Six great moments in Jewish working-class history
Six great moments in Jewish working-class history

Janey Stone’s brilliant Revolutionaries, resistance fighters and firebrands: The radical Jewish tradition, published as a supplement to issue 23 of the Marxist Left Review, brings to life the radical history of the Jewish working class. Stone provides a counter-narrative to what historian Maxime Rodinson has called the “lachrymose conception” of Jewish history—the idea that Jews have been the eternal and helpless victims of insurmountable anti-Semitism, saved only by the creation of the armed state of Israel.

Stone shows that Jewish history is filled with struggle and resistance. In particular, she focuses on the way class shaped this struggle, and how working-class Jews fused their struggles against oppression and exploitation, in many cases becoming a vanguard element of the broader working-class movement.

Stone takes the reader on a journey through the international Jewish working-class movement, starting with the Russian Empire and moving through London, New York, and Poland. What follows are some edited highlights of this marvellous adventure.

Organising trade unions in the Russian Empire

In the decades around the turn of the nineteenth century, Jewish workers in the tsarist Russian Empire were an extremely oppressed minority. Forced to live within urban areas of a restricted area known as the Pale of Settlement, they lived ghettoised, poverty-stricken lives.

Jewish workers organised some of the first trade unions in the Russian Empire, and became in many ways the most advanced section of the Russian working class. As the socialist activist and academic Sai Englert notes, “the consequences 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”.

This led to a strike wave with hundreds of (illegal) strikes. A popular Yiddish song gives a sense of the mood:

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!

Socialists were very important in this process. In 1897, the first Marxist organisation with a mass base in the Russian Empire was formed. Known as the Bund, it remained the largest socialist organisation until 1906 and played a leading role in revolutionary activities, even organising the first congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898.

Bundists showed enormous bravery and flair in their fight against the ruling class. One account describes how 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.”

Self-defence against pogroms

Jews in Russia frequently suffered extreme violence—the authorities would often allow, or even organise, pogroms as a way to divert political unrest away from the rulers. But the fact that there was armed self-defence is not well known.

After major pogroms in 1903, defence units proliferated rapidly under the leadership of the Bund. 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.

Jewish workers were prominent in the defence units but there were also many non-Jewish socialists and radicals.

The defence units were sometimes quite successful. Take the pogrom in Odessa in October 1905, which resulted in extensive damage and saw up to 250 Jews killed. Having earlier stockpiled medical supplies, guns, ammunition and bombs, the defence unit 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.

The following year in Bialystok, defenders were 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 ... patrols of the Jewish Self-Defence League were stationed with revolvers and grenades, each group under one leader”.

New York meat riots

Poverty and persecution in the Russian Empire resulted in waves of mass emigration. By far the most common destination for emigrants was the United States, with many settling in New York City. For most this meant exchanging the stagnation of feudal society for the bondage of the industrial system. Many ended up working in sweatshops, but they brought with them radical traditions.

In response to a big rise in the price of kosher meat, working-class housewives organised a boycott. Fanny Levy, the wife of a unionised cloak-maker, organised a mass demonstration of 20,000 women. They raided butcher shops and destroyed meat. One newspaper reported that “An excitable and aroused crowd [mostly of women] roamed the streets ... armed with sticks, vocabularies and well sharpened nails”. Eighty-five women were arrested. When asked by a magistrate why they were rioting, one replied, “We don’t riot. But if all we did was weep at home, nobody would notice it, so we have to do something to help ourselves.”

The militancy of the women terrified the New York bourgeoisie. The New York Times labelled them “a dangerous class ... especially the women [who] are very ignorant [and] ... mostly speak a foreign language” and called for them to be immediately and severely repressed. “The class of people” it argued “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 do not get treatment nearly severe enough.”

But the boycott only grew, and the New York Times again 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.”

Around 50,000 families participated in the boycott campaign. After three weeks there was a partial victory, with the price of kosher meat being reduced.

New York garment workers’ strikes

1909 saw a famous strike of mostly Jewish women who made blouses known as shirtwaists. Called the “Uprising of the 20,000”, the militancy and determination of the strikers drew national attention.  Subsequently, many other clothing workers were inspired to take action. 60,000 cloak and suit-makers walked off the job in July 1910. They defied injunctions with mass picketing and an enormous demonstration supported by the Socialist Party and eventually won.

The 1912 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!”

Gangsters and police attacked picketers, with more than 800 arrests and 215 serious injuries, but resulted in a major victory.

