Weinglass (played by the Jewish actor Ben Shenkman). Schultz, who in reality was highly ambitious and quite aggressive during the trial [transcripts are available here], is played by the Jewish actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a mawkishly written role as very much in sympathy with the protestors, and as clashing with an oppressive and legally questionable WASPish system that he has reluctantly become entangled with. The overall impression, despite Sorkin’s bleaching of Jewishness from the trial, is that of brave, big-hearted Jews and Blacks against cruel WASPs and violent police.

Judge Julius Hoffman, played here by Frank Langella (not Jewish), demonstrates clear bias for the prosecution as well as total incompetence, bad hearing, and poor memory. The trial is constantly interrupted by Hoffman’s inadequacies and biases (exaggerated in the film), by shouts from Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and by the interventions of the defense lawyers. In reality, the leftwing audience in the gallery during the trial was notoriously noisy, violent, and difficult, which caused many breaks in proceedings. In the film, however, the gallery is extremely well-behaved with Hoffman himself responsible for most of the disruptions. Judge Hoffman, who is as two-dimensional as every other character in the film, is used mostly as a foil for the childish activities of Abbie Hoffman and Rubin, who show total contempt for the entire judicial process. Hoffman, inept more than malevolent, makes for a poor villain, but since his worst excesses are intercut with faceless, helmeted police wielding batons, we are presumably supposed to perceive him as the representative of “the System” against which the Chicago leftists are “bravely” warring against. Notably stripped from the film is any reference to the real-life exchanges between Abbie Hoffman and Julius Hoffman that involved Jewishness. In particular, Abbie Hoffman accused the judge of betraying Jewish interests, calling out in Yiddish during the trial that Julius Hoffman was a ““Shande fur de Goyim [Disgrace for the Gentiles]” a “Front man for the WASP elite,” and a “disgrace to the Jews, you could have served Hitler better.” During one episode, Hoffman and Rubin entered the courtroom in judges robes. This is repeated in the film with very one notable omission — in reality the robes had yellow stars on them. Sorkin’s omission can be attributed to the desire to clean the film of explicit allusions to Jewishness, and possibly also the desire to absolve the pair of a tastelessness that was in fact their hallmark.

In his The Ordeal of Civility (1974, 193) John Murray Cuddihy notes the overtly ethnic subplot of the trial, particularly the infighting between defendant Abbie Hoffman and Judge Julius Hoffman, the former representing the children of the Eastern European immigrant generation that tended toward political radicalism, and the latter representing the older, more assimilated German-Jewish establishment.

Seale’s attorney is not present due to illness, but Seale is repeatedly told by Judge Hoffman that he can’t represent himself. The constant silencing of Seale, historically accurate, along with some broader subtle commentary on police violence against Blacks, is the only clearly sustained narrative of the film, and was the only aspect I found remotely interesting. Deprived of legal assistance, Seale takes informal advice from his associate Fred Hampton. Seale finds out during the trial that Hampton has been killed during a police raid. This prompts Seale to become more assertive in pushing for his right to defend himself. Judge Hoffman responds by having Seale taken to another room, beaten, and returned gagged and shackled. The sequence is milked in the film for propaganda value, omitting the fact that, in reality, Seale had violently lunged at prosecutor Schultz and that it was the plan of the defendants to have Seale “bound and gagged so they could demonstrate to the world that the federal courts were racist.” The scene ends with Hoffman, losing control of the courtroom, taking Schultz’s suggestion of declaring Seale’s case a mistrial.

Aside from the propagandistic treatment of Seale’s experiences, The Trial of the Chicago 7 lacks authenticity and emotion. With Seale released from the trial, the film loses even more narrative direction. Kunstler and Weinglass decide to call Ramsey Clark, who was Attorney General during the riots, as a witness. Although Clark is willing to co-operate, and is willing to go on record that violence was started by the police, Judge Hoffman refuses to let the jury hear his testimony. Dellinger reacts furiously, punching a bailiff, resulting in his arrest, but since Dellinger has hardly featured in the film apart from waving to his wife and son, it’s difficult to care. There is a last-minute scramble to introduce tension by focusing on the discovery of a tape in which Hayden is heard, prior to the riot, declaring “Let blood spill everywhere.” The sequence is treated in a very ham-fisted way by Sorkin, and is destroyed by being explored, yet again, in flashbacks. Bringing the movie to a close, Hayden uses his closing statement by naming over 4,500 soldiers that died in the Vietnam War since the trial began, in spite of the judge’s instructions and objections. This prompts many in the court room to stand and cheer, and even Schultz joins in. This closing sequence prompted the real-life Schultz to comment: “That never happened. It was a total fantasy for Hollywood.”

The film closes by listing the various convictions for contempt handed down by Judge Hoffman, all of which were later overturned by other courts. We then find out that Tom Hayden went on to become a politician, and that Jerry Rubin became a stock trader. The seeming incongruity in these career choices, and the feeling that it undoes the trite anti-establishment theme we’ve been presented for two hours, embodies the fact that, stripped of the dirty reality, this is a film without any clear message at all. It isn’t focused enough to be an anti-war film, it hints at commentary on police violence but never directly engages with it, and it never explores the motivations of the radicals and so can never explicitly endorse them. In this sense, Sorkin’s movie is a perfect work of filmic neoliberalism, capable of digesting leftist radicalism and regurgitating it in a more palatable, marketable fashion while ignoring its glaring contradictions and ethnic identifications. Sorkin’s film has absolutely nothing to do say about the way in which these “radicals” became part of the System, or rather that they became an iteration of a new system of control via their participation in politics, the stock market, and, in Lee Weiner’s case, the ADL.

