Part I: From the Gilded Age Until the Palmer Raids
by the Editorial Board
Adapted from the Spring and Summer, 2015 issues of Jewish Currents
THE SOCIALISTS among them organized garment industry unions, got two of their own elected to the U.S. Congress, and launched a Yiddish newspaper, a mutual aid society, and workers’ housing cooperatives, all of which still endure in the 21st century.
The Communists among them confronted racism and Jim Crow, organized the unemployed during the Great Depression, joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against fascism in Spain — and created our magazine.
The anarchists among them broke the law in the name of birth control, women’s emancipation, and basic workers’ rights, and got themselves thrown in jail — and out of the country.
The Socialist Zionists among them organized money and souls in support of the yishuv, the pre-state Jewish presence in Palestine, and worked to ensure that the Jewish state would be organized on socialist principles that would inspire Jewish idealists.
Leftwing Jews in America were at each other’s throats as often as they were railing against the unjust power of the ruling class. Nevertheless, together they constituted a political prod that helped shape the broader Jewish community into a solidly liberal voting bloc and a wellspring of progressive political leadership and cultural innovation for more than a century. Stalwarts of the Jewish left would help inspire and sustain the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s — and in the decades that followed, new organizations and collectives, most notably New Jewish Agenda, would arise and keep vibrant the association between progressive identity and Jewish identity.
The American Jewish left had roots in radical movements in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and especially the Russian Empire. They were inspired by Russian secular and utopian literature. They were shaped in the cauldron of suffering and emigration caused by Russian pogroms. As the massive influx of Jews (1881-1921) fleeing Eastern Europe swelled the Jewish population of New York to 1,400,000 by 1914, the Jewish left quickly became centered there (with thriving communities in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Milwaukee, and other major cities).
It was a collection of movements filled with contradictions. Jewish leftists were class-conscious and universalist, yet driven for ideological and practical reasons to be affirmatively Jewish and anti-assimilationist — strongly so among Bundists and Zionists, more cautiously among Communists and Socialists. Many of those who disdained Yiddish in their youth came to embrace it, outside Zionist circles, as the language of their political base, as the language of a radical literature, and even, for some, as a kind of portable Jewish homeland.
They were anti-religious, at least when it came to Judaism (progressive Christians like Dorothy Day and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would get a pass) — but oh, what believers these non-believers were when it came to their own ideas!
They were sharply critical of a capitalist and “bourgeois democratic” system that nevertheless afforded unprecedented opportunities to Jews for inclusion, religious freedom, education, and economic advancement — and they embraced the ideals of socialism, which would, in their Soviet embodiment, repeatedly suppress and attack Jewish identity, most particularly religion and Zionism.
Yet from this stew of beliefs and contradictions emerged Yiddish newspapers, books, magazines; powerful labor organizations, worker support groups, and social movements; choruses, dance companies, and theater groups; summer camps, schools, and burial societies; and a progressive Jewish sensibility of audacity, obligation, and idealism that remain central to how American Jews view themselves even today.
In the series that follows, we try to capture that sensibility amid a smattering of highlights of Jewish left history — a poorly documented, poorly preserved history — in visual images.
SOME 250,000 JEWS were resident in the United States when French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s “Liberty Enlightening the World” was dedicated in New York Harbor on October 28, 1886. They were primarily Sephardim whose ancestors had been here at the time of the American Revolution, mostly in port cities such as Charleston, Philadelphia, Newport, and New York, and German and Central European Jews and their offspring, including many refugees from the failed European revolutions of 1848. Among the former group was Emma Lazarus, whose sonnet, “The New Colossus,” written to help raise funds for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal, celebrated the ingathering of the “tired,” the “poor,” the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Her writings against Jewish assimilation and on behalf of Jewish emigration to Palestine would help inspire Zionists in their movement’s earliest days — and more than a half century after her death, Jewish Communist women and their allies would name their activist network “The Emma Lazarus Federation of Jewish Women’s Clubs.”
