How German-Jews Tried To Defuse Radical Eastern European Jewish Immigrants

In the annals of U.S. history, the tenuous relationship between highly-assimilated, establishment German-Jews and the huge, secondary wave of Eastern European Jews is quite an interesting one. Tablet has an article on “The Industrial Removal Office”:

German American Jewish leaders created the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) in 1901 to remove unemployed eastern European Jewish immigrants from New York City and relocate them throughout the United States to smaller cities where Jewish communities and jobs existed. From its inception to its liquidation in 1922, the IRO dispatched 79,000 Jews to more than 1,000 American towns and cities. The IRO enlisted the cooperation of the local Jewish communities to secure employment and housing for the men they sent and to ease their settlement into the communities. The central office in New York City was staffed primarily by German-American Jews, who exhibited the same ambivalent attitudes toward the newcomers as did other German-Jewish philanthropies.

A number of factors motivated the German-Jewish leaders to create this organization. By 1900, New York held more than 500,000 Jews, the largest Jewish population of any city in the world. The unending flow of Jewish immigrants into New York’s Lower East Side generated enormous problems for the immigrants and the city’s Jewish establishment. Packed together in the Jewish quarter, the newcomers endured filth, poor sanitation, disease, and soaring rates of delinquency and crime. Dispersing the immigrants would alleviate some of these problems. It would also ease the immense burden placed upon New York’s Jewish charities by hundreds of indigent and sick newcomers.

Umm… Aren’t we missing something here?

Another factor also influenced the IRO’s founders. They and other native-born American-Jewish leaders believed that New York’s huge eastern European Jewish enclave offered a prime breeding ground for radical movements such as socialism and anarchism.

Okay, that’s better.

Detaching the immigrants from this environment and shipping them to smaller Jewish communities in the Midwest, South, and West would forestall their subversion and facilitate their Americanization.

Or would it simply sprinkle radical political inclinations to other parts of the country?

IRO leaders, like others of their class, also worried that even the most admirable and assimilated American Jews would be judged as being no better than the worst of the immigrants. So they took measures that they believed would protect their own standing. They hoped that distributing the immigrants and thus aiding their Americanization would enhance the image of the Jew in the eyes of the general public and lessen anti-Semitism…

Although most immigrants remained in the cities where they were sent, some did not. The causes for their leaving varied. Loneliness, the fact that they had more relatives and friends in New York, and the lack of a Jewish environment or work seems to have been the chief motives for their departure.

But as for the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who remained concentrated in NYC… well, we know how that story goes.

The Tablet article also contains some letters from the day, from relocated Jews to the IRO, which are quite revealing:

It is five months since I have arrived to Meridian, and with pleasure will describe to you the condition in which the Jewish immigrants are around this neighborhood. The city of Meridian, where I am living, consists of about 75 Jewish families. They have been here for 8-10 years, and are all well-to-do. The most part of them are very rich, doing business in the millions. Three quarters of them are German Jews and the rest of them are Russian Jews, but every one of the Russian Jews is trying to get the title of a German Jew. Most of the business in the town is in the hands of the Jews and they are growing very rapidly in both power and riches.

The Christian population is very friendly to the Jews and the anti-Semitism is very low. This is because the Jews in this town are very honest and do business on business principles. Yet, there are some exceptions to this situation with the Russian Jews. That is because there were some crimes committed by Russian Jews against a few natives of this city. One misfortune was that a Jewish peddler stole a gold watch and chain from a farmer. Another case involved a clerk who ran away with hundreds of dollars from his employer. And what is done in New York every day is unexpected in a small town like this. 

The last sentence would today be labelled anti-Semitic… wouldn’t it?

From another complaint letter written at the time:

Mr. Kohn provided me with work in a certain factory, but after I stayed two weeks I was discharged, having been accused of organizing a strike.

I would imagine the full inventory of IRO letters would provide a treasure trove of information and insight into the full scope and true acknowledgement of Eastern European Jewish radicalism.

This entry was posted in History, Jewish. Bookmark the permalink.