Russian Jews as Desirable Immigrants

Ida M. Van Etten Forum, 15 (1893):pp.172-182
Most men, if asked what class immigrants they considered the least desirable, would answer, the Russian Jews. There is a preconceived idea that because most of the Russian Jews are dirty, cannot speak the English language, and live closely crowded in unwholesome, ill- smelling tenement quarters, they therefore form an objectionable part of our population. To these causes there might be added that vague, indefinite phrase that they do not assimilate with other people. Thus even those who are willing enough to admit our indebtedness to immigration in the past object to Jewish immigrants, saying that the character of our immigrants is not what it was twenty years ago, forgetting that twenty years ago the prejudice against Irish immigrants was as strong and unreasoning as that which now exists against Jewish immigrants. Persons who have once accepted the idea of the Russian Jews, by habitually thinking of them as constituting the lowest dregs of population and by living far removed from any possible contact with them, harden this opinion into a fixed conviction and shut out further inquiry. Although the Russian Jews have now for several years taken an active part in the industrial, intellectual, and civil life of New York, few of its citizens know anything of this earnest, intelligent, and intensely interesting people.

It would clear away many misleading theories to remember that it is not the condition in which the immigrant comes that determines his usefulness, but the power that he shows to rise above his condition; and if the ability to rise superior to adverse conditions be a proof of strength of character, we must concede that the Russian Jew possesses this quality in no mean degree. Centuries of persecution and oppression tend to develop extreme traits of character, some most commendable, others not so praiseworthy. These people possess all the faults of an oppressed people, but they have also the heroic virtues fostered by their oppression. The Russian Jew seems to possess a dual character; to be the best of men and the worst, to practice the meanest vices and the most exalted virtues. He is suspicious, ungrateful, and often treacherous alike to friend and foe, qualities naturally fostered by centuries of tyranny and repression. But on the other hand he possesses, in large measure, the qualities which will inevitably make him a notable figure in the social and political evolution of any country of which he becomes a citizen. From an intimate knowledge of these people, I maintain that they are in many important respects among our most desirable immigrants.

The great influx of Russian and Polish Jews to the United States which resulted from their rigorous religious persecution by the Russian government began in 1881 and, with but slight interruption, has continued ever since. It is estimated that there are now more than two hundred thousand of them in that portion of New York City east of the Bowery and extending from Houston to Division streets. The history of the Jews has the eminent quality of being interesting at any point it may be taken up, and this Jewish settlement is no exception, for it is as full of interest as the history of the forefathers of these people.

Coming to America in great and unorganized masses, usually penniless, ignorant of the language, manners and customs of the country, unfamiliar with its industrial conditions, and compelled by their necessities to accept any wages offered to them, they undoubtedly formed the most serious menace to wages with which the American working men had had to contend. In many trades they replaced the miserably paid women by still cheaper labor, while their willingness to work for sixteen or eighteen hours a day rendered them still more obnoxious to American working men and women. There were other reasons why the Russian Jew was in the lowest industrial ranks and under the worst possible economic conditions. He had come from a country which is yet industrially undeveloped. He was, therefore, obliged to accept work in those industries that were most nearly like those in which he was engaged at home. These are obviously the sewing trades, which in Russia and in America are in about the same stage of development and which have the added advantage of requiring but little physical strength.

Entering in large numbers in the various sewing trades, they, especially in the early eighties, did reduce wages and degrade the conditions of life in these trades. During the years 1881 to 1888 wages in the trades principally filled by the Russian Jews rarely rose above five or six dollars a week, while the hours ranged from sixteen to eighteen, and in the busy season often much longer. I have seen cloak-makers working in the sweaters' shops on the East Side at one or two o'clock in the morning, and members of the Cloak-makers' Union testify that before the formation of the union twenty hours was by no means an uncommon work-day. In fact, there seemed to be no limit to the extent of a day's work, except the limit of physical endurance. The conditions under which these people worked are almost indescribable to one who has never seen a sweater's den. The over-crowding and over-work, the filth and the squalor, and the horrible sanitary surroundings make a picture which must be seen to be understood. Factory laws and the regulations of the Board of Health were entirely ignored. Factory and sanitary inspectors were rare visitors in the sweaters' territory at this time, and it would be hard to picture the misery and suffering of these people, who in fleeing from the persecution of the Czar of Russia had fallen under the iron rule of a multitude of little industrial czars. They had fled from unbearable Old World conditions to sweaters' dens and tenement-houses where human beings are packed more closely than in any other quarter of the globe--a density of three hundred and seventy-four thousand persons to the square mile. In Russia they ate black bread, but they had at least plenty of pure air. In New York also they ate black bread, but they ate it in a poisonous atmosphere. But they have since come, through their efforts to better their condition, to experience more fully the advantages of the larger freedom of American institutions. Here they have had, at least, the right of free meeting for the purposes of agitation and organization.

