The Jewish Socialist Federation (JSF) was a secular Jewish Yiddish-oriented organization founded in 1912 which acted as a language federation in the Socialist Party of America (SPA). Many of the founding members of the JSF had previously been members of the Bund in Eastern Europe and sought to bring Bundist politics to the socialist movement in the USA.
The JSF split in 1921 over the question of the Bolshevik Revolution, with the organization disaffiliating from the SPA and a minority splitting to form a new organization called the Jewish Socialist Verband (JSV) and remaining affiliated to the SPA. The newly independent JSF soon joined the Workers Party of America (legal arm of the underground Communist Party of America) and merged into a previously-existing Jewish Communist Federation of that organization.
There were quantitative reasons for this date of origin. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by a bomb on March 13, 1881, and ushered in a wave of official and popular antisemitic violence known as pogroms in which individuals were killed, cultural institutions sacked, and property destroyed. The reaction raged at its most extreme in the years 1881 and 1882, during which there were scores of violent events throughout the southern and western regions of the Russian empire in which Jews were permitted to dwell. A wave of emigration followed, with the number of Jewish immigrants to the United States rocketing from less than 35,000 for the entire decade of the 1870s to more than 175,000 during the decade of the 1880s.
Jewish emigration, particularly from the violent and anti-semitic Russian empire continued to accelerate during the decade of the 1890s, with more than one out of every ten new arrivals in the United States of Jewish ethnicity during those years.
Early Jewish Socialist political organization in the United States kept its eyes and agenda focused abroad, as American affiliates of the General Jewish Labor Bund, a revolutionary organization seeking the overthrow of tsarism in the Russian empire. The first such American branch of the Bund was formed in 1900 and within five years about 50 such American Bund affiliates were formed, united under the umbrella of a group called the Central Union of Bund Organizations. In addition to their Eastern European focus, centered around the raising and transmission of funds to the Russian revolutionary movement, these American Bund groups advocated Jewish cultural and political autonomy rather than assimilation into the domestic orientation of the anglophonic Socialist Party of America (SPA).
From 1905 many local Yiddish-language organization were loosely coordinated by a group called the Jewish Socialist Agitation Bureau, founded by a tailor from Rochester, New York named Max Kaufman. Kaufman's Agitation Bureau was envisioned as a mechanism for bringing prominent Yiddish-language socialists from New York City to address Jewish communities in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and elsewhere in the Northeast. This effort proved successful, with such socialist notables as economist Isaac Hourwich and politician Meyer London sponsored on speaking tours. The Bureau also coordinated the distribution of leaflets and pamphlets in the Yiddish language.
The Socialist Agitation Bureau met in convention annually, with the established network of Bundist clubs playing a key role in the organization's expansion. By 1909 it was estimated that between 80 and 90 percent of the affiliates of the Bureau maintained Bundist ties.
Establishment of the JSF
The American urban working class was largely an immigrant population in the early years of the 20th century and the Socialist Party of America sought to improve its connection with non-English-speaking workers through the expansion of its language federations — semi-autonomous parallel organizations coordinating the activity of party branches speaking a common language and expediting the distribution of pamphlets and leaflets in that tongue.
In contrast to the dozens of independent Finnish-language socialist clubs which joined en bloc to establish the Finnish Socialist Federation of the SPA in 1906, the Jewish Socialist Federation was created largely through the initiative of the Socialist Party itself. Socialist Party branches conducting their business in Yiddish existed as regular units of the state and national Socialist Party, paying full dues to those party organizations and differing from English-language branches only in the language in which they conducted their business.
As early as 1907, Jewish Socialist Agitation Bureau founder Max Kaufman proposed the establishment of a Yiddish language federation within the Socialist Party — although this proposal was initially shot down by doctrinaire Jewish socialists as an unacceptable compromise with ethnic nationalism rather than class-based internationalism. One prominent Jewish socialist was quick to dismiss the idea of a semi-autonomous Jewish federation paralleling the Bund with the assertion that "in America special Russian Jewish wounds do not exist; thus, here in America there can be no place and no value for special Russian Jewish remedies."
