In 1881 the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II, and the wave of anti-semitic pogroms that followed it, forced thousands of Russian Jews to introduced a new era in Jewish migration. The first wave of Jewish immigrants to Britain came after the May Laws of 1882, restricting Jewish trades and settlement. It was followed by a second wave 10 years later when the Jews were expelled from Moscow. Most landed in Britain having lost most of their possessions, or been robbed on the way, charged extortionate amounts to travel etc; they usually disembarked in St Katherine’s Dock, Wapping or Tilbury, and so gravitated to the poor parts of the East End. Between 1880 and 1905 Whitechapel and part of Spitalfields were transformed into a Jewish zone. Brick Lane became the main street of what was truly a ghetto, around old Montague Street, Chicksand Street, Booth Street, and Hanbury Street. By 1901 many streets around Brick Lane were 100 per cent Jewish, and in the western part of Spitalfields Jews also came to dominate life: in Wentworth St, 48 out of 85 shops were jewish run by the 1890s. Oerwhelmib=ngly the majority of the jewish workers were engaged in the tailoring and clothing trades, always an important industry in this part of the East End.
Among Jews in Eastern Europe there was a long and powerful tradition of political radicalism and trade unionism, which art the time of the migrations was evolving into a strong socialist movement.
As a result, a lively and active socialist and trade unionist scene was to grow in the East End, especially in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. It was strongest in the trades where the majority of the migrant Jews worked – in the tailoring trades, and to a lesser extent in bootmaking and among the baker. A core of jewish workers and intellectuals who arrived came with experience of involvement in populist and nihilist groups in Eastern Europe; many developed radical critiques of their religion as well as social and political theories. For other immigrants religion became more important in a strange and hostile land, giving sense of belonging etc: this was to lead to many divisions in Jewish political and social struggles over the decades.
The famous Arbeter Fraint yiddish newspaper had its origins in the Poilishe Yidel, the first socialist paper in Yiddish in London, which was based in Spitalfields. First published in 1884, the group that grew up around the paper’s office was of fundamental importance in building the local Jewish radical tradition.
The Poilishe Yidel was founded by Morris Winchevsky, as a socialist paper, written in yiddish, the everyday language of the migrants. It had a three-fold mission: to instruct and support Jewish people to help the new Jewish migrant or‘greener’ practically (eg in seeking work), and to provide insight into world events, with a radical perspective.
16 issues appeared. Winchevsky had a distinctive style, alternating from pathos to bitter irony. The paper featured descriptions of immigrant life in the ‘stetl’ (the slang name for a community mostly populated by Jews); local, national and international news with political analysis and comment, correspondents from Leeds (the other main Jewish centre in the UK). Mainly though the Yidel contained didactic appraisals of life in the ghetto and suggestions for solutions. This included numerous articles on the subject of work – finding it, the pay, exploitation of greeners, problems with bosses and landlords…
The precarious nature of the tailoring trade made it tough working: workers endured trade fluctuations, leading to busy times and slack times. In the busy time tailors were overworked, denied breaks, worked very long hours; in slack times, there was no work, great poverty and hunger. 100s of unemployed tailors would mill in the streets.
The Poilishe Yidel encouraged Jewish workers to get tuition in Yiddish and English, and continually advised the formation of unions.
The ‘Yidel’, though, suffered a split in October 1884, and Winchevsky founded the Arbeter Fraint (Workers Friend), which was to outshine its predecessor.
Initially started as a non-partisan socialist paper in Yiddish, “open to all radicals… social democrats, collectivists, communists, and anarchists”, the Arbeter Fraint always held a global view of socialism, advocating revolution; but Winchevsky remained committed to the Jewish poor. It was stern in its attacks on religion, constantly denigrating the ancient faith, and parodying religious texts. It also rejected jewish nationalism.
Philip Kranz was appointed its first editor, (until 1889 when as a social democrat he broke with the anarchists and left for New York); gathering a group of bright young Jewish writers: eg Benjamin Feigenbaum, obsessed with debunking religion, who wrote anti-religious satires for the paper.
For a while, Kranz, Isaac Stone and other writers in the Arbeter Fraint attacked trade unions, opining (in common with many other socialists of the time) that there could be no real improvements under capitalism, and trade unionism was just soft soap, . Revolution was the only solution and it was imminent… Fairly soon, however, the local realities in the sweating trades forced them to concede the necessity of the Jewish workers getting organised… From 1886 the paper helped in the drive toward unionisation.
Arbeter Fraint went from a monthly to a weekly in June 1886, and came under the control of the Berner Street club (the International Workingman’s Educational Club) off Whitechapel’s Commercial Road, where it was based till the club closed in 1892. Amidst disputes between social democrats and anarchists, the paper moved towards anarchism. Occasionally irregular, with a circulation ranging between 2000 and 4000, the paper grew to have a huge influence in the East End, asdn wider afield, as copies were mailed out to yiddish-speaking jews in Britain, the US and beyond.