Other prominent Jewish social activists whose American citizenship preceded the four decades of mass Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe included Samuel Gompers (1850-1924), a British-born socialist who would become president of the American Federation of Labor (and a very conservative labor leader as his career developed); Lillian Wald (1867-1940), a Cincinnati-born German Jew who launched the Henry Street Settlement House, cofounded the NAACP, and pioneered visiting nursing among the tenements of New York; and Louisville-born Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), “the People’s Lawyer” who fought monopolies and landed on the U.S. Supreme Court. Gompers, Wald, Brandeis, and others like them, maturing before or during the so-called “Gilded Age” (1870-1900) — when America’s wealth gap hugely widened and industrialization and immigration brought obscene urban poverty in their wake — became leaders of the Progressive Era of the early 20th century.
Yet the Civil War generation immediately before them had “overwhelmingly supported conservative and pro-business party positions and economic policies,” writes Gerald Sorin in volume three of The Jewish People in America (Henry Feingold, series editor). Their politics were largely indistinguishable from the rest of new American middle class, their positions on slavery and other major questions of the day were shaped largely on a regional basis, and they “were rarely associated with labor unions or radical protest movements.”
That would all change during that mass emigration of more than two million Eastern European proletarian Jews to the U.S. Out of their expectations, their suffering, and their mutual support, a mass-based Jewish left would emerge on this landscape.
THEY LIVED in cramped, dilapidated tenement ghettos, most famously (and squalidly) on New York’s Lower East Side, and worked at sewing clothing in sweatshop factories in lofts and apartments at bare subsistence wages. At the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which spread across three floors of a loft building in New York, women and men labored for twelve to fourteen hours, six days a week, and seven in the busy season, when a sign would go up above the elevator: “If you don’t come in Sunday, don’t come in Monday.”
The garment industry doubled in size with each decade of Jewish emigration, wrote the late Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers (1976), producing a harried contracting system that used “a tough breed of underfinanced adventurers who sought out the owners of cloth… and arranged to convert bundles of precut material into ready-to-wear clothing for a set price.” These contractors doled out oppression to workers on a retail scale. Around 1910, “Jewish heads of families in the garment industry averaged $502 a year,” continued Howe, less than workers in Chicago’s notorious slaughterhouses, while “a third… earned less than $400 a year. What kept these people going was that most families had more than one worker, [and] that they were well trained in the art of self-denial…”
Other Jewish immigrants worked in cigar factories, food trades, construction, retail businesses, and as peddlers. Within the ghetto economy of mostly Jewish bosses and Jewish workers, the Marxist class struggle became a family fight. Add in the generational conflict between Old Country Jews and their rapidly Americanizing children, between mutually spiteful religious and secular Jews, and between various evolving schools of political ideology — along with simple overcrowding (50 percent of Lower East Side families slept three or four to a room) — and the result was a life that Howe described as “abrasive, clamorous” and “susceptible to illnesses caused by overwork.”
The pot boiled over in 1909 with labor strikes, beginning when two thousand bakers protested “conditions that were regarded as shocking even on the East Side,” writes Howe. The United Hebrew Trades, a federation of Jewish unions, suddenly began to swell. Then, on November 22, 1909, 20,000 garment workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian women and girls, abandoned their sewing machines, needles, and scissors.
They’d been summoned to strike by Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old firebrand who had already helped organize a fledgling shirtwaist workers union. During the struggle that followed, Lemlich was arrested seventeen times for picketing, and hospitalized with six broken ribs. She would recount her story in our magazine as follows, half a century later:
[S]ince every strike we called was smashed by the bosses, the union decided to call a meeting at Cooper Union. The hall was packed. On the platform was Samuel Gompers of the American Federation of Labor, Leonora O’Reilly of the Women’s Trade Union League, B. Feigenbaum of the Jewish Daily Forward. Each one talked about the terrible conditions of the workers in the shops. But no one gave or made any practical or valid solution.
Lemlich then asked for the floor. “I am a working girl, one of those who suffers from and is on strike against the intolerable conditions portrayed here,” she said in Yiddish. “I am tired of listening to those who speak in general terms…. I move a general strike — now.” Some 2,500 workers in attendance pledged themselves to the strike, the Uprising of the 20,000 — which would last for eleven painful weeks.
Ninety percent of the strikers were Jews. Seventy percent were women.
They withstood fierce opposition from the bosses, hired thugs, and the legal system, and forced 339 of the 353 struck firms within the Waist and Dress Manufacturers’ Association to sign contracts granting a 52-hour week, four annual paid holidays, no deductions for tools or supplies, and equal division of work during slack seasons. Most importantly, by the strike’s end, 85 percent of all shirtwaist workers in New York had joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Clara Lemlich’s Local 25, which had launched the strike with 100 members, now had 10,000.
