Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/February 1903/Recent Jewish Immigration to the United States

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1413592Popular Science Monthly Volume 62 February 1903 — Recent Jewish Immigration to the United States1903Roger Mitchell




FROM a stretch of territory of irregular breadth, and extending from the Baltic Sea to the Levant, there are now coming here in considerable numbers as immigrants a people of unmistakable identity of origin and differentiated from the other inhabitants of the districts whence they come not only by physical appearance, but by the possession of distinctive customs, traits of character and a language of their own. Even though the purity of their blood may be questioned, they stand as the modern representatives of one branch of the ancient Hebrew race. Their language is composite like English, and also like English it has a Germanic basis whose old inflections have been largely lost and to which words and suffixes of other origin, mainly Hebrew and Polish, have been added. This language is invariably expressed in Hebrew characters and read from right to left. Although occasionally efforts are made in certain quarters to disparage its claims to independent recognition, it is to be noted that it has served since ancient times as the medium of a literature, both meritorious and extensive, and is spoken whether in Riga or Constantinople with as little variation as may be found in the case of spoken English within the limits of the United States. In this language, solely by their own efforts, those who use it have lowered the illiteracy among the immigrant class to twenty per cent, while their Slavic neighbors, in spite of some public provision for instruction, show an illiteracy of about forty per cent.

All the people of whom Yiddish is the mother tongue are given special recognition in our Immigration Bureau's classification of arriving immigrants under the term 'Hebrews.' The people thus designated do not constitute the only branch of the Hebrew race in the region above mentioned, nor is Yiddish the mother-tongue of them all, but where the modern Hebrew fails to show this distinctive tongue and has become so merged with the nation in which he lives as to be indistinguishable except by pedigree or religious creed, he is classified with the immigrants of the nationality he has assumed.

By thus removing this one element of so distinctly a national character, not only is a means furnished for differentiating the other national elements included within the same territorial limits, but there is also brought out in stronger relief a racial migration of essentially modern character, due to exceptional influences and one that will go down in history as among the most important in the annals of the Hebrew race.

Jews have been represented among the arrivals to this country since early colonial times. They appeared in considerable numbers as an accompaniment and sequel of our German immigration and were then derived largely from the German Polish provinces, but now the Jewish as well as the Polish immigration from these provinces has practically ceased. The Hungarian Jewish immigrant has likewise disappeared.

The immigration of the Yiddish-speaking Hebrew in the shape of an extensive exodus dates back scarcely twenty years, during which time probably not far from a million have come to this country from the Russian Empire, Galicia and Roumania, not as returning travelers or temporary sojourners, but for the most part as a new and permanent increment to our population.

An important factor in the causation of this movement is to be found in the acute phase which anti-Jewish feeling had assumed in eastern Europe twenty years ago. About 1880 widespread outbreaks of popular fury against the Jews were occurring in Russia. These disorders were followed by attempts on the part of the Russian government to enforce existing though neglected laws relative to the privileges of these people within the empire and to devise new measures for allaying popular clamor and complaint.

The unexaggerated accounts of the violence, robbery and brutality to which the Jews were being subjected by the Russian populace, the tenor of the Russian laws and the harshness with which they were enforced attracted foreign attention to the unfortunate condition of these people and opened to them a refuge in more western countries where the Jew had not been unfavorably known or where, by a similar violent process, he had been eliminated as an important economic factor centuries before.

Exceptional obstacles stood in the way of their emigration. Advance toward the east was forbidden by Russia and the police laws of the continental countries toward the west made a permanent refuge in this direction out of the question. The class to whom emigration would appeal lacked the resources for joining in distant colonial movements as the Germans and Scandinavians had done, and, unlike the Italians, Slovaks and Poles, these Jews were unprepared to supply the sort of labor for which a demand existed in other lands.

Foreign sympathy and organized charitable aid furnished the chief means of overcoming their inertia and starting the stream of migration to England and America. Prominently associated with the earlier aspect of this movement was a Jewish Colonization Association, which had at its disposal a fund of $50,000,000, a donation of the late Baron de Hirsch, but so far as the United States is concerned the new arrivals found in various vocations a sufficient degree of success to establish the immigration on a prepaid ticket basis on which it still continues.

The disabilities imposed upon the Jews in eastern Europe and the events associated with the Russian emigration are wont to be referred to as religious persecution. Tales of the use of the blood of christian children in religious rites and of stolen holy wafers punctured with a knife give a decidedly religious aspect to certain local outbreaks of violence. But the Russian church and the Russian people lack the proselyting spirit so characteristic of western people of whatever faith. While intolerant of dissenting sects from his own church 'because they invent their religions out of their own heads,' the Russian is inclined to respect the diverse religions of alien races as 'received from God.' Neither the Lutheran German nor the Mohammedan Tartar complains of religious persecution. In the case of the Jews, however, the matter of religious faith serves in Russia, Austria and Roumania as it has served in other lands to intensify a deep-seated feeling of popular resentment toward a race alien in speech and customs and closely identified with economic conditions that are commonly regarded as prejudicial to the common good; and it is not in the mere chronicle of clerical invective, political discrimination, violence and murder that the cause of this immigration and the explanation of its character are to be found, but in the economic history of a land where for centuries society was divisible into three classes, nobles, Jews and peasants.

