…stories survived, countless tales of partisans and revolutionaries, resistance fighters and firebrands, engaged in a fiery struggle for redemption and deliverance.
Who would guess without reading further that this is the Australian writer and social activist Arnold Zable talking of his Jewish forebears? The contemporary narrative of Jewish history is one of ghettos, pogroms, suffering, oppression – Jews as the eternal victims. The climax of what Maxime Rodinson calls the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history” is the Holocaust, when Jews supposedly went to the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter. Zionists, in particular, appropriated this narrative, claiming that Jews can only shed their victimhood through an armed state.
This study presents an alternative view of modern Jewish history, a narrative that shows that Jews are not eternal victims but have fought back against their oppression. This history offers a better resolution to oppression than through state-building and alliances with imperialism. It is the story of the radical Jewish working class. The core concept is an understanding of how Jewish workers responded to twin experiences – those of exploitation and oppression. The development of class consciousness, workers’ organisations and socialist ideas was inseparable from the experience of oppression – anti-Semitism in the form of discrimination and violence.
The story of Jewish radicalism starts in the late nineteenth century among Yiddish-speaking workers in the Russian empire, where the bulk of the world’s Jews lived. A tradition of strikes and trade unionism, of socialist organisations and revolutionary ideas, grew, while large-scale migrations facilitated its spread.
In this study, I will trace the path of this tradition. We will see how newly proletarianised Jews living in the ghettoised communities radicalised and engaged in struggle. They created trade unions, gained class consciousness and responded to socialist ideas, while defending themselves from anti-Semitic violence. We will then follow the emigrants who fled from tsarism and pogroms as they headed to the UK and the USA, taking their language and culture, their fighting spirit and their radical ideas with them.
After World War I and the Russian Revolution, the world changed dramatically. But the Jewish working-class communities in many countries continued to play a major role in struggles, while fighting the growing threat of fascism. We will look at the continuing story in London’s East End and in Poland in the interwar years.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the social situation of Jews changed dramatically. Leaving behind their role in the mediaeval world as intermediaries between rulers and ruled, the Jewish community developed modern capitalist relationships as a small number became bosses and the lower-class majority proletarianised.
Modern anti-Semitism developed at the same time. This was no coincidence. Anti-Semitism is not the same as traditional anti-Jewish feeling; it is a modern phenomenon which fundamentally restructures historical Jew-hating.
With the emergence of nationalism as a defining factor in European society in the nineteenth century, anti-Jewish prejudice developed forms specific to the imperialist era. Majority populations, needing to see themselves as ethnically homogeneous in order to justify nationalist aspirations, pointed to the existence of “alien” Jewish elements in their midst:
Particularly for those whose national consciousness was of recent vintage, the exclusion of Jews from the nation became a means of defining nationality… “Jewish traits” came to signify the very opposite of what it meant to be a Pole, Rumanian, or Ukrainian.
In the mediaeval period, religion had been the primary target of hostility against Jews. Modern anti-Semitism focuses instead on their supposedly racial characteristics. Pseudoscientific theories asserting that the Jews are inferior were used to bolster propaganda about racial superiority and gave anti-Semitism new respectability and popular support.
Although it might draw on traditional (or new) tropes about Jews:
[a]ntisemitism is not merely emotional; it is activist. Antisemites advocate long-term activity against Jews, the enemy…[resulting in] its politicization and embodiment in permanent political parties, voluntary associations, and publishing ventures…its institutionalisation.
The current emerged in Germany during the latter half of the nineteenth century, following a severe economic crisis. The term itself was coined in 1879 by right-wing German political activist Wilhelm Marr, who founded the League of Antisemites (Antisemiten-Liga). This was the first German organisation committed specifically to combating the alleged threat to Germany posed by the Jews and advocating their forced removal from the country. Anti-Semitism became a powerful political tool and an organised movement with its own political parties. The movement became so widespread that anti-Semitic ideology was incorporated into the program of the German Conservative Party, which became Bismarck’s base.
Since then, anti-Semitism has proved a very useful tool enabling ruling classes to maintain or increase their power: Jews could be made scapegoats for existing social or political grievances.
Generally speaking, the times of wide-scale antisemitic action corresponded to general economic calamities – the crash and depression of the 1870s, the aftermath of World War I, and the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Importantly, Jews themselves also developed nationalist ideas in this period. It cannot be emphasised too strongly that this was completely new. Weinstock explains:
Victims of the aggressive nationalism of the rising bourgeoisie in the countries of Eastern Europe, the Jewish middle classes and craftsmen quite naturally adopted…the nationalist ideology of their neighbours.
Zionism, with its many currents, was part of this trend. General Zionism, oriented to the middle class, was dominant and directed its energy to finding allies among ruling classes and powerful figures. Revisionist Zionism was openly committed to Zionism, as a colonising movement, and the use of armed force. Neither of these currents gained much leverage among the Jewish masses.
Most Jewish socialists in the tsarist empire were anti-Zionist. The establishment of the Jewish Labour Bund in 1897 was in part a response to nationalist ideas but was restricted to a concept of national cultural autonomy for Jews within the tsarist empire; it did not propose emigration.
However, socialist Zionists attempted to marry advocacy of settlement of Jews in Palestine as a political goal with support for local working-class struggles. Some restricted themselves to economic and trade union activity, while others participated in revolutionary political activity alongside non-Jewish socialist organisations and joined self-defence groups against pogroms.
Perhaps the most important of these, Poalei Zion, refused to cooperate with bourgeois Zionists and left the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) in 1909. However, the attempt to unite class struggle with nationalism and emigration created powerful contradictions. Not surprisingly, there were constant splits and conflicts which came to a crisis during the 1917 revolution. Left Poale Zion continued to boycott WZO until 1937 and was active in the class struggle and defence against growing anti-Semitism in Poland in the interwar years. The Right Poale Zion supported the Balfour Declaration and worked with mainstream Zionists. In Poland, however, they gained the adherence of the Zionist youth movement Dror-Frayhayt, which was to play an important role in resistance to the Nazis in occupied Poland. Both wings of Poalei Zion participated in the Jewish Fighting Organisation during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
Currents within Labour Zionism like Hashomer Hatzair (the Young Guard) called themselves socialist but generally were antithetical to the class struggle. They argued that Jewish workers were marginal to the working-class movement and could supposedly only engage in class struggle in what they considered their own land:
Naturally poor Jews showed little interest in a so-called labour movement that did not tell them to put their all into fighting in the immediate present for better conditions, but rather to concern themselves about far-off Palestine.
Labour Zionism was never able to win over any significant section of the Jewish working class in any country. Their primary appeal was to those young middle-class Jews who sought to break with their class origins but were not prepared to go over to the working class.
The main currents within Labour Zionism decisively subordinated class questions to nationalism in the 1930s and, under Ben-Gurion, played a central role in the establishment of the Zionist state.
All Zionists treat Jews, to some degree, as a single body, distinct and separate from non-Jews. A major theme of this study is how class divisions within the Jewish community meant that workers had very different interests from those of their Jewish bosses; solidarity between Jews and non-Jews contributed to success in working-class struggles, including the fight against anti-Semitism.
Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, argued that anti-Semitism was inherent in non-Jews and could not be fought. By contrast, the socialist response to anti-Semitism was that it could be fought, along with other forms of oppression and racism, and that the struggle of the working class to overthrow capitalism brought with it the best possibility of creating an equal society.
This combination of class struggle, solidarity, socialism and the fight against oppression is the story of the radical Jewish tradition. In this article, I explore these themes and situate them into the larger story – a continuous history of struggle that flows almost uninterruptedly for more than six decades and through at least three continents. It is the story of an international mass movement.
Socialist Zionist Ber Borochov wrote in 1916:
Socialist ideas were brought from tyrannized Russia to free England and America. Filled there with a new content, they returned through London, Koenigsberg, and Vienna to the Ghettos of Galicia and Russia. A worker who had just gone on strike in New York could exchange new impressions with a friend who would soon be striking in Bialystok or Vilna. His head full of vague longings, the Jewish worker set out on the long road. At all points en route, through Austria, Germany, France, England, and Holland, he came in contact with comrades from all countries, weaving a spiritual thread between east and west. In that way the seed of revolutionary thought was carried to the four corners of the world. The flow of migration spread the Jewish labor movement everywhere.
During the middle ages, Poland was the most tolerant country in Europe and became a refuge for Jews persecuted in, and expelled from, other countries. As a result, by the middle of the sixteenth century, perhaps three-quarters of the world’s Jews lived there. The Habsburgs, Prussia and the Russian empire partitioned Poland in the early eighteenth century, with Russia annexing the eastern part outright; the western part was retained as a distinct entity, known as the Congress Kingdom of Poland.
Tsarist Russia thus ended up with the majority of the Jews in Europe under its jurisdiction. It certainly did not welcome them.
Alongside religion and customs, language set the community apart from the local populations. At the 1897 census, 99 percent of Jews in the Jewish areas of tsarist Russia spoke Yiddish. The language is derived from High German but written with the Hebrew alphabet. Upper-class Jews often regarded Yiddish as debased and not suitable for sophisticated purposes. But, more importantly for our purposes, socialists also often regarded the working-class vernacular as “jargon” and promoted the use of Russian or Polish. In their early circle work, they usually commenced by teaching Jewish participants Russian.
Yiddish remained the primary language among Jews in Europe, the UK and the USA until World War I. It was still widely spoken in the interwar years: prior to the Holocaust, there were 11–13 million Yiddish speakers among 17 million Jews worldwide.
In 1826, Tsar Nicholas I launched a systematic plan to “de-Judaise” Russia. The first move was to restrict nearly 4.9 million Jews to urban areas of the Pale of Settlement, comprising the western region of the empire, the annexed parts of Poland and most of modern-day Ukraine, Lithuania and Belorussia (see map). Although they made up only 11.6 percent of the population overall, Jews now developed a large social weight in cities and small towns (shtetls); in nine provinces, they were the majority of the urban population.
Nicholas also brought in restrictions on education, civil liberties and occupations, tightening them further in 1835 when almost all Jewish printing presses were closed and books were burnt.
The next tsar, Alexander II, had a reputation for liberalism, with his greatest reform being the abolition of serfdom in 1861. However, his easing of restrictions on Jews was minor and limited to the upper echelons; and, after the Polish insurrection of 1863, official repression again increased. Most notorious was a pogrom in Odessa in 1871, in which an organised mob, with active or tacit approval from the authorities, rampaged through the Jewish quarter for three days. Thus, at a time of increasing political opposition and frustration among the peasantry, Jews were established as a convenient political scapegoat, and the word “pogrom” came into the English language.
Pogroms became what William Fishman, one of the pioneers of radical Jewish history, calls “an inbuilt safety valve” for the aristocracy. In the three years after the populist organisation Narodnaya Volya assassinated Alexander II in March 1881, there were over 200 organised outbreaks of looting, rape and murder. The authorities often took no action, promoted the violence or even instigated the attacks themselves. Fishman describes how “the new barbarism struck with the virulence of a plague” as over 50 villages near Kiev “succumbed to the epidemic” over a two-month period in 1881 alone. Only two years after the coining of the term anti-Semitism, the Russian ruling class employed it as a deliberate policy.
Legal restrictions and discrimination accompanied the brutality. Alexander III’s May Laws of 1882 constricted the borders of the Pale further, forcing more than a million people to move and also tightening restrictions on trading and university places.
This outbreak of violence and repression precipitated the first great wave of emigration; a quarter of a million Jews fled Russia in 1881–2.
The popular image of the Russian empire at this time is of vast steppes populated by backward and superstitious peasants. But the western border area, where the Jews were located, was a crossroads of exchange and influence. The development of capitalism there in the 1860s led to crucial social transformations. In the early part of the century, most Jews in the region were petty traders and artisans – many in the countryside. But with the spread of the capitalist mode of production, social structure became dominated by urban manual labour, transforming traditional social relationships and customs. No longer was the typical Jew a narrow-minded and conservative country bumpkin like Tevye, the hero of Fiddler on the Roof. A new culture arose, one which was now open to the modern world.
Concentrated in the urban centres in the Pale of Settlement, the Jewish masses were now at the centre of this developing capitalism, and the process was very rapid: by 1897, it was estimated that there were 105,000 Jewish workers, approximately one-third of all economically active Jews.
Some were employed in larger enterprises, such as textile factories in Bialystok and Łódź in Poland and match and cigarette factories in Byelorussia. But most Jews worked in small workshops in the handicraft sector with a low technological level. Nonetheless, this was no longer the older post-mediaeval world of masters and apprentices; rather, the workshops were embedded in modern capitalist relationships of employers and workers, of capital and wages. In this way, this “wretched complex of workshops and petty industry” became the basis of the Jewish workers’ movement. The resultant misery and isolation from the concurrent formation of the Russian-speaking proletariat led to a distinctive radicalism as well as the development of specifically Jewish organisations.
Figure 1 shows clearly how Jews were disproportionately represented in industry, while virtually absent from agriculture.
|Jews (%)||Total population (%)|
|Commerce and transport||34.6||7.4|
|Professions, state services, social services||7.2||8.2|
|Rentiers, indeterminate unproductive occupations||7.6||5.2|
Figure 1. Distribution of Jews and total population by occupations in the Pale, 1897.
The process of proletarianisation was accompanied by severe immiseration. Statistics reveal that the death rate among Jews was twice that of non-Jews; overcrowding, disease and want were the norms. Particularly characteristic of Jewish economic life at the time was the existence of what were known as luftmenshen (“air people” – people who live on air). These sorry individuals existed by very petty trading and peddling, fiddles or charity, with perhaps an occasional small paid job.
One could be forgiven for thinking at this stage that the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history was perhaps correct: a downtrodden and despised population, subject to systematic discrimination and violence, desperately poor and subjugated.
German social democrat Karl Kautsky explained:
If the Russian people suffer more than other peoples, if the Russian proletariat is more exploited than any other proletariat, there exists yet another class of workers who are still more oppressed, exploited and ill-treated than all the others; this pariah among pariahs is the Jewish proletariat in Russia.
But capitalism generates its own grave-diggers. Despite the overcrowding and squalor, the misery and disease, another process was occurring.
From a certain point of view, the Jewish workers may be considered the vanguard of the labour army in Russia.
As Jewish workers proletarianised, they began to organise themselves collectively. The first known Jewish trade union was the Women’s Tailors Association in Mogilev (modern Belarus) as early as 1864. By the 1870s and 1880s, significant strikes were occurring among textile workers. These early economic struggles were mostly defensive, around such issues as wage cuts, working hours, fines and the like.
Bialystok in north-east Poland was a centre of industry in the late nineteenth century. “In and around the town stood tall round factory chimneys, belching forth industrial smoke.”
It was also a centre of Jewish working-class activism. According to a socialist newspaper:
In those quiet, still times, when Jewish workers throughout Russia were sound asleep, dreaming of the Messiah and the world to come, we Bialystok workers were already waging economic battles, beating up the industrialists, breaking looms, striking, struggling.
During the Russo-Turkish war of 1877–8, the demand for uniforms for soldiers gave these workers leverage, and they won a wage rise following a “huge aggressive strike” of 15,000 workers – consisting of Jews (1,500), Germans and Poles.
Here is a list of some events in Bialystok from a non-political source, the Bialystoker Memorial Book. Over the course of 20 years, there are strikes, rapid technological changes and dramatic political developments.
1876 Jewish wagon drivers strike against new police regulations.
1882 The first weavers’ strike occurs in Bialystok.
1882 A pogrom is threatened in Bialystok. Jewish butchers, wagon and coach drivers repel the attackers.
1890 The first spinning wheel is brought to Bialystok.
1890 Jakow Pat, writer and leader of the Bund, is born in Bialystok.
1895 A wildcat strike by weavers breaks out in Bialystok.
1897 Bialystok contains 41,905 Jews (the general population is 67,000). The financial status of the city is good.
1897 The Bund party is established in Bialystok.
1898 The first strike fund is established by the Bund.
The 1882 strike was probably the first in Russia to demonstrate trade union organisation. It was exceptionally well organised for the period and gained financial support from other Jewish workers and ethnic German weavers.
Łódź in Congress Poland, another industrial centre with a large Jewish population, became the main centre for textile production, with 23,000 workers in 1885. Socialists were active among them as early as 1878. On Mayday 1892, a mass demonstration of 20,000 strikers and their supporters battled troops, resulting in 46 deaths.
Ber Borochov calls these early economic struggles the “pre-history” of the Jewish labour movement; generally lacking class consciousness and organisation, workers were still “blindly groping”.
A turning point came in 1887; the Jewish workers’ movement began to move beyond spontaneous local activity and to take on a more planned and conscious character. A successful rolling strike by 2,000 Bialystok weavers led by a strike committee resisted the blandishments of the governor of the province and held firm for two months. This required organisation and discipline. In the same year, there were strikes of locksmiths in Minsk (Belarus) and women stocking-makers in Vilna (Lithuania). The following year, Leo Jogiches, later to be famous for his leadership of Polish social democracy and then his role in the German socialist movement, led a strike of 30 Vilna printers. These actions often resulted in embryonic trade union structures.
Militancy spread in the 1890s with the eruption of a strike wave. With workdays of 18 hours common, the demand for a 12-hour day exploded across the region as workers’ impatience “could not be controlled” and the “pent-up hostilities workers had long been harboring towards their employers” were unleashed. In Vitebsk (Belarus), the movement “rapidly embraced almost all the crafts, strike followed strike”. A general tailors’ strike in Vilna was “an event of the first order.”
Agitation among Bialystok textile workers was almost non-stop. A three-week strike of 10,000 in 1894 saw weavers eject scabs from factories. The following year, 8,500 weavers (both Jews and non-Jews) repeatedly broke factory windows. Such actions “threw a scare into the manufacturers and the master weavers”. In 1900, in “a spectacular event”, weavers and their wives protested against unemployment in the synagogue on a Saturday.
Starting among craft workers and artisans, the strike wave began to draw in unskilled workers like the 800 women in Shereshevsky’s cigarette factory in Grodno, who went on strike in 1899, “much to the alarm of local public opinion”.
This strike wave had a major impact on socialists. Arkady Kremer, later one of the founders of the Bund, and Julius Martov, later a Menshevik leader, argued in a widely read pamphlet, “On agitation” (1893), that the main task now was to move away from small circles and to turn attention towards masses of workers. Lenin subsequently embraced these arguments. The Vilna socialists formulated a new program of agitation which historian Ezra Mendelsohn considers “the greatest single contribution the Jewish Marxists of Belorussia–Lithuania made to the general Russian social democratic movement”.
Of course, Jews weren’t the only ones making the turn to agitation. Martov acknowledged that the Jewish socialists were influenced by the example of the Polish labour movement, which began mass agitation among workers in the 1880s.
But, as socialist activist and academic Sai Englert comments:
the consequence of the dual experience of rampant anti-Semitism and rapid proletarianization of the Jewish masses was a particular openness from Jewish radicals to the arguments about the need to do away with oppression and exploitation.
Consequently, Jewish workers rapidly outpaced Russians in terms of trade union organisation. As late as 1907, only 7 percent of St Petersburg workers were members of trade unions; by 1900, 20 percent of all the Jewish workers in Bialystok and up to 40 percent in other cities were organised.
Brossat and Klingberg note:
Until the revolution of 1905, the lead taken by the Jewish workers’ movement over that of its Russian, Polish, Baltic, Ukrainian and Caucasian counterparts was an evident and remarkable feature of the situation in the tsarist empire.
Figure 2 shows the growth of militancy among Jewish workers around the turn of the century.
|Year||Number of strikes||Approximate number of strikers||Number per strike|
Figure 2: Strikes among Jewish workers in Lithuania and Poland 1895–1904.
Many strikes involved only a small number of workers, but the sheer number of strikers in the pivotal years of 1897 and 1903 is impressive. This popular Yiddish song gives an idea of the atmosphere:
Everywhere you go, on every street
You hear rumblings
Men, women and children
Are talking about strikes
Brothers, enough of your drudgery
Enough of borrowing and lending
We’re going on strike,
Brothers, let us free ourselves!
Borochov concluded that this strike movement of the Jewish workers in the Pale was more intense than any in the Western world in the period. Whether or not this is an exaggeration, the strike wave was certainly massive and deserves to be better known.
The core issue underlying the movement was the establishment of more modern labour relations: overwhelmingly, the small workshops operated under a pre-capitalist model of no fixed hours, irregular payment of wages and a patriarchal relationship between bosses and employees. The movement “was directed squarely against the anarchical, chaotic conditions” and demanded “uniform, well-regulated conditions of work”, the most important being a 12-hour day. Thus, although the immediate demands were economic, the relations between workers and bosses were also being challenged.
Socialists became very important in the movement. They helped to set up trade unions, planned actions and tried to teach strategy, for example, calling strikes when they would be most effective during the high season of demand. They also wanted the workers to think beyond the present and form long-term structures. This was difficult because spontaneous actions continually sprang up, and the socialists often had trouble preventing “unauthorised” strikes. The raw new movement was often unable to see very far and made many mistakes.
Certain sectors, such as tanners and shop assistants, proved particularly successful, but the bristle workers were outstanding; theirs was the only organisation of the time to extend beyond local towns. They also took more far-sighted positions, such as the demand for better medical facilities and against child labour and overtime, declaring themselves to be a political organisation “which fights not only individual capitalists but the regime and the present order”.
This mass strike wave required funds, the collection of which built further solidarity. Women strikers at a match factory, for example, appealed for aid in the socialist press: “Help us, dear comrades, write to other cities, help us in our struggle”. This was surprisingly successful. During the abovementioned strike at Shereshevsky’s factory, money came from workers throughout the Pale and from Bundists in Azerbaijan, New York, London, Berlin and Lyon.
How did the activists manage all this illegal activity? How do you sell newspapers, collect union dues and pass on information in a situation of illegality, when all activities have to be clandestine? The main strategy was to gather in specially designated streets called “birzhes”, where activists could walk and talk in the open. If one street became too dangerous, people just moved to another. Despite police spies and frequent raids, birzhes were a vital part of the movement. Although there was no longer any illegality, we’ll see this custom of organising in the streets appearing again in the countries of emigration.
