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

Author:Ribak, Gil

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." (4) Szajkowski has written that his "sole purpose is to prove" that "the role of American Jews in radical movements was far too often exaggerated by historians and sociologists." He has lamented that "the voice of anti-radical Jews was too often ignored," and hardly anyone knows that "over 30,000 Jewish immigrant families during World War I, bought over $10,000,000 worth of Liberty Bonds and Saving Stamps." (5)

While both arguments have much merit, this article offers a more nuanced understanding of the 1917 mayoral campaign. It demonstrates that a net of international meanings shaped many Jewish immigrants' opposition to the war: for example, the fear of the draft was transplanted from Russia into America, coupled with the anxiety that the United States would start to resemble Tsarist Russia. The peak of the SP's electoral achievement among Jewish voters in 1917 was for the most part derived from the party's strong anti-war position. Both the Socialists (including Hillquit himself) and their opponents acknowledged that the campaign focused more on the war and the ensuing draft, and less on socioeconomic issues, and ran their campaigns accordingly.

Beside Hillquit, the campaign of 1917 featured three major candidates. Incumbent John Purroy Mitchel, an independent reformer who had been elected on a Fusion ticket in 1913, made support of the war and "Americanism" a keystone of his campaign. Judge John F. Hylan, a Brooklyn machine Democrat, ran a populist campaign, but was considered by many to be a stooge not only for Tammany Hall, but also for William Randolph Hearst. Hylan remained mostly silent about the war, and eventually won the election. Finally, the Republican candidate was former State Senator William M. Bennett, who had surprisingly wrested the GOP nomination from Mitchel, but had little effect on the race and came in last. Mitchel's divisive message, which bordered on nativism, caused many immigrants and second-generation ethnic voters to recoil from supporting him. (6)

The Socialist candidate, Morris Hillquit, was born Moyshe Hilkovitch in 1869 in the Baltic port city of Riga. While Riga was part of Tsarist Russia at the time, Hillquit recalled that "culturally, linguistically, and even architecturally, it was a typical German city." Hillquit's parents were middle-class, German-speaking factory owners and fairly assimilated Jews, who educated their children in the spirit of German Kultur. Hillquit's native language was German, and it was only because the German-language gymnasium in Riga had filled its Jewish quota that his parents sent the young Hillquit to a Russian-language gymnasium. Later in life Hillquit wrote, "Germany was closer to me in spirit, culture, and temperament," though he grew up "a bilingual and cosmopolitan." (7)

Like many young Jewish students in Russia, Hillquit was drawn to radical circles with their messianic promise of universal emancipation and social integration, as well as toppling the oppressive Tsarist regime. He became a socialist as early as his gymnasium years. After losing his factory in 1884, Hillquit's father decided to immigrate to New York with his eldest son, and in 1886 Morris, his mother, and siblings joined them, living in poverty on the Lower East Side. In a trajectory that resembled many of his fellow Jewish radicals, Hillquit initially worked in the burgeoning garment industry and learned English. Like many Jewish immigrants, Hillquit Anglicized his name. Unlike most, he acquired a higher education, graduating from law school and establishing a successful law firm. Hillquit joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) at the age of twenty (1889), but deep disagreement with the SLP leader, Daniel De Leon--whom Hillquit termed "a fanatic"--led him to split from it in 1899. In 1901 Hillquit would be one of the cofounders of the new Socialist Party (SP). (8)

World War I was at the fore of the 1917 mayoralty campaign. When the Great War broke out in Europe, the bulk of Jewish immigrants in New York supported the Germans and Austrians (the Central Powers). Jewish immigrants from the Habsburg Empire (particularly Hungary, Galicia, and Bukovina) were typically enthusiastic Austrian patriots, and especially admired Emperor Franz Joseph, whom they considered the protector of Jews. The hostility of Jewish immigrants was not directed at most Allied Powers (the "Entente," meaning Britain and France, and later Italy) as such, but rather at their ally, the hated Tsarist regime. Jews hailing from the Pale of Settlement could hardly forget the harassment, anti-Jewish decrees, university quotas, pogroms, the recent Beilis blood libel (1911-1913), and the animosity of the Russian government. More importantly, the onset of war was followed almost immediately by shocking reports in the Yiddish press about the atrocities committed by Tsar Nicholas's soldiers: scorched-earth withdrawals, kidnappings, looting, torture, rape, and sadistic savagery. Furthermore, the Russian military initiated a series of massive expulsions of hundreds of thousands of Jews from their homes in the western regions of the Pale of Settlement, ordering them to leave their homes, often at no more than twelve-hour notice. The ominous newspaper reports from Europe were filled with the names of sbtetlekb and cities from which many immigrants had come, and suffering was the lot of many Jewish immigrants' parents, siblings, and offspring. (9)

Yet after the Tsarist regime was toppled in March 1917, and as America entered the war in April 1917 and began full-scale conscription, the mood shifted. By the spring and summer months of 1917 the question of loyalty and patriotism became ever more acute for American Jews, and the rift between supporters and opponents of war became the deepest schism within New York Jewry. The patrician American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Americanized middle class, most...

To continue reading