Kolander on Howard, 'Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel'

Adam M. Howard. Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel. Working Class in American History Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017. 176 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04146-4; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08301-3.

Reviewed by Kenny Kolander (West Virginia University)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2018)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=51490

While doing research about Henry Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East during Gerald Ford’s presidency, I discovered that George Meany, president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), was a staunch supporter of the State of Israel. Declassified records at the Ford Presidential Library reveal as much. However, scholarship rarely views US-Israel relations through the lens of labor. Therefore, I was left wanting to know more about American labor’s historical relations with Israel. In particular, I wanted to know why American labor leaders broke ranks with the Ford administration’s “reassessment” of Middle East policy during the spring of 1975, during which Ford suspended military aid to the entire region, including Israel. Naturally, labor leaders feared a freezing of arms to the Middle East because of the effect on industry jobs. But Meany’s support of Israel seemed more deeply rooted than in defense contracts. As Meany declared in April 1975, “And insofar as I can speak for American labor, Histadrut [an Israeli labor union] and the people of Israel will have the help and cooperation of America’s workers the same as they have had since 1920.”[1]

Thus, Adam M. Howard’s new book, Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel, is a welcome contribution to scholarship about US-Israel relations. As the power of US unions has waned in recent decades, some readers might be surprised to discover that American labor was an active player in the making of US foreign policy going back to the early twentieth century. In the case of Israel, American labor leaders sought to support Jewish labor in Palestine through the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Workers in Palestine, which was established in 1920. As the persecution of European Jews intensified in the 1930s, labor leaders sought to raise funds and apply political pressure to US and UK political leaders to advance Jewish labor concerns. A broad network of American labor, driven by the garment industry, gradually developed in support of the Histadrut. After President Harry Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel, these transnational labor connections continued to grow and influenced Cold War foreign policy decision making.

Howard argues that American labor organizations, as transnational, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), played an important (and unheralded) role in the creation and development of the State of Israel. Specifically, American labor organizations provided financial and material assistance to the Histadrut, and also aimed to generate US political support for the State of Israel. The US garment industry led the way, supported by an ever-expanding network of labor organizations that increasingly sought to support Jewish laborers in Palestine/Israel. As Howard points out, “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” (p. 4). However, supporting the Histadrut also meant supporting the Yishuv and eventually the State of Israel, which blurred nationalist concerns with workers’ concerns and exacerbated tensions within labor.

This short book (114 pages of text) manages to lay a solid foundation for other scholars to build on when thinking about the relationship between American labor and the State of Israel. Howard begins by locating American labor’s support of Jewish workers in the November 1917 support of the British Balfour Declaration. Yet in the early twentieth century, many of the leading voices in the Jewish labor movement opposed Zionism. While Labor Zionists, led by David Ben-Gurion, aimed to secure a Jewish state in Palestine through the efforts of a Jewish working class that would advance a progressive Jewish society, the Bundists—the other leading Jewish labor group—wanted to advance workers’ concerns in Eastern Europe and “perceived Zionism as a national distraction from the Bund’s socialist vision of a workers’ world free of nationalist divisions” (p. 7). Labor’s support of a Jewish national project in the Middle East threatened to subordinate the workers’ collective cause to the specific goals of Jewish nationalism. Early on, Bundists attracted more Jewish worker support than Labor Zionism. These ideological divisions would become manifest in the United States. Even after Samuel Gompers and the AFL announced support for the Balfour Declaration, most Jewish labor leaders remained opposed to Zionism because of Bundist influence. However, some changed their position with the creation of the Histadrut in 1920. Throughout the 1920s, garment labor unions gradually increased connections with, and support for, the Histadrut, and with that support came the possibility of more and more labor organizations joining the garment industry in supporting Jewish labor in Palestine. As US immigration policy restricted Jewish immigration, American labor supported the movement of Jewish workers to Palestine.

The Histadrut served as a model organization for American labor. It offered social services and political support for workers, the likes of which seemed alien in 1920s America. Histadrut activities continually expanded into the 1930s and 1940s, offering more and more services to Jewish workers, and the Yishuv as a whole. Howard identifies four categories of activity: trade unions, education and culture, economics and finances, and social aid. Therein, the Histadrut offered funds for unemployment, orphans and widows, and senior citizens, along with maritime and aviation agencies, trade schools, nursery and elementary schools, child care, and other projects. No wonder American labor supported the Histadrut. While the influence of Bundists remained strong, American labor slowly inched closer and closer to the Histadrut (and the Yishuv).

American labor supported the Histadrut primarily through fundraising and financial help. Organizations like the United Hebrew Trades (UHT) and the National Labor Committee for Palestine (NLCP) started to organize fundraising campaigns (called Gewerkschaften) in 1923. These efforts connected Jewish labor in the United States with Jewish labor in Palestine, and allowed Labor Zionists to work constructively with Jewish trade unions that still maintained a strong Bundist influence. According to Howard, “the late 1920s marked the emergence of the American labor movement as a champion of Histadrut’s endeavors” (p. 23).

