The Immigrant Jew in America

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The Russian Jew in Philadelphia*
by Charles S. Bernheimer, Ph.D.

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

The Russian Jew comes from a country where despotism holds sway, where he has had little chance for the exercise of political privileges. He comes here with a tradition so different from ours that at first he is bewildered by the political conditions. He observes contradictions and complications. His spirit is foreign to the American and Anglo-Saxon, which seemingly tolerates many abuses until it is ready to act. His attitude is apt to be cynical or indifferent; and in either case he may fall in with the prevailing notions of politics, with all that they imply. Or he may, by virtue of the unsatisfactory condition of his economic life and because of an idealism typical of a certain class of Russian thinkers be in constant revolt against the powers that be, actively joining in the meetings and demonstrations in behalf of the Anarchist or the Socialist cause, and refraining from co-operation with the regular political parties. If the Russian Jew is a young man born on American soil, or one who came here at an early age, he is likely to imbibe the American and Anglo-Saxon tradition, and may be like the ordinary easy-going American, or like the American who "is in it for all it is worth," or of those who are fighting for reform, or finally, among those who desire an entire change of the social system.

The study of practical politics among a particular class will reveal many features of the general condition. The large American cities present the worst sides of American practical politics, and Philadelphia stands out in unholy, pre-eminent glory in this respect, for here the overwhelming control by politicians of both state and city have made possible the corruptions of politics in an extreme degree.

Politics, to the ordinary American mind, imply a business, conducted by a regularly organized band who have secured control of public offices, public franchises, and public influences of all kinds, and use them for their personal purposes, and for extending their authority as non­official controllers of the public purses of the citizens. He who wishes something in the political line must go to one of this band. In every section of the city, in the various wards and divisions, there are those who are known to have a "pull." They do not necessarily hold office; their power depends on their influence in the political organization. The ordinary American citizen, with his blind worship of party politics, bows to the will of this organization, and is subservient to its leaders.

Should it be a matter of surprise, therefore, that the immigrant from Russian and Eastern Europe, with such a conception placed before him, should succumb to the temptations to which many a so-called American citizen succumbs, or be as indifferent to political effort as this same American citizen? Can it be a matter for wonder if the teachers of practical politics, the "heelers," and the "rounders," are such as we allow to control our wards and divisions, that they graduate from their schools the promising pupils of nationalities and classes whose votes and influence are desired? To anyone who knows our politics as conducted it must be clear what sort of tools a politician will use, and we consequently find a coterie of Russian Jewish workers fully as unscrupulous as their leaders; and being poor men, with small ways for the low class work they do, their actions present a most unlovely appearance. But from the point of view of public morality they are not worse than leaders who do their work with all the semblance of decorum.

The wards in which the Russian Jewish population chiefly resides are the First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth, covering an area of nearly two square miles. The boundaries are, Chestnut Street on the north from Delaware River to Seventh Street; the Delaware River on the East to the foot of Mifflin Street; Mifflin Street on the south to Passyunk Avenue; thence north along Passyunk Avenue to Ellsworth Street, to Broad Street; thence with Broad Street as the western boundary to South Street; along South Street to Seventh Street, and up Seventh to Chestnut Street.

It should be noted that there is very little Jewish population in the northern end of this section above Spruce Street.

The number of votes will grow not only because of increased naturalization among those of the population born abroad, but because of the young men coming of age. It must be borne in mind that we are considering a population which began to migrate to this country in large numbers in 1882, so that only in 1903 did the first American-born descendants of this main body become voters. All other must go through the form of naturalization.

There was a second large stream of immigration in the early nineties, and a larger naturalization as a result of this has doubtless taken place in the last few years, five years being required for the acquiring of citizenship. The younger men, born abroad, but in touch with our institutions, naturally proceed to become naturalized as soon as they attain the age of twenty-one years. 