Nevertheless, sentiment seeking organization of Yiddish-language Socialist branches continued to develop.
A major step towards language autonomy was taken in the summer of 1910 when the SPA's constitution was amended to entitle any non-English language group with 500 or more dues paying members to federation status with a paid official called a "Translator-Secretary" granted an office at party headquarters in Chicago. Over the next two years SPA Federations had been launched for the party's Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Swedish/Norwegian, and Slovenian members, joined in 1912 with the formation of the Yiddish-language Jewish Socialist Federation.
Many or most ethnic Jews in the SPA were not members of the Jewish Socialist Federation, instead participating in English-language branches. Indeed, some of these disapproved of the Jewish Federation, preferring promotion of the process of "Americanization" and integration into American political life over the semi-autonomous federation approach — which was characterized by activist and historian Will Herberg as "virtually a Jewish Socialist Party within the...Party." While tactically useful in coordinating socialist propaganda in the native language of immigrant workers, the implicit emphasis of ethnicity over social class of the federation approach seemed to many a departure from the traditional socialist principle of internationalism.
The Jewish Socialist Federation grew rapidly, soon numbering some 65 geographic branches with a membership approaching 3,000. Despite the ethnic rather than class orientation behind its organization, the Jewish Federation attracted some of the most radical Jewish socialists to its ranks, soon emerging to the left of the Socialist Party itself.
- See, for example, Tony Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005, pp. 30-41; Melech Epstein, Jewish Labor in the USA: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement: Volume 1, 1882-1914. New York: Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, 1950, passim; Gerald Sorin, The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985, passim.
- For a monograph on the 1881-1882 terror, see Stephen M. Berk, Year of Crisis, Year of Hope: Russian Jewry and the Pogroms of 1881-1882. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.
- Melech Epstein, Jewish Labor in the USA: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement: Volume 1, 1882-1914. New York: Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, 1950; pp. 38-39.
- Epstein, Jewish Labor in the USA, vol. 1, pg. 40.
- Nora Levin, While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871-1917. New York: Schocken Books, 1977; pg. 166.
- Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts, pg. 158.
- Tim Davenport, "Jewish (Yiddish) Language Federations," Early American Marxism website, www.marxisthistory.org/
- Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts, pg. 160.
- Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts, pg. 159.
- Mikhail Zametkin, in Tsayt-Gayst (The Spirit of the Times), Jan. 18, 1907, pg. 8. Quoted in Michels, A Fire in Their Hearts, pg. 158.
- Levin, While Messiah Tarried, pg. 198.
- Gerald Sorin, The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985; pg. 104.
- Will Herberg, "The American Jewish Labor Movement," in American Jewish Year Books, vol. 80 (1952), pg. 25; cited in Sorin, The Prophetic Minority, pg. 104.
Books and articles
- Bloom, Bernard H. "Yiddish-Speaking Socialists in America, 1892-1905," American Jewish Archives, vol. 12, no. 1 (April 1960), pp. 34-68.
- Buhle, Paul. "Jews and American Communism: The Cultural Question," Radical History Review, no. 23 (Spring 1980), pp. 9-33.
- Draper, Theodore. The Roots of American Communism. New York: Viking Press, 1957.
- Epstein, Melech. Jewish Labor in the USA: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement: Volume 1, 1882-1914. New York: Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, 1950.
- Epstein, Melech. Jewish Labor in the USA: An Industrial, Political, and Cultural History of the Jewish Labor Movement: Volume 2, 1914-1952. New York: Trade Union Sponsoring Committee, 1953.
