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

Adam M. Howard

  • Review
By – April 6, 2018

His­to­ri­an Adam M. Howard’s impor­tant new book sheds light on the cru­cial role nation­al and inter­na­tion­al unions played, in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, in the estab­lish­ment of Israel as a Jew­ish homeland.

Howard recounts the fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry of the Jew­ish gar­ment work­ers and the Inter­na­tion­al Ladies Gar­ment Work­ers Union (ILGWU), who spear­head­ed the estab­lish­ment of a Jew­ish state in Pales­tine. The ILGWU was pri­mar­i­ly com­posed of East­ern Euro­pean Jew­ish trade union­ists, who knew first­hand the per­se­cu­tion faced by Jews in Europe and the need for a safe refuge for them. Many were ded­i­cat­ed to Zion­ist and social­ist visions, and com­mit­ted to mak­ing a bet­ter world for per­se­cut­ed Jews and work­ers every­where. With­in union cir­cles, the ILGWU gar­nered tremen­dous respect when its 1909 shirt­waist mak­ers suc­cess­ful­ly orga­nized a strike for bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions. Then, in 1910, the cloak­mak­ers’ strike earned work­ers a fifty-hour work­week, min­i­mum wages for cer­tain work­ers, and a Joint Board of San­i­tary Con­trol in New York. These advances fur­ther cement­ed orga­nized work­ers’ respect for the union and gained their coop­er­a­tion in its efforts to mobi­lize finan­cial and polit­i­cal sup­port for a Jew­ish homeland.

Trade union lead­ers devel­oped what Howard char­ac­ter­ized as a two-pronged approach. 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.” Sec­ond­ly, orga­nized labor employed its polit­i­cal influ­ence in the Unit­ed States and around the world to per­suade gov­ern­ment offi­cials to sup­port the Jew­ish cause in Pales­tine.” The AFL (Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Labor), ACWA (Amal­ga­mat­ed Cloth­ing Work­ers of Amer­i­ca), and the ILGWU reg­u­lar­ly col­lect­ed mon­ey to be sent to His­tadrut for the financ­ing of hos­pi­tals, trade schools, and tech­ni­cal insti­tutes with the inten­tion of bol­ster­ing a fel­low labor move­ment and aid­ing the devel­op­ment of Pales­tine for Jew­ish set­tle­ment. Oth­er union orga­ni­za­tions with very few Jew­ish mem­bers, such as Nation­al Mar­itime Union (NMU), Team­sters, Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Musi­cians, and AFL-CIO also cham­pi­oned the cause of mak­ing Israel a Jew­ish refuge, home­land, and ide­al work­er economy.

Sewing the Fab­ric of State­hood: Gar­ment Unions, Amer­i­can Labor, and the Estab­lish­ment of the State of Israeldoesn’t end with the for­ma­tion of the state of Israel in 1948. Howard pro­vides fur­ther details about how the ILGWU and oth­er unions con­tin­ued to work close­ly with Israeli trade union­ists and lead­ers to help Israel flour­ish. It is an impor­tant read for any­one con­cerned with the for­ma­tion of Israel and under­stand­ing lit­tle-known social fac­tors in its development.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions