An Antidote to Narrow Conceptions of Jewish History

Written by Josh Newmark

I left seven years of formal Jewish education with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the early Israeli-Arab Wars, but little knowledge of Jewish diaspora history – despite being a history geek on my way to a history degree. Aside from a bit about the school’s historical origins in the Jewish East End of London, centuries of Jewish experience were largely skipped over between the ancient events that are treated by our religious texts, and the post-Holocaust redemption in the establishment and development of the State of Israel. So, for me, the late William J. Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals 1875-1914 (1974) offered a well-researched glimpse into at least one diasporic milieu, the Jewish working class of nineteenth-century East London.

The book opens with an account of the cruel nineteenth-century Tsarist persecution of the Jews: ‘the worst era of persecution in the annals of Jewish martyrology until the German holocaust’. Discriminatory policies to force more Jewish conscripts into the armed forces meant death so often that the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, was usually pronounced upon young conscripts. Decades of official cruelty provided the background for bloody anti-Jewish pogroms that broke out in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by socialist revolutionaries in March 1881: ‘between April 1881 and June 1882, 225,000 Jewish families fled from Russia.’ Most went to America, ‘but a substantial minority sought immediate refuge in the nearer land of promise. And so the stetl came to East London.’

But such promise was not instantly forthcoming. The ‘greeners’ (an Anglicisation of the Yiddish griner, a newcomer) were subject to economic exploitation and xenophobia. The Whitechapel ‘shtetl’ was a place of overcrowded housing, underpaid sweatshop labour, and periodic unemployment. The young female refugees who managed to avoid sexual exploitation were systematically underpaid. Antisemitism was rife, both at street level and in politics, as Tory protectionists beat the drum of exclusionism towards foreign ‘aliens’, often with the support of the English labour movement which made overblown claims about ‘pauper aliens’ holding down overall wages and conditions. An 1884 editorial in the Poilishe Yidl, a Yiddish-language socialist newspaper, could only put it in such simple terms: ‘the Englishman has no liking for the Jew.’

Moreover, a recurring, and crucial, theme throughout the book is a self-preserving ambivalence from the pre-existing Anglo-Jewish ‘establishment’ – the Jewish bourgeoisie, the Jewish Board of Guardians (forerunner to today’s Board of Deputies of British Jews), the Chief Rabbi, and the Jewish Chronicle – towards the plight of the Jewish refugees from the East. After spending decades carefully carving out a model minority position, the arrival of thousands of destitute Jews, foreign-tongued and foreign-cultured, was perceived as a huge threat to British Jews. In their desire to dispel any accusation of ‘Judaic sympathies in politics’, some of these well-established Jews supported restrictions on Jewish immigration: for example, the familiar names of Francis Montefiore and Lord Rothschild threw their financial weight behind the restrictionist Tory Thomas Dewar in the 1900 general election. And despite myths to the contrary, social stratification and trade disputes among Jews ‘were as sharp and bitter between master and men as elsewhere’. Here too, the Chief Rabbi and other influential figures were loath to speak out on behalf of Jewish sweatshop workers on strike.

Against these prevarications, Fishman treats the reader to well-researched and richly-textured descriptions of efforts from below to ameliorate the suffering of the Jewish workers. The Poor Jews’ Temporary Shelter, founded by the baker Simha Becker, himself an immigrant, provided temporary respite for greeners upon arrival: this ‘provided more than an ad hoc palliative […] it gave some form of welcome to those already demoralised by the recognition that they were universal pariahs.’ And the radical activists, whose stories are followed in the later chapters of the book, gained their influence in this context. Like many radicals in the era, they stumbled over the conflict between revolutionary militancy or fighting for short-term amelioration of the workers’ condition, and the related sectarian division between Anarchism and Social-Democracy. Moreover, their militant atheism was sometimes repellent to the majority of immigrants who still carried their faith.

Yet radical activists oversaw successful Jewish communal actions. For example, in 1904, the Jewish Bakers’ Union stamped each loaf made under trade union conditions with a union label, and Jewish immigrant housewives duly only bought union-approved loaves, soon forcing all masters to concede better conditions. After an unsteady couple of decades, a Jewish workers’ club, open to all, was opened in 1906. Millie Sabel, a comrade who often prepared Jewish dishes like gefilte fish and chopped liver for the club café, recalled seeing Lenin on several occasions come in to eat alone in a corner. And a 1912 strike of 13,000 Jewish immigrant tailors, orchestrated by the ‘goy’ anarchist Rudolf Rocker, was a ‘severe blow’ to the sweatshop system and put paid to the image of Jewish workers as ununionized blacklegs. Fishman’s strength is in his prolific infusing of his archival research with humanising memoirs and memories, so that the book’s pages are filled with personalities in all their quirks, such as:

“the little cobbler Rubinstein […] who used to come running straight from work to wait until the [Yiddish workers’] paper was ready, so that he could help to take it over to the various booksellers […] should there be a hold-up by the printer, he would prance about as thought he had lost his head.”

Readers seeking a broader overview of British Jewry may be disappointed in East End Radicals’s focus on one particular wave of immigration, and a minority of radical agitators within it. But Fishman’s book does well to place those radicals in context, which in turn helps us to understand the extent of diversity within the British Jewish experience, and the internal divisions and conflicts among British Jews. With the Jewish Chronicle’s 2018 Chanukah gift to progressive Jews, a printed Melanie Phillips editorial proclaiming that Liberal/Progressive Judaism and social justice are anathema to ‘authentic’ Judaism, a better awareness of this diverse history is all the more relevant. During over a millennium of exile we had to do our fair share of struggling for social justice, and to ignore that is to ignore Jewish history itself.


Image: Photograph of Professor William “Bill” Fishman,


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