Jews are known to have existed in Hungary and Roumania since Roman times, and within the present limits of Russia at a date almost as remote. But those emigrating to-day owe their presence there to much later migrations, both voluntary and involuntary, from more western Europe to Polish territory. Whenever the political condition of the western states of Medieval Europe became somewhat stable the expulsion of the Jews was almost sure to follow, and the refugees always tended eastward, finding more favorable conditions in those states whose political turmoil and continual squabbles gave little time for the consideration of internal affairs.

Poland offered such favorable conditions long after more western Europe had quieted down. Here the ancient Jewish element was obscured by continual Jewish immigration from the west, of which the wholesale migration from Bohemia near the close of the eleventh century furnishes the first notable example. Later in the fourteenth century this movement was further stimulated by the historical privileges secured for the Jews through the influence of Esther of Opoeno, the Jewess favorite of Kasimir the Great. It is here also that the conception of the civil status of the Jew under Medieval Roman law received its fullest development, determining in a great measure the part which the Jew has played in the economic history of eastern Europe and still surviving as an important factor in the Jewish problem there to-day.

In the Germanic Roman Empire of the middle ages civil rights in a christian state were only for the orthodox Christian. An infidel or a heretic was an anomaly that was not supposed to exist. But, owing to their connection with the Roman empire and the relation of their faith to Christianity, the Jews and the Jewish worship received special recognition and were tolerated within certain prescribed limits. In theory the Jews were regarded as being under the personal protection of the king, who accorded them their privileges by virtue of his being the legitimate successor and representative of the Emperor Titus.

In accordance with this status the Jews spread over the Polish kingdom as an alien nation, having a complete organization, a central authority, a system of jurisprudence and a language of their own, owing but a qualified allegiance to Poland and receiving their privileges and the laws determining their relations with the Polish people through bargains with the Polish king.

Moreover, as individuals they brought into eastern Europe, among a people not yet emerged from barbarism, intellects sharpened by centuries of mental training, habits and customs which had stood the test of two thousand years of civilization, and arts for which their race has been famous since the days of Jacob. Tales of their persecution, mingled with the clamoring and complaints of the Poles, are early in evidence. It is needless to undertake a recital of the results that have followed, for they have been no different from what might be imagined and, though superficially the story is one of racial prejudice and religious persecution, the underlying economic problem is always discernible.

In the meantime the Jews have shared the political vicissitudes of the Polish and Lithuanian kingdom, their ancient civil status has been modified, their former privileges abridged or readjusted and repeated attempts have been made to limit their opportunities for coming into competition with the thriftless slow-witted Slav; yet at the end of the nineteenth century we find the Russian government still claiming that the Jews prosper, like our trusts, to the detriment of the country, and that also, like our trusts, they can not be made amenable to existing laws. An imperial circular directed to local officials after the disorders of 1882 reads as follows:

The proceedings at the trial of those charged with rioting and other evidences bear witness to the fact that the main cause of those movements and riots, to which the Russians as a nation are strangers, was but a commercial one, and is as follows:

During the last twenty years the Jews have gradually possessed themselves of not only every trade and business in all its branches, but also of a great part of the land by buying and farming it. With few exceptions they have as a body devoted their attention, not to enriching or benefiting the country, but to defrauding by their wiles its inhabitants, and particularly its poor people. This conduct of theirs has called forth protests on the part of the people, as manifested in acts of violence and robbery. The government, while, on the one hand doing its best to put down the disturbances and to deliver the Jews from oppression and slaughter, have also, on the other hand, thought it a matter of urgency and justice to adopt stringent measures in order to put an end to the oppression practised by the Jews and to free the country from their malpractices which were, as is shown, the cause of the agitation. With this in view, it has appointed a commission (in all towns inhabited by Jews) whose duty it is to inquire into the following matters:

I. What are the trades of the Jews injurious to the inhabitants of the place?

II. What makes it impracticable to put into force the former laws limiting the rights of the Jews in the matter of buying and farming land, the trade in intoxicants and usury?

III. How can these laws be altered so that they shall no longer be enabled to evade them, or what new laws are required to stop their pernicious conduct in business?

Give additional information on:

(a) Usury practised by Jews in their dealings.

(b) Number of public houses kept by Jews in their own names or in that of a Christian.

(c) Number of persons in service with Jews or under their control.