In small workshops, both the bosses and the workforce were Jewish, and this had been the basis for a particularly insidious form of super-exploitation – it was easy to appeal to the belief in a common interest when everyone attended the same synagogue and lived and worked apart from the non-Jews in separate Jewish quarters of the towns.
In Jewish-owned factories, however, the workforce included both Jews and non-Jews; and in industrial centres, such as Bialystok and Łódź, both groups lived in close proximity. Mendelsohn comments that, in these circumstances, “relations between Jewish and gentile workers often held the key to the success or failure of a given strike”.
The Jewish bosses were often reluctant to hire Jewish workers:
Jewish workers were often hired last because they were considered to be too quick to organise, strike or revolt. A Jewish factory owner in Vilnius [Vilna] explained: “I prefer to hire Christians. The Jews are good workers, but they are capable of organising revolts against the boss, the regime and the Tsar himself”.
Mendelsohn gives many examples of how the Jewish employers exploited intercommunal hostilities in conflicts with their employees. In Berdichev (now in Ukraine):
a factory owner made a speech in front of Christian workers…[and said] that the Jews were disloyal to the Christians…and that they should therefore break the strike.
A Jewish factory owner in Bialystok “used all his eloquence to arouse a strong hatred on the part of the Christians for the Jews” to prevent them joining together in a strike, while, in Łódź, a boss in a sock-making shop “instigated the Christians against the Jews and fomented quarrels between them”.
Non-Jews were particularly sought after as scabs. For example, one factory owner argued: “we must hire people, especially Christians, who will be able to give a good lesson to those strikers rising against their employers”.
Sometimes, workers were able to successfully resist the use of non-Jewish scabs. One example occurred in 1901 when a Bialystok cigarette factory owner fired 45 young Jewish women and replaced them with non-Jewish peasants. The union declared a boycott to “wage war against” the boss. After a month of announcements in the synagogues and the destruction of purchased tobacco, the factory owner conceded and rehired the women.
The socialists did their best to argue against intercommunal hostility, trying to replace the tradition that all Jews were brothers with the new idea of class solidarity. They argued that “among us workers there exists no difference between a Jew and a Christian, we advance hand in hand against our oppressors” and “the wealthy Jews ‘have their own God; their money, their capital, is their god’, whereas ‘our God [of the workers] is unity’”.
They distributed leaflets to non-Jewish workers, trying to promote greater militancy in an attempt to raise class consciousness and counter anti-Semitism, but with very little success. Nonetheless, there were important examples of intercommunal cooperation. During a strike at a match factory in Latvia in 1903, non-Jewish workers from a nearby leather factory held a demonstration, urging the strikers “to stand firm”. At the Shereshevsky cigarette factory in 1904, non-Jewish workers refused to act as scabs: “Here Jew and Pole do not exist, we are all workers”.
Jewish socialists formed the first circle in the Russian empire in Vilna as early as 1874. It was one of the first to produce socialist literature in Yiddish. By the 1890s, Jewish socialist groups of various political tendencies were active in many towns.
Several of these came together at a clandestine meeting in the attic of a Vilna worker’s house in September 1897. Thirteen people (five intellectuals and eight workers) representing 3,500 members formed the Algemeyner yidisher arbeter-bund in lite, poyln un rusland (General Jewish Workers’ League of Lithuania, Poland and Russia), generally known as the Jewish Labour Bund or simply “the Bund”. Later ideological differences and splits have diverted attention away from the importance of the early Russian Bund to the whole revolutionary movement.
The Bund was the first Marxist group in the Russian empire to create a mass organisation and remained the largest up to 1905. It played a leading role in revolutionary activities. In 1898, the Bund organised the first congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), because their resources and organisational skills were far superior to those of their Russian and Polish comrades. It was so predominant that, in the period before the 1905 revolution, one-third of the prisoners in the Siberian labour camps were Bundists.
Even in the 1905 revolution, the Bund was still much larger, with nearly 30,000 members, compared to 8,500 in the Russian party.
The Bund was the first organisation in Russia to implement many of the features we see today as characteristic of the revolutionary party – the agitational paper, the professional revolutionary and the need for the party to be rooted among workers. In the western part of the Russian empire, the Bund helped the RSDLP to produce and distribute their first publication.
As a revolutionary organisation under conditions of illegality, the Bund combined engagement with the economic struggles of the Yiddish-speaking working class with the spreading of socialist ideas.
Molly Crabapple gives an account of the experience of her great-grandfather, Sam Rothbort, an apprentice leatherworker and member of the Bund in Volkavisk (south-west Lithuania). In 1856, the town was overwhelmingly Jewish, with 4,417 Jews and 834 Christians.
Under the Bundists’ influence, the apprentices went on strike. The bosses brought in strikebreakers. Running battles spilled from the streets into the synagogue itself, where Bundists and the employers’ goons went after each other with clubs… “I took part in strikes and sabotage,” Sam later wrote, “I became a revolutionist.” The violence won the apprentices a radical new right: Saturday evenings off work.
This does not mean an early cessation of work for the day. The workers would have had the daylight period of Saturday off for the Jewish sabbath. Employers often then required them to return in the evening and work through the night.
The 80 members of the Bund in the town held secret gatherings in the forest where they sang the Bundist anthem “The Oath” under a red flag:
Brothers and sisters in toil and struggle
All who are dispersed far and wide
Come together, the flag is ready
It waves in anger, it is red with blood!
Swear an oath of life and death!
This small group of revolutionists showed enormous bravery and flair in their fight against the ruling class:
They robbed a government alcohol monopoly… During strikes, they slashed phone lines, smashed up factories, beat scabs. They ambushed prison convoys, threw powdered tobacco (like improvised pepper spray) into the faces of the drivers and liberated their arrested comrades. They sawed through the cell bars of their friend…and when the cops came looking for him at a comrade’s house he stole out, dressed as an old woman.
Alexander Bittelman’s memoirs are also evocative. As a 13-year-old in Berdichev near Kiev, he was present when a Bund agitator, one Isaak, met with his father and other shoemakers. Bittelman describes the scene: himself sitting on his parents’ bed while about 20 people mostly sat on the floor in their two-room dwelling, lit by a single kerosene lamp.
Isaak helped them to form the first union in the town in 1902 and subsequently led their first strike. But they did more than talk about purely economic issues:
He spoke of all the injustice and brutalities of the entire existing social and political systems. He did so in plain words…but very feelingly. About the doings of the Czar’s government to the workers, the Jews and all the people.
Bittelman was “intensely interested” in Isaak’s talks:
From him I first heard elaborate explanation of the meaning of such words as socialism, revolution, democratic republic…class struggle, exploitation, capitalists and proletariat.
Isaak also talked about their specific situation as Jewish workers:
According to him, the Jewish workers in Czarist Russia were carrying a double burden: the burden of exploited workers which they shared with all other workers in Russia and the burden of an oppressed and discriminated and persecuted nationality. Never before have I seen the special Jewish miseries in the Czar’s empire in quite that light.
At the town’s first ever Mayday parade in 1903, demonstrators converged on the square singing revolutionary songs in Yiddish. The police allowed speeches but hurtled into the crowd of some hundreds when the banner was raised. After a “sharp fight…between the police and the strong-arm comrades of the front several rows”, the banner was saved, although police shot the bearer in the arm. “The demonstration was the talk of the town for weeks.”
As for Bittelman, so for thousands of others influenced by the Bund in that period. They became revolutionaries and conceived an intense loyalty to the Bund.
This is not the place for a detailed history of the Bund and its relationship with the RSDLP. But it is important to understand that the Bund in this period, if flawed, was nonetheless a revolutionary Marxist organisation.
Living as they did in what Lenin called the “prison house of nations”, and alongside many other ethnic groups with national aspirations, it is not surprising that nationalist sentiments arose among the Jews of the tsarist empire. Although they made up only about 10 percent of population in the regions they inhabited, they lived in their own districts in many cities and towns, where they were often a large plurality or even a majority. Set apart as they were by geography, language, customs and, above all, by discrimination and prejudice, nationalist concepts were bound to arise.
For the Bund, this took the form of a concept of cultural rather than geographical autonomy, which they defined at a congress in 1901:
Russia, which is made up of many different nations, will in the future be transformed into a federation of nationalities, and that each will have full autonomy independent of the territory in which it resides.
Their concept of national cultural autonomy was derived from the Austrian Marxists. Marxist academic Rick Kuhn notes that the federal structure of the Austrian party represented “a capitulation to nationalism within the workers’ movement”.
The Bund was indisputably committed to the class struggle. But the taint of nationalism is clear in their idea that Jewish problems should be solved by Jewish organisation; this is the source of their demand at the 1903 congress of the RSDLP that the Bund be the sole representative of all Jewish workers.
Throughout its life as a mass organisation (up until World War II), the Bund was anti-Zionist. They rejected the view that anti-Semitism was inevitable – that non-Jews were inherently anti-Semitic and necessarily the enemy. The Bund argued that the solution to both exploitation and oppression was not to go elsewhere, but to fight in the country where you live. For them, non-Jewish workers were not enemies but potential allies: alliances with them were not only possible but actually essential.
Further, the Bund opposed the idea that the problems of Jews could be solved in a Jewish state in Palestine, arguing that such a state would “be yet another class-ridden society in which Jewish workers would have to fight their Jewish bosses”.
In 1903, the Bund adopted a resolution declaring membership of a Zionist organisation incompatible with membership of the Bund. Workers who retained their Zionist convictions had to leave the Bund-affiliated trade unions. This was one reason for the development of several small parties that attempted to combine active participation in local struggles in Russia with some form of support for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, that is, Zionism. This included the Jewish Social Democratic Party – Poale Zion – in 1906, whose leader, Ber Borochov, was a significant revolutionary figure.
Poale Zion was engaged with workers’ economic struggles and joined in the self-defence against pogroms. But their nationalism coloured their activity as militants. Take, for example, Yehoshua Rojanski, a tanner who in 1913 led a successful strike in his factory as a member of Poale Zion. Afterwards, he addressed a clandestine meeting of the workers, arguing that it was time to move from the economic to the political struggle:
Comrades, aren’t we all Jews? Why do you follow the Bund…[which] refuses to see the Jews of the whole world as a single people, a nation. We, Poale Zion, defend the idea of the Jewish nation
Not surprisingly, the contradictory positions of the socialist Zionists led to intense political conflict, resulting in splits and fusions. The period of reaction after 1906 led to their almost complete demise in Russia, and their leaders either emigrated or were imprisoned or exiled. Out of an impressive membership of about 25,000 in 1905, only about 300 were left.
Many Jewish organisations and individuals took part in the revolution of 1905–6. Liberal currents saw this as an opportunity for increased civil rights and cultural autonomy, and 12 Jews were elected to the first Duma (although they proved ineffective because they didn’t want to be “provocative”). Even the mainstream Zionists issued a public statement supporting fundamental political change.
The yeshivas (religious seminaries) also became politicised. Many of their students were only there because of the strict limits on places for Jews in universities:
Sizable numbers of yeshiva students turned to radicalism, staging demonstrations that were sometimes accompanied by violence… At the well-known yeshiva in Telz, student unrest was so intense that in 1905 administrators shut down the institution for several weeks, expelled suspected troublemakers, and then enrolled young men who were considered to be politically reliable.
As the revolutionary wave engulfed Russia, the Bund responded with its entire organisation:
Bundists fought with exceptional devotion, played the key role in most events of the revolution, and suffered the largest casualties during the clashes with the Russian army and police.
Englert notes that: “the Bund put itself at the centre of the revolution and was largely recognised for it”. In one town, Łódź, membership grew from 100 to 1,600; across the region, membership exploded – to perhaps as many as 40,000.
A popular song shows the mood:
Brothers and sisters, let us join hands,
Let’s break down little Tsar Nikolai’s walls!
Hey, hey, down with the police!
Down with the Russian ruling class!
Brothers and sisters, let’s all get together,
Let’s bury little Nikolai with his mother!
Hey, hey, down with the police!
Down with the Russian ruling class!
The 1905 revolution was a high point for the Russian revolutionary movement in general and for the Bund in particular. With the defeat of the uprising, the Bund lost membership and influence. And, as the reactionary movement gained strength, so the Jews again became their target.
Reading accounts of pogroms, one would think that there was little or no resistance: that Jews submitted themselves to their fate – with wailing and gnashing of teeth perhaps, but doing little more than taking refuge in the synagogue. The rabbis only encouraged this attitude, that pogroms were the will of god to which Jews had to submit.
But this is not the case. Even in the early pogroms, there were some efforts at defence; but there was a turn towards organised resistance after the Kishinev (Moldova) violence of 1903, which resulted in about 50 dead and 500 injured. The New York Times reported at the time:
There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews… The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, “Kill the Jews”, was taken up all over the city… The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description.
The Bund took the lead and argued for armed self-defence to “answer force with force”:
[W]e must come out with arms in hand, organize ourselves and fight to our last drop of blood. Only when we show our strength will we force everyone to respect our honour.
Bundists and socialist Zionists put this into practice later that year. Although only partially successful, they believed that the effort at self-defence “was good for the soul”:
There are no longer the former, downtrodden, timid Jews. A new-born unprecedented type appeared on the scene – a man who defends his dignity.
Under the leadership of the Bund, defence units proliferated rapidly. Commonly, each group had a core membership and a reserve. Members were often manual workers such as stevedores and butchers, because of the need for physical strength. In 1903–4, defence units are known to have existed in one-fifth of all pogroms, rising to one-third a year later; there may well have been more that were not recorded. By 1906, there were up to 1,000 core members of defence units and perhaps 8–10,000 reserves spread across the empire from Bialystok to Odessa, Kishinev to Minsk.
The units needed more than personnel: they needed weapons. By 1905, “the Bund had amassed an arsenal of…home-made bombs, knouts, clubs, knives and spring whips”. But most important were revolvers, because they were small and easy to smuggle in. This was usually done by young women, who reportedly would travel to the Browning factory in Liège (Belgium) and bring the weapons back hidden in their clothes.
A wave of pogroms followed a series of defeats in the Russo–Japanese war in 1904, whipped up by the right-wing press, who blamed the Jews. But the Jewish population now responded differently. For example, in Berdichev:
Under the influence of self-defence the mood of the Jews changed. There was no sign of fear. On the contrary, everyone prepared for self-defence.
Initially, there was some hesitancy, but attitudes changed as the effectiveness of the self-defence was demonstrated. After a looting and pillaging spree in Derechin (modern Belarus), the self-defence group recovered and returned looted goods. One shopkeeper was very thankful, adding: “it doesn’t matter that you travelled a little on the Shabbos”.
During the 1905 uprising and in the period of reaction that followed, anti-Semitic newspapers blamed Jews for fomenting the revolution, and a wave of pogroms and right-wing terror ensued – so severe that it appeared the empire had “descended into complete anarchy”. The complicity of the authorities is notorious. In one instance, the mayor in Kerch in the Crimea ordered the police to fire at the defenders rather than at the attackers, killing two, one of them a non-Jewish Ukrainian:
It became a battle against the organizers of the pogroms – the Russian government. The battle against the pogroms stripped the masks from the faces of their organizers.
Self-defence activity intensified further. The Bund formed a coalition with radical socialist groups, leading to a significant increase in the number of non-Jewish defenders. Critically, the Bund did not see the issue as just about Jews. The struggle against anti-Semitism, they stated, was “also directed against the ruling class and for socialism. Thus the two struggles were one”.
Success was variable; but, in some places, the defenders were able to make a significant difference. For example, in the town of Zhitomir (modern Ukraine) in 1905, about 450 Bundists, local students, left Zionists and socialists, armed with guns, daggers, whips and home-made bombs, defeated the pogromists resoundingly. When soldiers fired on a peaceful demonstration in Łódź, the defence units reacted “with a tenacity that aroused the admiration of non-Jews”. Pitched battles resulted in the deaths of 560 people (including 341 Jews); one correspondent noted that “legends…describe the Jewish workers as some kind of Samsons”.
The link between the anti-Semitic violence and revolutionary activity is clear from the pogrom in Odessa in October 1905, which resulted in extensive damage and saw up to 250 Jews killed. Right-wing forces had been agitating against Jews for weeks, blaming them for confrontations between authorities and anti-government activists, including students and workers:
Jewish youths, students, and workers filled the ranks of the crowds that attended the rallies at the university in September and October, and Jews actively participated in the wave of work stoppages, demonstrations, and street disorders that broke out in mid-October.
On one day of major conflict, Jews constituted 197 of 214 people arrested. On 16 October, the army stepped in to “restore order”. Three days later, the pogrom started.
Two self-defence groups, one consisting of students and workers and the other of Bundists and other socialists, were able to mitigate the extent of the damage. Having earlier stockpiled medical supplies, guns, ammunition and bombs, they ran first-aid stations and incarcerated suspected looters and pogromists at the university, where they were then interrogated by students and members of the law faculty.
It isn’t surprising, therefore, that by the end of 1905, many of the segments of the Jewish community who had hesitated initially had been won over. One Jewish lawyer commented: “We are all Bundists now”.
Anti-Semitic violence increased even further in 1906, with even greater government encouragement. The public outrage following a military pogrom in Bialystok in June extended to the liberal Jewish deputies in the Duma, who made “scathing attacks” on the government for failing to stop the bloodshed. The prime minister “conceded officials had made mistakes and assured the deputies that he was determined to root out lawlessness”.
Words were easy. But the Bund-led self-defence group was able to save thousands of lives and a great deal of their property and to completely protect major working-class sections of the city:
At every corner of the poor section of Bialystok, patrols of the Jewish Self-Defence League were stationed with revolvers and grenades, each group under one leader. They guarded the streets and fired warning shots into the air. If a gentile went by carrying loot, these Jewish protectors would frighten him until he threw down the stolen package and fled.
No doubt, this partial success in Bialystock was at least partly due to its already decades-long history of working-class action.
It is no accident that the Bund took the lead in organising self-defence. With the experience gained since its formation, members were able to bring organisational skills and experience. As socialists, they were committed to working together with other non-Jewish socialist organisations, including Russian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian socialists and radicals. In one such solidarity action, Polish and Russian Social Democrats and Bund members in Vileyka (Belarus) held a joint mass parade with banners and wreaths to honour the victims of a pogrom in 1905.
The Bund did draw in other Jewish groups, including the socialist Zionists, but this was more problematic. Members of Poale Zion viewed themselves as socialists and as activists. On this basis, they wanted to be part of self-defence. But, as Zionists, they saw no future for Jews in Russia. Their contradictory position led to less than full commitment to defence, as can be seen from a pamphlet of theirs:
What do we achieve with self-defence?… Self-defence cannot deliver us completely from the evil which causes these pogroms
This was indisputably true – as far as it went. But the question was precisely what could deliver Jews from the evil that caused pogroms? Poale Zion and other Zionists built their strategy on the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. They saw the local struggle and their long-term goals as separate. The Bund and other revolutionaries fought to overthrow capitalism and, with it, all forms of oppression. The fight against anti-Semitism and their long-term goals were part of the same struggle.
The changes wrought by the Jewish workers’ movement were profound. They failed to overthrow anti-Semitic laws or prevent violence and, after 1906, freedom in action was limited by the reaction, but the experience of class struggle and defence against pogroms offered a new freedom in thought and values. Old, tradition-bound Tevye from the Fiddler on the Roof, or at least his sons and daughters, were now exposed to a world and to possibilities that they had never previously experienced.
Among other changes, for many, the new politics and way of living meant abandoning religious practice. Mendelsohn quotes a comment from a workers’ gathering in Vilna on Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the major fast day of the Jewish religion:
We felt joy and pride in our newness: we eat and rejoice, while all Jews fast and cry.
Thousands were now able to look beyond the lachrymose way of life:
The socialists repudiated what they considered to be the traditional Jewish characteristics of indifference, apathy, and resignation. These…would be replaced by activism and struggle.
The hard-fought strikes and protests, the self-defence units, the secret meetings and risks run were not just about immediate gains. The writer quoted above concludes: “the feeling of pride and exhilaration derived from the struggle was a permanent gain”.
Meanwhile, action of some sort was necessary. Pressure from poverty and persecution resulted in three main waves of mass emigration: 1881–2, 1891–1901 and following the 1905 revolution. Many Jewish radicals travelled with the emigrants, taking their ideas with them. About a quarter of a million settled in elsewhere in Europe, with smaller numbers in South America, South Africa and other countries. Some ended up in the UK. But the prime destination was the USA, with numbers up to 2 million. Wherever they went, the emigrants took with them the characteristics they had at home – their Yiddish language and culture, their early experience of trade unionism, their combativeness and militancy, their experience of the fight against anti-Semitism, their socialist ideas and their organisations.
Of the East European Jewish emigrants, about 140,000 (7 percent) settled in the UK, mostly in the East End of London, near the docks where they came off the ships.
There was no legal discrimination in the new home: Jews in the UK had received formal emancipation in the mid-nineteenth century, and Britain had a reputation for religious tolerance. But, in other respects, life was not very different.
Class remained a major divider of the community. The old Anglo-Jewish families – the likes of the Rothschilds and the Montagues – whose native language was English and who were part of the ruling class – didn’t welcome the influx of poor Jews, with their outlandish costumes and customs and foreign language. They were prepared to support charitable works but were fearful of the socialist ideas that many of the newcomers, or “greeners”, carried. Socialist Morris Winchevsky said: “They are ashamed of us, not as one is ashamed of poor relations, but as one is shamed by a leper, an outcast”.
Most immigrants continued in the occupations they had brought with them – tailors, carpenters, brush-makers or shoemakers – or worked in small sugar, metal and tobacco factories. But the clothing trades were overwhelmingly predominant. In what was a very profitable process, large City and West End firms contracted work out via middlemen to small sweatshops in the East End.
Living and working conditions for the newcomers were dire:
In the narrow, crooked streets of Whitechapel, in the smelly and dirty holes and corners of the workshops working twelve to fourteen hours a day for a paltry starvation wage…here have the Jewish workers of Poland, Russia, Germany, Austria…found their better life?
The sweatshops were poorly ventilated and prone to fires and rodent infestation. Piecework at extremely low rates was the rule, with extremely long hours and fines for minor infringements. Above all, the seasonality of the work meant no job security: many workers were unemployed for a significant part of the year.
