Today in London’s radical history: Jewish anarchist club opens in Jubilee Street, Whitechapel, 1906.

“The Jubilee Street Club played a great part in East End Jewish life because it was open to everyone. Anyone could use our library and reading room or join the adult education classes without being asked for a membership card…” (Rudolf Rocker)

In the late nineteenth century, a powerful Yiddish speaking working class movements evolved among the East European Jewish immigrants in London’s East End. It can be traced back the establishment of the area’s first Jewish Socialist groupings and unions in the mid 1870s. Jewish migrants escaped persecution in their homelands only to find themselves exploited in the sweatshop conditions of London’s textile industry.

It was against this background that Der Arbeter Fraint (The Worker’s Friend), the Yiddish language anarchist paper, started out in 1885, initially representing all strands of socialist opinion, though it soon became associated with anarchism. More on the history of Arbeter Fraint here

Der Arbeter Fraint was instrumental in the development of an independent Jewish labour movement, one of the largest sections of which took on a strongly anarchist character. The group around Der Arbeter Fraint was associated with a number of meeting places in Whitechapel – the international club in Berners Street (now Henriques Street), the Sugar Loaf pub in Hanbury Street, and most famously the anarchist club in Jubilee Street.

In 1906, the Arbeter Fraint group realised a long time goal by establishing The Workers’ Friend Club at Jubilee Street in Whitechapel (the building has since been demolished – it’s now under Jarman House). In the following years the Workers’ Friend Club, along with the Yiddish anarchist papers, achieved popularity well beyond the Jewish anarchist scene.

“The club had a main hall that could hold 800 people, and a number of smaller rooms and halls. One hall on the ground floor was used as a library and reading room. A smaller building adjoining the club served as the editorial and printing offices of the Arbeter Fraint.” (Rocker)

The opening night, 3rd February 1906, was packed – hundreds attended, and large numbers were locked out as there was no more room. “Almost every Jewish trade union in the country had sent us messages of congratulation. There were also messages from Malatesta, Louise Michel and Tarrida del Marmol. I was reading out the messages when a storm of cheering and clapping cut me short. Peter Kropotkin had arrived. His doctors had warned him not to appear at any more public gatherings, because of his heart. But this was an occasion from which he felt he must not stay away.

I begged him not to speak. He waved me aside. He spoke for over half an hour…” (Rocker)

The club was destined to play a central role in the political, social and intellectual life of the Jewish east End for a decade. It had an educational programme including English classes and lectures in history, literature, and sociology. Rudolf Rocker, the German anarchist who by now was at the heart of the group, spoke regularly. Rocker’s view was that workers who could think for themselves were in a much better position to combat their bosses, and escape the clutches of political parties and religious leaders, which exploited the ignorance and apathy of the masses.

Cultural activities were a major part of the Club’s appeal, “in a world where there was a thirst for modern culture alongside a deep attachment to tradition.”

However, the lack of an official membership, while allowing a freer access to many, did have its drawbacks, as it “made it impossible for us to sell drinks in the club, from which most of the other clubs got the greater part of their revenue. For the law restricted the sale of intoxicants in clubs to club members. We sold only tea and coffee and food. So we had to fins other ways of meeting our running costs.”

Rocker recalled that the groups who met there regularly included trade unions, the Jewish Workers’ Circle (an important workers society), a Russian Social Revolutionary party branch, and English anarchist groups.

Descriptions of the Jubilee Street Club can also be found in police records, this time because suspects and witnesses of the 1911 Sidney Street gunfight frequented the club. Nicolai Tockmacoff was a seam-presser born in Moscow who was interviewed by the police. He played the balalaika at the Workers Friend:.

“I used to go to the [Workers’ Friend] Club for entertainment and theatrical performances… There is a hall there and refreshment room for tea and coffee. Anyone can go in. There are all sorts of people there, English and Russian… There is a library which anyone can go into… There was a Lettish [Lithuanian] Concert on one occasion… Men and women go to the Club to borrow books.”

William Fishman’s oral history interviews provide other glimpses of the Club. Millie Sabel recalled her kitchen duties, preparing gefilte fish, chopped liver and pickled herring, and that Lenin would drink Russian tea when he came by. Rose Robins recalled synagogue-going Jews on days of fasting sneaking into the Club to eat the extra food the Club had to prepare on holy days .

On the one hand the club was very much based in the mass movement of the East End, but it was also frequented by the celebrities of the left. Anarchist guru Kropotkin spoke at its opening night. Among those who hung out at the Club were Tsarist secret agents, future Soviet ministers (such as Chicherin) and terrorists (including the Latvian revolutionaries involved in the Siege of Sidney Street). A non-Jewish anarchist close to Rocker, John Turner, leader of the shop assistants’ trade union, took the young Guy Aldred (then writing for anarcho-syndicalist Voice of Labour paper, which Turner edited) to the Jubilee Street Club, where Rocker asked him to speak one night when Kropotkin couldn’t make it. Ironically Aldred used the occasion to criticize Kropotkin for abandoning revolutionary Bakuninism and becoming a respectable suburban intellectual – which didn’t go down well with the Club regulars.

The Club was also a centre of Yiddish culture: the Yiddishists and cultural nationalists Chaim Zhitlovsky and Ber Borokhov both spoke there; many of the great Yiddish poets read there. Fishman records that there was a great deal of interaction between the Jubilee Streeters and Poale Zionists (labour Zionists) in the years after the 1906 tailors’ strike: people like radical Zionist journalists Kalman Marmor and Dr Wortsman.

The Arbeter Fraint group was throughout its existence very much involved in the struggles of the Jewish tailoring workers, in their strikes, struggles against sweating and other poor working conditions. Wages and working conditions in the East End clothing industry were much lower than in the rest of London. In 1889 and 1906, huge strikes that united 1000s of East End tailors saw mass solidarity; but a 1912 strike in both East and West End tailoring ended with victory on all fronts, largely due to Rocker and the Arbeter Fraint group’s activities. The groups was also central in organising solidarity for dockers’ strikes, especially in 1912, where Jewish workers supported dock families facing starvations and took over 300 dockers children to be looked after in Jewish homes.

The strong Jewish labour and anarchist movements faced immediate repression when World War 1 broke out. The Arbeter Fraint group opposed the war from the start. The Jubilee Street Club was forced to close down. Rudolf Rocker was arrested in December 1914, and spent the war in internment camps.

In the meantime Der Arbeter Fraint continued to publish, maintaining its anti-war stance, until July 1916 when it was finally suppressed by the state. Rocker moved eventually to the USA, where he became influential in the Jewish anarchist movement there.

If you want some seriously inspiring reading, check out:

The London Years, Rudolf Rocker.

East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914, William Fishman.

Citizenship and Belonging, Ben Gidley

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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