Jews and Labor


Published April 22, 2009, issue of May 01, 2009.
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The men and women who founded the Jewish Daily Forward 112 years ago believed they were creating a newspaper for the Yiddish-speaking workers of the New World. Their devotion to furthering the cause of unionized labor wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. When the Forward needed money in its early years, unions contributed to its coffers, and later, when the newspaper became the nation’s most popular (and profitable) Yiddish daily, the favor was returned, and donations were made to strike funds and socialist organizations.

For a newspaper today to be so openly identified with a movement seems to violate journalistic ethics. Imagine how readers now would react to “Workers of the World Unite!” on the masthead! The Forward was an advocate for the rights of all working people, and, in particular, for Jewish workers. Legendary editor Abraham Cahan “possessed an unshakable commitment to the Jewish working class,” in the words of historian Tony Michels.

But if Jews are no longer tailors and shirt makers, they are still uniquely identified with the story of labor in America. As our Nathaniel Popper explores in his series, “Working Legacy: Jews and the Labor Movement,” the business of labor is still our business. We are among those who strive to lead the labor movement out of its historic decline, as well as those who are — sometimes literally — on the other side of the picket line.

And while the Forward of today won’t be contributing to a strike fund, the underlying civic values of this newspaper’s founders remain as potent as ever. In Cahan’s day, supporting workers rights was, at heart, about supporting an America that honored the dignity of work and the humanity of each citizen, regardless of religion, status or wealth. Those are values that guide the work of Cahan’s successors, still.

They are, essentially, Jewish values. In her new book “There Shall Be No Needy,” Rabbi Jill Jacobs details the myriad ways in which Jewish law and teaching emphasize the dignity of work and concern for the worker. “Do not oppress the hired laborer who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your people or one of the sojourners in your land within your gates,” Deuteronomy instructs. The tradition goes on from there, in a midrash that understands the ways in which employers exert power over employees, to a section of Gemara that hints at a collective bargaining process. Rabbi Chaim David HaLevy, a 20th-century Israeli rabbi, is quoted: “In the Jewish worldview, work is sacred — it is building and creating and is a partnership with God in the work of creation.”

Now, it’s unlikely that the secular socialists of Cahan’s day would have embraced all this God talk. But there is a common thread between the rabbis who insisted through the centuries on the dignity and honor of the worker and those who insist on that dignity and honor today. That doesn’t necessarily translate into supporting any or all union policies and behaviors — there’s plenty to criticize in the tactics employed by Big Labor and real concern that outdated attitudes are hampering American industry from growing and changing to meet tomorrow’s global demands.

Jewish tradition acknowledges that these relationships will always be difficult, that power will never be evenly divided, that workers will often struggle, and, implicitly, that a countervailing force to the unbridled power of the market is necessary to ensure a more just society. True then, true now.

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