The constant inflow of new immigrants exacerbated the situation. But it also brought people with the drive to act upon the problems.
Aron Lieberman, a leading early socialist, started the Hebrew Socialist Union in 1876. At an early meeting, Jewish and non-Jewish speakers addressed a packed hall. Here is one (Jewish) speaker, a tailor:
[T]he underlying class struggle exists also amongst Jews… Therefore Jewish workers must unite among themselves against the other spurious unity – that with the masters!
The bosses weren’t their only intracommunal enemies. At a subsequent meeting, “masters gathered on one side and synagogue wardens on the other”. When Lieberman rose to speak, a shamus (a synagogue functionary) jumped on to the stage, shoving Lieberman aside. Then, as we would say today, the shit hit the fan:
[E]verybody started fighting: cupals [skullcaps], glasses, hats and sticks flew… [Those near the shamus] went for him and beat him up from head to toe. “No”, cried the shamus, cowering beneath the blows… “Beat him, brothers!” cried the crowd in unison. During the melee [Lieberman] was rendered black and blue as people beat the hell out of each other. Bodies were pulled out like casualties from the field of battle. Then the police arrived…
The Hebrew Socialist Union collaborated with local socialists and the English-speaking trade unions. They even attempted to agitate among the militant Irish, known for anti-immigrant feelings, and set up an all-Workmen’s Society. Although this body only lasted a year, it set the pattern for future solidarity.
In March 1889, conflict with communal authorities recurred around the issue of unemployment. Between two and three thousand Jewish workers joined in a “synagogue parade” – a march to the Great Synagogue (frequented by the Jewish bourgeoisie) on a Saturday (the Jewish sabbath) to demand “work, bread and the eight-hour day”. An editorial in the anti-immigrant Jewish Chronicle entitled “A Hebrew Hubbub in Whitechapel” commented that: “[a] more abject and miserable set of men it would have been impossible to have seen anywhere”. Speakers attacked the indifference of rich Jews and called upon workers “not to depend upon the rich classes but to organise in a strong body for the abolition of the capitalist ruling class”. The day ended with a police riot where property was destroyed and comrades beaten with batons “until the blood streamed, three were dragged to the station, again beaten and then charged with assaulting police”.
Three years later, a deputation representing nine local Jewish unions approached the Chief Rabbi demanding he take a stand against unemployment and sweating. With working days of 18 hours not uncommon, the workers were desperate. The rabbi declined, saying that he himself worked harder than they did. In 1894, a group of unemployed invaded the Jewish Board of Guardians (a charitable organisation). A few days later, 500 barged into the Great Synagogue, where they sat in until dispersed by police truncheons.
The radicals who agitated in the Jewish East End in the late nineteenth century were a peripatetic lot who lived in a multilingual, internationalist environment. Many had come from Russia, had lived in Paris or Switzerland, were on their way to the USA or had already been there. With the constant influx and outflow, London became “the clearing house for the Jewish revolutionary labour movement”:
London had become a training centre for Jewish socialists, the majority of whom went on to the States to assume top leadership in the radical movements which were developing there. [London was also] a base for the accumulation of political experience and literature that could be fed back into Russia.
The words of Bertolt Brecht, written 50 years later, are an apt description of these early Jewish socialists:
I came to the cities in a time of unrest
When hunger reigned.
In a time of rebellion, I came to the people
And I rebelled with them…
For we lived, changing our countries more often than our shoes,
Through a war of classes, despairing
When there was only injustice, no rebellion.
In 1885, the recently formed International Workingmen’s Educational Association took over a house in Berner Street (now Henriques Street). Set up by William Wess, a Lithuanian Jewish anarchist, the club became a centre for radical and trade union activities throughout London. “Invariably, on a Saturday or Sunday, there was a truly international gathering of Russian, Jewish, British, French, Italian, Czech, Polish and other radicals.”
Another crucial method of organising was through newspapers. The short lived Poilisher Yidl (Polish Jew), founded in 1884, was Britain’s first socialist paper targeting an immigrant audience. Established by Morris Winchevsky in 1886, the Arbeter Fraind (Workers’ Friend), became a crucial contributor to the movement. Addressing its audience of workers, “[i]t reflected their harsh daily lives but also told them that they could become agents of change”. The newspaper was a major influence upon the growing socialist and trade union forces in several British and European centres. By 1905, it was printing 5,000 copies weekly and was the most popular Yiddish radical newspaper in London.
The Arbeter Fraind and other Yiddish-language newspapers were not parochial; they reported international events and were sold overseas. Germinal, for instance, had an extraordinarily wide readership, ranging from most of the larger cities of the USA to Paris, Berlin, Bucharest and Sofia in Europe and to Cairo, Alexandria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and Buenos Aires. Such newspapers enabled Jewish workers in different countries to share ideas and support each other. For example, several local immigrant unions sent funds to Bialystok strikers in 1898. The Yiddish newspapers also reported on the pogroms in Russia, which the mainstream newspapers rarely did. The Bund in London even distributed an information sheet called Pogromen Blat (Pogrom Sheet) giving news of both attacks and defence actions.
The late 1880s were tempestuous years for the British working class. The old traditional craft unions were uninterested in the increasing masses of unskilled workers in the new industries. The famous match girls’ strike in July 1888 set a precedent for the new movement of industrial unionism. One of the leaders of the East End Jewish tailors, Lewis Lyons, participated in this dispute. When he was arrested, pickets demonstrated outside the police station until he was released – an early example of cooperation and solidarity in the East End.
The Great Dock Strike of 1889 galvanised workers throughout the East End as “coal men; match girls; parcels postmen; car men…employees in jam, biscuit, rope, iron, screw, clothing and railway works” became infected with “strike fever”. In the first mass immigrant strike, around 6,000 tailors from 120 workshops joined in the fever. This took its own brand of courage, because many of their bosses were also Jewish – sometimes from the same town, sometimes family members. William Wess chaired the strike committee, and there was strong support from the Berner Street group.
Crucial to the success of this strike was the support the strikers built outside their own community. Wess, Lewis Lyons and their comrades built on the existing links with William Morris’s Socialist League, anarchists and others, and non-Jewish speakers often addressed the mass meetings.
After a month, with the strike fund virtually empty, it seemed that the tailors would be starved back to work. The largely Irish Catholic dockers were not very promising at first glance as a source of support. Their leader, Ben Tillet, was an important militant who unfortunately had anti-Semitic tendencies – he had earlier described Jewish immigrants as “the dregs and scum of the continent” who made the slums even more “putrid and congested”. Nonetheless, the tailors approached the Docks Strike Committee. In a wonderful gesture, although themselves short of funds, they donated £100, by far the largest single donation the tailors received. Reinvigorated, they were able to stay out until the employers caved in. This marvellous display of working-class and cross-community solidarity from the Irish Catholic dockers meant victory for immigrant Jewish tailors. Lieberman’s instinct in 1876 to link up with Irish Catholics was vindicated.
After their victory, the tailors’ union declared its hope that the “grand lesson of solidarity from the Dock Labourers’ Strike” and the other strikes would “mark a new and splendid epoch in the history of Labour”. The Federation of East London Labour Unions, launched two months later, was a fruit of this new comradeship. Nearly 3,000 people listened as non-Jewish union leaders, including Tom Mann and Tillet himself, spoke alongside Jewish militants from many trades. The chair, cabinetmaker Charles Adams, said: “If ever labour is to rise successfully…it must rise as a whole… This new organisation must be composed of people of all creeds and of all nations”; it must never let employers “exploit one against the other”.
The new organisation was not to survive long. But belief that solidarity across trade and community lines was essential for the working class was growing, The basis for action based on such solidarity was being built.
There were many links between the immigrant Jewish radicals and home-grown socialists. By the third London Mayday march in 1893, Jews had a visible presence, with a contingent of over 800 joining in with socialists and trade unionists of all varieties.
One socialist who consciously engaged with the Jewish immigrants was Eleanor Marx. In November 1890, she spoke at a mass rally to condemn persecution of Jews in Russia. This event had been forced to move to an outdoor venue when the Chief Rabbi and Jewish MP Samuel Montagu pressured the owner into cancelling the booking of a hall. Eleanor Marx responded to the invitation to speak: “I shall be very glad to speak at the meeting of Nov.; the more glad, that my father was a Jew”.
Other speakers included Cunninghame Graham and William Morris from the Social Democratic Federation, Russian revolutionaries Felix Volkhovsky and Sergius Stepniak, and local Jewish leaders.
Eleanor Marx became involved with East End Jewish women workers, even learning Yiddish in order to be able to communicate better. Addressing a meeting of the United Ladies Tailors’ Association in 1891, she appealed for unity between English and Jewish workers, emphasising their common enemy, capitalism. At another gathering, she spoke in German, while Stepniak spoke in Russian, Abraham Cahan (a well-known Bundist visiting from New York) in Yiddish, and others in English. We are told that, despite “the babel of tongues”, there was complete harmony because “the spirit of Socialism, which heals all divisions of nationalities, animated every man and woman present”.
Eleanor worked closely with Morris Winchevsky, and both were among the 65 British delegates at the International Congress in Zurich in 1893. At a large parade through Zurich on the first day, Eleanor invited Winchevsky to march beside her next to Will Thorne and Edward Aveling, saying: “We Jews must stick together”. Winchevsky mentioned to Eleanor that he feared that many socialists were unaware that there was such a thing as a Jewish worker, “let alone organised Jewish workers”, but it was unlikely that the British delegation would choose him to address the congress. To bypass this, Eleanor herself announced in three languages that he was there to represent eight trade unions with some 600 Jewish members. “The information was received in each language with tumultuous applause. Eleanor’s face was radiant with pride.”
In 1895, when the Cardiff Trade Union Council passed a resolution advocating control of immigration, 10 London Jewish trade unions held a mass protest meeting chaired by Edward Aveling. Eleanor joined Jewish and non-Jewish socialists and trade union leaders on the platform to denounce the act. Partly as a result of her active involvement with East End Jews, Eleanor identified more as Jewish than her father had; she took a public and definitive stance around the time of the Dreyfus affair in 1894, announcing “I am a Jewess”.
The Arbeter Fraind had been founded by a range of socialists, including Marxists; but, by the 1890s, it became dominated by anarchists. They built links with non-Jews such as Charles Mowbray, exiled revolutionaries Peter Kropotkin and Errico Malatesta, and visitors such as Emma Goldman and Louise Michel.
Most important of the East End anarchists was the German Rudolf Rocker, who came to London in 1893. Although he was not Jewish, Rocker learned Yiddish and immersed himself in the Jewish East End trade union struggles and propaganda ventures. The anarchists’ club in Jubilee Street provided the headquarters for many activities that went well beyond anarchist circles, including strike committees, cultural activities and political meetings. Up until World War I, Rocker was an inspiration to many people in the East End.
As a political current, however, the anarchists remained a small, elitist group. Their particularly strong promotion of causes that challenged conventions, such as atheism and free love, may have prevented wider support.
The Kishinev pogroms in April 1903 caused a wave of outrage around the world. There were protest events in London, including a huge demonstration in Hyde Park organised by socialists and radicals. A grouping of Jewish trade unions, anarchists and socialists (including the Polish Socialist Party) also called a mass demonstration. Held against the opposition of the mainstream, middle-class Yiddish press and the rabbinate, the largest gathering of Jews ever seen in London marched from the Mile End Waste to Hyde Park, where 25,000 people listened to Jewish and non-Jewish speakers in English, Russian, Yiddish and Polish.
Rudolph Rocker recorded delightedly: “The demonstration succeeded beyond our expectations”, noting that the opposition feared the linkage between Jews and socialists.
The marchers sang a Yiddish song by David Edelshtat:
We have been shot and hanged,
Robbed of our livelihood and rights;
And only because we clearly demand
Freedom for those enslaved in poverty.
Edelshtat, who emigrated from Russia to New York in 1882 as a teenager, was a famous poet of the sweatshops. His songs were very popular and sung on Mayday and other occasions in different continents. We will encounter him again.
Bundists from the Russian empire set up an association in London in 1900. Although they held Mayday parades and joined in local events, their main focus was on campaigns to support their comrades back home. They also printed leaflets and periodicals to be smuggled into Russia. In 1905, they sent £106 from 325 local donors to help self-defence groups in Russia to buy guns.
By 1902, there were 32 Jewish trade unions in London – although many were short lived. But the success of the 1903 demonstration against the Kishinev pogroms motivated the Jewish radicals to renew the economic struggle and, in particular, to attack sweating again. They began the campaign in 1904 with a packed hall of 5,000 people listening to Jewish and non-Jewish speakers argue for a general strike.
But little happened until 1906 brought a new wave of immigrants who were “fresh from the scenes of heroic struggle for liberty” in Russia – the 1905 revolution. As a result, “the Jewish workers of the East End of London appear to have undergone a process of transformation”, and activists thought that the time had come: an “assault on sweating by collective action was imperative”.
The workers were ready. Makers of walking sticks and cabinetmakers went on strike as early as February, and the Jewish Chronicle commented: “hardly a week passes without a fresh strike breaking out in one or other of the trades”. Again, the main thrust was among the tailors. Actions in individual shops and mass meetings reached a climax in June, with a spontaneous mass walkout. “Hoisting improvised banners and shouting slogans, they marched off through the streets, stopping at each workshop and calling the workers inside to come out.” Two days later, strikers packed a local theatre. “Speakers advocating caution were shouted down.”
There was unanimous acclaim at the vote to strike with shouts of Long live the strike! Down with the Sweating System! The War is on!, culminating in the singing of the Marseillaise
It was a major showdown between workers and bosses, simultaneously a strike and a lockout: “Each party has entered in the fight with grim determination not to lay down its arms until the other party is vanquished.” The anarchists played a major role in running the strike, with Rocker addressing meetings at their club in Jubilee Street and open-air meetings all over Stepney. Pickets dealt with scabs, who were “forcibly seized and frogmarched to headquarters”, where they were put in a room “apportioned as a gaol for blacklegs”. Family members could bail the prisoner by paying a fine, which went into strike funds. Fundraising included house-to-house collections, and Jews throughout the East End “responded magnificently”. There was also a “continuous flow of donors, mostly shawled housewives, bringing bagels, brown herring, fruits, and home-made gefilte and fried fish”.
The master tailors dug their heels in, refusing to negotiate with the Jewish strike committee and insisting that they would only meet with English trade union leaders “authorised with sufficient authority to enforce any decision arrived at”. They transferred work to other cities and waited for the strike funds to be exhausted. By the end of June, the strike had fizzled out. A mood of despondency led to a significant drop in union membership; but, as Fishman notes, there “remained a staunch minority of workers, experienced in the field of labour struggles, who were dedicated to rebuild the union and renew the strike”.
This bore fruit six years later. The year 1912 was one of bitter labour disputes in the UK, with hard-fought strikes by miners, railwaymen and dockers. When (non-Jewish) West End tailors went on strike over pay and conditions in April, there was major concern that the strike would be undercut by subcontracts with (Jewish) East End sweatshops. Rocker and his fellow anarchists not only promoted solidarity but argued that this was the time to go on strike too, to again challenge the sweating system. A mass meeting of 8,000 tailors overwhelmingly agreed.
With their members dispersed in small workshops, enforcing a total strike was a mammoth task. Rocker’s organisational and fundraising skills proved crucial, and his leadership was a major contributor to the ultimate success.
The strike found overwhelming support throughout the Jewish community. Bakers and cigarette makers gave free supplies; Yiddish theatres gave benefit performances. After three weeks, the West End employers offered some concessions and settled with their workers. But the East End workshops held out for a full victory. When the employers agreed to every demand except one – the right to a union – Rocker addressed a meeting to consider the offer:
I saw those pale, pinched, hungry faces…of people who had come together at midnight to decide what to do about the strike for which they had sacrificed so much… I said if they decided to go back now the Masters would make them feel they had lost… You must decide for yourselves. There was an outburst of applause and from all sides came the cry: “the strike goes on”.
The employers settled the very next day.
The strike showed that the most exploited and vulnerable workers could organise themselves to win, give solidarity beyond their own community and locality, and gain esteem among workers who regarded immigrant unions as a weak link.
Although the outcome did not mean the end of the sweating system:
it certainly dealt it a severe blow, which no act of parliament could have rendered. For the practical necessity of unionisation was now firmly embedded among the immigrants; and recognised by the masters as a force.
With the strike won, Rocker now mobilised the Jewish tailors in support of the recently commenced dockers’ strike. Huge joint meetings were held on the Mile End Waste. Jewish trade unions and the local anarchists organised a support committee, and gifts poured in from Jewish workers and retailers. Famously, Jewish families welcomed more than 300 dockers’ children into their homes. This act did more than help the dockers in their immediate struggle. According to Fishman: “it laid the foundations of many friendships which neither time nor circumstance could erase”.
The dockland slogan: “No Jews allowed down Wapping” might persist. But it was the dockers of Wapping and St George’s who constituted the militant vanguard of the movement which, in 1936, forcibly prevented the Mosleyite incursion into East London.
Crucial to the functioning of radicals before World War I were the centres and clubs they established. As well as organising hubs, they were social centres, meeting halls, educational institutions and propaganda outlets.
The earlier Berner Street club, set up by the Society of Jewish Socialists in 1885, had played an important role as a base for trade unionists and radicals from across London. We have already seen its value during strikes; but it was also a centre for lectures, theatre and literary events. William Morris performed there frequently. When printers succumbed to pressure from Anglo-Jews not to print the Arbeter Fraind, the club provided premises for a printing press. This independence gave the newspaper the opportunity to attack upper-class Anglo-Jewry, Chief Rabbi Adler and Jewish MPs.
Atheism was a popular lecture topic, and speakers on such topics as “The absurdity of religion” and “Is there a god?” drew substantial audiences. On one occasion, the speaker took out his watch and declaimed: “If there is a God…I give him just two minutes’ time to kill me on the spot”. After a tense wait, with the speaker still alive, “a thunder of applause echoed through the hall”, the band struck up the Marseillaise (then regarded as the most revolutionary anthem), and the audience joined in the Yom Kippur ball.
The club encountered difficulties in 1888 when the building became implicated in a Jack the Ripper murder. The relationship between the Social Democrats and anarchists subsequently deteriorated, and the club folded in 1892. Several temporary buildings in the East End served in the following years until the anarchists set up the Jubilee Street Club in 1906. During strikes, it served as an organising centre but was also open at other times. It offered a bar (non-alcoholic) and food; dances, plays and concerts; chess competitions; and English lessons. Lectures on political and cultural topics, which were not restricted to Jewish themes or authors, opened the eyes of many workers to the wider world. Importantly, the club was open to all, Jewish and non-Jewish. It attracted “the young…and old, the political and apolitical, the informed and the ignorant”.
Above all, there was debate and argument and:
discussion would go on far into the night between Bundists, Zionists, Anarchists and Social Democrats who argued excitedly together.
The club hosted visiting revolutionaries from many countries. Millie Sabel, a volunteer, recalled:
I occasionally saw a small, intense man who sat alone at a table in the corner. He had slant eyes, balding reddish hair, drank Russian tea and spoke little. He was Lenin.
The radicals were naturally all atheists and tried to win the Jewish workers away from their beliefs – or at least from their adherence to the synagogues, which had consistently played a conservative role. Although it was probably sectarian and counterproductive, I find the image of them eating ham sandwiches outside the synagogues on Yom Kippur rather amusing. Less publicly, but nonetheless tellingly, some attendees of the synagogue would “creep furtively into the Club to snatch a meal with their talusim [religious items] under their arms”. The volunteers “were kept really busy preparing extra food, while Kaplan [an anarchist leader] took advantage of the situation to lecture the invaders on the falsity of religion”.
The social environment among the radicals was very open for the period. Many women were active, and young girls could come to the freer atmosphere in the clubs. Rudolph Rocker and Milly Witkop lived together in a free union – without being married. This caused some raised eyebrows and even led to headlines in the US press when they visited there. The parents of another woman, “Red” Rose Robins, forbade her to attend lectures at the Sugar Loaf, a pub popular among anarchists, where “free love” was one of the topics. Returning home late one night, she had to sleep in the street because her parents had locked her out.
East Enders was and remains a very popular TV show. An East Enders based in the pre-World War I Jewish East End would provide a glimpse into a world of harsh living conditions, but also of comradeship, struggle and hope, that remains inspiring today.
In 1883, Emma Lazarus wrote a poem which was to become a foundational myth of America’s self-image. Herself Jewish, Lazarus carried out welfare work with Jewish immigrants. “The New Colossus”, inscribed on a statue at the entrance to New York harbour, is viewed by millions of people each year. But, as one commentator says, the poem is “almost universally underread”.
Everyone knows the last couple of lines, but let’s look at the whole stanza:
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door! 
The poet is not just saying that refugees are welcome; she says clearly that poor and homeless people are preferred over the rich and aristocratic. This radical and even class-conscious element is usually ignored. The core image of the US as a land of refuge is tied up with Jewish working-class immigration.
Between 1880 and 1924, 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe sought refuge from persecution and poverty in the USA. New York was the point of arrival, and nearly three-quarters of the total settled in the Lower East Side, partly because of restrictive rental practices in other areas. The city was transformed from a middle-class, conservative community into a radical, working-class, multilingual melting pot. By 1914, there were more than 1.75 million Jewish New Yorkers, constituting nearly one-third of the city’s population.
For the incoming migrants, the watchword was the “goldene medinah” – the land where the streets were paved with gold, the “golden door”.
Certainly, the gold was there for some. Known as the Gilded Age, the period from 1870 to 1900 was one of rapid economic growth, monopolisation and concentration of power and wealth. The New York Times gleefully prophesied that, soon: “Millionaires will be commonplace”. The dazzling riches of the robber barons have provided endless material for TV shows and lasting monuments.
But what did the immigrants find?
Many exchanged the stagnation of a feudal society for the bondage of an industrial system. The riches of the new world were frequently a miracle mirage, and the dream of American opportunity led often to the sweatshop, where laborers slept on unswept floors littered with work refuse while their worktables doubled as dining tables. They labored fantastically long hours; a 4 am to 10 pm day was not uncommon… Immigrant workers cried out in despair: “We worked, worked, and our profits went into the hands of others.”
