restricted access Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants Across America (review)
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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 165-167



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Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants Across America. By Jack Glazier. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998. x + 245 pp.

Between its founding in 1901 and the end of its active life in 1918, the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) helped nearly 80,000 Eastern European Jewish immigrants leave the crowded urban neighborhoods of the Northeast and settle in smaller population centers in the Midwest, West, and South. As the organization's leaders understood, migration chains multiplied the effects of their work, adding to its importance. Indeed, together with several other such efforts, the IRO touched the lives of a significant minority of those immigrants who chose to bypass New York and settle in other parts of the country. Jack Glazier has produced a useful study of the IRO, adding to the growing body of literature on American Jews outside of the "Promised City."

Glazier places the IRO in the context of the relationship between the "German- Jewish" elite and the masses of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe. In doing so he retells the well-known story of that encounter, with all of its conflict, anxiety, paternalism, and responsibility. Indeed, the picture presented is perhaps a bit too simplistic in the distinction it makes between the two groups. (Glazier's discussion of Eastern European "traditions" of charity and mutual aid is similarly schematic.) Nevertheless, the description of the IRO's work itself adds complexity to the picture. After all, the "German"-led organization saw its mission at least partly as a defense of immigrants and immigration.

The IRO arose out of earlier efforts at "distribution," as well as out of a desire for the normalization of the Jewish demographic and economic structure. The organization's name reflected its original aim of persuading manufacturers to set up operations in sparsely populated areas, thereby drawing workers away from the dense tenement neighborhoods in which they otherwise concentrated. But the IRO soon gave up this strategy as impractical. Instead, it assisted individuals and families to relocate, and encouraged small Jewish communities to accept the newcomers. Although it originated as a section of the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, and continued to receive support from the Jewish Colonization Association, the IRO's pragmatism led it to reject visions of collective Jewish agricultural settlement in favor of placing individuals in conventional jobs.

The ideal of dispersal did not go uncontested, and the book includes a strong discussion of contemporary debates over the strategy. The IRO and its supporters believed that if they successfully countered nativist [End Page 165] arguments, they would also be able to "disarm hatred" toward the immigrants and defeat moves to enact restrictive laws (p. 18). They objected to both racial and economic arguments against immigration, arguing that the immigrants were "prospective Americans," who, if removed from the damaging slum environments in which they lived, could make significant contributions to the American economy (p. 75). The United States did not suffer so much from an oversupply of labor, advocates of distribution argued, as from its "immobility." The IRO thus called for a "domestic immigration policy," including the rational placement of workers in areas where they were needed (p. 95). Ironically, efforts at distribution sometimes drew the attention of nativists, who viewed them as examples of illegal assisted immigration, a charge the IRO vociferously denied.

Some elements within the Jewish community also opposed efforts at distribution. The IRO's vision was explicitly assimilationist. Not surprisingly, some immigrant intellectuals saw the IRO as an attack on the Yiddish-speaking community itself. I.M. Rubinow, for example, defended the Lower East Side and similar neighborhoods as places where immigrants could receive the cultural and social support they needed to live happy and successful lives. The Yiddish press also criticized the IRO, as did the labor movement, which condemned the organization for exploiting its clients and sometimes even using them as strikebreakers. (In the beginning the organization did sometimes supply workers to firms whose own employees were on strike, but it soon...


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