A Friend to Those Who Struggle — Then and Now

By Daniel Sokatch

Published April 06, 2007, issue of April 06, 2007.
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‘Victory!! Bravo, Hurrah, Cap Makers! Cheers to the entire Jewish quarter, which helped win this amazing battle! Hurrah to all the unions!” Thus read the Jewish Daily Forward’s front page in 1905 in response to a huge victory by the cap makers’ union. The Forverts published in red ink to honor the workers’ victory.

At a time when American Jews were mostly poor and working-class immigrants, often toiling for long hours in dangerous working conditions for a shot at the American Dream, the Forverts was much more than a newspaper. It was an instrument of struggle, a key player in the rise of the labor movement in early 20th-century America and a reflection of the values and ambitions of a Jewish community yearning for both integration and justice.

Today, most (although by no means all) American Jews have a measure of economic security. And, despite our history, the grinding struggle of the working poor among us today does not capture the Jewish imagination in the way that, say, the fight against Jim Crow did 40 years ago. But in 21st-century America, it is the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, the unavailability of health care, the evisceration of government regulation of industry, the roll-back of much of the social safety net created by the New Deal and the Great Society, the return to a new gilded age of Enrons and Halliburtons that present perhaps the greatest challenge to the health of our democracy.

This economic inequality is also an affront to both Jewish history and Jewish values. Our tradition is clear about the obligation to work for economic justice. The Torah says, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger… You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets… else he will cry to God against you and you will incur guilt” (Deuteronomy 24:14-25). Leviticus 19 instructs us that “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.”

The Mishna, Talmud and later rabbinic authorities viewed these not only as ideals but also as legal and ethical obligations, adding, among others, the requirement of paying a worker a living wage. In modern times, rabbinic authorities like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein have used these discussions to support the right to organize for better wages and benefits.

For all these reasons, an emerging Jewish social justice movement has embraced the struggle for economic justice as one of the most important Jewish issues of our time. In cities across the country, new organizations are educating community members about the Jewish imperative to strive for economic justice, to organize the Jewish community to stand with low-wage workers and to recognize that the struggles of the working poor to stay afloat in the economy of 21st-century America are our struggles too. Here in Los Angeles, this work has also led to a warm partnership between progressive Jews and a rising, largely Hispanic labor movement whose efforts recall the struggles of our forebears.

While most mainstream, long-established Jewish communal organizations and institutions remain focused on a much narrower notion of what constitutes Jewish community interest, some recognize that economic justice was and is a deeply Jewish issue. The most important of these is the Forward.

It may not be printed in red ink these days, but the Forward continues to insist that the fates of the United States, the American labor movement and the Jewish community are intertwined, even if the reasons for this are different today than they were 110 years ago. This was evident in the Forward’s early recognition that a new generation of Jewish social justice organizations was once again connecting American Jews to labor issues, and that these organizations mattered.

At the dawn of the 21st century, American Jews once again have a role to play in the struggles of working people in our cities. May the Forward continue to help us talk about that for another 110 years.

Daniel Sokatch is executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

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