The disparity between the wealthy Rockefellers, Morgans and their like and the poor immigrants with barely the clothes on their backs is shocking. In 1900, Andrew Carnegie’s annual income was $23,000,000 (equivalent to $748,000,000 today) – on which he paid no income tax. Coal miners averaged an annual income of $240 – approximately $4.60 per week. Meanwhile, New York women clothing workers earning 30 cents a day sang: “with a great lament/Why was I born to be a seamstress”.
Arriving in New York from Ellis Island, the immigrants desperately searched for food, shelter and a job in the new land. No gold paving was to be found in Hester Street, the centre of the Jewish community on the Lower East Side. In his memoirs, Bernard Weinstein pictures the usual dwelling of the 1880s as resembling “prison cells, lacking sun, air or light…overlooking a tiny courtyard or a filthy, narrow alley”. Plagues of cockroaches and bedbugs were the norm, as were fires from kerosene cookers. To escape the vermin and summer heat, people slept in the streets or on the roofs. Diseases such as tuberculosis were rife, and mortality was high, particularly among children.
Many ended up working in sweatshops, denounced as a “system of making clothes under filthy and inhuman conditions” and a “process of grinding the faces of the poor”. But, in typical victim-blaming fashion, investigators saw these conditions as somehow introduced by the immigrants: “Some even declared the sweatshop a special Jewish institution explicable by the ‘racial’ and ‘national’ characteristics of the Jewish workers.” One official wrote that Russian Jews “evidently prefer filth to cleanliness”. Another concluded that the “factory system with its discipline and regular hours” was “distasteful to the Jew’s individualism” and that the Jewish worker preferred “the sweatshop with its going and coming”.
As in the UK, the Jewish immigrants found co-religionists already living in the new country.
German nationals were the most numerous immigrant group to the USA between 1840 and 1890. Among them were German Jews, many of whom were comfortable businessmen by the end of the century. Some, such as Levi Strauss, later became household names. Others, such as Goldman Sachs, Lehmann Brothers, Kuhn Loeb and Salomon Brothers, founded investment banking firms which became mainstays of industry and were at the core of modern US capitalism. They epitomised the American dream, having risen from humble positions to extraordinary economic power. Known as “our crowd”, they were a self-conscious group whose lives differed in every respect from those of the poor immigrants.
Like the British Anglo-Jews, the German Jews in the USA considered themselves superior to the newcomers:
[B]uttressed by their higher class status, social exclusivity…they separated themselves socially from the Yiddish-speaking, differently mannered newcomers.
In his memoir, Paul Jacobs describes how:
the atmosphere in our house was as much German as it was Jewish… I said my nightly prayers in German [and] my parents didn’t observe the kosher dietary laws… So although we were Jewish, we weren’t “Jews,” like the men with beards and earlocks or the women with brown wigs who embarrassed me when I saw them on the street or the subway reading Yiddish newspapers…
The gap between families like mine and the Eastern European Jews was nearly as great as the one separating my parents from their Christian friends… In the Gentile world, a “kike” may have been descriptive of any Jews, but to my parents and their friends it was any East European Jew, especially the noisy ones. “Stop acting like a kike” was a frequent admonition to noisy, badly behaved children – or adults as well
German Jews were also prominent as bosses in the small tailoring and other workshops in New York where the Eastern European refugees provided a convenient workforce.
But Germans, mostly non-Jews, played another important role – that of bearer of radical ideas. Many had fled from Bismarck’s 1880s anti-socialist law. The majority were social democrats or Marxists, with anarchism also a significant current. They found a responsive audience among the newcomers and helped to link immigrants to local labour and socialist organisations.
Take, for example, Jewish immigrant cloakmaker Abraham Bisno, who was 20 years old during the massive national strike wave of 1886–7. One day, he heard the German anarchist August Spies speak about class struggle, bosses and wage labour:
On that night when I went home I was aflame; the whole argument struck me like lightning and went all through me. I had heard ideas that I had never heard before in my life and they seemed to express the very thoughts that were in my inner consciousness…we are disinherited, the property of the country does belong to the rich; all we get out of it is a bare living for very hard work; there must be a chance to improve conditions; there are so many of us…we ought to all unite, all the working people from all trades.
Some immigrants, as we have seen, were already experienced trade unionists or socialists. But those who had not previously been exposed to such ideas in Europe now had another opportunity.
Given their existing skills, the newcomers naturally gravitated to light industry, which was undergoing rapid expansion in the USA at the time. Foremost was the garment industry, which covered a wide range of occupations, including men’s and women’s clothing, millinery and hats, neckwear and corsets. The last two decades of the nineteenth century saw production respond to urbanisation and the development of a national market by moving out of the household to the factories. The workforce surged from 39,000 in 1898 to 150,000 in 1905. By 1921, nearly three-quarters of national clothing output was in New York.
Occupations ranged from highly skilled, such as cutters, through semi-skilled sewing machine operators to a range of roles regarded as unskilled. Early in the period, skilled male tailors making suits and coats predominated; but, as manufacture of women’s and children’s clothing grew and mechanisation increased, employment of relatively unskilled women operatives expanded. They were generally very young – the majority under 25, and many only teenagers. The move from small workshops to an industrial structure laid the basis for organising efforts; the demand for union recognition was vital during the first two decades of the twentieth century as initially local and spontaneous collective action grew to industry-wide dimensions.
The main American trade union organisation, the American Federation of Labor (AFL), was craft based. Not only did it stand aloof from unskilled workers, immigrants and women; it spearheaded the movement for restricted immigration, arguing for “racial purity” and exclusion of Italians, Japanese and others. In a clear combination of anti-Semitism and conservatism, the AFL was particularly hostile to “alien groups bearing the taint of European radicalism”.
Jewish socialists and trade unionists in New York, therefore, looked to themselves. In 1888, they formed an umbrella organisation, the United Hebrew Trades (UHT), modelled after a similar grouping of German trade unions. Within two years, there were 22 affiliated union locals with predominantly Jewish memberships, especially within the garment industry. In 1910, the UHT had 61 unions with 65,000 members; in 1914, it had 104 unions with almost 250,000 members.
At a time when unions in the US were dominated by white, skilled males, the UHT engaged with women, most importantly through the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), founded in 1900 among the overwhelmingly Jewish women’s clothing trade. Another important member of the UHT was the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACW), founded in 1914, whose members made men’s clothing. Many of its officers and members were socialists.
Not surprisingly, the AFL opposed the UHT, which it denounced as “a bogus labor body” that exerted “a disruptive socialistic influence upon American labor”.
The UHT was formed on the back of nearly constant unrest among Jewish workers in New York. Typical were strikes by knee-pants makers in 1890. At one point, police armed with clubs charged into a packed mass meeting which:
turned into a terrible riot… A bold female striker treated a policeman to a ringing slap in the face, which caused a stir in all the New York newspapers.
There were sometimes more personal reasons for striking, as one young woman indicated:
Please brothers of the strike committee, do not allow my boss to sign the agreement until he also agrees in writing to stop his wife from beating me with a broom.
Six months into a strike by 3,000 garment workers the same year, with funds virtually exhausted, the bosses attempted to divide the workers by offering male cutters a separate deal. When a mass meeting rejected this:
The enthusiasm [to continue] was indescribable. Men and women jumped on the tables. Their voices could be heard ten blocks away.
With donated watches and jewellery, the strike continued to a successful conclusion, including union recognition.
These and other struggles inspired a Yiddish song by David Edelshtat, written in 1891 as a call to women workers to join in the struggle and “help build a temple of freedom, of human happiness”. Popular in the US, it was also sung by striking workers in Russia and Poland:
Help us carry the red banner
Forward, through the storm, through dark nights!
Help us raise the world from its squalor
To sacrifice everything we hold dear;
Fight together like mighty lions
For freedom, equality and our ideals!
The scale of struggle escalated dramatically in the 1890s. One massive year for the US labour movement was 1894, with the pivotal Pullman railway workers’ strike and other major disputes. More than 12,000 tailors in New York State (4,000 in New York City) went on strike against sweatshop conditions and for a 10-hour day. Starting in September, they picketed through the autumn and winter, eventually gaining a partial victory. Although the employers soon reneged, and the union was too weak to renew the struggle, this strike laid the foundation for many US labour laws today and led to the establishment of the September Labor Day public holiday.
Bernard Weinstein gives a fascinating picture of how this early movement floundered and struggled, sometimes winning, more often failing, but building a culture and tradition of working-class resistance:
It sometimes happened that, by the time we decided to call a general strike in a certain trade, spontaneous strikes had already broken out at individual shops, because the workers couldn’t take it any longer and wouldn’t wait for a general strike. Strikers would often walk out and go to a beer hall, rent a meeting room, and then look for Jewish labor leaders, who did not have their own offices at the time. The Socialist union activists would come into the beer hall, ask the strikers for the details that had led to the strike, and organize the strike in an orderly fashion.
But there was a snag:
Although it was easy to have Jewish workers go on strike, it was very difficult to actually win a strike…
The bosses would usually hire toughs, hoodlums [and the] police and the detectives would also beat up the strikers, drag them off to jail or to court, and frame them. The judges at that time were in cahoots with the pack of politicians from the East Side, so they obliged them by sentencing the strikers to months in the workhouse. In addition, the workers were very poor, so when they went on strike they had nothing to live on. When…they didn’t have the money for the rent, the landlords would threaten to throw their furniture out on the street – and some actually did. You can well imagine what an awful responsibility it was for those organizers of the first Jewish unions and the strike leaders.
The efforts of these socialists, trying to raise the consciousness of the masses of workers and help them to organise, is captured in another popular song from David Edelshtat, calling on workers to “recognize your own strength!”:
How long will you remain slaves
And wear degrading chains?
How long will you produce splendid riches
For those who rob you of your bread?
We must become free!
After the turn of the century, the locus of action moved into the community. Home and workplace were, in any case, very intertwined; outwork and sweatshops, peddlers and street shopfronts, seasonal work and a strong sense of community show how important it is to see the Jewish labour movement in New York primarily in terms of the class as a whole, not according to employment status.
The workplace militancy of the 1890s flowed into the meat boycotts and rent strikes of the first decade of the twentieth century. Calling them “great folk struggles”, the radical Yiddish-language newspaper Forward drew attention to the links: “The meat strike was a child of the trade strikes…and the rent strike, in turn, comes from the same source”.
An increase in the retail price of kosher meat from 12 to 18 cents per pound in May 1902 outraged housewives. A poorly organised boycott by butchers caused Fanny Levy, the wife of a unionised cloakmaker, to respond: “This is their strike? Look at the good it has brought! Now, if we women make a strike, then it will be a strike”. She and another woman mobilised in the neighbourhood. A few days later, a crowd of 20,000 women set out. “They raided butcher’s shops, tore the meat to pieces, flung some into ash barrels, and what they could not carry they sprinkled with kerosene.” One newspaper reported that “an excitable and aroused crowd [mostly of women] roamed the streets…armed with sticks, vocabularies and well-sharpened nails”.
Police arrested 85 people for disorderly conduct. The Herald reported that the women “were pushed and hustled about [by the police], thrown to the pavement…and trampled upon”. The police didn’t have it all their own way however – one woman retaliated by slapping a cop in the face with a moist piece of liver!
Forward welcomed the protest with the headline, “Bravo, bravo, bravo, Jewish women!” By contrast, the New York Times called for the repression of this “dangerous class…especially the women [who] are very ignorant [and]…mostly speak a foreign language”.
When a magistrate asked one woman why they were rioting, she replied:
We don’t riot. But if all we did was to weep at home, nobody would notice it, so we have to do something to help ourselves.
The mainstream press denounced the women as “a pack of wolves”. The New York Times positively frothed at the mouth:
The class of people…who are engaged in this matter have many elements of a dangerous class… The instant they take the law into their own hands, the instant they begin the destruction of property… They should be handled in a way that they can understand… Let the blow fall instantly and effectually… They did not get treatment nearly severe enough…
Circulars in both English and Yiddish called upon consumers not to buy meat: “Patience will win the battle”. Although women in synagogues are supposed to be neither seen nor heard, a group stormed the podium during services, and lectured the congregation on the boycott.
The boycott spread to other towns. The New York Times screamed: “Brooklyn mob loots butcher shops. Rioters, led by women, wreck a dozen stores. Dance around bonfires of oil-drenched meat piled in the street – fierce fight with the police”:
The mob ran through the street, howling in their peculiar Russian and Polish dialects, wrecking with stones and other missiles, every butcher’s shop in their path.
[When the police arrived the] women threw bottles, stones and whatever they could place their hands on at the policemen. Women shook their fists in the faces of policemen and tore off their shields and buttons from their coats. There was a charge on the mob and night sticks were used freely.
The boycotts drew in widespread participation, with perhaps 50,000 families abstaining from meat. After about three weeks, there was partial success: the price of meat was reduced to 14 cents per pound. Many of the women involved in these boycotts were the wives of union activists. Their daughters were involved in the major fights in the garment trades in 1909 and later. But, before that, they turned their attention to the other major cost of living – rent.
With immense pressure on housing in the slums of the Lower East Side, landlords simply increased rent at will, hoping to exploit the downtrodden and submissive foreigners. In 1904, they were to be disappointed. Following rent increases of 20–30 percent, protest spread “like an angry wave”. The Forward declared: “this strike can be as great as the meat strikes” and advised Jewish housewives “to take the rent question into their hands as they did the meat question”.
Many of the tenant activists were garment workers and socialists. Class consciousness is evident even in the language they used – words such as strike, scab and calling their associations tenants’ unions. Forward editor Abe Cahan commented:
The trade union movement in the Jewish quarter has been growing apace… The spirit which impels one to struggle for his rights, to combat robbery, has imbedded itself in the hearts of our workingmen… This is the case with the present rent strikes. They are the outcome of the same spirit, the offspring of that same struggle against Capital
As with the meat boycotts, women were the main activists. They discussed strategy at meetings, picketed buildings following evictions, organised building-level tenant unions and campaigned through the neighbourhood:
Local Jewish women…began the rent strike and through their efforts and enthusiasm, they spread it. Through their strength, even the blackest strike was won and without their remarkable activities, the strike would not have been possible.
Within weeks, tenant protest had grown so large that the Lower East Side was “seething with activity and protest”.
This first strike did achieve some success in preventing rent increases and evictions, although the formal organisations could not be sustained. Rent strikes occurred over the next several years, coming to a climax with the “greatest rent wars” that New York city had seen, from December 1907 through January 1908. Led by 16-year-old Pauline Newman, the strike involved 10,000 families in Lower Manhattan and is remarkable for the way it combined women factory workers and neighbourhood networks of housewives. Support from the Socialist Party meant that this strike was also better organised.
Strikers hung their landlords in effigy and flew red flags (actually petticoats dyed red) from windows. Landlords hit back by shutting off water, and magistrates issued several thousand eviction notices, saying that a “rent strike cannot be entertained as an excuse for not paying rent”. This time, there was much more violence, with the police forcibly disbanding gatherings.
The strike spread to Brooklyn, Harlem and Newark (New Jersey). While strikers received support from socialist unions, the members of the “Hebrew local” of the Teamsters Union refused to dispossess striking tenants. On the other hand, the mainstream media were generally unsupportive: the American Hebrew, a middle-class Jewish newspaper, criticised the rent strikers for “not acting wisely” and called the strike “a typical example of how not to do things”.
Most accounts of the rent strikes conclude that they failed. In terms of their immediate goals, the outcome was very limited; but, viewing them as part of the larger picture, we can see how the community-based action and workplace militancy fed off and reinforced each other. Working-class people gained experience and the confidence to take action. Rose Pastor Stokes commented: “the fight itself must result in great good. It makes [the tenants] conscious of the common interests of their class, this fighting together”.
The very next year, the fight returned to the workplace.
The most important sector of women’s garment production was the manufacture of shirtwaists, a type of blouse worn by the rapidly increasing numbers of women office workers in the early twentieth century. Five hundred shirtwaist factories in New York employed approximately 30,000 workers at the time of the strike. The workforce was 80 percent young women between 16 and 25, most unmarried. Most of the employers were Jewish.
Although production was in factories, conditions were no better than in the sweatshops. All sorts of mean devices reduced pitifully low wages even further. Workers paid for their own needles, for electric power and even for the boxes they sat on. Bosses used fines and tricks to pay for only part of the work done. The work day could be up to 20 hours, and the women were subjected to personal humiliations. One of them said: “In the shops we don’t have names, we have numbers”.
Momentum for strike action built through 1908. The rent strikes stoked militancy, and Pauline Newman and other garment workers went around workplaces building support for action. Walkouts and confrontations over issues such as piece rates became increasingly frequent.
A large parade on 8 May 1908 was part of the campaign. Socialists chose the date to honour an 1857 demonstration of New York garment workers, which police had attacked and dispersed. The 1908 march of 15,000 women garment workers demanded better pay, shorter hours, voting rights and an end to child labour. It was so successful that the Socialist Party declared an annual Women’s Day, with the first occurring in 1909. The famous German socialist Clara Zetkin, inspired by this idea, proposed the establishment of an International Working Women’s Day in 1910. This was celebrated for the first time in March of the following year, with rallies of more than a million men and women in many countries. Thus, when we celebrate International Women’s Day today, we can trace its roots back to the women garment workers of New York in 1857 and 1908–9.
The period of intensifying conflict came to a head in September 1909.
Variously known as the uprising of the 20,000 or 30,000 or even 40,000, the industry-wide strike of New York shirtwaist workers in 1909 is an icon of American women’s labour history. It was the largest strike by female workers in the USA up to that time and has been called “women’s most significant struggle for unionism in the nation’s history”. It is also one of the most significant events of the US Jewish labour movement.
The battle started when the Triangle Waist Company locked out their entire workforce of 500 over union membership. The Waistmakers Local of the ILGWU, in a parlous state at the start of the strike with approximately 100 members and $4 in the treasury, started an organising drive. For a month, picketers endured attacks from police and thugs, with dozens fined or sentenced to the workhouse.
Then came a critical mass meeting. After two hours of lukewarm speeches from the union officials, a famous incident occurred. Five-feet tall Clara Lemlich, who had already been on strike for 11 weeks and had just returned from hospital after a brutal beating, was lifted on to the stage, where she made an impassioned speech in Yiddish:
I have listened to all the speakers, and I have no further patience for talk. I am one who feels and suffers from the things pictured. I move we go on a general strike.
Phillip Foner, a leading historian of the US labour movement, describes the response:
Instantly, the crowd was on its feet – adult women, men and teenagers – cheering, stamping, crying approval. [The chairman] called for a vote. Three thousand voices shouted their unanimous approval, waving hats, handkerchiefs, and other objects.
The union secretary was astonished by the reaction to the strike call:
I shall never again see such a sight. Out of every shirtwaist factory…the workers poured and the halls…were quickly filled.
The strikers were approximately 21,000 Russian Jewish women, 6,000 Jewish men, 2,000 Italian women and approximately 1,000 who were born in the USA. The Jewish women were the militant core of the strike.
About half of the employers settled quickly, but the rest formed an association and “declared open war against the union”. They recruited scabs and played the race card by “exploiting Jewish and Italian antagonisms” and keeping Black workers on the job. But their major strategy was brute force, arrests and convictions. Magistrates told picketers that they would get what was coming to them and handed out sentences of weeks of hard labour for minor offences such as yelling “scab”. One magistrate told a “group of bruised and bleeding girls”:
You are on strike against God and nature, whose prime law is that man shall earn his bread in the sweat of his brow.
George Bernard Shaw’s famous comment on this was: “Delightful. Medieval America is always in the most intimate personal confidence of the Almighty”.
That winter of 1909–10 was exceptionally cold and snowy. Although there were men in the strike, the women did most of the picketing, hoping that the police would be a bit easier on them. But the “gorillas” (as the strikers called them) who attacked the picketers had no mercy. And the employers had no end of devices. One company hired prostitutes to join the thugs. One woman picketer:
was arrested for speaking to one of [the prostitutes]. The officer pinched her arm black and blue as he dragged [her] to court…
The hiring of women thugs ended dramatically. Six of them attacked two young pickets, threw them to the ground and beat them until their faces streamed with blood… [This] was too much to endure and the whole street [all the factories on the block] went on sympathetic strike. In less than two days the prostitutes were removed.
The struggle galvanised the whole left, and there was extensive support action, including from the UHT. The Women’s Trade Union League, an organisation of middle-class women which provided legal help and publicity, extended the support network into suffragist circles. The campaign climax was an enormous rally at Carnegie Hall.
The strike officially ended in February 1910 with partial success – 339 shops settled with the union, 19 remained open. Over 300 shops had achieved most of their demands.
The struggle had an enormous impact on workers in other trades around them:
Hail the waistmakers of nineteen-nine
Making their stand on the picket line,
Breaking the power of those who reign,
Pointing the way, smashing the chain.
And we gave new courage to the men
Who carried through in nineteen-ten
And shoulder to shoulder we’ll win through
Led by the ILGWU.
Inspired by the shirtwaist makers, 60,000 cloak and suitmakers walked off the job in July 1910.
This time, most of the strikers were men. The strike was well prepared and planned, a key factor being the work done beforehand among the Italian workers, who constituted about one-third of the labour force in the sector. Having been involved in all stages of preparation, the Italians joined the Jewish workers on strike.
Again, police protected thugs who terrorised the strikers, and magistrates fined and sentenced picketers. But the workers defied injunctions with mass picketing and an enormous demonstration against “judicial tyranny” supported by the Socialist Party. After nine weeks of bitter struggle, an agreement gave important gains in wages, hours and conditions but failed to deliver the closed shop.
The movement moved to yet another sector in 1912. Furriers worked 56–60 hours a week in “filthy, disease-breeding sweatshops, usually located in ancient, broken-down wooden tenements or in basements”:
In one or two small rooms, without even a pretense of ventilation, about twenty fur workers would labor. Stairs, hallways, rooms, and closets were packed with dust-saturated fur pieces and cuttings. Stench and dust blanketed everything. Hair, dust and poisonous dyes ate at the workers’ eyes, noses, skin, and lungs as they toiled at the bench or machine.