One of larger firms that did not sign a union contract was the Triangle Company — which went up in flames on March 25, 1911, taking the lives of 146 workers who had no means of escaping the conflagration. The spectacle caused such grief and outrage that New York State was soon renovating its labor laws to improve worker safety and working conditions.
THE UPRISING OF THE 20,000 was followed in 1910 by strikes of 50,000 cloakmakers in New York and 40,000 garment workers in Chicago (a strike that launched the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union). In 1912 there were strikes in New York by 8,500 furriers and 100,000 men’s clothing workers. In those few years between the Triangle Fire and the outbreak of World War I, labor organizing intensified throughout the U.S. — but “the militancy of Jewish workers,” writes Gerald Sorin, was “particularly intense.” The United Hebrew Trades experienced a phenomenal growth to 250,000 members, and the mostly Jewish ILGWU grew by 68 percent between 1910 and 1913, a pace outstripping any union in the country.
In those same years, the Socialist Party grew to over 225 branches in thirty-two states and was electing mayors and state legislators. Positive links grew between Jewish labor and reformist Progressives, and Jewish unions, “committed to socialism,” writes Sorin, “… became laboratories for testing social welfare programs” like the forty-five-hour, five-day week, paid vacations, unemployment and health insurance, pensions, medical care, educational and recreational facilities, credit unions, and low-rent housing cooperatives.”
Seeds of the disunity that would soon stifle the power of the Jewish left were also sown during this period. The Wobblies (members of the anarchistic Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW), which gained relatively few Jewish members as they centered their organizing among laborers (miners, longshoremen, lumberjacks), led confrontational strikes and free speech actions that met with extensive armed violence from police and private militias. Rather than invoking labor solidarity, Samuel Gompers insisted on their rejection by the AFL. In his view, anarchists and socialists of any stripe were enemies of his brand of bread-and-butter, racially segregated, craft-based unionism.
This initial split in the labor movement would become more acute as the AFL supported U.S. entry into World War I — a position that was anathema to anarchists and ruptured the Socialist Party. “Both the ILGWU and the Amalgamated… refused to follow the AFL’s example of pledging not to strike,” observed Morris U. Schappes in our magazine in 1955, as the “St. Louis convention of the Socialist Party… opened the very day after the declaration of war” and “denounced it ‘as a crime against the people of the United States and against the nations of the world…’” Large numbers of Socialist Zionists supported this stand, Schappes notes, until they were “won over to favoring the war by the Balfour Declaration while a minority ultimately split with the Zionists and became anti-war Socialists.”
Russia’s 1917 Bolshevik Revolution would eventually serve as a cleaver that split the American left, including its Jewish wing, into mutually contemptuous pro-Soviet and anti-Soviet wings. Before that revolution was even consolidated, however, a series of anarchist bombings and a 1919 general strike involving 100,000 workers in Seattle triggered across-the-board repression of leftists by America’s powers-that-be. The Palmer Raids were soon sweeping thousands of “Bolsheviks” into jail and hundreds onto ships for deportation — including the outspoken feminist anarchist Emma Goldman, just released from prison for her opposition to World War I. In Massachusetts, Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were imprisoned for murder and executed in 1927, in a case widely viewed as a government frame-up.
Among other instances of government disregard for civil liberties was a police sweep through the Brownsville Labor Lyceum in Brooklyn, where more than a thousand people, mostly Jews, attended the Brownsville Socialist Sunday School on a weekly basis and helped sustain a cooperative bakery, bank, and tenant organization. “Government repression,” writes Schappes, also included the denial of “second-class mailing privileges [to] several socialist periodicals, including the New York Call and the Forward.”
The Palmer Raids targeted Italians, Germans, Latvians, and other immigrants alongside Jews. The hostile climate included a sharp rise in anti-black rioting in major cities, rejuvenation of the Ku Klux Klan, new restrictions on immigration, and the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda by Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent, among other sources. While some Jews responded to all of this with a desperate urge to “Americanize,” other Jews came to see they would only be accepted in a transformed system. Whatever their reaction, distrust of the forces of reaction became, within the broad Jewish community, a fundamental article of faith.
To be continued.