Weiner, a sociology professor and the last surviving Jewish member of the Chicago 7, has perhaps two lines in the entire film. Known in reality as the “quiet one,” this is perhaps justified, but his post-trial career trajectory is probably the most interesting. A 1976 article in Mother Jones reported that Weiner “is said to be somewhere near New York, leading a quiet life, sorting out what being Jewish means to him.”[9] Weiner in fact began working for the ADL where, according to Spencer Tucker, he has been directing “special projects” for years.[10] When contacted in 2007 by Jeff Kisseloff for a phone interview, Weiner responded that he was “raising money to fight hate.”[11] So Weiner, the “free speech” radical has become a key member of one of the most significant censorship organisations in the world.

Never explicit, it’s in the contradictions and subtleties of the film that it’s Jewish subtexts are revealed. I found it especially interesting that, during a heated exchange between Tom Hayden (played by the very WASPish Eddie Redmayne) and Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron-Cohen), there is a very prominent poster of Hitler in the background (with the caption “Visit Chicago” above it). The actual history of the poster is a play on contemporary accusations that Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley was an authoritarian anti-Semite (he did in fact at one point shout at Senator Abraham Ribicoff: “Fuck you, you Jew son of a bitch, you lousy motherfucker go home.”) In any case, Hayden stands directly in front of the Hitler poster, while Rubin, Hoffman, and Weiner stand on the other side of the room, giving the momentary impression of Jews vs WASP/Hitler. This takes on greater significance when one considers that there was some real-life antagonism between Jewish leftists and non-Jewish radicals like Hayden. Hayden was known to have disparaged “the New York intellectual culture,” prompting Irving Howe, especially worried by New Left anti-Zionism, to denounce Hayden for his own authoritarian proclivities and to suggest that the New Left was becoming more “Christian” and “utterly American” (his most scathing insult) due to declining Jewish influence.[12] Howe needn’t have worried — Hayden went on to work closely with Jews to innovate Holocaust reparations legislation in California (Holocaust Victims Insurance Act), to be celebrated by the Jewish National Fund for his support for Israel, to employ a Jewish press secretary (Ralph Brave), and to help pioneer “Holocaust education.”

In some ways, it’s the chaos underlying both the real trial, and its filmic representation, that embody the Jewishness of it best. As I wrote at the outset, I’ve always regarded the ultimately chaotic and clownish trial of the Chicago 7 as nothing more than a piece of degenerate Jewish political performance art, demoralising to the American justice system and energising to a new generation of Judeo-Anarchist activists. There was ultimately no meaning to the trial, just as there is no meaning to the film, other than directionless Jewish protest. As Jon Stratton has noted, echoing the comments of John Murray Cuddihy in The Ordeal of Civility, regarding the historical and ethnic issues underpinning the real trial:

The point I want to make here about these people, about the personas they presented which merged with the performances they undertook, is that they lacked civility. Their disruption was, at bottom, a public unsettling of the civility that orders American sociality … The Jews’ lack of civility, and therefore the failure of Western people’s attempts to develop reciprocally civil interactions with Eastern European Jews spread shockwaves through nineteenth-century society. In arguing a larger alienation — since the norms of civility merely spell out and specify for face-to-face interaction the more general values of the culture — the failure of civility came to define the “Jewish problem” as this problem reconstituted itself in the era of social modernity.[13]

The trial of the Chicago 7 was ultimately a demonstration of Jewish tastelessness, chaos, and discord in the midst of American society, involving more than the specific antics of Rubin and Hoffman. The entire episode was a demoralising demonstration of Jewish disruption within the legal system, and the fact that basic Western values and modes of behavior have been viewed by Jews as hostile and oppressive. The trial of the Chicago 7, like so much Jewish activism, was essentially a war on civility. The same antagonisms can be seen today in the quintessentially Jewish vulgarity of comedians like Sarah Silverman, in the riots of Antifa, and in the increasing degeneracy of our cultural and political life. The spirit of the trial lives on in the ceaseless absolving of Antifa rioters of any legal responsibility for their violence and vandalism. Today’s Antifa, of course, will be tomorrow’s politicians, stock traders, and ADL speech monitors, certain to reminisce, without the slightest hint of self-awareness, on the good old days when they fought “the Man.” They might even make a film about it.


[1] S.R. Lichter and S. Rothman, ‘Jewish Ethnicity and Radical Culture: A Social Psychological Study of Political Activists,’ Political Psychology, Vol.3, No.1, (Spring 1981), 135.

[2] E. Sundquist, Strangers in the Land: Blacks, Jews, Post-Holocaust America, (Harvard University Press, 2005), 350.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] M. Jezer, Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel (Rutgers University Press, 1993), 21.

[6] G. Sorin, Tradition Transformed: The Jewish Experience in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1997), 223.

[7] Jezer, 25.

[8] Ibid, 8.

[9] Mother Jones Magazine, Aug 1976, 8.

[10] S. Tucker, The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (ABC-CLIO, 2011), 192.

[11] J. Kisseloff, Generation on Fire: Voices of Protest from the 1960s, An Oral History (University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 83.

[12] E. Lederhendler, New York Jews and the Decline of Urban Ethnicity, 1950-1970(New York: Syracuse University Press, 2001),198.

[13] J. Stratton, Jewish Identity in Western Pop Culture: The Holocaust and Trauma Through Modernity, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 182.

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