Academic journal article American Jewish History

"For Peace, Not Socialism": The 1917 Mayoralty Campaign in New York City and Immigrant Jews in a Global Perspective

Academic journal article American Jewish History

"For Peace, Not Socialism": The 1917 Mayoralty Campaign in New York City and Immigrant Jews in a Global Perspective

Article excerpt

As New York City's mayoral campaign was reaching its final stage in early November 1917, a Jewish reader by the name of John D. Nussbaum wrote to the New York Tribune: "The East Side Jews will vote for Mr. Hillquit [the anti-war socialist candidate] not because they have been converted to Socialism ... but simply as a protest against the old parties, whom they hold responsible for our entry into the world war. The Jews are primarily a peace-loving people. They simply detest war." Expressing a similar view in the same week in an open letter titled "For Peace, Not Socialism," Zionist leader Louis Lipsky explained the anxieties of immigrant Jews. He delineated the horrors of conscription to the Tsarist military and added, "It is because they fear that conscription means in this country exactly what it meant in Russia that they so vehemently oppose the draft." Socialist Yiddish journalist and historian Melech Epstein remarked later that the Socialists' battle cry was, "A Vote for Hillquit is a Vote to stop the War." But, "unfortunately, many Jewish people, in their eagerness for a speedy end to the war, were unduly credulous of the Socialist campaign assertion." (1)

Nussbaum, Lipsky, and Epstein's claims sound almost counterintuitive: the mayoralty campaign of 1917 signaled the high-water mark of the Socialist Party's (SP) electoral achievement, and perhaps nowhere was that success more evident than in New York, where ten state assemblymen, seven city aldermen and one municipal judge were elected on the Socialist ticket. Of those eighteen, sixteen were Jews of Eastern European descent. The SP mayoral candidate, Morris Hillquit, garnered 145,332 votes, an almost five-fold increase in the vote compared to the previous Socialist candidate for mayor. (2)

As Nussbaum, Lipsky, Epstein, many of their contemporaries, and other sources noted, most of the support for Morris Hillquit and other socialist candidates had much less to do with socialism than with those candidates' explicit anti-war stance. The fact that the vote had little to do with socialism per se was evident in the SP's substantially lower voting records in New York before and after 1917. It was also apparent in the pro-war position of many Jewish socialists, who formed the Jewish Socialist League (JSL), while Hillquit received the backing of some immigrant Orthodox Jews, who normally shunned the socialists. At the same time, whereas many American Jews indeed supported the war, large numbers of Jewish opponents of war remained after the U.S. entered the war as well, especially among the immigrants in New York City. Furthermore, the Jewish vote for the SP was a protest against pro-war Jewish leaders, whom the voters viewed as servile and timid, as opposed to anti-war Jewish socialists, who stood up for Jewish interests against militarism and nativism.

The mayoral campaign in NYC in 1917 has been analyzed by historians who have produced different interpretations about the role socialism played among Jewish immigrants during that time. They also come to different conclusions about the significance of the Socialist Party's electoral successes in that same period. Scholars who have emphasized the successes of socialism among Jewish immigrants, such as Melvyn Dubofsky, Irving Howe and Tony Michels, have seen the mayoral campaign and the SP's other electoral successes in 1917 as the peak of Jewish support for socialism. That argument sees 1917 as a quintessential moment that reflected, in Howe's words, "one last and overwhelming upsurge of immigrant Jewish socialism." (3)

Other scholars, such as Zosa Szajkowski and Beth Wenger, have stressed a different aspect altogether. Exhibiting an approach that highlights Jewish contributions to America, they underline Jewish patriotism and support for the war. Wenger has asserted, "As long as the United States maintained a policy of neutrality toward the war, Jews aired their differing opinions in dueling speeches and in the press, but once America entered the conflict, even most of the strident opponents conceded the issue. …

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