(d) The extent (acreage) of the land in their possession by buying or farming.

(e) Number of Jewish agriculturists.

Each line of inquiry directed therein had reference to some condition which had been a specific source of trouble. To take one instance which concerned the matter of land tenure, one of the most perplexing problems with which Russia, with its agricultural population, is called on to deal. The fondness of the Pole and Russian for drink served to make the liquor business particularly lucrative, and the Jewish liquor dealer utilized it as a means of involving the peasant in debt, and of finally securing from him the possession of his property rights; and where there was an annual assignment of communal lands the dealer with an eye to his own income saw that his best customers got the most productive parcels.

From old Poland the Jews spread north, east and south. In 1880 they were found to have penetrated the prohibited Russian territory to the east. In southern Russia they have added another failure to the efforts of their race to succeed as agriculturists. A considerable migration found its way to Roumania, and to a lesser extent to the Turkish empire. Since the western migration began numbers have gone into Palestine, though not always to remain, and the resources of the Baron de Hirsch fund have been used liberally in efforts to encourage and sustain a migration to South America, but to judge from the reports of the colonists who may be found coming to the United States by every South American ship, the movement has not yet proved a success.

The migration to Roumania went to increase an existing and practically Roumanized Jewish population of Spagnuoli and more ancient Hebrew stock and served to revive troubles that were believed to be past. At the bottom of the present anti-Jewish agitation in Roumania is an economic problem similar to that in Russia, likewise aggravated by a more or less improvident and shiftless indigenous population, but made still worse by the fact that the bearing of the Jew on the economic ills of the country has become a sort of political issue. Complicating the situation are also certain other elements entirely wanting in Russia.

Roumanian territory in the past has constituted a barrier to westward advance of the Mohammedan Turk, and the keynote of its history is resistance to racial religious aggression. As a dependency of Turkey the treaties and conventions which have determined its autonomy have repeatedly emphasized and affirmed a principle of religious inequality, the propriety of withholding full civil rights from a person of non-christian faith and of making a distinction between nationality and citizenship.

When, therefore, the powers in 1878 recognized the independence of Roumania, they overturned all local precedents in prescribing the principle of religious equality within the new kingdom. Subsequent events proved unfavorable to the popular reception of such a revolutionary idea. Stimulated by anti-Jewish agitation in adjoining foreign countries, an abnormal Jewish immigration poured into Roumania, and the alarm and resentment which this movement caused has been intensified by the new national spirit which independence has awakened among the Roumanians themselves.

Still regarded in accordance with old ideas as aliens whose rights were largely a matter for legislative action, the Jews have been deprived even of privileges which they formerly enjoyed, as have German settlers, Italian workmen, and other foreigners as well.

But to pass from the antecedents of our Jewish immigrants to the immigrants themselves. Except to some extent from portions of Austria and Roumania, they present little evidence of a state of prosperity that would be believed to be sufficient to excite the envy of the Slavic or Roumanian peasant. In general appearance and demeanor, as well as in the degree of their physical deterioration, they are in the main what might be expected from their civil status and immediate environment in the particular locality whence they come. But, in spite of an unprepossessing exterior and apparent contentment in squalid surroundings, the consciousness and pride of belonging to a superior race is always active and personal ambition is seldom extinct. They and their children have given abundant evidence of the qualities which have won distinction for their race in so many fields. Among them may be found the same active and well-balanced minds and the same tendency to concentration of energy for the accomplishment of the task on hand. They have a nervous make-up that is not easily susceptible to the formation of habits of body or thought, and it would often appear that their mental processes were not of the western order, but, after all, the Hebrew is only a more or less modified Oriental still.

So also they seem to possess to a high degree the power of divesting from the bias of prejudice or self-gratification the conclusions by which a course of action is governed, and to be less inclined than western people to be influenced by precedent or convention in making use of visible means for reaching a desired end. Like the southern Italians, they have a reputation for parsimony, but whereas the Italian in stinting himself and his family feels satisfaction in the thought that he has added an infinitesimal amount to the fund that will lead to the accomplishment of some indefinite future object, the Russian Jew only looks on the increments to his assets, like an athlete's medals, as evidence of contests that have been won and as an incentive, not to further efforts to save, but to increase his capacity to gain. To carry the contrast still further, the Hebrew immigrant in the most unaccustomed and bewildering surroundings never abandons his efforts to think for himself, and if compelled to rely upon guidance he will be as likely to repose a limited amount of confidence in a gentile stranger as in an unknown Jew. Instead of settling personal differences 'out of court' like the Italian, he is constantly in litigation, for he can not resist the temptation to utilize the obvious imperfections of our system of jurisprudence as a means of serving some personal end.

