Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel PDF by Adam M. Howard


Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel
by Adam M. Howard

Sewing the Fabric of Statehood_ Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel


Acknowledgments ix
Introduction 1
1 Origins of the Jewish Labor Movement 6
2 Building a Nation 24
3 From Homeland to Statehood 50
4 Beyond the Water’s Edge 80
5 Recognition and Beyond 94
Epilogue 108
Notes 115
References 141
Index 149

Between 1917 and 1948, the American labor movement played a fundamental role in the development and establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. U.S. labor organizations were not alone in this endeavor, as they operated within a larger international movement to accomplish this goal, but their unique combination of political and financial assets provided crucial resources for the building blocks of a Jewish state. A conglomerate of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) deserves various degrees of credit for the evolution of a Jewish national enterprise in the decades preceding Israel’s establishment in 1948, but U.S. labor organizations played a previously unheralded part in this remarkable example of NGOs operating both transnationally and domestically. Motivated by a desire to bolster a fellow labor movement in Palestine and provide a safe haven for persecuted European Jews, these labor organizations bypassed states and used their own resources over a thirty-year period to aid in the creation of a new country.

As both individuals and leaders of some of the most powerful NGOs in the world, U.S. trade unionists employed a two-pronged strategy in their approach to aiding the Jewish national enterprise. First, they maneuvered beyond the confines of national governments by contributing financial and material assistance to Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine. More than just a labor movement in the conventional sense, Histadrut operated on many fronts, including the Jewish settlement of Palestine and providing defense, housing, health, education, banking, and culture. This made it a cornerstone of Jewish society in Palestine before and after the establishment of statehood. Second, American labor employed its political influence in the United States and around the world to persuade government officials to support the Jewish cause in Palestine. During the early 1900s, the impetus for this dual strategy began provincially with a group of socialist Zionists known collectively as Labor Zionists. Their commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine, built on the foundation of a strong labor movement, inspired a marginal but active group of Jewish workers based primarily in the U.S. garment industry. By the 1920s, they joined with non-Zionist trade unionists in the garment industry to expand this activity to the entire American labor movement.1

On a transnational level, American labor’s assistance played a critical role in building the foundations for a Jewish state. Within the U.S. political milieu, American labor’s attempts to influence U.S. policy making before 1948 had little impact, but a cadre of its leadership heading the New York State Liberal Party had a significant influence on the Truman administration’s decision to recognize Israel in 1948.

During the early twentieth century, U.S. labor organizations had evolved into some of the most powerful NGOs in the world. Within the United States, they influenced the electoral process through their millions of voting members, possessed large financial resources, maintained relationships with elected officials from both political parties, and enjoyed connections with media outlets (even owning some themselves).2 Internationally, they maintained relationships with various trade unions and could provide financial assistance to those groups that shared their vision for a global trade union movement. With these assets, the American labor movement influenced politics in the United States and abroad, making U.S. labor organizations and their leaders ideal candidates for study as national and international actors on the global stage.

A few scholars have illuminated the remarkable impact twentieth-century American labor has made as a transnational force. During the 1970s, scholars such as Roy Godson recognized U.S. labor’s significant role as a transnational actor in European politics.3 In the 1980s, Steve Fraser showed how the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) used the Russian-American Industrial Corporation to help in modernizing and operating textile factories in Moscow and Petrograd.4 Additionally, several studies have illustrated the corporatist role American labor has played with the U.S. government whereby government, big business, and organized labor work for the same goals to advance a similar agenda. For example, Marcel van der Linden and Robert W. Cox contended that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) collaborated with the U.S. government and big business beginning in 1898, commencing a decades-long corporatist operation in countries around the world.5 Ronald Filippelli and Federico Romero examined how U.S. labor or ganizations worked with the U.S. government in developing anticommunist, pro-market trade unions modeled after the AFL image during the 1940s and 1950s.6 Several studies have also focused attention on the AFL’s relationship with the CIA.7 Robert Anthony Waters Jr. and Geert Van Goethem’s edited collection American Labor’s Global Ambassadors from 2013 includes examples of American labor’s activism during the Cold War and its transnational role, as well as its corporatist role working with the U.S. government, especially the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (AFL-CIO’s) relationship with the CIA.8