In national politics some of the Russian Jews are Republicans, some Democrats, and some Socialists. With the strongly prevalent Republican party sentiment in this city one would naturally expect to find many in the ranks of this party, yet there was a strong current of feeling for Bryan and Debs in one campaign. In the Third Congressional District fight for a seat in the national Hose of Representatives, many took an active part for McAleer, the Democratic incumbent, who was running for re-election against the Republican machine candidate. A committal of Jewish representatives, the Hebrew McAleer Campaign Committee, assisted in the campaign, and a number of meetings were held under its auspices.

There can be no question of a strong Socialist sentiment. When a prominent Socialist speaker addresses a meeting he can count upon an audience of fully five hundred persons. The Socialist newspapers are read in goodly numbers. At labor, social and literary gatherings, Socialism is an active, interesting subject of discussion.

I have been much impressed with the nobility of purpose which inspires leading Socialists among the Russian Jewish population. The ordinary politician, the party American, the political reformer even, may regard it as a fanaticism, a vain striving after an impossible ideal. And yet it is helping to educate the community in social responsibility; it stands for a purity which will some day help to cleanse the city of some of its political dirt. Many of the more intelligent Russian Jewish men and women are Socialists. They are animated by a strong propagandist spirit and are helpful to the leaders of the Socialist cause.

The radical and reactionary element of the other enemy is the Anarchist. It is not so strong in numbers as the Socialist. Most of the members of this party are philosophical Anarchists and not the red-handed agitators pictured by the newspapers.

Mere political reform, or municipal reform, does not find much favor. I remember addressing a society composed of Russian Jews on the subject of political reform, and besides giving my own views quoted those of John Jay Chapman. I was told in the discussion which followed that the description of the political disease as it had been presented was as strong as any of their most radical members could give, but the remedy was "Oh! so weak; it was like attempting to cure a thoroughly diseased body with a porous plaster."

I was not surprised, therefore, to find that there was very little affiliation with the independent municipal party, the Municipal League. Here again they were not different from their neighbors, for it has been difficult to maintain Municipal League organizations in the wards to which our discussion is being confined.

The Jews of older residence here, those of the immigrations before the Russian migration of the early eighties, have always held aloof from any movement looking to the concentration of a so-called Jewish vote, and the formation of any political organization composed wholly of Jews. Such organization is much more possible among the Russian Jewish population, because of its settlement in large masses in one district, with a community interest of race and religion intensified by close social union and mutual responsibilities and needs. In this district there are other nationalities which form distinct groups, such as the Italians and the negroes. There are also Irish and Americans.

The Russian Jews have not voted as a class for one particular party, but have organized distinctive clubs and committees for one party or another. The objections to such organizations are well set forth in a petition to the court in 1895 against the granting of a charter to the Fourth Ward Hebrew Republican Club. It stated that it was "a racial or religious political club," that it was against public policy in that it tends to the union of church and state;" that its objects "tend to introduce religion into politics and to excite racial and religious prejudice."  Adolph Eichholz, who acted as attorney for the objector, wrote as follows to the counsel of the club, expressing views generally held by Jews of older residence:

"...Not only is it opposed to the spirit of American institutions that any set of men belonging to one race or to one religious denomination should band themselves together for political purposes, but it is also reason ably certain that the members of such organizations will be made the victims of unscrupulous schemes. One of the prime motives prompting the filing of these exceptions on the part of a co-religionist is a solicitude for the welfare of the misguided members and prospective members of this and all other so-called 'Hebrew' and 'Jewish' political clubs. The organizers of such clubs are, as a rule, men who for their own selfish ends, use this means of impressing party leaders with the fact that they control a large number of 'Hebrew' votes. Organizations formed upon such lines must necessarily interfere with the elevation of the standard of true citizenship. Hebrew citizens take an interest in politics, and there is no reason why they should not do so after the manner of all other citizens, but their politics activity has been and should be solely and purely that of good, loyal, and patriotic American citizens regardless of what may have been the country of their birth and independent of any religious belief or racial connections.

"In the past those who held more exalted views of citizenship have necessarily been limited to merely persuading others from joining such anti-American organizations. Now that judicial approval is sought it becomes a duty to interpose more formal objections."