Although demoralized by their manner of living and working, they showed a quick understanding of the power and advantages of organization and of combination. Their first efforts were feeble and unavailing and were viewed with contempt by their employers. But in 1887 there appeared a new element among the Jews; for then was issued by the Russian government the famous circular that reduced the number of Hebrew students who might enter the colleges and universities of Russia to so small a percentage that it really amounted to a proscription of them. Many of these, together with other refugees--chiefly political exiles--joined the stream of emigration which had already set toward America. It is to the coming of this class that the labor organizations of the Jewish workingmen in New York owe much of their radical and progressive character.

The place which the Russian student holds among his own people is unique. Coming here as poor as the poorest immigrant, he is compelled to live in the same quarter and is often obliged to earn his living at the same trade as the most ignorant. Many of the cloak-makers of the East Side are exiled Russian students; in fact, most of the Russian Jewish students have served an apprenticeship at the sewing machine. This necessity brings them into closest touch and sympathy with the working classes. These earnest, intelligent, radical students became organizers of trades unions, editors, speakers, students of law and of medicine in New York colleges, but always and primarily they are agitators for higher social conditions. While American workingmen are prone to look with distrust upon educated men who take up their cause, the Jewish workingmen, with the great respect they have for learning, welcome the educated and acknowledge their leadership.

These zealous Russian students eagerly threw themselves into the movement for the relief of their oppressed countrymen. With this impetus the organization of the Jewish trades was carried on zealously. In 1889-90 the struggle for better social conditions became known to the outside world. The cloak-makers' union, consisting of seven or eight thousand members, was among the first organized. In no other had the sweating system been carried to such extremes. The wages of a work-day of from sixteen to eighteen hours often failed to supply the necessaries of their miserable existence. Immediately following their thorough organization came their long and memorable struggle for better wages, shorter hours, and more humane conditions of labor--a struggle undertaken and carried on for three months, without a dollar in the treasury of the union, and finally won, "because," as one of the member said, "the cloak-makers knew how to starve."

I remember going from house to house during the last fearful days of the strike and seeing men gaunt from hunger, women and little children unable to stand from want and exhaustion, with the threat of eviction hanging over their heads, and still I heard not one word of complaint, not to speak of surrender to the "boss." Nothing could have better illustrated the peculiar powers of the Jewish character than the patient endurance that marked the whole progress of this struggle for living wages.

The cloak-makers won, and it is even yet difficult to estimate the great advantage that their victory brought to the whole Jewish working class. The first result was the organization of the principal Jewish trades, especially the different clothing trades, and, more important still, the sweating system had received its first substantial set-back in New York. Organization soon spread to the other cities and large centres of industry; so that now in almost every large city of the United States there exist numerous labor organizations of Jewish working men and women. These organizations become a significant contribution to our civilization when we consider that they stand in every case for higher wages, a shorter work-day, and better conditions, and that they signify therefore a greater intelligence, a better education, and a higher culture of the working classes. In good measure have the Russian Jews compensated for the temporary depression of economic conditions brought about by their first experience here.

We are not in possession of accurate figures which would give us an exact knowledge of the increase in wages, and, more important still, the diminution of hours brought about by these organizations and their subsequent victories, but the Report of the New York State Bureau of Labor Statistics for 1890 shows that the increase of wages was more than $500,000 for the few months remaining in 1890 after the settlement of the strikes. I know that in some cases the wages of week-workers were doubled, while the decrease in hours in those trades where overwork had been a crime against the moral and physical nature of the worker were even more advantageous. The number of workmen engaged in such strikes as concerned wages alone was more than eleven thousand. The exposure of the horrors of the sweating system was one of the important results of these strikes, and it led to the passage of the Factory Act of March 9, 1892, which, if enforced, would practically abolish the system in New York.