Nazi persecution of Jews served to strengthen labor’s support of Zionism. Additionally, violence between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, like in 1929 or between 1936 and 1939, similarly served to strengthen labor’s support of Jewish workers in Palestine. Labor leaders continued to raise funds for the Histadrut, and also continued to raise public consciousness about the persecution of Jews in Europe, which contributed to the appeal of supporting Histadrut activities specifically, and Zionism more broadly. However, labor failed to make significant progress in one area: political influence. Despite protests to American and British politicians about certain policies, labor could not push policymakers to change their plans, especially for increased Jewish immigration to Palestine due to Nazi persecutions. To be sure, fundraising for the Histadrut outpaced labor’s influence on American or British policies.

American labor’s growing support of the Histadrut developed into large-scale support of the State of Israel. Zionist leaders, along with the AFL and CIO, lobbied Congress during World War II to support Jewish aspirations in Palestine. However, wartime exigencies—and especially Arab oil—persuaded President Franklin Roosevelt and his administration to oppose any congressional expression of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The American Jewish Trade Union Committee for Palestine (AJTUCP) worked to rally American labor’s support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which contributed to a growing network of labor support for Jewish activities in Palestine. The American Palestine Committee, with an executive board that included labor leaders and US political leaders, sponsored the National Conference on Palestine in March 1944, which included the AFL, the CIO, and Christian organizations. Yet financial support remained the primary vehicle for American labor to assist the Histadrut. Organizations like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA) donated substantial funds to assist in the construction of trade schools. The Jewish Labor Committee (JLC) provided funds for the construction of a medical center. The AFL financed Histadrut activities through the United Nations War Relief Program. Labor organizations worked together on massive fundraising drives.

Still, labor leaders lacked the political influence they desired. This started to change in the run-up to the 1948 presidential election. Truman lagged behind Thomas Dewey in the polls, and Truman hoped to secure Dewey’s home state of New York. To do so, he appealed to New York’s Liberal Party. New York contained a large number of Jewish voters, and the message of the Liberal Party was clear; to secure the Liberal Party’s support, Truman needed to announce his support for the partition of Palestine, along with his intention to recognize the State of Israel and to lift the arms embargo to the region. According to Howard, “AFL and CIO leaders deluged Truman with telegrams and letters, urging him to ensure partition and lift the arms embargo” (p. 85). Numerous labor organizations collectively ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, which called for partition of Palestine, recognition of a provisional Israeli government upon independence, and an end to the arms embargo. Mass political demonstrations, like a coordinated closing of garment shops in April 1948, sought to influence Truman’s position. Although Truman would not agree to lift the arms embargo, he did recognize the State of Israel only eleven minutes after its declared statehood on May 14. That, along with his veto of the Taft-Hartley Act, proved enough to sway New York’s Liberal Party to mobilize support for Truman’s presidential run. Even though Dewey carried New York, Truman won the election. In the process, American labor organizations developed a much closer relationship with the Office of the President, and became more firmly involved in the political organization of the Democratic Party; these developments were inextricably tied to support for the labor-dominated political apparatus of the State of Israel.

Labor’s support for Israel exploded after recognition. Howard notes, “American labor organizations funneled millions of dollars to Histadrut and Israel’s new government. This assistance came in the form of multimillion-dollar loans, subsidies for construction projects, and even military uniforms” (p. 94). The ILGWU initiated a fundraising drive to support housing projects in the infant state for Jewish immigrants. The AFL and CIO met with political leaders of the White House and Congress to advance Israel’s agenda. These two latter organizations aimed to demonstrate their commitment to an anticommunist agenda during the second Red Scare, and thus argued that Israel could serve as an ally in the region to advance containment. Since US support for Israel during the Cold War was partly due to the fact that Israel was considered a reliable Cold War ally in a region in which there were Soviet client states, American labor could construe its support for Israel as showing it was a loyal anticommunist partner in the implementing of US foreign policy. Ultimately, labor leaders advanced a conservative program of social democracy that could both support the State of Israel and remain steadfastly anticommunist. American labor’s political and financial support would continue throughout the Cold War, seen through Meany’s statement from April 1975, even as some in the Democratic Party shifted their view of Israel in the 1970s, from one of ally to one of neocolonialist oppressor.

This is a fine book, based on extensive archival research conducted in the United States, Israel, and England. While Howard offers some historiographical context in a brief introduction, more would be welcomed. Although Howard avoids discussing any “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, his research and analysis should be included when considering the close cultural and political connections between the United States and Israel that advance a so-called special relationship.[2]


[1]. “Meany Says U.S. Labor Will Continue to Support Israel,” April 9, 1975, Jewish Telegraph Agency, https://www.jta.org/1975/04/09/archive/meany-says-u-s-labor-will-continue-to-support-israel.

[2]. Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov, “The United States and Israel since 1948: A ‘Special Relationship’?,” Diplomatic History 22, no. 2 (Spring 1998): 231-262; Michelle Mart, Eye on Israel: How America Came to View Israel as an Ally (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2006); Douglas Little, “The Making of a Special Relationship,” in American Orientalism: The United States and the Middle East since 1945, 3rd ed. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 77-115; and Dennis Ross, Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Citation: Kenny Kolander. Review of Howard, Adam M., Sewing the Fabric of Statehood: Garment Unions, American Labor, and the Establishment of the State of Israel. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=51490

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