A strike of furriers in 1904 had collapsed because of the union’s failure to organise the Jewish workers. A subsequent organising drive by the UHT laid the basis for a major struggle. The red-printed strike call, known as the “red special”, was posted on 20 June 1912 and brought out 10,000 strikers, three-quarters of whom were Jewish. The battle of the “Fighting Furriers” was long and bitter. Within three weeks, the union’s funds were virtually exhausted; but the strikers were not:
Women pickets marched around the buildings that housed the fur shops, carrying signs in Yiddish and English that read: “Masters! Starvation is your weapon. We are used to starving. We will fight on ’til victory!”
Once again, gangsters and police attacked picketers, with more than 800 arrests and 215 serious injuries.
The leader of the 2,000 women strikers was Jewish-Russian Esther Polansky, who was legendary among the strikers for her militancy:
She never stopped before any danger. This the workers appreciated so much that not only did she win their admiration but also their willingness to sacrifice if she ordered them to do so.
After 13 weeks, the furriers gained a major victory, winning nearly all their demands –including union recognition. The Forward declared: “The power of unity and solidarity triumphed over the power of money, the power of police attacks and hunger and want”. At the end of 1912, inspired by the waistmakers, cloakmakers and furriers, workers in the men’s clothing sector voted overwhelmingly for a general strike. By one week into 1913, more than 100,000 workers were on strike in the largest of the series in the garment industry. The majority were Jewish, the second-largest group Italians, and one-third of the total were women. The Forward reported that the vitality of the Italians “was wonderful, their energy is simply incredible, their devotion exceeds everything”.
Describing a parade of workers in one factory heading to their strike headquarters, the Forward reported:
Here there went arm in arm an old Jew with a young Italian. A little farther on there marched an old Italian worker, gesticulating to the young Jewish worker who was his partner on the line.
An astonishingly large picketing committee of 10,000 strikers led mass picketing. Again, there were insufficient funds, it was freezing, and the picketers faced the daily ferocity of scabs, thugs and police:
Blood flowed freely, skulls were cracked, ribs were broken, eyes blackened, teeth knocked out and many persons were otherwise wounded in a brutal assault on the garment strikers and pickets.
Again, magistrates supported the manufacturers. There were hundreds of arrests. Eventually, the union president bypassed the rank and file and settled. This sellout meant that this was the only one of the garment industry strikes not to achieve at least some form of union recognition.
The struggles heated up even further in 1913, as many sections of the garment industry went out in what Foner calls “tremendous labor uprisings”. Once, more than 150,000 workers were on strike at the same time, with disputes among men’s tailors and a range of women’s clothing workers. One newspaper declared: “The local needle industries have been practically paralyzed by one of the most gigantic and general uprisings which Greater New York has ever witnessed”.
Early in the year, up to 80,000 strikers in the men’s and boys’ garment industry marched through Manhattan and Brooklyn in one of the biggest parades ever in the city to protest against police and thug brutality:
One of the remarkable features of the parade was the number of nationalities represented. Workers from 15 countries were pointed out and they all marched shoulder to shoulder, seemingly on the best of terms.
Meanwhile, militant disputes continued in the women’s garment industry, including a walkout of 7,000 teenage girls who made underwear, who had the worst conditions and were the most poorly paid. The bosses added a new tactic to the usual attacks:
Into the battle came the gangsters’ “molls”. They filled their pocketbooks with stones, and when a skirmish began, they swung their loaded bags against the pickets’ heads. They also carried concealed scissors, and at an opportune moment they would cut the strikers’ long braided hair.
But the pickets fought back. When a boss threatened a young picketer, she retaliated:
I gave the boss such a smash with my umbrella that it flew into two pieces. He was so surprised he fell down… I was arrested, but I was so little and he so big and fat, the Judge said “Go on home,” and he let me off. And from that day he [the boss] found out he was fighting with someone who wasn’t afraid.
To give themselves strength, the 15-year-old girls sang:
We’re getting beaten by policemen,
With their heavy clubs of hickory,
But we’ll fight as hard as we can
To win “Strong Union Victory”.
The strikers may have been uneducated young women, but they articulated very clearly to interviewers why they were prepared to fight so hard. One said: “My heart and soul is just with the union. It makes you feel so big instead of like a piece of dirt in the world”. Another said that, when she had lived in Russia, she believed that there was liberty in America:
but now I know the workers must fight for liberty in this country, too. It’s the same fight everywhere. In Russia it is the Czar. In America it is the boss and the boss’s money.
By the end of that year, every branch of the women’s garment industry in New York had an agreement with the ILGWU, and women had become members in unprecedented numbers. Between 1910 and 1913, union membership in the garment industry increased 66,000, a 68 percent increase. This was greater even than miners with their 60 percent increase.
Dwellings in the working-class areas of New York were small and were often simultaneously workshops; social life centred on the streets and so did much of political life, as it had in Russia. According to an article in the New York Times, “The Jews talk and walk in their several districts” and New York “is the talkiest city in the world”:
Little groups of [people] dot the sidewalk all Summer long, strolling up and down, discussing art, literature, drama, Socialism, Anarchy, woman’s suffrage, child labor…
The rich man has his clubs in which he may discuss Wall Street… The clubless poor man has the streets wherein to talk of wages and that part of the social structure which concerns him and his.
Union Square was the locals’ mecca:
We gathered to make revolution and stayed to talk. And how we talked – anarchism, atheism, against the military, for birth control, against injustice, for socialism, for the rights of workers to organise.
Up to 20,000 people would gather there, over “almost any issue”. A demonstration in the square was “a holiday, an escape from the long hours of drudgery and the grim realities of a dull, crowded tenement life”. The rallies were:
frequently preceded by scores of community meetings, a clustering around street corners…the heart of the assembly was that of the labor force, working people, registering their awareness of the troubles of the world. 
Cafés also provided places to meet and talk. The Café Metropole in downtown New York was a hub for East Side intelligentsia:
They gossiped and chattered; but most of all they argued. They sat at their tables consuming enormous quantities of Russian tea and lemon and stared and were…stared at in turn.
Men and women of every conceivable political complexion gathered here: single taxers, Marxists, Veblenites, Revisionists, Kropotkinites, Fabians, syndicalists and pacifists. They sat throughout the night destroying and reconstructing entire social systems.
One person who frequented the Metropole was Leon Trotsky:
a man with an unusually broad and high forehead topped by a tempestuous shock of black hair. Behind the thick lenses of his pince-nez flashed eyes of magnetic and restless power.
With all this talking, the languages used are significant. Yiddish was crucial to the mass struggles in New York up to World War I and gave the struggles there a unique flavour. The early immigrant agitators had spoken German or Russian; but, in 1882, Abraham Cahan asked organisers of a workers’ meeting:
why they did not use the language of the people they were trying to reach. The radicals laughed at the thought and contemptuously suggested that he try it himself.
A week later, in a packed meeting room, Cahan explained the Marxist theory of surplus value in Yiddish. Bernard Weinstein, who was to become secretary of the United Hebrew Trades…later wrote in his memoirs that this was the first time he really understood the doctrine of Socialism.
The most important Yiddish-language newspaper was the daily Forward (Forverts), later The Jewish Daily Forward. Started in 1897 by a group of about 50 socialists, its name and political orientation were based on the German Social Democratic Party and its organ Vorwärts. Politically close to the Bund, it was one of the first national newspapers in the USA. It had more readers than any other Yiddish daily in the world or socialist daily in the country, with a circulation of more than 275,000 in the 1920s. It was the “primary voice of Jewish immigrant Socialism”.
Although Trotsky insisted that his being Jewish was of no importance, in New York he moved in Jewish circles, addressed Jewish audiences and frequented their cafés. Historian Tony Michels suggests that this is because “the Left and the Jews were so thoroughly enmeshed that one could not necessarily discern where one ended and the other began”.
Jews formed the backbone of New York socialism at a time when the Jewish labour movement reached mass proportions in the period before World War I. It encompassed trade unions, political parties and welfare organisations, active across the country but centred in New York. At its high point in 1914, the socialist-led UHT had a membership of a quarter of a million. We have already seen the importance of Jewish unionists in the garment trades. The Workmen’s Circle (Arbeter Ring), a welfare body which aided striking unions and socialist causes and had 87,000 members at its peak, eventually came under the control of the Bund.
Apart from formal organisations:
an untold number of individuals marched in parades, participated in rent strikes and consumer boycotts, crowded around soapboxes, and flocked to celebrations and fund-raisers for one cause or another.
Outside their own community, many Jews were members of, or supported, American socialist organisations. The main socialist party in the late nineteenth century was the Socialist Labor Party and later the Socialist Party. In New York, between 1908 and 1912, 39 percent of the Socialist Party were Jews; in 1904, 60 percent of the New York Jewish electorate voted for its candidates.
Anarchism was another important current, Emma Goldman being a prominent example. As in the UK, the anarchists were busy attacking religion, and their Yom Kippur balls were famous – “revellers danced, ate, drank, sang revolutionary songs, and performed skits, all in a gesture of contempt for Jewish religious practice”.
The immigrants retained strong international links. “Organizations, publications, individuals, and ideas moved from country to country, following Jewish migration patterns.” New Yorkers contributed to revolutionary activities in Russia by sending money and thousands of publications. During the 1905 Russian revolution, for example, American Bundists raised $5,000 each week for several months. This all reinforced the ties between Jewish and non-Jewish socialists and labour movement activists across national boundaries.
The period of open immigration came to an end with World War I and the passage of restrictive laws in 1921 and 1924. But, during the four decades of mass immigration, the Jewish labour movement in the USA established patterns, standards and ideas which endured in the subsequent decades. Although, by the postwar generation, New York Jews spoke English, Yiddish remained an active language for decades, and the garment industry and its Jewish workers remained a major focal point for socialism and working-class struggle.
In the 1930s, approximately 330,000 Jews lived in Britain, which had a population at that time of about 45 million. One hundred and eighty-three thousand of them lived in London, with an estimated 60 percent of those in East London, half in the borough of Stepney. Thus, despite generational and other changes, working-class Jews were still largely concentrated in a relatively small area, where they lived alongside cockneys, Irish Catholics and other working-class communities in an area with continuing poverty, overcrowding and unemployment.
The sons and daughters of immigrant Jews were still mostly workers and poor traders. Rosenberg notes that this so-called “new community” were often collectively characterised as “Jewish labour and Jewish youth”; they basically shared the outlook and culture of their social environment. He argued that there was:
so much in common between the young post-war English cockney and the young East End Jew…[that] what goes under the name of the East End Jew is in reality no specific Jewish type at all, but a general East London labour type.
Whether this was strictly true is not so important; it is clear that, despite conflicts, there was an underlying sense of commonality. This was an important change from the prewar period, when the Jewish community lived in some ways in a virtual ghetto, separated by language, customs and religion. Now that the younger generation, at least, spoke English and felt themselves to be British (not Russian or Polish), it was much easier for socialists and communists to overcome antagonisms and build solidarity. This was to stand them in good stead in the fight against fascism and other struggles.
The upper-class Jewish Rothschilds and Montefiores, meanwhile, were content with their status as a powerful elite and certainly did not live in the East End slums. Lionel Rothschild lived on an estate in Hampshire “with one of the finest gardens in all of England” and a private railway to transport landscaping rocks to it. Nor did most of the bosses and landlords live in the East End. Similarly, as the threat of fascism grew after 1933, the president of the Jewish Board of Deputies (the mainstream communal organisation) was mostly concerned with his status; he advocated an “overriding consideration of duty and loyalty” to the UK. Their fear of the “general East London labour type” overrode any anxiety about danger from the right.
Britain had earlier been a place of refuge for Europe’s persecuted, such as the Huguenots. Legislation in 1753 made it easier for Jews to settle, although they did not receive full political equality until 1858. By the late nineteenth century, Anglo-Jews had lived in the UK for many generations, largely as an accepted and respected part of the community.
However, with rising inter-imperialist competition and the growth of nationalism in the 1890s, anti-Semitism gained strength in Britain as it had internationally. Many left-wing opponents of the second Boer War (1899–1902) blamed “Jewish capitalists” who were “behind the war and imperialism in general”, including Keir Hardy and the Independent Labour Party (ILP). The Trade Union Congress concurred but went even further, passing resolutions calling for immigration control three times during the 1890s.
Driven by economic crises and rising working-class struggle, conservatives and right wingers exploited anti-Semitic strategies to divert attention to immigrants, particularly Jews. Typical is the 1893 parliamentary debate, where Tories blathered on about the growth of the “Jewish race” and the country being “overrun” by “destitute foreign immigrants”. In 1895 under Joseph Chamberlain, they adopted a policy of immigration controls. It is interesting to note that, at the same time, Chamberlain supported the Zionist project. He met Herzl in 1902 and supported the establishment of settlements in the Sinai or Uganda, both at the time under British control. This engagement with Britain was a major breakthrough for the Zionists.
Thus, when unemployment rose sharply after the turn of the century, the ground was ready for anti-alien sentiment to be expressed in more virulent ways.
The British Brothers’ League (BBL) was founded in 1900 as an explicitly anti-immigration campaign group. While its office was in the City, the financial and business centre of London, and its leadership was middle class, its strategic orientation was the working-class East End, where it could mobilise support by rehashing old charges: that Jews were ousting locals from jobs and houses and that they were the cause of crime.
BBL membership reached 6,000 very quickly. In 1902, they held a large rally in Mile End:
Four simultaneous marches led by drummers converged on the building. The marchers held Union Jacks and placards saying “British Homes for British Workers”. Inside the hall, where 4,000 had gathered, an organ played There’s No Place Like Home.
Speakers railed against Britain being “the dumping ground for the scum of Europe”. When one claimed that they were not persecuted refugees but came because “they want our money”, supporters shouted “Wipe them out!”
Anti-immigration sentiment was now concretised in a local anti-Semitic organisation. But counteraction could not come from Anglo-Jewish leaders, who had joined the chorus against immigration, declaring that they shared the Tories’ fears. Some elements of the Jewish communal leadership were even willing to associate themselves with BBL campaigns.
It was radical East Enders who organised against the BBL, setting up the Aliens Defence League. Drawing in Jewish and non-Jewish socialists, anarchists and progressives, they held rallies and public meetings and heckled at BBL events. Their work was cut out for them. A BBL petition with 45,000 signatures added to the political pressure for restricted immigration. A royal commission in 1903 was followed by the Aliens Act 1905. It introduced the categorisation of migrants into “desirable” and “undesirable”, establishing “the invidious value system that still dominates today’s immigration discussion”.
For Jews, the Act was particularly pernicious. While it seemed to restrict immigration in general, and the word Jew did not appear anywhere, the legislation in practice drastically reduced Jewish access to the UK at the time of mass emigration following the wave of pogroms in 1905–6 and even led to deportations. Interestingly, the Aliens Act was steered through parliament by none other than Arthur Balfour, of Balfour Declaration fame. He argued for restrictions on Jews entering the UK because “they are not to the advantage of the civilisation of this country”.
The marches and rallies of the BBL prefigured the actions of Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s and the National Front in the 1970s. Although the target of the latter was the more recent immigration from the Indian sub-continent, the dynamic and strategy are similar.
Many of the characteristics of this campaign were to appear later: right-wing agitators focusing on the East End; the attempt to drive wedges between different ethnic groups; traditional anti-Semitic tropes; absence of support – and even active opposition – from the established and wealthy local Jews. The preparedness to fight the fascists and solidarity from non-Jews and socialists also reappeared later. And the base issues that underlay the events in this early period – poverty, unemployment, housing and rent – played out into the 1930s.
Although the BBL declined into insignificance, anti-Semitic attitudes did not. Rather, they had become normalised by the 1930s. Mainstream newspapers, the clergy and even well-known authors such as H. G. Wells, G. B. Shaw and J. B. Priestley disseminated anti-Semitic tropes such as the “international Jewish conspiracy”. Insurance companies classified Jews as “bad risks” or “untrustworthy individuals”. Houses to let displayed signs, “no dogs, no Jews”, and job advertisements often specified that applicants must be Gentiles.
This non-systematic anti-Semitic climate set the stage for an organised anti-Semitic force. Enter the BUF.
Formed in 1932, the BUF did not initially focus on Jews. Its core ideas at the start were nationalism, corporatism and anti-communism, and it attracted considerable mainstream interest. The BUF first gained notoriety following large public meetings in 1934. At one, MPs and other prominent political figures joined 15,000 people to hear Oswald Mosley speak, flanked by 56 Union Jacks and 24 microphones. While stewards savagely beat hecklers from the Communist Party (CPGB) and the ILP in the body of the hall, police perpetrated their own violence on demonstrators outside the building.
When the fascists planned a rally in Hyde Park in September, a wide range of forces lined up to oppose them in a counter-demonstration. The Jewish Chronicle urged Jews to “stay away and refrain from adding to the sufficiently heavy anxieties of the police”. The Labour and Liberal press and trade union leaders urged anti-fascists to ignore the event. But leafletting and workplace organisation by communists and rank-and-file trade unionists led to a spectacular result: a crowd of 100,000 workers and anti-fascists overwhelmed the 5,000 fascists at the event.
Following this setback, the BUF lost most mainstream support and changed tack. Having now developed a comprehensive anti-Semitic propaganda push, in 1935 it turned to building a “belligerent street-level populist movement of agitation and provocation in predominantly working-class areas surrounding Jewish populations”: the battle for the East End had begun.
It is important to emphasise that continued anti-communism was entwined with the anti-Semitism; contemporary writer William Zukerman argued: “for fascists, Jewish and non-Jewish East End labour equally represented the ‘alien nation’”:
Fundamentally the British Fascists’ outburst against the Jews is an outburst against British Labour, “Reds”, Socialists and Communists. It is more political and economic than national and racial. Its anti-Semitism is a guise under which its profounder class feeling is hidden.
Mosley constantly referred to the East End in his speeches as “alien territory” and a “communist stronghold”, and the party propaganda increasingly equated communist with Jew. Modern historians also agree that the left and Jews were equally the targets of the BUF. This is important in understanding the fascist movement: the BUF was founded primarily as an anti-communist movement, and it never lost this goal. It turned to anti-Semitism as a way of building support by inflaming hostilities, but also because it could characterise Jews as communists, and thus kill two birds with the one stone.
From the summer of 1936, the BUF intensified its anti-Semitic campaign with racist abuse, assaults on individuals in the street, fire-bombings and attacks on Jewish premises. By the end of September, they were ready for a show of strength. By marching openly through Stepney, they hoped to intimidate the organised working class and the Jewish community and to swing workers to their arguments.
The climax of the struggle occurred on Cable Street in Stepney on 4 October 1936. That otherwise unremarkable street was the scene of events that marked a generation. Let’s look at this event and why it created such a lasting impact in the minds of participants then and continues to do so today:
No English-speaking city has ever seen anything like the scenes which marked this attempted demonstration… Those who like myself had the privilege of taking part in the event will never forget it. For this was one of those great communal acts of a mass of people aroused by a profound emotion or by a sense of outraged justice, which makes history… It was indeed the great epic of the Jewish East End.
When the BUF’s plans became known, anti-fascists had just one week to organise. Their success was not due to leadership from mainstream Jewish organisations or the labour leaders.
It was as though they had all received the same memo: the Jewish Board of Deputies and the Labour leadership urged people to stay away. Labour MP George Lansbury avoided mention even of anti-Semitism and called on the home secretary to re-route BUF through “less congested” areas. Stating that he wanted to “maintain peace and order”, Lansbury advised “those people who are opposed to Fascism to keep away from the demonstration”. Calling this “sound advice”, the official labour movement paper, the Daily Herald, produced arguments that continue to be heard to this day: “Fascist meetings are in themselves dull… The only attraction is the prospect of disturbances. Withdraw that attraction and Fascist meetings would die on the organisers’ hands”. The Labour Mayor of Stepney appealed to all East Londoners “most earnestly to stay away”. Even the leadership of the ILP shilly-shallied for a time.
The CPGB tends to take credit for the counter-demonstration, but it also initially opposed any action. Despite a good record on fighting fascists locally, national policy was to prioritise the Spanish Civil War, and a rally in solidarity with Spain was actually planned for that day in a different location.
It was local activists and Jewish groups, rank-and-file trade unionists, community activists and socialist organisations who swung into action, and it is their efforts that led to the mass show of resistance that has become known as the Battle of Cable Street.
Rank-and-file communists were appalled by the party line and lobbied desperately within the party for it to change. Many members even attended organising meetings under the auspices of other organisations. Only after several days did the CPGB cancel the Trafalgar Square demonstration and support the call for a mass protest in the East End. The Daily Worker printed a special supplement calling for the biggest rally against fascism that has yet been seen in Britain. Aiming to deny the fascists entry to the East End, the Spanish slogan, “they shall not pass”, became an English mantra.
Without modern technology, the event was built by local activists:
[F]ew people had telephones or access to them… There was no TV. Radio was still almost a novelty. So our communications were through knocks on doors, notes through letter boxes, the post, meetings in the street, or at work, and by word of mouth.
Newspapers such as the CPGB’s Daily Worker were read by thousands in the factories and workplaces:
On the Sunday morning we took this round the streets of the small council estates in Southgate. We sold them at almost every other house. Our main propaganda medium then was by chalking slogans on walls and in the roads…we chalked thoroughly all the entrances to the great Standard Telephones cable factory in New Southgate where 10,000 went to work every day.
On the day, up to 300,000 people participated. With the local population numbering approximately 60,000, it is clear that an enormous number of people from elsewhere joined in. They were young and old; men, women and children; Jews and Catholics; socialists and communists; dockworkers and housewives – no distinction of age, gender, work, religion or ethnicity.
Alice Hitchen describes what it was like:
There were so many of us that you couldn’t move. I can remember the elation in the crowd that so many people were there. The dockers came from Limehouse and Poplar – to my amazement, because they had a reputation for being antisemitic. There were cabinet-makers from Bethnal Green and tailors from Whitechapel. There were so many different accents. Miners came from Wales and Communists from all over Britain. “They shall not pass,” was on everybody’s lips.
