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On this day in 1791, Israel Jacobs of Pennsylvania became the first Jew to be seated in the U.S. House of Representatives. One hundred and twenty years later, on this day in 1911, Victor L. Berger of Milwaukee became the first socialist to be seated in the House. Berger lost his seat in 1912 but won it again in 1918, despite being under indictment under the Espionage Act for his opposition to World War I. The House twice refused to seat him, however, and he was soon sentenced to twenty years in federal prison. The sentence was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1921, whereupon Berger was reelected — in 1922, ‘24 and ‘26. Among the issues he championed in Congress were old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, public housing, and nationalization of major industries. A founder of the Socialist Labor Party in 1901, he was a moderate socialist who believed in incremental advances and the importance of the ballot. Berger died in a streetcar accident in 1929. “When the first glimmerings of socialism began to penetrate [my consciousness],” said Eugene Victor Debs, “. . . Victor L. Berger — and I have loved him ever since — came to Woodstock [the jail where Debs was confined for participating in the railroad strike of 1894], as if a providential instrument, and delivered the first impassioned message of socialism I had ever heard — the very first to set the wires humming in my system.”
“You got nothing out of the war except flu and prohibition.” — Victor L. Berger
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.