The anglo-jewish establishment regularly attacked the paper, denouncing it in print, accusing the writers of not being reals jews, and attempting to bribe the printer and compositors to sabotage it, (supporters collected cash to buy their own press). Partly the better-off and longer established jewish hierarchy feared being identified (by the British upper and middle classes they were so keen to join) with the poor jews of the East End; on class grounds the jewish establishment took a dim view of the radicals they saw as stirring up trouble. For its part, Arbeter Fraint took pot shots at respectable anglicised jewry, in particular attacking the Chief Rabbi, mainly for his refusal to intervene in the issue of the poverty of East End jews and the exploitation (‘sweating’) of poor Jewish tailors by rich Jewish employers.
Gradually the Arbeter Fraint group hardened into a more anarchist position, recruiting several libertarian writers and poets,
They were heavily involved in the agitation among East End jewish tailors that lead to a huge tailors strike in 1889… 6000 tailors struck for a broad range of demands – reductions in working hours, breaks, meals to be had off premises, government contractors to pay union rates, no home work at night after hours… 120 workshops were idle. The strike was won after much agitation, but the masters started to break agreements immediately, and the organisation that had grown up .
After the demise of the Berner Street club in November 1892, the Arbeter Fraint group, now completely anarchist, held its weekly meetings in the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane, in a large hall behind the bar. The pub atmosphere could be hostile: “there were always several drunks there, men and women, who used foul language and became abusive when they saw a foreigner.” Meetings were held on Friday nights, and the regular lectures were given sometimes in English, Yiddish, German or Russian! Speakers included such anarchist luminaries as Rudolf Rocker, John Turner, William Wess, Tcherkesov, and many more… The Sugar Loaf was home to the group right up until they established their own club again in Jubilee Street in Stepney in 1906.
Increasingly the group was centred around Rudolf Rocker, who became a hugely influential figure in the East End, for a few short years. German, not in fact Jewish, Rocker was originally a socialist, who bcame an anarchist under the influence of Malatesta and Louise Michel after migrating to London. Moving to East London and got involved in the Sugar Loaf/Arbeter Fraint circle, learning Yiddish so as to immerse himself in the life of the Jewish community…
According to Rudolf Rocker the Arbeter Fraint group was overwhelmingly composed of workers, mostly tailors: “sad and worn, they were sweatshop workers, badly paid, and half-starved. They sat crowded together on hard benches, and the badly lighted room made them seem paler than they really were. But they followed the speaker with rapt attention…”
The group in the early 1900s included Rudolf Rocker, the Mitcop sisters Millie and Rose, ‘Red’ Rose Robins, who like several other Arbeter Frainters worked as a tailor; and Judith Goodman, who always wore a wig as cossacks had torn all her hair out before she emigrated from Russia.
Under Rocker’s leadership, Arbeter Fraint and the group around it were centrally involved in many tailors’ strikes including a 3 week mass strike of June 1906, which emerged from a growing militancy, sparked by a masters lockout, leading to mass walkouts and sympathy strikes. Rocker was a central inspiration and propagandist, and the strike won mass support. But the workers were driven gradually back to work by increasing hardship, and though it was settled with concessions on hours and abolition of piece work, masters also forced concessions, and union membership suffered… The effects of this were not totally reversed till the seminal 1912 tailors Strike; when East End tailors struck en masse in solidarity with a strike of West End (mainly non-Jewish) tailors, refusing to scab, inspired by a powerful Rocker speech at a meeting in Wonderland Theatre, Whitechapel, which brought out 13,000 Jewish tailors. Demands for a 9 hr working day, day work not piece work, higher wages, unionised closed shops, an end to bad conditions at work, were in the end won by the superhuman energy of Rocker and many others, working day and night for the strike, which saw Arbeter Fraint come out as a daily strike sheet. Other Jewish unions supported the strike fully. Attempts to starve workers back by lockout failed – paving the way for an end to sweating and possibility of united tailors unions…
Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group also worked hard to unite Jewish workers and east End dockers (traditionally very anti-immigrant as a rule). The AF group encouraged Jewish working class support for the 1911 and 1912 dock strikes, and many Jewish workers took dockers’ children into their homes during great poverty among the dockers in 1912… Links were made in these years that lasted decades, bearing fruit into the 1930s, the struggle against fascism, and to the Battle of Cable Street…
However the East End Jewish anarchist workers movement declined with the onset of World War 1. Rocker was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ throughout the war, as were a number of others. The Arbeter Fraint, from the start opposing the war, was suppressed by the British government. Heavy repression fell on jewish and other workers who opposed the war. And many Jews and other exiles returned to Russia with the 1917 revolution. Of those that remained, many anarchos and syndicalists joined the new Communist Party, enthused by the seeming success of the Soviet regime; others left the movement, emigrated to the USA, or moved to other parts of London. To some extent also, Rocker’s charismatic influence had become all-important to the maintenance of the Arbeter Fraint, and the wider movement, and without him it fell apart.
Much more on the brilliant and inspiring story of the Arbeter Fraint can be read in:
Rudolf Rocker, The London Years.
William Fishman, East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online