The local Irish dockers played a pivotal role. Max Levitas, a Jewish communist who had grown up in Dublin, stood at the barricades with his father and brother, both of whom had worked with the socialist trade union leader Jim Larkin:
We knew the Irish would stand with us. When [the dockers] went out on strike in 1912, it was a terrible time. Jewish families took in hundreds of their children. They were starving. We knew [the Irish dockers] wouldn’t forget. They wanted to repay the debt.
… There were huge crowds, the dockers were shouting: “Come on lads, we’re going to go out and stop them! They want to march, we won’t let them!”
The crowd was so enormous and so dense that the battle was between the anti-fascists and 10,000 police, while approximately 3,000 fascists stood aside under police protection.
People chanted slogans and raised clenched fists behind barricades. Broken glass and marbles in the street helped deter mounted police:
In Leman Street police drew their truncheons and charged when a section of the crowd attempted to rescue a man who was being escorted by a policeman. Stones and other missiles were thrown and a bag of pepper was burst in front of the policeman’s horse. In Cable Street a crowd seized materials from a builder’s yard and began to construct a barricade. They used corrugated iron, barrels, coal, and glass to construct a barrier, even pulling up paving-stones. When the police intervened they were greeted with a shower of stones, and reinforcements had to be sent and a charge made before order could be restored and the barricade removed.
In a surprise action, women, mostly Irish Catholics, leaned out of upper storeys and threw rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots at the police:
[F]rom the roofs and the upper floors, people, ordinary housewives, and elderly women too, were throwing down milk bottles and other weapons and all kinds of refuse…onto the police.
Despite many injuries and about 150 arrests, the crowd refused to give way. Eventually, the police realised that they would never be able to clear the way and told Mosley to give up. “They shall not pass” prevailed, and the fascists were prevented from entering the East End.
The anti-fascists celebrated with an impromptu march in the streets and partied in the pubs until early morning. Participants reveal a level of euphoria over much more than the achievement of the immediate goals.
Max Levitas: “You should have been there to hear the cry, and see people jumping and shouting in joy. People who had never drunk beer in their lives, drank a glass of beer. We had won”.
Alice Hitchen: “Everyone was cheering. Where I was people were dancing and singing and throwing their arms around one another”.
Bill Fishman: “There were parties, there was dancing in the streets. The cafés were full, the pubs were full. And there was a feeling of elation, a feeling of relief, particularly amongst the immigrant Jews.”
This jubilation has remained within the memory of the labour movement to this day, 85 years later: the intense feeling derived from the creation, even for a short time, of a radical united movement of the working class in its broadest sense, together with its allies. The people present could feel the possibilities and strengths that unity brings, and that feeling has been passed on to later generations.
Bill Fishman, who was only 15 at the time, described it this way:
I was moved to tears to see bearded Jews and Irish Catholic dockers standing up to stop Mosley. I shall never forget that as long as I live – how working class people could get together to oppose the evil of fascism.
Where did this unity come from? Firstly, we need to recognise the extraordinary organising effort by local militants and activists, carried out against the opposition of bureaucratic leaders. But looking further back, we can see that the East End community drew on its experience and tradition of combined struggle and solidarity: the mutual support in 1889 between the tailors and the dockers; and 1912, when Jewish families cared for dockers’ children. The latter, little more than 20 years previously, lived in the local memory. So it is no coincidence that dockers were the militant vanguard of the fight against the BUF.
As we have seen, the leaderships of the Labour Party and the unions failed to take the BUF seriously, arguing that anti-Semitism was a passing phenomenon and need not be directly fought. They refused to support anti-fascist actions and even called on their members to stay away, claiming that, if they weren’t “provoked”, the fascists would somehow disappear.
An anti-immigrant posture, however, often underlay this stance:
The official Labour Party position…suggests that Jews were a separate category of the working class…seen as immigrant, rather than indigenous…
There was a different story at the rank-and-file level. Throughout the country, discontent with the party was increasing because of its betrayals from 1929 to 1931.
In the East London trade union and Labour Party branches, where Jews and non-Jews had worked together over many years, there was a passionate desire for direct action against the BUF. A significant number of rank-and-file members defied the local right-wing leadership and the party line, working alongside communists to organise defiance. A Labour official noted: “[w]e have a great difficulty in the Labour Movement in persuading our people that all is being done that ought to be done to deal with what they consider to be a very serious situation”. At the massive Hyde Park action in 1934, many participants were Labour members. “Many were out for their first demonstration, but they had shown that their loyalty was not to party tags but to their class.”
Stepney was a firmly Labour borough by the mid-1930s, with seats on the council equally divided between Irish, English and Jewish members. Within the branch there were major conflicts between left and right. In 1938, two former Jewish mayors raised complaints about the Labour council’s failure to act on rent control, its hostility to the CPGB and other issues. As they were evicted from a council meeting, one shouted: “it is with pleasure that I leave this session of the Reichstag”.
Other nearby Labour branches were also active. The Hackney branch, which had a massive Jewish membership, carried out many street meetings at the Ridley Road market, where Mosley repeatedly tried to march. Probably, many branch members were absent from the Cable Street demonstration because of the party’s official lack of support; nonetheless, their activism contributed to building the movement which provided the basis for the mass action.
Labour continued to condemn the Cable Street demonstration even after the event. Its commitment to anti-communist politics outweighed any concept of the need to fight fascism, even equating the two – “[we] have no sympathy with red Communism or black Fascism”.
A number of left and revolutionary groups did support confrontations with the fascists, including the ILP, Trotskyists and others. But the weaknesses within the Labour Party and consequent loss of support created space for the CPGB, which became the most important organisation in the anti-fascist struggle in the East End.
This did not happen automatically. During the so-called Third Period, the Labour Party was the main target of communist hostility and the working class their main sphere of action. With the adoption of the Popular Front strategy in 1934 and the concomitant orientation to non-working-class layers, the party actually began to back away from confrontations with the fascists, arguing that violence would detract from the image it was trying to build.
This did not go down well with the membership. According to well-known Stepney party member (at the time) Joe Jacobs: “the majority view, certainly among the youth, was that Mosley should be met everywhere with the maximum force available”. Notwithstanding their foot-dragging, the CPGB were happy to take the credit for the fight against the fascists.
But Jacobs maintained that the:
local antifascist initiatives owed more to the sustained, independent efforts of the grassroots fighting for a unified approach in the local branches and local trade unions initially, than wrenching support from the London District Committee and the party nationally.
Local activists were at the heart of the social movements in the East End in the period and formed the links between the political groups, the communities and the workplaces which underlay the solidarity shown at Cable Street.
One of the less well known is Sarah Wesker, a Communist. As a machinist at Goodman’s trouser factory in 1926, she led the all-female workforce in a walkout, demanding a farthing a pair. She became a formidable union organiser, leading strikes at several textile factories. Sarah was fluent in English and Yiddish and “could inspire the older women workers in the factories”. Under five feet tall, she was “a ferocious speaker, as if the energy of five men was balled up inside that miniature frame of hers”. Wesker was “a real inspiration to all of us” at Cable Street.
A large majority of the 500 members of the Stepney branch of the CPGB was Jewish. One attraction was the way party membership broadened their horizons through social and cultural activities as well as political actions. It “introduced young Jews to a wider world, as they campaigned outside the old boundaries and sang Irish songs with their Catholic comrades”. Lectures on a range of subjects were very popular, with even BUF members turning up.
Thus, despite the opposition from both Labour and, initially, the CPGB, Jewish and non-Jewish rank-and-file communists and Labour Party members, along with local union leaders and activists, forged bonds of solidarity, forming almost a de facto united front. The anti-fascist struggle and other local issues merged into a larger, community-based movement, which was the foundation upon which the mass participation at Cable Street was built:
Just from the family stories you get the sense of how, Jewish socialists of whatever stripe, pulled non-Jewish people into anti-fascist activity as they fought alongside each other on housing, wages, public health and all the other revolutionary and reformist issues of the day.
The fight against fascism and the fight for better housing boosted each other. People were drawn into the Communist Party by the fight against fascism and, through the party, they helped to organise the attack on housing conditions. The fight for better housing brought everyone together, Jew and Gentile, to attack the social and economic causes on which fascism thrives. It was a virtuous cycle.
Stepney, as one of the most overcrowded districts in London, was practically all a slum, and the situation of tenants deteriorated further after partial reduction of rent control in 1933.
Phil Piratin, a young Jewish communist resident of Spitalfields, was looking for local issues for the party to campaign around. One evening in 1934, he noticed the open gas flares on the staircases of a housing block. He knocked on a nearby door and asked the woman how she felt about this. “Immediately I received a torrent of information, and a cursing of the landlord. I had found an issue!”
Piratin coordinated a successful tenant letter-writing campaign, and the landlord installed electric lighting. Piratin himself was quite critical of how he ran this first campaign: he failed to get the tenants “to feel that they were doing something for themselves”. He and other communists, however, developed better strategies when they decided to make a serious effort to win over Mosley’s local working-class supporters by focusing on housing.
There were sporadic rent strikes from 1935, but the campaign really got off the ground in June 1937 with action around the eviction of two families in Paragon Mansions in Mile End; they were actually members of the BUF, which had declined to help them. Having involved other tenants in resistance, Piratin and his comrades were able to get the two BUF families to join in also.
Tenants set up barricades, with people armed with mouldy flour and water standing on balconies from which anyone trying to get in “could be bombarded with ease”. They made full use of their “ammunition” when the police arrived. “Some of the women had to be persuaded…that it was inadvisable to use anything more than the flour and water. Some were disappointed.” During the subsequent standoff, Piratin addressed passing factory workers from a soapbox.
News of the action spread very quickly. “The lessons did not require being pressed home. BUF membership cards were destroyed voluntarily.”
As the movement grew, more tenants set up committees and formed a coordinating body, the Stepney Tenants Defence League (STDL). Its leader, Michael Shapiro, recalled:
it was a genuine united movement of the people, drawing together Jews and Christians at a time when anti-Semitic propaganda was being stepped up, helping to isolate and expose both fascists and right-wing local Labour leaders.
Activity increased further after the abolition of rent control and massive rent increases in early 1938. Some strikes were won easily, but others were bitter affairs.
The tenants at Flower and Dean Streets, most of whom were Jewish, “turned their building into a ‘fortress’”. They guarded all entrances, picketed continually and held street marches. The children demonstrated in front of the home of the landlord in well-to-do Golders Green. The owner caved in after five weeks.
Many Jewish communists lived in the Brady Street Mansions, including Max Levitas, who had been heavily involved at Cable Street. They carried out a joint strike with tenants at Langdale Mansions directed at their common landlords, two clothing manufacturers. With barricades and barbed wire around the buildings and guards patrolling the entrances, there was a virtual state of siege: even the milkman had to get a permit to enter. The tenants’ committee, all women, ran a very active campaign including demonstrations outside the landlords’ West End business premises and the comfortable Hampstead home of one of them.
When police broke through the barricades at Langdale Mansions at the end of June, “a fierce struggle ensued with the tenants, who armed themselves with sticks, shovels and saucepans, and there were several injuries”. A mass demonstration of 15,000 people, including rabbis, church dignitaries and the mayor, also faced the police. Finally, under pressure from the council and even parliament, the landlords capitulated, resulting in a clear victory for the tenants.
By mid-summer, the strikes and campaigns had “beaten back the landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney”, and there was a large victory parade in July.
One important aspect of the CPGB strategy was to link rent strikes to the anti-fascist struggle. For example, the activists deliberately targeted Quinn Square in Bethnal Green, a block in the heart of the area where fascists were active. A rent strike in August 1938 involving many BUF members was won after two weeks.
From the beginning of 1939, a new campaign aimed at rent control for all working-class houses, with rent strikes “in street after street in rapid succession”. With the STDL membership nearly 5,000 and with 2,000 tenants refusing to pay rent, the big landlords “were on the run”. Two months later, the tenants had recovered $10,000 in overcharged rent, had won massive rent reductions and had forced landlords to carry out repairs. About 10,000 people joined in a celebratory Mayday march, with columns converging from five centres of recent strikes.
The success of the movement was due to the responsiveness and militancy of the residents. One commentator was amazed by “the speed with which people came together, organised, and threw up their own leaders… They ran great risks”. In particular, the role of women has been described in terms strikingly reminiscent of the 1984–85 miners’ strike:
[I]t was the women who did the picketing, women who often dominated the committees making up the [STDL], women who came out on demonstrations.
Outstanding were the women… There was nothing that the men could do that could not be equalled by the women, and, in fact, they were mostly more enthusiastic and hence more reliable.
Piratin gave examples of how experience transformed the women’s consciousness:
They are shy, they lack confidence. Oh, no! they cannot be a secretary, they cannot write too well! Speak on a platform? Never!… But so rapidly did the campaign develop, so many things needed to be done, so many people were required, that [one woman] soon found herself doing many of the things she had hitherto thought beyond her powers.
Some writers conclude that the movement’s success was primarily due to housewives’ networks. But while they did serve as “resources of resistance”, the networks did not operate in a vacuum. Housewives were married to male workers and trade union members; many would have had experience of militancy in the workplace; and many were also involved in left-wing organisations. The links were the same as occurred in the New York rent strikes. The feminist analysis does not stand up.
The fact that the rent strikes mostly occurred in the Jewish community also demonstrates that more was at work than women’s networks. The STDL made “strenuous efforts” to engage the Irish community, but with little success. The Irish women no doubt had as strong networks, but the dynamic there was different, with the local Catholic hierarchy fiercely anti-communist. Mosley’s blackshirts were also able to manipulate anti-landlord sentiment to provide material for anti-Semitism, because many landlords were Jewish.
The Jewish women, on the other hand, came from a culture “with a well-developed ethic of social justice” that encouraged militancy in both sexes. The tenants’ movement carried on the tradition of struggle and resistance that many of their parents and grandparents had engaged in earlier in Europe and then in the East End.
Piratin stresses that the keynote was the “over-all solidarity [which] was tremendous”. He gives us a very telling story. In Langdale Street Mansions, there was a mixture of Jewish and non-Jewish families. The picketers, all women who were also responsible for the daily shopping, had a novel way of solving a problem:
Without any hesitation, and with lots of fun, Mrs Smith would go to the Jewish butcher-shop to buy meat for Mrs Cohen on the picket line, and the next day Mrs Cohen (who would never have thought of doing it in all her life) would go to buy meat at the local general butcher for Mrs Smith.
The CPGB played a leading role in the movement, but Piratin acknowledges that rank-and-file Labour Party members and supporters were also heavily engaged. On the other hand, while Stepney Trades Council gave full support, several trade unions failed to respond in any way; much more could have been done to involve the whole labour movement.
Nonetheless, in spite of limitations:
Tens of thousands of working-class men and women had organised themselves for common struggle. There was a common bond between them…[and] this was indeed an achievement. Committees were formed and hundreds of people who…had no experience of organisation or politics learned these things and learned them well.
A year after the events at Cable Street, the fascists tried again. “Smarting with disbelief that the East End Irish dockers had supported the Jews the previous year”, the blackshirts decided in October 1937 to attack another dockers’ area south of the river in Bermondsey with another provocative march. Again under pressure from their members, the local CPGB branch announced a counter-march, which gained wide support from the local labour movement, including the ILP and the local Trades and Labour Council. Several Labour Party branches also defied the London executive and declared support for a militant counter-protest.
The counter-demonstration used tactics similar to the previous year:
Barricades of costers’ barrows, fences with barbed wire, with red flags flying at the top, were flung up with incredible speed; when police tore them down, others were erected a few yards further on… Mounted and foot police, with lashing batons, swept…into the crowds… Missiles were hurled from roofs: eggs, stones and fireworks were flung at the marchers and at police horses.
The police diverted the fascists’ march, but they could not avoid a final barricade of “men, women and children from the great flats that Labour has built in Bermondsey”, with banners proclaiming: “Socialism builds. Fascism destroys. Bermondsey Against Fascism”. A CPGB speaker at the concluding rally deliberately referenced Cable Street:
The 100 percent cockney borough of Bermondsey has given the same answer to Mosley as the Jewish lads and girls did in Stepney just twelve months ago.
Although the protest was smaller, it was just as militant. The police struck a man on the head with a baton and were taking him away when he was rescued by 40 dockers. Several East End Jews were among the 111 people arrested. One magistrate commented: “It is extraordinary how many of the population of Whitechapel and the East End seemed to choose Bermondsey for a Sunday afternoon walk”. The magistrates were much harsher than at Cable Street, with 23 custodial sentences handed out. But one Betsy Malone was only fined after taking a running kick at a policeman and telling him to arrest someone his own size!
This was the last major street confrontation. The attempt by the blackshirts to make inroads into the working-class areas declined; and, most importantly, the BUF was never able to get a real hold in the East End working class. They did not pass.
The revived Polish state that came into being in 1918 comprised Congress Poland, East Prussia, parts of Galicia (formerly in the Austro–Hungarian empire) and territories from several bordering countries. The 1921 census counted nearly 2.8 million Jews and many other ethnic minorities, including Ukrainians, Belarussians and Lithuanians. Of the population of 27 million, 10 million (30.8 percent) were non-Poles.
The Polish national movement had long debated the role of the minorities in a united Poland. Proposals varied, but none anticipated that Jews would receive any form of national autonomy. Even the more liberal Polish nationalists regarded Jews as outsiders: they emphasised cultural differences and worried about their numbers.
The right-wing National Democrats, commonly called Endecja, did more than view Jews as an alien force. As proponents of modern anti-Semitism, they advocated mass emigration and started economic boycotts of Jewish businesses as early as 1912. In the post-World War I period, they participated in a wave of pogroms which was only ended by the intervention of the Allies, who forced a minority rights clause in the new Polish constitution.
The first government after independence based itself on a program of anti-Bolshevism and Polish nationalism – not a good outlook for Jews or the other minorities. The country they inherited was in a parlous economic condition. World War I had destroyed a considerable amount of economic capacity, which deteriorated further with border wars. After a period of political chaos and multiple governments of various complexions, Joseph Pilsudski took power in a military coup in 1926, supported by most political currents. Pilsudski, once a member of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), was now a right-wing reactionary. Although he was not an anti-Semite – and under his rule the police suppressed pogroms – by 1930, his regime had become a police state, with brutal treatment of political prisoners and rigged elections; in 1934, he signed a peace pact with Hitler.
While the non-Jewish population in Poland was overwhelmingly agricultural, the Jews were more than 90 percent urban by 1865. By the end of the century, 462 towns had a Jewish majority population, including 116 with more than 80 percent. Having grown considerably in the nineteenth century, the Jewish plutocracy of Warsaw and other large cities dominated business and commercial life. By 1897, Jews owned nearly 60 percent of Warsaw’s major private banks and up to 90 percent in other Polish cities. The ethnic Polish bourgeoisie resented the competition – and so complained about Jewish business practices.
Estimated at no more than 5 percent of Warsaw Jewry, the social weight of the Jewish bourgeoisie was more important than their numbers. Calling themselves “Poles of the Mosaic Faith”, this wealthy and socially prominent layer was a visible target in a world of poverty and want.
The contrast with the vast majority, the increasingly immiserated lower classes, could not have been greater. Words like “wretched” and “abyss of darkness” are frequent in descriptions of the living conditions of the poor Jewish workers, artisans and petty traders in independent Poland. In 1926, half of the Jewish workers and eight out of 10 craftsmen were unemployed, and an estimated 40 percent of Polish Jews needed welfare support to survive. Diseases such as tuberculosis were rife. As the “safety valve” of immigration became less available, with quotas in the USA from the early 1920s and tight restrictions in other countries such as Australia in the thirties, many sank deeper into poverty.
When the new regime “Polonised” the economy, thousands of Jews lost their jobs as the government took over many industries – including railways, cigarette factories and distilleries. Polish employers would generally not hire Jews, and nor would many large Jewish-owned companies, viewing them as “agitators and fomenters of strikes”. The pressure of unemployment made it particularly difficult to organise workers into trade unions.
Thus, the Jewish bourgeoisie and the Jewish working class entered the newly independent state in very different social circumstances. The “Poles of Mosaic Faith”, living comfortable lives, wealthy and assimilationist, looked forward to their future as part of a revived Polish ruling class while hoping to continue to dominate Jewish communal life, while:
Jewish workers and their movement were confronted…with a double adversary: a chauvinist Polish bourgeoisie incapable of giving any consistency to the “miracle” of renewed independence, and the Jewish capitalist bourgeoisie.
The Zionists were the dominant political current within the Jewish community at the time of independence. In the early twenties there were 47 Jews in the Sejm (the Polish parliament), 32 of them Zionists. At first, they tried various manoeuvres within the Sejm; but after Hitler’s accession to power in Germany in 1933, they gave uncritical support to Pilsudski.
The proto-fascist right-wing “revisionist” Zionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, strenuously asserted that Jewish life in Poland was doomed to fail and that it was pointless to counter anti-Semitism; they certainly made no effort do so. Quite the opposite: their youth group Betar, one of the most popular Zionist youth movements in Poland with 40,000 members, actively promoted Polish nationalism, for example by laying wreaths at Polish war memorials. The organisation was vehemently anti-communist and often brawled with Jewish socialists, when they could be heard singing the Polish national anthem.
Betar carried out military training but never fought the right wing unless they were themselves attacked. According to the leader of their international organisation:
It is absolutely correct that only the Bund waged an organised fight against the anti-Semites. We did not consider that we had to fight in Poland. We believed the way to ease the situation was to take the Jews out of Poland. We had no spirit of animosity.
There was another confounding factor for the Zionists. The Endeks (members of the right-wing Endecja) and the fascists of the National Radical Camp (Nara) continued to declare that Jews had no place in Poland and to call for their mass emigration to Palestine. The post-Pilsudski government supported Britain’s plan for partition of Palestine for similar reasons. When Jewish deputies spoke in the Sejm, they would be interrupted by shouts of “go to Palestine”. Anti-Semitic boycott pickets carried placards with the slogan “Kikes to Palestine”.
The Zionists found themselves in a cleft stick. Here were violent, fascist anti-Semites lining up with their political program of emigration to Palestine!
