Jewish Socialism in the United States, 1880-1920

The birth and growth of American Jewish Socialism.

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The Forward

Another central institution of Jewish Socialism was the Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts), a newspaper founded in 1897 by dissident members of the SLP who became dissatisfied with the increasingly authoritarian and sectarian leadership of the party's leader Daniel De Leon (himself of Sephardic Jewish origin, but with no ties to the Jewish community). Abraham Cahan served as the newspaper's first editor, but he soon left to pursue a career in English-language journalism.

When Cahan returned to the Forward in 1902, he brought with him a flair for the sensational and a talent for sensing the pulse of the Yiddish-reading public. He turned the Forward into a peculiar mix of earnest Socialist propaganda and sensationalist yellow journalism, all presented in a lively, popular style and a simple Yiddish.

The formula worked, and the Forward soon gained more readers than any other Yiddish daily in the world or Socialist daily in the country. Not only was it the primary voice of Jewish immigrant Socialism, but it was also a highly successful business enterprise, giving away much of its profit, as part of its mission, to labor and Socialist causes, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Organizing Unions and Community

Jewish Socialists also controlled many of the predominantly Jewish trade unions, especially in the garment industry. Chief among these was the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, founded in 1900, which organized workers in the women's clothing trade, most of whom were Jewish. The union struggled for years to maintain its existence, until a series of massive strikes in 1909 and 1910 established it as a force to be reckoned with not only in the industry, but also in communal politics.

The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, whose members made men's clothing, was founded in 1914, and many of the union's officers, staffers, and members were Socialists. Likewise, the United Hebrew Trades was led by Socialists.

Jewish Socialist attitudes toward Jewish identity and culture varied. Most of the 19th-century pioneers of the movement were ardent cosmopolitans. Even as they adopted Yiddish as a medium to reach the Jewish workers, they rejected any special appeal to Jewish interests or identity. The Anarchists became especially infamous for organizing Yom Kippur balls, at which revelers danced, ate, drank, sang revolutionary songs, and performed skits, all in a gesture of contempt for Jewish religious practice.

The first decade of the 20th century saw an influx of immigrants who had been active in the Jewish Labor Bund in Russia. The Bundists fought for the rights of workers as well as for Jewish national rights . In Russia, for example, they demanded national-cultural autonomy for the Jews, with Jewish control over Yiddish-language schools and other public institutions. They also saw Yiddish not just as a medium of communication, but also as the carrier of secular Jewish national identity. The Workmen's Circle gradually fell under control of the Bundists, and began to promote Yiddish secular culture. Bundists also dominated the Jewish Socialist Federation, the Yiddish-language arm of the Socialist Party (SP), which had overtaken the SLP as the most important Socialist party in the United States.

Labor Zionists sought to combine the principles of Socialism and Jewish nationalism. Friendly toward both Yiddish and Hebrew, they formed parallel institutions, including a fraternal order, the Jewish National Workers' Alliance. Whatever their orientation, Jewish Socialist leaders and organizations were adamantly secular, though rank-and-file supporters may not have been as consistently irreligious.

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Daniel Soyer

Daniel Soyer is associate professor of history at Fordham University. He is the author of Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939 , and editor of A Coat of Many Colors: Immigrations, Globalization, and Reform in the New York City Garment Industry.