- Gorenstein, Arthur. "A Portrait of Ethnic Politics: The Socialists and the 1908 and 1910 Congressional Elections," Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, vol. 50, no. 3 (March 1961), pp. 202-238. In JSTOR
- Hardman, J.B.S. [J. Salutsky], "The Jewish Labor Movement in the United States: Jewish and Non-Jewish Influences," American Jewish Historical Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 2 (Dec. 1962), pp. 98-132. In JSTOR
- Herberg, Will. "Jewish Labor Movement in the United States: Early Years to World War I," Industrial and Labor Relations Review, vol. 5, no. 4 (July 1952), pp. 501-523. In JSTOR
- Herberg, Will. "The Jewish Labor Movement in the United States," American Jewish Year Book, vol. 53 (1952), pp. 1-74. In JSTOR
- Holmes, John Dewey. The Life and Times of Noah London: American Jewish Communist, Soviet Engineer, and Victim of Stalinist Terror. PhD dissertation. San Francisco State University, 1997.
- Hourwich, Isaac. Immigration and Labor. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1912.
- Howe, Irving. World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976.
- Katz, Daniel. All Together Different: Yiddish Socialists, Garment Workers, and the Labor Roots of Multiculturalism. New York: New York University Press, 2011.
- Landon, Joshua P. "Federation is Active Agent for Socialism: Presents Party Issues to Jewish-Speaking People Through Own Weekly Publication," New York Call, vol. 12, no. 243 (Aug. 31, 1919), pg. 5.
- Leinenweber, Charles. "The Class and Ethnic Basis of New York City Socialism," Labor History, vol. 22, no. 1 (Winter 1978), pp. 31-56.
- Levin, Nora. While Messiah Tarried: Jewish Socialist Movements, 1871-1917. New York: Schocken Books, 1977.
- Liebman, Arthur. Jews and the Left. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1979.
- Manor, Ehud. Forward: The Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts) Newspaper: Immigrants, Socialism, and Jewish Politics in New York, 1890-1917. Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 2009.
- Mendelsohn, Ezra. "The Russian Roots of the American Jewish Labor Movement," YIVO Annual, vol. 16 (1976), pp. 150-177.
- Michels, Tony. A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005.
- Rogoff, Abraham Meyer. Formative Years of the Jewish Labor Movement in the United States (1890-1900).  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979.
- Salutsky, Jacob B., "Report of the Jewish Translator-Secretary to the National Committee of the Socialist Party of America, May 1913," Socialist party leaflet. Corvallis, OR: 1000 Flowers Publishing, 2005.
- Sorin, Gerald. The Prophetic Minority: American Jewish Immigrant Radicals, 1880-1920. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985.
- Szajkowski, Zosa. "The Jews and New York City's Mayoralty Election of 1917," Jewish Social Studies, vol. 32, no. 4 (1970), pp. 286-306.
- Tcherikower, Elias (ed.) The Early Jewish Labor Movement in the United States. Aaron Antonovsky, trans. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1961.
- Yellowitz, Irwin. "Jewish Immigrants and the American Labor Movement, 1900-1920," American Jewish History, vol. 71, no. 2 (Dec. 1981), pp. 188-217.
- Yellowitz, Irwin. "Morris Hillquit, American Socialism and Jewish Concerns," American Jewish History, vol. 68, no. 2 (Dec. 1978), pp. 163-188.
- Zumoff, Jacob A. The Communist International and US Communism, 1919-1929.  Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015.
Unsigned news reports
- "Jewish Socialist Federation Endorses Majority War Resolution: Calls for Expulsion of Russell, Walling, & Stokes — To Establish Socialist Schools," New York Call, vol. 10, no. 151 (May 31, 1917), pg. 4.
- "Jewish Group in Party Will Convene Today: Federation, 500 Weak Now, Thought Certain to be Destroyed, No Matter What Action is Taken," New York Call, vol. 14, no. 246 (Sept. 3, 1921), pg. 7.
- "Loyal Jewish Socialists Quit Seceding Body: Federation Convention Votes, 41 to 34, to Leave Party — New Group is Immediately Organized," New York Call, vol. 14, no. 248 (Sept. 5, 1921), pg. 11.
- Tim Davenport, "Jewish (Yiddish) Language Federations," Early American Marxism website, www.marxisthistory.org/