The position of the Zionists was incomprehensible to other political observers. The leader of the Peasant Party in the Sejm:
denounced the anti-Jewish attitude of Hitler Germany. The crime which is being committed against the German Jews is a world crime, he said… He could not understand…how Jewish politicians who are fighting against German dictatorship can reconcile with their conscience the support they are giving in Poland to the Polish dictatorship. It is not a good thing…for the Polish masses to bear in mind how the Jews are supporting their oppressors.
All of this was not only embarrassing; it also undercut their political stance. As the dangers within and outside Poland visibly increased, and the British cut immigration to Palestine, the Zionists experienced constant disputes and splits; they seemed to have little to offer, and membership shrank.
The “lost world” of Jewish life in interwar Poland is very often invoked with nostalgia. The romanticised image of the shtetl (small town) focusing on the food, the family warmth, the traditional customs, is deeply conservative. But there is another side to the story. Arnold Zable describes his father’s memories of Warsaw’s political life:
Warsaw whirls into a frenzy of activity as the hub, the headquarters of political movements left, right, and indifferent. Bundists, Zionists, assimilationists, the orthodox, and freethinkers fought each other for communal control and allegiance…circles of aspiring artists and writers gathered in cafes and meeting rooms to argue, exchange ideas
And there wasn’t just talk. This Yiddish song by Shmerke Kaczerginski, written when he was only 15 years old, is about a major strike in Łódź in 1926 and shows how whole families were caught up in action. A writer, poet and activist from Vilna, Kaczerginski was a member of the Communist Party, for which he was regularly beaten by the police and imprisoned.
Fathers, mothers and little children,
Are building barricades,
The workers’ brigades are out
Patrolling all the streets.
The barricade is up,
There’s no one in the house,
The police run past
The children throw stones.
Approximately 100,000 workers were organised in the Jewish trade unions in the 1930s, about one-quarter of all trade unionists in the country. Trade unions were organised in the European manner, being set up by, and affiliated to, political organisations. Immediately after World War I, about 12,000 Jewish workers were members of unions led by socialist Zionists, whereas Bundist trade unions had more than 20,000 members in Warsaw alone. Bund-affiliated unions remained the largest and most important Jewish unions in Poland throughout the interwar period.
Many of the socialist leaders from the prewar period were still active in the 1930s, while the new generation renewed the tradition of militancy. This small but significant layer demonstrated a massive commitment to the working-class movement. “[M]ilitancy was the key word in [their] existence…the centre of gravity of their lives” and “We were always demonstrating, whether on educational issues, or economic and political questions.”
We get a wonderful picture of the Jewish working-class environment in Bernard Goldstein’s memoir, Twenty Years with the Jewish Labor Bund. He writes about slaughterers and porters, food workers and bagel bakers, peddlers and fruit sellers. Many led a precarious existence, sometimes linked to gangsters and the underworld, living in slums and barely making a living. Goldstein and others worked among them to establish unions, to engage them politically and to motivate them to join in meetings and demonstrations.
The major parties of the left engaged in this milieu were the Polish Communist Party (KPP), the Socialist Party (PPS), the Bund and left Zionists such as Hashomer Hatzair and Poale Zion.
The prestige of the successful Russian Revolution meant that the KPP was a major pole of attraction. Despite the party’s twists and turns as it attempted to simultaneously develop its own program for Poland while adhering to Stalin’s instructions, it did attract significant numbers of young Jews.
According to one member, Leo Lev:
A broad debate took place in the [Polish] workers’ movement of the 1920s: what perspective was most favourable for Jews? The petty bourgeois leaned in the direction of Poale Zion; but among the youth, communism was dominant, so great was the prestige of the USSR.
Being a communist in interwar Poland required a major commitment. The party was illegal. Arrest was to be expected at some point, and the majority of left-wing political prisoners were communists. In the earlier years, prisoners were well organised: they shared food and ran classes in Marxism, communicating in code by tapping on the walls. Later, prison conditions deteriorated. The concentration camp of Bereza Kartuzka was openly intended for Jews, and humiliation, exhausting and pointless work, very little and very poor food, inhumane treatment and torture were the standard.
Despite the risks, there are many inspiring stories of militants who gave everything to the workers’ struggle:
Bronia Zelmanowicz, imprisoned for activity in the International Red Aid (set up by the Third International) shared her cell with 13 other young women, all militants or communist sympathisers, of whom 12 were Jewish. After her release, she was active with a group of Jewish clothing workers.
Yaakov Greenstein, a Łódź textile worker, was chosen as the workers’ spokesperson during a strike. He was arrested for the first time in 1935 when his group demonstrated with red flags and banners, speeches and leaflets outside a factory. He was not yet 15.
Shlomo Szlein took part in a large demonstration against unemployment in April 1936 in Lwów (now Lviv in Ukraine). When police killed a participant and then tried to smuggle the coffin away at the funeral, tens of thousands rioted. Up to a hundred died in the fighting, which lasted for hours, and agitation over the issue continued for weeks.
Greenstein’s reason for joining the KPP rather than the Bund was typical. He was “attracted by communism because it proposed global solutions…the emancipation that [the Bund] proposed was not bound up with that of other peoples. That did not satisfy me”.
According to Brossart and Klingberg, the Jewish members of the KPP in the 1930s “participated as Jews, drawing Jewish workers into the great movement of universal emancipation”. Szlein notes that young Jews joined the communist movement in Galicia (southern Poland and part of what is now Ukraine) on a massive scale: “There was such a high proportion of Jewish youth…that you could almost say it was a Jewish national movement.”
Although the convergence did not go so far everywhere, the tendency underlay the propaganda of the nationalist right wing, who merged “communist plot” with “Jewish plot” and coined the term “Judaeo-Bolshevism”.
The KPP never became the majority influence among the Jewish left, partly because of its sectarianism during the Third Period. The Bund was a particular target. Not only were they social democrats; being very combative, they also presented serious competition. Communists physically attacked Bund events and individuals, including smashing up the Medem Sanatorium for children in 1931. They also carried out ultra-leftist actions such as calling unjustified wildcat strikes and physically attacking uncooperative workers in an attempt to split Bundist unions. After the turn to the Popular Front, potential cooperation could not be tested because the Polish party became a victim of the paranoia and suspicion that engulfed the Stalinist movement. Many KPP members were purged, sent into Russian exile or murdered, and the party was dissolved in 1938. The Stalinists continued their war with the Bund for years, including causing the deaths of two of its leaders, Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter.
So committed were the KPP rank and file to the struggle, however, that many members continued to be active after the party was dissolved. Having established relationships on a local level with the PPS, the Bund and the left Zionists, Yaakov Greenstein records: “after the dissolution we kept these contacts and established cultural clubs that served as a façade; we continued to organise strikes”.
The PPS welcomed Jews and had assimilated Jewish leaders, but it was imbued historically with Polish nationalism, and this limited its appeal to the Jewish community. It had a chequered relationship with the Bund.
One opportunity to strengthen ties was lost. Party militias were always present at Mayday demonstrations to protect participants from right-wing attacks. In 1931, the PPS proposed that their militia protect the Jewish contingent while the Bund militia protected the PPS. The Bund turned down this stunning gesture on the grounds that it was the duty of Jews to protect themselves:
[B]y its incapacity to recognise the immense potentials that flowed from [this] proposal and its general inability to understand that the Jews could never irrevocably defeat their foes – nor attain socialism with their own party, isolated from the Polish working class, the Bund also contributed to the nationalist rift in the working class.
As the 1930s drew on, the two groups grew closer together in practice. There were electoral alliances, joint Mayday activities and, most importantly, joint actions in the struggle against the right and anti-Semitism.
By the 1930s, Poale Zion internationally had undergone many internal fights and splits; the only remaining sizeable organisation was in Poland. Presenting themselves as Jewish communists, they had some success among radical youth. The left faction of Poale Zion peaked in the late 1920s when the party received about 50,000 votes and elected 40 delegates to various city councils. In some smaller cities, it was the dominant Jewish party. But it lost ground to the Bund in the thirties, probably at least partly because of renewed focus on settlement in Palestine:
We could see on the one hand that conditions for Jewish workers in Poland were deteriorating, and on the other hand that something was amiss in the USSR… We thought, therefore, that our best chance was to make Eretz Israel a communist country.
The leftist Hashomer Hatzair had 26,600 members in 300 branches in Poland by 1939. Although it claimed at its inception to be a Marxist party, it was a middle-class youth movement always attached to the WZO. It moved in a more radical direction in the late 1920s, partly through pressure from the communist movement. While the party made references to socialism, it had a virtually negligible presence in the working class. During the thirties, Hashomer focused on youth activities such as camping and support for their settlements in Palestine.
Left Zionists played an important role in resistance to the Nazis during World War II. Mordechai Tenenbaum, a member of Poale Zion, organised the resistance underground in the Bialystok ghetto which included members of Hashomer and Dror (another socialist Zionist organisation). Most notable is Mordechai Anieliewicz, the leader of the Jewish Fighting Organisation in the Warsaw Ghetto, who was a member of Hashomer Hatzair.
The Polish Bund separated from the Russian party after World War I and continued an independent existence in Poland. The urgent political issues exposed by the Russian Revolution caused the party to be riven with divisions. Englert succinctly notes that they were “caught between revolutionary ideals and reformist organisation”. Some sections joined their local communist parties. After splits and losses, the remaining party organisation shifted away from direct struggle for a period in the 1920s and focused more on cultural activities, sports and youth groups and the promotion of Yiddish. It also engaged in electoral work, but with little success. This decline matched the international decline in revolutionary prospects and the triumph of Stalinism in Russia and elsewhere.
The Bund revived in the 1930s, becoming embedded in the life of the Jewish working-class quarters of the cities and towns and the dominant party of the Jewish labour movement.
The colourful annual Mayday marches, opportunities for shows of strength, were replete with banners, pennants, marching bands and serried rows of marchers. All Bund union members knocked off work for the occasion, as did school student members of its youth organisations. The party held Mayday marches throughout the 1930s, quite provocatively parading through upper-class Warsaw districts. Frequently, the event was co-organised with the PPS, with generally separate contingents and march routes converging on a square and a joint speakers’ platform. By 1938, the march reached 20,000 participants, with a 2,000-person militia. Thousands more watched from the side.
One important component of the Bund was its militia, which explodes the Zionist myth that “contrasts brave Israeli warriors with meek and submissive Eastern European Jews”. At the first Mayday march in Warsaw in 1923:
A furious struggle soon was on between our militia guards and the hooligans and plainclothesmen over the flag of the Central Committee… Our guards, armed with sticks, fought back, and also our demonstrators fought back.
At the subsequent indoor gathering, the packed audience included “many a bandaged head”.
The militia had a range of responsibilities. Notified of an impending eviction, they:
would gather in the courtyard of the building…[and] quietly lose themselves in the crowd of [onlookers]…as the police and the superintendent, under the eyes of the bailiff…carried the few poor possessions of the tenant out onto the street. As soon as the bailiff and the police were gone, our Militiamen went to work. If the apartment was on the ground floor, they tore open a window and put the tenant’s things back into the apartment.
The focus of the Bund was trade unionism. It made extraordinary efforts to organise not only mainstream workers, but many groups on the periphery of the economy. Each small sub-group in an industry had its own union: porters who transported goods on their backs, tripe workers, bagel bakers and bootmakers. All the Bund-affiliated unions were Jewish only; it argued that “each union in any city with a large Jewish component should be required to form a separate Jewish affiliate”. This was perhaps necessary to some extent, given the systematic discrimination Jewish workers faced. However, under these circumstances, cooperation with non-Jewish unions was essential, and in practice much of the Bund’s trade union activity was in collaboration with the PPS.
By 1939, 100,000 Jewish workers belonged to unions, giving the Bund the leadership of one-quarter of all unionised workers in Poland – a substantial power source. Much larger than the party itself, this union membership served as a major reserve of Bundist strength in elections and elsewhere.
As the political situation deteriorated and the anti-Semitic right grew during the thirties, the Bund ramped up its activities. Its membership doubled and then continued to grow through the decade, becoming the biggest Jewish organisation in Poland, with 20,000 members in 1939. This gave it the basis for electoral gains, with victories in several Jewish communal and city council elections in large cities in the late 1930s. Electoral success reached a peak in 1938 when the Bund gained 17 of the 21 seats taken by Jewish parties in Warsaw City Council.
Much of this success was due to improved relations with the PPS. Although some writers portray the relationship as essentially weak and a failure, and while there were ups and downs, a practical working relationship did develop. This was partly due to the increasingly obvious dangers of fascism internationally as well as in Poland, and partly due to the Bund being by then a committed reformist party, having joined the Second International in 1930. It was thus not difficult to find common ground with the Polish reformist party.
Although the Bund was no longer a revolutionary organisation, its experience in interwar Poland remains an inspiration. Englert says:
It gave confidence to Jewish workers across Poland that it was possible to organise and fight while the world seemed to crumble around their ears.
After Pilsudski’s death in 1935, the new semi-fascist ruling group (known as the “colonels”) pandered to the right, and conditions for Jews, workers and the left in general deteriorated. The concentration camp of Bereza Kartuska followed Nazi Germany’s example and incarcerated communists, social democrats, radical intellectuals and Jews. The anti-Semitic populism of the right wing found a ready response in the traditional anti-Jewish prejudice of the Polish middle class, resulting in boycotts of Jewish stores, street assaults and a major wave of pogroms. Again, anti-Semitism was wielded as a deliberate tool, with the ruling regime aiming to present “solutions” to the Jewish question as “the panacea for the country’s main socio-economic and political difficulties”.
Now the Bund militias came into their own. Originally for the defence of the Bund itself, they broadened to undertake the general defence of Jews. A Bund leader told a rally in 1937:
Today, the Jewish working class is saying to the fascist and anti-Semitic hoodlums: the time has passed when Jews could be subject to pogroms with impunity. There exist a mass of workers raised in the Bund tradition of struggle and self-defense… Pogroms [will not] remain unpunished.
There were two defence bodies: one was based on the Bund youth group and the other, the Ordenergrupe (marshals’ group), drew in Bundists, Jewish trade unionists and PPS members. The support from non-Jews was crucial: for example, PPS sources were often able give tip-offs about planned attacks.
In Warsaw, 24-hour flying squads would turn up wherever there was trouble. They dispersed picketers at Jewish stores, patrolled areas where attacks were occurring and responded to the fascist assaults in the universities:
On hearing of an attack their Ordenergrupe would sally out, sticks and pipes in hand to enter into combat. At times there were hundreds of Bundists, Jewish unionists and…the PPS militia…engaged in pitched battles with the Endek and Nara supporters.
Perhaps the most important battle occurred in the Saxonian Garden, a famous Warsaw park, in 1938. Bernard Goldstein described what happened:
We organised a large group of resistance fighters which we concentrated around the large square near the Iron Gate. Our plan was to entice the hooligans to that square, which was closed off on three sides, and to block the fourth exit, and thus have them in a trap where we could give battle and teach them an appropriate lesson… When we had a fair number of Nara hooligans in the square…we suddenly emerged from our hiding places, surrounding them from all sides…ambulances had to be called.
On occasions when they were too late to deal with attacks, the defence groups organised retaliations. When Nara thugs bombed the Bund headquarters in 1937, a group of 10 Bundists, 10 members of Left Poale Zion and 10 members of PPS headed for the Nara’s headquarters. The Poles pretended to be repairmen, went in first and cut the phone wires. Then the rest of the group:
attacked them in blitzkrieg fashion. We really ruined the place and beat them up quite badly… It was really an extraordinary piece of work.
Pogroms and defence actions occurred throughout the country. A major pogrom in 1936 in the town of Minsk-Mazowiecki followed “all the ‘rules’ of this ‘art’: broken windows in Jewish homes, plundered Jewish shops, bloodied and beaten Jews”. Goldstein dashed there to set up a defence group. When hooligans set a Jewish house on fire and it spread to a neighbouring non-Jewish house, Goldstein ran inside and rescued an old woman. The defence group grabbed the opportunity and ran through the crowd calling out “A Jew is saving a Polish house”, then mobilised the crowd into an anti-Endek demonstration.
In 1937, the Jewish folk poet and songwriter Mordecai Gebirtig wrote a famous protest song. Gebirtig was born in Crakow in 1877 and murdered by the Nazis in June 1942. A member of both the PPS and the Bund, he wrote numerous songs and poems which were, and remain, highly popular in Jewish communities. “S’brent” (It burns) was widely known in Poland before the war and was subsequently sung in many ghettos and concentration camps.
It burns! Brothers, it burns!
Oh, our poor shtetl, brothers, burns!
Evil winds are fanning the wild flames
And furiously tearing,
Destroying and scattering everything.
All around, all is burning
And you just stand there staring
With your folded hands…
And you just stand there staring
While our shtetl burns.
It burns! Brothers, it burns!
And help can only be from you alone!
If our shtetl is dear to you,
Grab the buckets, douse the fire!
Douse it with your own blood
Show us that you can!
The poem is supposed to have been a response to a pogrom in the small town of Przytyk in April 1936, but one wonders whether the less well-known house fire mentioned above did not contribute to the imagery. It is also often suggested that Gebirtig somehow predicted the Holocaust. But the words are clearly a call to fight against the present danger of growing fascism.
The universities were an important site of anti-Semitic violence. Many of them introduced limits on the number of Jewish students (numerus clausus); those admitted were forced to sit in segregated seating, called “ghetto benches”. As a gesture of defiance, the Jewish students would often stand in their places. Anti-Semitic students often attempted to force them to sit, which “led to dreadful scenes…culminating in frequent fights. They fell upon and beat the Jewish students, even women, till the blood flowed”. While most staff and academics did nothing, some professors who “had the courage to speak out against the attacks were subjected to insults, abuse, and even physical attacks”:
Right-wing students were constantly provoking us. In January 1936 Endecy militants started physically expelling us from lecture halls. Fights broke out… Often blood flowed, when the fascists tried to start pogroms at the university. We called for support from Jewish porters and carters who came and gave the anti-Semites a lesson.
There was sometimes support from PPS students and others. When the segregated seating was first introduced at Lwów Polytechnic, some Polish students joined Jews standing in their places. When ghetto benches were legislated throughout Poland in 1937, at least two university rectors resigned in protest, and over 50 professors signed a protest petition and tried to refuse to implement the measure. In Vilna and Lwów, Byelorussian and Ukrainian students (also minorities) joined the anti-ghetto actions.
Throughout the late 1930s, there were numerous street demonstrations. Smaller, almost spontaneous, actions were often broken up by police, but there were also larger, better organised protests about which the police could do little.
On 16 March 1936, a half-day national general strike, originally called by the Bund to protest against the Przytyk pogrom, turned into a mass protest against anti-Semitic violence:
Three and a half million Jews went out on strike. At noon all Jewish stores shut down, Jewish people walked out of school. The streets of Poland were filled with a fiery people, proud and battle ready.
The PPS supported the action, and some Polish workers – mostly socialists – joined in; much of Poland was shut down.
A year later, the pattern was repeated when a massive crowd demonstrated against the failure to punish the instigators of a pogrom. And in October 1937, a two-day general strike included a mass protest in Warsaw against the ghetto seats and the terror at the universities. A Jewish high school student wrote:
The whole Jewish community chose to protest against this injustice… We know that after the university ghetto will come ghettos in other aspects of life… The streets were filled with [protesters]. Jewish stores were closed. The whole community showed its solidarity.
PPS unions, academics and many others also joined in, and the large crowd was able to drive off fascist attacks.
The Bund was able to lead such impressive mobilisations not just because they had the will; the need was great and the threat clear. The Bund had a base in the working class that it had built up over decades. A layer of strong, militant workers was ready to respond to the call to action and provided an organising base. Beyond their own ranks, they were able to mobilise the broader trade union movement and students.
But even these strengths would not have been sufficient. Crucially, the Bund was able to draw on support from outside the Jewish community. Its ties with Polish socialists made successful self-defence possible.
It is a widespread belief that Poles are somehow inherently anti-Semitic, and that hatred of Jews was unalterably endemic in Polish society. In fact, anti-Semitism in Poland in this period was primarily a middle-class phenomenon. To a lesser extent, it also existed among the peasants, but most commonly among the richer ones. The bulk of the Polish working class supported the PPS, which understood from the beginning that the fight against anti-Semitism and the fascists was its fight.
This was acknowledged by Jacob Lestchinsky, a leading Zionist scholar, when he wrote:
The Polish labour party may justly boast that it has successfully immunised the workers against the anti-Jewish virus, even in the poisoned atmosphere of Poland. Their stand on the subject has become almost traditional. Even in cities and districts that seem to have been thoroughly infected by the most revolting type of anti-Semitism the workers have not been contaminated.
This is not to say that the PPS was above criticism. It was hostile to Yiddish, and no doubt its members were not completely immune from prevailing attitudes. The party certainly prevaricated in its relationship with the Bund, sometimes supporting electoral alliances and other times not. Both the PPS and the Bund had their commitment to reformism to thank for the inadequacy of their policies in staving off the ultimate tragedy. But they did at least fight the fascists.
Although peasants were divided in their attitude to anti-Semitism, many did join in the fight against it. For example, the leader of the Peasant Party denounced Hitler’s actions against the German Jews as a world crime in 1933. By 1937, the Peasant Party argued that the anti-Semitic campaign in Poland was a ruse to divert attention from real political issues such as land reform. During a mass 10-day general strike of peasants in August 1937, police killed 50 demonstrators. Jews supported the strike, and a Bund youth leader reported: “you could see bearded Chassidim [ultra-orthodox Jews] on the picket lines together with peasants”.
The growing working-class alliance between Jews and non-Jews reached its peak just as the whole era came to an end in September 1939. Poland was again dismembered as Russia and Germany invaded from the east and the west, arresting the leaderships of most political organisations and crushing the entire labour movement.
At this critical moment, Jewish confidence in the working class was vindicated. According to the Labour Zionist Emmanuel Ringelblum, Jews tried desperately to find hiding places in the homes of workers:
Polish workers had long before the war grasped the class aspect of anti-Semitism, the power-tool of the native bourgeoisie, and during the war they redoubled their efforts to fight anti-Semitism… There were only limited possibilities for workers to hide Jews in their home…[but] many Jews did find shelter in the flats of workers.
The relationship between the Bund and the PPS continued on into the war period and contributed to resistance during the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Holocaust. But that is another story.