That the agglomeration of masses of foreigners into separate political organizations of voters is subversive of their best interests as citizens there can be no doubt. The Russian Jewish element, like other elements of foreign origin in the down-town section, is in the habit of working unitedly and finds it natural to form political clubs. The common religion is but one feature that differentiates this body from the rest of the community; and the effect of this feature ought not to be exaggerated, where division along racial lines in the lower part of the city is so common.

The attempts to conduct political organizations have met with obstacles among Russian Jews, because of individualism of this population, which owing to jealousies constantly disrupts. The United Citizens' Club, which was organized for the protection of Jewish immigrants and citizens, and which has a membership of about a thousand, participated in the campaign of the winter of 1904, supporting the Democratic ticket. During active political campaigns clubs are organized, but when the excitement of the campaign dies out the interest in the clubs flags, and the promoter of the club, a candidate or a ward leader, often finds it difficult to maintain it. Some of the clubs, like many other clubs, no matter what the class of its members, flourish as card-playing concerns.

The Russian Jewish politician has been able to gain but little in party power in this city. The willing tool of the political boss, he bewails the fact that he cannot control a large Jewish vote, so that his influence will be stronger. As a division "heeler," he controls a number of votes and is rewarded with some petty office, or opportunity, which will enable him to "squeeze" his neighbors.

Public offices held by this population are insignificant in importance and small in number. They include a member of the Board of Education, two common councilmen, several school directors, some police officers, constables, and park employees. The negro must be a much more valuable political worker from the point of view of the office distributers, for of 170 city employees from the Fifth Ward, when inquiry was made some years ago, about 40 were negroes.1

When we come to the matter of a controllable vote, the subject is difficult,-- that is to say, it is difficult to point out which element of our entire city population is the worst offender in this respect. The Russian Jews doubtless contribute a quota. Some are said to sell their votes outright; others to vote according to the instructions of the police officials who protect them against the rigorous enforcement of ordinances. For example, the push cart dealers and peddlers must have licenses and are required to be kept moving. Police officials can exercise their "discretion" if a peddler will vote as they direct. The dealer who has his shop open on Sunday can secure protection against enforcement of the Sunday law if he is "in with" the police. Many a practice which violates the law can be connived at if the violator will vote the "right way." He may, in addition, have to secure "immunity" through other considerations as well. The system of illicit protection and control among this population does not differ in principle from that in other sections of the city; it merely varies according to the nature of the business. The politicians in control of the city know the means of exploitation available. The Philadelphia Ledger, in an article in its issue of December 11, 1904, on "The Organization and Extortion," contained the following: "The small dealers along South Street and Second Street, Germantown, Frankford a Kensington Avenues are subjected to an almost perpetual demand for both money and services. In the Third and Fifth Wards the merchants are coerced into padding the assessor's lists; to recognize non-resident office-holders as inmates of their own homes, and to hand up money regularly to the accredited representatives of the organization. They get, for their money and service, the right to use the sidewalk beyond the three-foot line for displaying their wares, and they may employ barkers without fear of molestation. The toll upon these merchants ranges all the way from 25 cents to $5 a week each. The same applies to push cart men and itinerant peddlers, who, in addition paying the usual peddlers' tax to the city, must submit to petty larceny at the hands of the police, who take all manner of small wares without even saying 'by your leave.' The money and goods thus taken from small dealers and peddlers amounts in the aggregate to thousands dollars annually."

The Russian Jews as a class are capable of political thought far superior to that of any other foreign element which the slum politician seeks to control, and with the growth of a body of young voters who are coming of age the intelligent voting population will become stronger and stronger. These young men are showing an active interest in political and social subjects, and if their present interest is any indication of their strength of action as voters we may look to a vigorous political element. If they realize their opportunity and are not swamped by the desire for mere material success, they can become a powerful factor which will help to redeem us from the degradation of all politics. 

Many of these young men, brought up in the public schools, living to a considerable degree in the environment of the average American, imbued with the spirit of patriotism, will with the socialists and the thinkers of the older generation, form a body of voters possessing a high, intelligent idea of citizenship. They will have a principle which will place them in the van with those who are working for political and social ideals.

1 Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro, p. 381.







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