By far the majority of these immigrants have prospered. While still represented in the vocations with which they are commonly associated in the public mind, and still exhibiting a predilection for commercial life, they or their children are also to be found in nearly every trade and profession, and are coming into increasing prominence in connection with those positions in the public service which are open to competitive examinations.

This immigration has also another side. The fact that it has been stimulated by pressure from behind rather than a demand in the industrial market here has tended not only to make it possible for the movement to override or evade our immigration laws but also to get beyond the control of the philanthropic organizations which have the best interests of the immigrants at heart.

The tendency of Hebrews to prosper diminishes as they congregate together, and, quite apart from the matter of civil disabilities, there is a proportion above which they are unable to thrive in any given city or town. These conditions have already been realized in certain localities here, and philanthropic effort which was once concerned principally in inducing emigration from unfavorable surroundings in Europe is now attempting to prevent and relieve the equally serious evils of congestion in localities to which it is tending. With reference to the situation in New York city the 27th Annual Report of the United Hebrew Charities (October, 1901) makes the statement 'that a condition of chronic poverty is developing in the Jewish community of New York that is appalling in its immensity.' It goes on to state that, of the applicants to that society for assistance during the year, 45 per cent., 'representing between 20,000 and 25,000 human beings, have been in the United States over five years; have been given the opportunities for economic and industrial improvement which this country affords, yet notwithstanding all this, have not managed to reach a position of economic independence.' It, furthermore, makes the estimate that 'from 75,000 to 100,000 members of the New York Jewish community are unable to supply themselves with the immediate necessaries of life, and who for this reason are dependent, in some form or other, upon the public purse.'

To a degree wholly unlooked for among Jews, the above-mentioned phase of the present Hebrew immigration is accompanied by a moral degradation which has, to some extent, been made familiar through recent events in local municipal politics.

As the report of the society above referred to stated in 1898, 'those who are familiar with the crowded section on the lower east side know that vices are beginning to spring up which heretofore have been strangers to the Jewish people.' Referring to the same conditions, it is asserted in the report for 1901 that 'the vice and crime, the irreligiousness, lack of self-restraint, indifference to social conventions, indulgence in the most degraded and perverted appetites are growing daily more pronounced and more offensive.'

There would seem to be a disposition to regard such moral deterioration as the result of the prevalent squalor and overcrowding, but it is to be noted that the conditions in which these people live in New York at the present day are superior to those to which most of the immigrants were accustomed before they came, and are much better than those which they find in our other large cities or in London. The squalor and overcrowding, though conspicuous because of the extent of the 'Ghetto,' is much less pronounced than in the Italian, Syrian or Greek quarters, and the household régime of the poorest Jews gains by comparison with the family life of other foreigners in the tenement districts.

Moral deterioration may be pointed out in the case of every foreign element that has come to this country, just as it may be among the country-bred youth of our own population who feel in new abodes loss of personal identity and exemption from former moral restraints. In the case of foreigners there is added also a loss of parental control through the greater facility with which children identify themselves with the language and customs of the new environment and by what passes for the process of 'becoming Americanized,' the younger Jews come to look with indifference and even contempt upon the precepts which have safeguarded their race through a troublous past.

After all, when it is considered that the Jews have been estimated as constituting one fourth of the population of Manhattan, it may be questioned whether evidence of moral degradation may not have attracted attention because it was unexpected rather than because it is unproportionally prevalent.

In a great measure the poverty to be found in the 'Ghetto' is due to disease or lack of physical strength. Jewish immigrants of a military age who could pass our army requirements for recruits are comparatively rare, while few of their fellow immigrants, the Poles, would fail to pass such a test. Among the Jews also, senile decay is pronounced at an age when the German, Englishman or Scandinavian is still in his physical and mental prime. Chronic disease is much more prevalent among the Hebrew than among the Slavic immigrants, and common among the former are diseases rarely if ever seen in the case of the latter. The mental standard of the Jewish immigration fails to offset its physical inferiority when brought into active competition with other elements of our cosmopolitan population. Physical breakdown comes sooner or later and the ravages of tuberculosis are in evidence to an extent that is quite at variance with old notions of racial insusceptibility to this disease. This state of affairs is further aggravated by the favorable expectation of life for the Jew, something quite distinct from the matter of health or capacity for work. Temperate habits and the religious factor in the conduct of ordinary matters of diet and life, as well as their absence from hazardous occupations, contribute to this result. An apparent longevity also results from the fact that infant mortality among them is exceedingly low. The centuries through which these people have been associated with the worst phases of civilized life have undoubtedly led to an inherited ability on the part of the children to exist in unfavorable surroundings and an increased power of resistance to certain diseases, but it is also to be noted that in the humblest Jewish household the first symptoms of acute illness will not be overlooked nor neglected, and that the sick child will receive the best available professional attention, together with such a degree of unremitting care and attention on the part of the family, as can seldom be realized among Gentiles of the same station in life.