Later that year, more than 100,000 workers in the men’s clothing trade struck. The majority were Jewish, the second-largest group Italians, and one-third of the total were women. The Jewish Forward reported that the vitality of the Italians “was wonderful, their energy is simply incredible, their devotion exceeds everything”.

They described a parade of workers in one factory: “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. 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.”

Magistrates supported the manufacturers. There were hundreds of arrests. Unfortunately, a sell-out by union leaders resulted in failure.

Working-class solidarity in London’s East End

Jewish immigrants to London lived in extreme poverty in the East End, mostly working in sweatshops in the clothing industry.

As early as 1876, Jewish socialists started to agitate among these workers. At a meeting of the Hebrew Socialist Union, addressed by both Jewish and non-Jewish speakers, a Jewish tailor argued, “[T]he underlying class struggle exists also amongst Jews ... the Jewish workers must unite amongst themselves against the other spurious unity—that with the masters!”

One socialist who consciously engaged with the Jewish immigrants and tried to strengthen ties between the different groups of workers was Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx.

In November 1890, Eleanor Marx spoke at a mass demonstration to condemn the persecution of Jews in Russia, telling organisers: “I shall be very glad to speak at the meeting of 1 November; the more glad, that my father was a Jew”. She became involved with East End Jewish women workers, and even learnt Yiddish. At one meeting, Marx addressed workers in German, while others spoke in Russian, Yiddish and English. “Despite the babel of tongues”, reported one observer, the meeting was in complete harmony because “the spirit of Socialism, which heals all divisions of nationalities, animated every man and woman present”.

With the new wave of immigrants from Russia after the 1905 revolution, the struggle against sweatshops intensified. In 1906, the Jewish Chronicle commented, “hardly a week passes without a fresh strike breaking out in one or other of the trades”. A spontaneous mass walkout of tailors began “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 at a mass meeting “speakers advocating caution were shouted down”.

Anarchists played a major role in running the strike, with the non-Jewish German, Rudolf Rocker addressing meetings in Yiddish. Pickets would deal with scabs and frog-march them to the strike headquarters where a room was allotted as a jail for blacklegs. People bailed out scab prisoners by paying a fine, adding to the strike fund.

When a strike among non-Jewish West End tailors broke out in 1912, the Jewish East End tailors did not scab but instead determined on solidarity and an attack on the sweating system. A mass meeting of 8,000 voted overwhelmingly for strike action.

The East End Jewish community supported the strike and eventually the employers conceded all of the workers’ demands except one: the right to a union. But this was not enough and at a mass meeting to consider the employers offer the workers cried “the strike must go on!” The very next day the masters conceded, the Jewish tailors could march back with their heads held high.

With the strike won, Rocker mobilised the Jewish tailors in support of the dockers’ strike. There were huge joint meetings and support from Jewish trade unions and the local anarchists. Famously, Jewish families welcomed more than 300 dockers’ children into their homes. This act did more than help the dockers in their immediate struggle: “It laid the foundations of many friendships which neither time nor circumstance could erase”.

Rent strikes in Stepney

In the 1930s, Stepney, one of the most overcrowded districts in London, was practically all a slum and the situation of tenants dire.

Led by Communist Phil Piratin and others, a campaign of tenants strikes started in 1937 with action around the eviction of two families, who were actually members of the British Union of Fascists, which had declined to help them.

Tenants set up barricades, and people armed with mouldy flour and water stood 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.”

News of the action spread very quickly. “The lessons did not require being pressed home. BUF membership cards were destroyed voluntarily.”

The movement grew. The leader of the tenants’ organisation, 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”.

The tenants’ committees, led by women, repeatedly barricaded themselves into buildings with barbed wire and guards patrolling the entrances. There were mass demonstrations, fund raisers and fights against the police. By mid-summer 1938, the strikes and campaigns had “beaten back the landlords who have for years sucked the lifeblood of the people of Stepney”.

The following year, a new campaign aimed at rent control for all working-class houses, saw rent strikes “in street after street in rapid succession”. After two months, the tenants recovered $10,000 in overcharged rent, won massive rent reductions and forced landlords to carry out repairs. About 10,000 people joined in a celebratory Mayday march.

In this way, the anti-fascist struggle and other local issues merged into a larger, community-based movement. As one socialist says: “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”.

These are just some of the incredible episodes that animate Janey Stone’s book. It is an invaluable contribution to keeping this inspiring history alive.

Revolutionaries, resistance fighters and firebrands: The radical Jewish tradition is available at Red Flag books.

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