Thus, although the Jewish immigrants were for a short time a disturbing factor in the trades in which they competed with native working men and women, they have by their organizations placed those very trades upon higher economic plan than they had previously occupied, while the shortening of work-hours brought about by the same means has created a greatly increased demand for labor in these industries. In fact, the competition of immigrants has, during the recent discussion of immigration, been very much exaggerated. Even a very slight reduction in the hours of a day's work would easily abolish the competition caused by immigration. And it is a significant fact that in the most progressive labor organizations of the country the leading element is of foreign birth, and nearly without exception all successful movements for reducing the hours of labor--the greatest and most effective aim of organized labor--can be traced directly to the leadership of immigrants. So these latter, even from the standpoint of conservative trade unions, in the long run repay tenfold to the labor movement whatever injury they may have done during the first years of their residence here. At any rate, when we consider the enormous reduction in hours effected by these Jewish organizations (in shirt-making alone the length of the working-day five years ago was fourteen hours, and it is now ten hours), it seems to me that we must concede that the Russian Jews have fairly created their own place in American industries. For example, twenty years ago nine-tenths of all the cloaks used in this country were imported, but nine-tenths have been made here since the beginning of the large immigration of Russian Jews. Many other industries which have been established here would have been impossible without the accession of foreign working people.

The Jewish workmen having effected a thorough and far-reaching organization in their respective crafts, did not stop there. The work of organization and education still goes steadily on. At an early stage in their organization they recognized the value of a federation of labor unions to secure the real and permanent success of organized labor. The United Hebrew Trades was formed in 1888--a central body composed of delegates from all the organized Hebrew trades in New York. One year after its organization it numbered about twenty-five organizations, representing more than ten thousand members. Every trade holds its own separate meeting, usually once a week, and these numerous trade gatherings are one of the important features of East Side life in New York. It is true that the number in the Jewish labor organizations varies, as in all trade unions. But among the organized Hebrew trades a temporary defeat in an economic struggle acts only as a slight check to their growth and progress, while a total rout of their forces is followed by an immediate rally. Such a thing as a complete paralysis of zeal and effort after defeat is unknown in Hebrew labor organizations. This again is due to the peculiar qualities of the Jewish character.

The Russian Jews are naturally radicals on all social questions. They have come from a country which represents to them only tyranny and oppression, and social questions have a deep, absorbing, and personal interest to them. Another fact that increases the radicalism of the educated Jews is that, not being an abiding people, they have no strong prejudices in favor of any established party. Thus from the force of circumstances as well as by natural inclination they find their natural and congenial place among the ultra-radical workingmen. Thousands of the disciples of Karl Marx may be found among the organized Jewish workingmen. Their intense desire to study and to discuss social questions I have never seen equalled. Scores of great agitation meetings are held weekly on the East Side. A few weeks ago a meeting called to discuss immigration was attended by over six thousand persons, while thousands were unable to obtain admission. A similar call for a meeting issued to native American or to Irish workingmen would probably have brought but a few hundreds.

Almost the first impulse of those who have a cause to champion is to seek the powerful aid of the press, and the Jews quickly recognized this power. In the face of apparently insurmountable obstacles, Russian students with a following chiefly of the underpaid employees of "sweaters" succeeded in founding and maintaining a weekly labor paper of a high order of literary excellence--the "Arbeiter Zeitung," which has exerted great influence in the struggles of the Jewish workingmen. This newspaper is the centre of an agitation which represents great energy and self-denial on the part of its promoters. The editor is a young Russian student who is a remarkable orator in both the Jewish and English languages. Any one who has heard his speeches at the immense meetings which are often held by the Jews in Cooper Union would not be surprised at his influence over them. He was one of the most prominent figures at the recent International Labor Congress in Brussels, where he made an address on the social and industrial condition of the Jewish working class in Europe and America.