This study expands beyond these areas though, demonstrating how American labor leaders and their organizations operated outside the boundaries of national governments in aiding the development of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1938, Max Zaritsky, president of the United Hatters, Cap, and Millinery Workers’ International Union (UHCMWIU), summed up this perspective: “We cannot look to governments for this. . . . It is a task that we must undertake as private citizens.”9

Concurrently, this project also explores the roles of NGOs on U.S. domestic politics. Historians and political scientists have placed increasing weight on the influence of domestic factors in the creation of foreign policy. Since about 1980, political scientists such as Barry Hughes and historians including Robert Dallek and Melvin Small have argued for more analysis of how domestic factors and interest groups influence policy-making decisions.10 Most scholarship relating to U.S. foreign policy and the decisions made by policy makers has traditionally focused on material interests and national security.

However, this study demonstrates the important role domestic politics have played in the U.S. electoral process and specifically how NGOs operate within that electoral environment. Nongovernmental organizations typically possess important resources for influencing international affairs and also for affecting domestic politics. Since the turn of the millennium, historians such as Akira Iriye and Mark Lytle have noted the significant role NGOs play within electorates and the policy-making apparatus of governments, as well as their transnational impact on world affairs. Although few scholars have definitively explained what classifies an NGO, Iriye and Lytle include religious, educational, and professional associations, as well as industrial trade groups in a definition commonly accepted among scholars.11 Of all the groups defined as NGOs, few enjoyed as much influence within the United States and abroad as U.S. labor organizations. They had the ability to influence electoral politics and therefore, U.S. policies, while also performing a role in building other nations. Notably, American labor’s support for Histadrut continued the development of a state apparatus capable of governing itself without British assistance through the Mandate system, which assigned Britain a mandate for administrating Palestine under article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations.12

The influence of these labor organizations also played out internationally. After the British Labour Party’s 1945 electoral victory, most American labor leaders held high hopes for the implementation of a pro-Jewish Palestine policy and looked forward to working with British officials in improving the situation in Palestine. Bitter disappointment followed, however, when the Labour Party maintained most of the previous conservative government’s policies toward Palestine. This led to strong attacks from American labor leaders between 1945 and 1947 against the Labour Party government. Throughout this effort and others, U.S. labor, as a collection of trade unions and associations, acted both as an international and domestic force in the development of a Jewish state in Palestine and U.S. recognition of Israel in 1948. Accordingly, this book reveals how American labor played a significant part within an international movement seeking to develop Jewish settlements in Palestine and collectively influence governments, specifically the U.S. and U.K. governments, to support and recognize a Jewish state in Palestine. In attaining these goals, American labor sometimes coordinated activities with Zionist NGOs, but at other times operated independently. American labor’s support of Jewish activity in Palestine centered around Histadrut’s development, which fit its goal of bolstering fellow labor movements around the world. As David Dubinsky, president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU), stated in 1956, “we recognized that the American labor movement had an obligation to be part of the international labor movement.” 13 Most American labor leaders never considered themselves Zionists, but they saw in Histadrut a progressive labor organization that shared its global vision of an international labor movement. Therefore, Histadrut was worthy of substantial support.

With its founding in 1920, Histadrut quickly established itself as an innovative force in Jewish Palestinian society. It engaged in every part of life there, including housing, manufacturing, government leadership, and military defense. This large and dynamic agenda first captured the imagination of the Jewish labor movement in the United States and later, a majority of the American labor movement. Since Histadrut played such a significant role in the development of Jewish settlements, infrastructure, and government in Palestine, American labor’s support for Histadrut’s agenda made them partners in the national Jewish enterprise. American labor leaders had other reasons to place aid for Histadrut high on their agenda. For one thing, many of them believed it essential to find a haven for persecuted European Jews.


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