This study has been the story of the international Jewish working-class movement based in the Yiddish-speaking working class. We started with the Jewish working-class movement and socialists in Russia and their experience of exploitation and oppression in the form of anti-Semitism. Among the earliest in the tsarist empire to develop trade unions and commit themselves to socialism, under the dual imperatives of poverty and anti-Semitism, Jewish workers and their families migrated to the UK and the USA, taking their militancy, commitment to struggle and socialist ideas with them. This movement, although rooted in the various countries where the participants lived, was essentially an international one. It reached mass proportions during the first two decades of the twentieth century – not coincidentally, at the same time as socialism as a motivating politics achieved its greatest successes.
It has not been possible to include some important loci of this international movement in this study. The waves of emigration came not only from the tsarist empire but also from Hungary, Romania and Galicia, the Polish province of the Austro–Hungarian empire. Galicia was also home to an important Jewish revolutionary movement, the Jewish Social Democratic Party, sometimes called the Galician Bund. Rick Kuhn has written extensively on this subject.
In the countries of emigration, I have focused on London’s East End and New York, but there were many significant struggles in other parts of those countries. The US Jewish labour movement continued to have a massive impact into the years after World War I, indeed too extensive and complex to be included here.
This study also ends rather abruptly with the outbreak of World War II in 1939. The history of Jewish resistance to the Nazis in World War II is a crucial part of the story, but I did not include it here, because I have covered it elsewhere.
Quite contrary to the conventional idea that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter in the Holocaust, they did fight back. The best-known action is the inspiring uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, led by the Jewish Fighting Organisation which united members of the Communist Party, the Bund and socialist Zionists. This effective alliance can trace its roots at least partly back to the mass movements in Poland the decade before. Less well known are the underground resistance movements in approximately 100 ghettos in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe (about one-quarter of all ghettos) and the uprisings that occurred in five major ghettos and 45 smaller ones. In addition, there were uprisings in three extermination camps and 18 forced labour camps. Some 20–30,000 Jewish partisans fought in approximately 30 Jewish partisan groups and 21 mixed groups, and 10,000 people survived in family camps in the forest.
Why isn’t this extraordinary history of the radical Jewish tradition better known? An important reason is its effective suppression by the regime that took power following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Virtually none of this history was taught in Israel or by mainstream Zionists in other parts of the world. The Zionists needed to promote a myth that contrasted brave Israeli warriors with meek and submissive Eastern European Jews. To sustain the narrative that Israel inherits the ancient traditions and struggles of the Jewish people, they had to suppress the actual recent history of Eastern European Jews. Part of this was the virtual suppression of the language in which the struggle was conducted, Yiddish. The Zionist state concentrated on Hebrew as part of its state-building process.
The history I have presented in this study is in its essence one of struggle against exploitation and oppression. The themes are the class divisions in Jewish communities; the close association between Jews and socialism; internationalism; working-class struggle; and resistance to anti-Semitism. Throughout, I’ve emphasised solidarity between Jews and non-Jews and the fact that Jews fought back. These are not themes that Zionism wants to acknowledge.
Englert points out that, from the beginning, the difference between the Zionist movement and the radical Jewish movement was class:
The Jewish workers of the Pale saw their liberation linked directly with their struggle against exploitation. They wanted to do away with the pogromist and the boss at the same time. The Zionist movement on the other hand was an association of assimilated middle class Jews, frustrated by the barriers of anti-Semitism to their social ascent. They saw the solution in the creation of a state through colonisation.
No forms of Zionism had majority support in the Jewish community until after World War II. To promote the myth of Zionist pre-eminence in the Jewish communities internationally, they had to suppress the association with socialism and working-class militancy.
Prior to 1948, it was possible to be a Zionist while holding socialist ideas and even acting on them. Left Zionism can be considered a form of left reformism, which abounds in contradictory consciousness. But, since 1948, Zionism has been a ruling-class ideology. Most Zionists have accepted that direction.
Before 1948, it was abundantly clear where anti-Semitism was located and where to direct a fight against it. But the establishment of the Zionist state has resulted in the distortion of what anti-Semitism is and how to oppose it. As we have seen in this study, modern anti-Semitism is the systematic oppression of Jews through discrimination and violence carried out by a ruling elite for its own purposes. Zionists ignore the actual history of anti-Semitism and redefine it as opposition to Zionism and criticism of Israel. This lays the basis for the disgraceful attacks on Corbyn in the UK and the definition of anti-Semitism created by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (now accepted by the Australian government). This travesty dishonours those Jews and others who have fought against real anti-Semitism in the past and militates against a serious response to actual anti-Semitic tendencies in far-right and fascist organisations.
Modern advocates of the use of the concept of intersectionality as an analytical framework could have a field day with the communities I have described here. Given that intersectionality identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage, the emphasis is on differences – what sets the community under discussion apart.
We do need to acknowledge differences; but, in doing so, it is important that we understand how they arise and, even more importantly, how we can overcome them. As Marxists, we are not concerned with inborn biological characteristics but with socially determined lived circumstances. It was not their religion or their customs or their (supposed) biological characteristics that set Jews apart, but the impact of anti-Semitism as it was manipulated by capitalism. The ghetto can only be breached by the overthrow of capitalism.
The history presented in this study shows how the efforts to overcome sectional differences, to build on commonality and generate solidarity, were essential to successful actions. Jewish workers in the tsarist empire built unity across different trades and different cities. Following the waves of immigration, they established links across regions and countries. They did this in collaboration with non-Jewish workers and supporters. Above all, it was the involvement of socialists that facilitated this process, the building of movements that could transcend sectionalism, generate solidarity and ultimately destroy capitalism and create a new society free from exploitation and oppression.
This is not a history of Jews, but a history of a section of the international working class that struggled for a better world on the basis of class and the fight against oppression. The struggles have their own characteristics and particularity. But they did not happen in isolation from broader society. And their impact on the larger struggle continues to resound today. I have presented a history of a particular group of people. But this is not a niche history, of interest only to specialists. The Jewish working-class struggles are a central component of the struggle of the international working class for revolutionary socialist change – not as an interesting side issue but at the core.
As CPGB member Joe Jacobs argued, anti-Semitism is a problem for everyone, not just for Jews. In the same vein, the history I have presented here belongs not just to Jews but to all of us
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Simons, Mike 2020, 25 October, personal communication.
Sohn, David 1982, “The Pogrom Against the Jews”, in Shmulewitz (ed.) 1982, The Bialystoker Memorial Book, New York, Bialystoker Center, p.16, https://www.jewishgen.org/yizkor/Bialystok1/bia002.html
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“Women at the Battle of Cable Street” 2016, East End Women’s Museum, 4 October, https://eastendwomensmuseum.org/blog/tag/fascism
Wrobel, Piotr 2001, “From conflict to cooperation: the Bund and the Polish Socialist Party 1897–1939”, in Jacobs, J (ed.) 2001, Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: the Bund at 100, Basingstoke, Palgrave. pp.155–171.
Zable, Arnold 1991, Jewels and Ashes, Newham, Scribe.
Zimmerman, Joshua 2001, “The influence of the ‘Polish question’ on the Bund’s national program, 1897–1905”, in Jacobs J (ed.) 2001, Jewish Politics in Eastern Europe: the Bund at 100, Basingstoke, Palgrave. pp.28–45.
“Zionism: Po’alei Zion”, Jewish Virtual Library, https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/po-alei-zion
 Zable 1991, p.23.
 Cited in Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.15.
 I would like to thank the following people for providing input in the form of advice, suggestions, constructive criticism, edits and encouragement: Joel Geier, Donny Gluckstein, Rick Kuhn, Louise O’Shea, Omar Hassan and Mike Simons. Any errors are, of course, my own.
 Levy 1991, p.17.
 Levy 1991, p.4.
 Weinstock 1979; “Wilhelm Marr”; “Anti-Semitism in medieval Europe”.
 Levy 1991, p.9.
 Weinstock 1979, p.32.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, pp.26–27; Kassow.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 2.
 Borochov 1916, p.176.
 “History of the Jews in Poland”; Grinberg.
 “Modern Jewish History: The Pale of Settlement”.
 “Modern Jewish History: The Pale of Settlement”.
 Fishman 2004, pp.18, 29.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.30–1.
 Englert 2012.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.32.
 Weinstock 1979, p.10.
 Fishman 2004, p.20.
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.1.
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.156.
 Borochov 1916, pp.2, 4.
 Kaplan 1982, p.21.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.28.
 Borochov 1916, p.177.
 Shmulewitz 1982.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.28.
 “Lodz Uprising”. These Łódź socialists helped to form the Polish Socialist Party in the following year.
 Borochov 1916, p.4.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.40.
 Mendelsohn 1970, pp.52, 86.
 Pogorelski 1982, p.12.
 Borochov 1916, p.175.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.92.
 Pogorelski 1982, p.12
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.83.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.53.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.47.
 Englert 2012.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.68.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.32.
 Borochov 1916, p.178 [right-hand column added by author].
 “In ale gasn” (In every street), In Love and Struggle 1999.
 Cited in Mendelsohn 1970, p.85.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.87.
 Bristle workers processed pig hair into bristles to be used in brushes.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.77.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.90.
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.245.
 Englert 2012.
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.245
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.246.
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.246.
 Mendelsohn 1970, pp.90–1.
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.244. Parentheses in the original.
 Mendelsohn 1968, p.250.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.100.
 Wrobel 2001, p.155.
 Crabapple 2018.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.33.
 Crabapple 2018.
 “Di Shvue”.
 Crabapple 2018.
 Bittelman 2012, pp.49–56. The following quotes are all from this source.
 Bittelman 2012, p.56.
 Zimmerman 2001, p.34.
 Kuhn 2001, p.148.
 Englert 2012.
 Englert 2012.
 “Zionism: Po’alei Zion”.
 Cited in Brossat and Klingberg 2017, pp.42–3.
 “Zionism: Po’alei Zion”.
 Wrobel 2001, p.158.
 Englert 2012.
 “Hey, hey daloy politsey” (Hey, hey, down with the police), In love and struggle 1999.
 “Pogroms in the Russian Empire”.
 Lambroza 1981, pp.124, 125.
 Lambroza 1981, p.125.
 Lambroza 1981, p.125.
 Lambroza 1981, p.126.
 Lambroza 1981, p.126.
 Lambroza 1981, p.131. It is not permitted to travel on the Sabbath (Saturday) – Shabbos in Yiddish.
 Ascher; “Pogroms in the Russian Empire”.
 Lambroza 1981, p.128.
 Lambroza, 1981, p.128.
 Lambroza 1981, p.128; quotes from Ascher.
 Weinberg 1992.
 Weinberg 1993, p.171.
 Lambroza 1981, p.131.
 Sohn 1982, p.16.
 Lambroza 1981, p.125.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.153.
 Mendelsohn 1970, p.155.
 “History of the Jews in Russia”.
 “History of the Jews in England”.
 Fishman 2004, p.90.
 Fishman 2004, p.103.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.165.
 Fishman 2004, p.115.
 Fishman 2004, p.117.
 Fishman 2004, p.118. Cupal is an alternative spelling for a kippe, the brimless cap worn by observant Jewish men.
 Fishman 2004, p.106.
 Fishman 2004, p.165.
 Fishman 2004, p.166.
 Fishman 2004, p.166.
 Fishman 2004, p.168.
 Fishman 2004, p.205.
 Fishman 2004, p.240.
 Fishman 2004, p.97.
 Brecht 1964.
 Fishman 2004, p.154.
 Rosenberg 2015a.
 Fishman 2004, pp.154, 261.
 Fishman 2004, p.244; Rosenberg 2019, p.123.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.87.
 Rosenberg 2015a.
 Fishman 2004, p.171.
 Rosenberg 2015a.
 Rosenberg 2015a; Fishman 2004, p.176.
 Fishman 2004, Appendix 2.
 Rosenberg 2015a.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.115.
 All information on Eleanor Marx from Kapp 1976, pp.519, 523–4 unless otherwise indicated.
 Fishman 2004, p.256.
 “Jewish workers’ demo protests pogroms in Russia, 1903”.
 Cited in “Jewish workers’ demo protests pogroms in Russia, 1903”.
 “In Kamf” (In Struggle), In Love and Struggle 1999.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.123; Nadel 1986.
 Fishman 2004, p.253.
 Fishman 2004, pp.253, 278, 279fn.
 Fishman 2004, pp.279–81.
 Fishman 2004, p.281. Strange punctuation in the original.
 Fishman 2004, pp.281–83.
 Fishman 2004, pp.283, 286.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.132.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.132.
 Fishman 2004, p.299.
 Fishman 2004, p.300.
 Fishman 2004, p.300.
 Fishman 2004, p.158.
 Fishman 2004, p.267.
 Fishman 2004, p.267.
 Fishman 2004, p.264.
 Fishman 2004, pp.264–5.
 Fishman 2004, pp.121, 237.
 “From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America”; quote from Cavitch 2006.
 Allen 2017.
 “History of the Jews in New York”; Michels (ed.) 2012, “Introduction: The Jewish-Socialist Nexus”, p.7.
 Foner 1973, p.11.
 Foner 1973, p.257.
 Foner 1973, p.13; quote from song “Eyder ikh leyg sikh shlofn” (No sooner do I lay down to sleep), In Love and Struggle 1999.
 Weinstein 2018, p.23.
 Levine 1976, pp.100–3.
 “History of the Jews in the United States”; Meyer 2010, p.7.
 Meyer 2010, p.10.
 Jacobs P. 2012, pp.72–3.
 Bisno 1925, p.34.
 Foner 1973, p.257; Waldinger 1985, p.89.
 Waldinger 1985, pp.90, 96.
 Foner 1973, p.258.
 Soyer; Michels (ed.) 2012, “Introduction”, p.2; Schappes 1955, p.20.
 Foner 1973, p.261.
 Vaynshteyn 2012, p.88. [Note: this is the same person elsewhere spelt Weinstein.]
 Vaynshteyn 2012, p.88.
 Foner 1979, p.296.
 Foner 1979, p.296.
 “Arbeter-Froyen” (Working Women), In Love and Struggle 1999.
 Weinstein 2018, p.140; Brune 2020.
 Weinstein 2018, p.87.
 Weinstein 2018, pp.87–8.
 “Wacht Oyf!” (Awake!), In Love and Struggle 1999.
 Sampson 2016.
 Sampson 2016.
 Cited in Feldberg.
 Cited in Feldberg.
 Cited in Feldberg.
 Foner 1979, p.125.
 Cited in Foner 1979, p.125.
 “Butchers appeal to police for protection” 1976, pp.186–7.
 1902 Kosher Meat Boycott.
 “Brooklyn mob loots butcher shops” 1902, cited in Baxandale et al., pp.184–5.
 Cited in Joselit.
 Cited in Joselit.
 Forward, cited in Joselit.
 New York Sun, cited in Joselit.
 “A teenager leads the great rent strike of 1907”; Joselit.
 Cited in Joselit.
 Cited in Joselit.
 Wertheimer 1977, p.297.
 Wertheimer 1977, p.297; Foner 1979, p.134 (quote from Foner).
 “International Women’s Day”; Foner 1979, p.154; “Where Did International Women’s Day Come From?” 2013.
 Foner 1979, p.137.
 Cited in Foner 1979, p.137.
 Foner 1979, p.137.
 Cited in Marot 1976, p.189.
 Foner 1979, p.338fn.
 Foner 1979, p.139.
 Foner 1979, p.139.
 Quoted in Foner 1979, p.139.
 Wertheimer 1977, p.303.
 Wertheimer 1977, p.303.
 This feminist organisation of mostly wealthy and middle-class women supported a number of struggles of women workers in this period, the most famous being the 1912 Lawrence textile strike.
 Foner 1979, p.147; Wertheimer 1977, p.308.
 “The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand”, Let’s Sing!
 Foner 1979, pp.155–9.
 Foner 1979, p.171.
 Foner 1979, p.172.
 Foner 1979, p.173.
 Cited in Foner 1979, p.174.
 Cited in Schappes 1955, p.24.
 Cited in Schappes 1955, p.24.
 Foner 1979, p.176.
 Foner 1979, p.176.
 Foner 1979, p.176.
 Foner 1979, p.174.
 Cited in Foner 1979, p.174.
 Foner 1979, p.174.
 Foner 1979, p.179.
 Foner 1979, p.179.
 Foner 1979, p.179.
 Foner 1979, p.179.
 Schappes 1955, p.20.
 “Peripatetic philosophers” 1910, p.174.
 “Peripatetic philosophers” 1910, p.175.
 Wisotsky 2012, pp.99–101.
 Waldman 2012, p.214.
 Waldman 2012, p.214.
 “The Forward”.
 Michels (ed.) 2012, “Introduction”, p.14.
 Schappes 1955, p.20; Soyer; Michels (ed.) 2012, “Introduction”, pp.2–6.
 Michels (ed.) 2012, “Introduction”, p.2.
 Michels (ed.) 2012, “Introduction”, p.5.
 Michels (ed.) 2012, “Introduction”, pp.4–5.
 Mendes 2013.
 Rosenberg 1985, p.7.
 Rosenberg 1985, p.9.
 “Lionel de Rothschild (born 1882)”.
 “Board of Deputies of British Jews”.
 Even then, Tory opponents waged an anti-Semitic campaign against the Act, complete with all the mediaeval superstitions such as Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion and the blood libel. See Dresser n.d. (a), Dresser n.d. (b).
 “Antisemitism in the United Kingdom”.
 Fishman 2004, p.216.
 Rosenberg 2015b.
 Dresser n.d. (b).
 “Joseph Chamberlain”.
 Rosenberg 2015b.
 Rosenberg 2015b.
 Fishman 2004, p.215; Rosenberg 2011, p.24.
 Rosenberg 2020.
 Rosenberg 2015b.
 Rosenberg 2011, p.114. Over 500 Jewish refugees were granted political asylum in 1906, 20 in 1908 and five in 1910. In the same period, 1,378 Jews were deported.
 Rosenberg 2011, pp.3, 37–8.
 Rosenberg 2011, pp.143–4.
 Rosenberg 2011, p.78.
 Cited in Rosenberg 2011, p.130.
 Rosenberg 2011, p.130.
 Note that “Jew” did not always connote “communist” – it could also imply “financier” or “bloated capitalist”.
 Hodgson 2010, p.125.
 William Zukerman, cited in Brenner 1983, chapter 18.
 Price and Sullivan 1994.
 Weston 2005.
 Weston 2005.
 Hitchen 2010.
 Cited in O’Shea 2016.
 “Fascist march stopped after disorderly scenes” 1936.
 “Women at the Battle of Cable Street” 2016.
 Cited in Doherty 2018.
 Hitchen 2010.
 Cited in Silver 2011.
 Cited in Brooke 2014.
 Hodgson 2010, pp.140–1.
 Hodgson 2010, p. 135.
 Crouch 2006.
 Hodgson 2010, pp.140, 145.
 Crouch 2006.
 Simons 2020.
 Hodgson 2010, p.140.
 Hodgson 2010, p.148.
 Hodgson 2010, p.148.
 Piratin 1978.
 Rosenberg 2011, p.163.
 Freedland 2005.
 Srebnic 1995.
 “Sarah Wesker”.
 Mick Mindel, cited in “Women at the Battle of Cable Street” 2016.
 Crouch 2006; quote from Glynn 2005, p.4.
 Simons 2020.
 Glynn 2005, p.5.
 Piratin 1978, pp.36–7. Emphasis in the original.
 Piratin 1978, p.37.
 Piratin 1978, p.29.
 Piratin 1978, p.32.
 Crouch 2006.
 Srebnic 1995, p.288.
 Srebnic 1995, p.288.
 Srebnic 1995, p.289.
 Srebnic 1995, p.289.
 Srebnic 1995, pp.287–8.
 Srebnic 1995, p.289.
 See Stone 2020.
 Srebnic 1995, p.289.
 Piratin 1978, p.46.
 Piratin 1978, p.48.
 Srebnic 1995, p.292.
 Srebnic 1995, p.285.
 Piratin 1978, p.47.
 Piratin 1978, p.47.
 Piratin 1978, p.48.
 Piratin 1978, p.46.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.345.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.347.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.347.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.347.
 Rosenberg 2019, p.348.
 Jacobs J. 2013; “Ethnic minorities in Poland”.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Teller; Bacon.
 Weinstock 1979, p.13.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20; Brossat and Klingberg 2017, pp.43, 80; Jacobs J. 2013.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.36.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20; Tomaszewski.
 Heller D. 2017, p.2.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Zable 1991, p.41.
 “Shmerke Kaczerginski”.
 “Barikadn” (Barricades), In Love and Struggle 1999.
 Goldstein 2016, p.4; Jacobs J. 2013.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.55.
 Hanna Levy-Haas, cited in Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.57.
 Goldstein 2016.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.37.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, pp.78ff.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.72.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.74.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.75.
 Cited in Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.73.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, pp.51, 61.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.71.
 Goldstein 2016; Farber 2017. There are a number of reasons why the Polish CP was the only one to be actually disbanded during the Stalinist purges. But, given the significant Jewish membership of the party, one wonders whether anti-Semitism was a factor.
 Cited in Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.91.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.74; Kassow.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.74.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.23; Silber.
 Englert 2012.
 Goldstein 2016, pp.277–8.
 Goldstein 2016, p.146.
 Goldstein 2016, p.269.
 Farber; Englert 2012.
 Goldstein 2016; Farber; Jacobs J. 2013.
 Wrobel 2001, p.166; Farber.
 See, for example, Brumberg 1999.
 Englert 2012.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.80.
 Heller C. 1980, p.290.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Goldstein 2016, p.363.
 Stone 2015.
 Translation modified by Rachel Sztanski and the author from “Our town is burning”.
 Goldstein 2016, p.305.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.86.
 Goldstein 2016, p.xxi.
 Cited in Heller C. 1980, p.286.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Cited in Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Alexander Erlich, cited in Brenner 1983, chapter 20.
 Cited in Brenner 1983, chapter 21.
 See, for example, Kuhn 2001.
 Stone 2015.
 Brossat and Klingberg 2017, p.20.
 Englert 2012.
 See Hodgson 2010, p.134.