The Workers' Friend

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Review of 'East End Jewish Radicals', William J Fishman, Five Leaves £14.99 and 'The London Years', Rudolf Rocker, Five Leaves £14.99

These are timely re-issues. East End Jewish Radicals: 1875-1914, by historian Bill Fishman, himself an East End Jew, was first published in 1975 and is a fascinating account of the cultural and political life of London's East End Jewish community in its crucial, formative years.

Jews had been subjected to an intensifying campaign of pogroms and expulsions in the Tsarist empire. By 1911 there were some 126,000 Russian and Polish Jews living in east London, drawn by the prospect of civil and political rights, despite warnings of unemployment by British consular officials and established Anglo-Jewry.

After a hazardous journey across Europe the picture upon arrival was not promising. Bill Fishman vividly describes the alien environment and atmosphere in which the Yiddish-speaking refugees found themselves friendless, impoverished, unable to speak English, at the mercy of unscrupulous slum landlords and 'job agents'.

There were also strict trade union regulations covering new entrants. In eastern Europe industrialisation was a recent phenomenon, hence the Jews lacked the experience of factory work. They were forced back into traditional small workshop trades, encouraging the proliferation of small workshops that characterised the sweatshop system.

Fishman gives short shrift to any sentimental notion of a unified Jewish community. A minority of Jews had become small workshop owners. Mass Jewish immigration provided an ever larger pool of cheap labour for the masters, who were themselves not exactly wealthy. Each small workshop faced an insecure, ephemeral existence. Faced with the expanding ghetto, gentile Londoners' fear of and distaste for the 'bizarre invaders' would be used by racist demagogues invoking the traditional scapegoat. This racism culminated in the Aliens Act of 1905.

But this book is also an extraordinary story of the implantation in the Jewish masses of a radical intelligentsia - socialists and anarchists - and their role in creating an enormously dynamic social movement. Men such as Aron Lieberman, Morris Winchevsky - founder in 1885 of the Yiddish socialist paper Arbeter Fraint (Workers' Friend) - and S Yanovsky set up groups such as the Hebrew Socialist Union (1876) and the Society of Jewish Socialists, which in 1884 launched the International Workers' Educational Club. They helped to build unions such as the Tailors' Union, the Hebrew Cabinet Makers' Society, and the United Cap Makers' Society. They led or inspired many struggles, mostly against the sweatshop system. By 1888 the anarchists had emerged as the largest and most influential element in the movement, perhaps due to the relatively recent recruitment of Jews into the factory system and therefore the survival of vestiges of a 'small master' mentality.

However, the unionisation of the unskilled, known as New Unionism, was gathering pace in the late 1880s, with massive struggles erupting. This climate impelled the Jewish radicals to step up their agitation. In 1889 some 6,000 Jewish workers joined the all-London general strike in support of the dockers, the first mass strike of immigrant workers.

Tantalisingly, Fishman leaves certain questions unanswered: was there any contact between the Jewish radicals and Marx and Engels? Were there any links between the Jewish radicals and Keir Hardie, who was elected as independent Labour MP for West Ham in 1892? If not, why not?

The London Years is the autobiography of Rudolf Rocker, a German, non-Jewish radical who came to London in 1895 where he became the leader of the Yiddish-speaking anarchists. He organised demonstrations of 25,000 against the Russian pogroms and founded new Jewish trade unions. In 1898 he became editor of Arbeter Fraint in which he campaigned tirelessly for unity between Jewish and English workers.

A key event was the strike of 1,500 West End skilled tailoring workers in 1912, at the height of the Great Unrest of 1910 to 1914. This struggle was threatened by the strike-breaking labour of the many mass-producing small Jewish tailoring sweatshops of the East End. Rocker called a sympathy strike by Jewish tailors, which then took off into a successful struggle against the entire sweatshop system.

The London Years is a riveting account of the role played in the maturation of the East End Jewish labour movement by an extraordinarily dedicated and far-sighted individual.

These books underline the increasingly socialist character of most of world Jewry at the time, before the Holocaust, but also Stalinism, drove them into the arms of the Zionists. The books are also of prime relevance to today's Asian communities, not least the East End Muslim community, perhaps the heirs of the old Jewish community. Beyond the East End these books can inspire all those fighting to unite workers of all backgrounds against the backswell of Islamophobia but also increasing anti-Semitism.