The records of the public schools show that the attendance of the Jewish children is more regular than the attendance of the children of any other class and that their standard of scholarship is higher. No sacrifice is considered too great by the Hebrew father and mother to keep their children at school as long as possible. A Jew who cannot read and write his own language at least is the exception. An educational restriction on immigration would have no appreciable effect in excluding Russian Jews.

The Jews are a temperate people, and the saloon is not likely to become an element in their social or political life. Instead of beer or strong alcoholic liquors, they drink enormous quantities of tea and coffee. Coffee-houses are numerous on the East Side and serve as the gathering-places of the Jewish working men and women. A glass of tea with lemon is served with a thin Russian cake for ten cents, and this refreshment, so dear to a Russian is therefore within the means of the poorest artisan or student. Every night from ten to twelve these coffee- houses are crowded with students and workingmen, many of whom drop in from the numerous trade and agitation meetings which are nightly held in the Jewish quarter. The recreations of a people are commonly the truest indication of their real character. The frequenters of these dingy little coffee-houses are men rough and uncouth in appearance, poorly dressed and often dirty and unkempt, but a lady or a scholar would find nothing offensive in their conversation. They discuss trade matters, political economy, philosophy, the works of Karl Marx, Krapotkine, Tolstoi, Tchernychewsky, and Zola. Almost any Jewish workingman you might chance to meet in these circles would be able to discuss intelligently these authors and their works. This undoubtedly due to the student influence which so largely predominates in their gatherings. These coffee-houses are often the scene of conversations and discussions which would do credit to a much more ambitious field.

Here, too, you meet the real actors in those Russian tragedies whose ending is usually in far off Siberia. I remember sitting one evening at a table in one of these coffee-houses, with a young Russian Jew whom I had sometimes met at labor meetings. He was reading a letter. When he had finished he turned to me and said, "It is from my sister in Siberia." When I asked him for what crime she had been sent there, he answered quietly but with a tone of bitter hate in his voice, "Because she studied and taught the others why we were so miserable in Russia." He then told me his sister's sad story. She was graduated at one of the gymnasiums at the age of sixteen with great honors. She and her brother became revolutionists and for two years devoted themselves to teaching the peasants and others revolutionary doctrines. It became known to the Russian government, and without warning, even without seeing her family, she was sent to Siberia for eighteen years. Her brother escaped to this country. Eight years of her sentence have now passed, and she is allowed, at stated intervals, to write to her friends. He added in a hopeless sort of way, "She has ten years more; she will not live out her sentence." Such stories are only too common on the East Side. Contrast the coffee-houses of the Jews with similar gatherings of American or Irish workingmen in what they call their recreations, and you will understand why the student sociology looks with greater hope to the Russian Jews.

Jewish immigration is free from the objection, so commonly urged against immigration in general, that it increases crime and pauperism. The Jewish quarter in New York, although more densely populated than any other tenement-house district, is rarely the scene of serious brawls or disturbances. Few policemen are to be seen here and these find but little demand for their services. The records of police courts are remarkably free from Jewish names. This is principally owing to their temperate habits, while their strong domestic virtues, their love of their wives and children, prevent family troubles whose settlement forms so large a part of the work of civil court and police justices. Statistics show that during the last few years, when Jewish immigration has so greatly increased, crime among this nationality has not shown a corresponding increase.

The whole number of Jewish prisoners in New York State is 360. This remarkably small number, in a State which contains so large a Jewish population, is a conclusive proof of their law-abiding character. In Sing Sing out of a total of 1,600 prisoners there are only 72 Jews, and of these 19 are Americans, leaving only 53 foreign-born. In Clinton prison among 900 there are 25 Jewish prisoners; in Auburn there are 36 Jews among 1,100 convicts. In the workhouse on Blackwell's Island, out of 1,100 inmates, there are only five Jews. The superintendent of the workhouse says that a Jew is seldom brought back a second time. There has never been a Jewish woman in the workhouse. In the penitentiary at Albany there are only two Jews among 700 prisoners. There is one Jewish prisoner in each of the penitentiaries of Syracuse, Rochester, and Buffalo. It is also a fact worthy of attention, that most of these prisoners have been convicted of petty crimes, into which they have been led by gambling practices. The Russian Jews are not addicted to this vice in their own country, but have acquired it in this country by the freedom with which pool rooms and policy-shops are allowed to flourish in our large cities, in open defiance of existing laws for their suppression.

The Russian Jews come here under the worst possible economic conditions, and are probably the poorest immigrants who land at Ellis Island; a property qualification wold operate to keep out most of them; still it is a well-known fact that fewer Jews become recipients of either public or private charity than persons of any other nationality. This should be heeded by those who think to improve the character of our immigration by the imposition of a property tax. For many years there were only two Jews in the almshouse on Blackwell's Island, but in 1892, out of a total of 2,170, there were 11 Jews, five men and six women. Among the 1,000 patients at Charity Hospital there are usually from 12 to 15 Jewish patients.

The business instinct of the Jew, the money-getting faculty, is popularly supposed to be much stronger than in other races. But this is owing to the conditions under which they have lived. By their exclusion from nearly all other occupations they have been forced to become almost entirely a trading and commercial class, and this has abnormally stimulated their business faculties as well as developed the traits of character which have rendered them most objectionable and offensive in popular estimation. As employers of labor they are neither better nor worse than other employers. The rich Jew, like the rich Christian, invariably buys his labor at the cheapest possible rates. If there should seem to be a greater tendency on the part of the Jewish manufacturer to exploit the worker, it is usually due to his lower conception of the standard of living. The Jew who here becomes the employer of labor has been obliged, perhaps, as a workman in Europe to live upon two or three dollars a week, and therefore it seems to him perfectly proper and just that his workmen and women should conform to the same standard of living.

A strong point in favor of the Russian Jewish immigrants is the fact that they come here with the intention of becoming permanent citizens of the United States. They alone, perhaps, of all the immigrants who come to America are free from any endearing ties and associations which would, at any future time, draw them back to the land of their birth. Russia has not been a kind fatherland to the Jews. For good or for ill their fortunes are irrevocably cast with us. They and their descendants are destines to become a permanent factor in our national life.

The statement that they do not assimilate with our people and our institutions usually means in its last analysis that they do not become a part of the corrupt political institutions in the large cities where they live. This want of assimilation is generally more noticeable among the educated and intelligent immigrants than among the other classes. The truth is the Russian Jews have eagerly taken advantage of all our best and most progressive institutions. The Jews have been for so many generations excluded from all participation in the governments under which they have lived that we should naturally expect to find them disinclined and unfitted to take part in political affairs. But their past history does not show this to have been the case. In part the countries where they have been allowed to take an active part in the conduct of government, as in France, England, and Germany, there are many eminent statement of Jewish birth. In England, Disraeli, notwithstanding seemingly insurmountable barriers of race, religion, and social prejudice, became the idolized leader of a Tory aristocracy, while in Germany Ferdinand Lassalle was the trusted teacher and leader of the working-class political movement. They are, as yet, too new in America to have become a political power, but their intelligent interest in all the public questions of the day, as shown by their discussions and reading, indicates that the presence of Jews in our national affairs is a matter of not distant date.

Politically, the Jews possess many characteristics of the best citizens. Their respect and desire for education make them most unlikely to follow an ignorant demagogue, while for a still deeper and more radical reason they make an enlightened selfishness their standard of all political worth. The centuries during which every conscious and unconscious tendency of the governments under which they lived has been to make their individual and race advancement their single object, have developed traits of character most unfavorable to that blind partisanship which is requisite for the successful carrying out of the objects of political organizations like Tammany Hall. The education given by the modern labor movement has, in a great degree, transformed their race-feeling into a class-feeling, and they now look with zeal to the advancement of the working people, in whole elevation they recognize that their hope for the future lies. The one or two Jewish political demagogues who strive to create a following on the East Side have met with doubtful success. In fact, there does not exist a more unpromising field in New York for the political trickster than the Jewish quarter of the city. Their cold, critical analysis of political nostrums is most disheartening to the district-leaders of Tammany Hall. Unlike most native or Irish voters, they are proof against the blandishments of the campaign orator and the fascinations of the torchlight procession and brass band. The great mass of Russian Jews are not yet naturalized, but of those who are the vast majority voted last year with the Socialist Labor party.

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