top of page
< Back

Book Notes: Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery 1870-1939, Edward J. Bristol

V. D. Lipman

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Mrs Fisher's Profession Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery 1870-193 9, Edward J. Bristow, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982. 340 pp. ?15. Ema Fisher, 'Ema the millionaire', nee Cohen, was the daughter of a white-slave trafficker who frequented the spas of Europe; her brothers were both traffickers in women and kept brothels; her sister was a thief and trafficker; she was so successful as a South American madam that she became financier to the Buenos Aires underworld. This was only one of dozens of Jewish families, and Ema only one of hundreds of Jews and Jewesses, whose involvement in commercial vice betweeen 1870 and 1939 is chronicled in this book. Those who were engaged in the trade - the 'unclean' (temaim), as they were known to many Jewish communities - did so at every level: as international traffickers with their agents and conductors of parties of women; as young men entrapping or otherwise recruiting young women into prostitution; as keepers of houses of ill-fame and suppliers of their material requirements; as managers of one or two prostitutes; and as prostitutes themselves. Jewish involvement in commercial vice is so contrary to Jewish teaching, enforced by religious and social controls, that the phenomenon appears to have been a temporary one on so widespread a scale, attributable to the destabiliza tion of Jewish traditional society in the late 19th century by the varied forces of</page><page sequence="2">i86 Book Notes assimilation, mass migration, urbanization and sheer economic misery. But the book also records the efforts made by Jewish voluntary organizations to combat the evil. The lead was taken by London's Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women, and the Jewish organizations worked both independently and as part of a worldwide non-sectarian anti-vice movement. Their position was a delicate one; their consciences urged them to take action against Jewish offenders, and it was argued that Jewish participation in the fight was only prudent. Yet, by working as a specifically Jewish movement, they implicitly recognized some Jewish responsibility which, it was argued, strengthened the case of the anti-Semites. Moreover, their activities had to be reticent, since they dealt with a subject which Victorians preferred not to mention publicly. In Britain and America, cooperation with non-Jewish bodies was relatively easy; in Germany, it began with coolness and ended in insult. And so far as the anti-Semites were concerned, they readily seized on any evidence they could find of Jewish activity in commercial vice; magnified what was, in certain places, admittedly bad, into exaggerated and grotesque charges of worldwide corruption; and would not have been deflected by any evidence of Jewish efforts to put down Jewish wrongdoing. The book, which developed from an earlier study of the general anti-vice movement (Vice and Vigilance, 1977), draws extensively not only on the records of Jewish organizations in Britain, USA, France, Germany and Austria-Hung? ary, but also on police archives in Paris, Vienna, Hamburg, East Germany, Poland, New York and London (both for the Home Office and Metropolitan Police and for the India Office records). The sources, including Yiddish, Hebrew, English, American, German, French, Polish and Spanish newspapers, suggest a wide knowledge of languages, although the author acknowledges help for translations in his introduction. It is the first book in English devoted to Jewish participation in commercial vice on a world scale in the period: or so at least the present reviewer believes, since although the bibliography provides an impressive list of newspapers and archives consulted, there is no comprehen? sive list of the innumerable books and articles cited in the footnotes. The book is divided into three parts. The first gives the general background of commercial vice in the second half of the 19th century and discusses the reasons why Jewish involvement appeared when, where and how it did. In particular, it identifies as the heartland, or source from which the problem arose, the area of Eastern Europe stretching roughly from Warsaw and Central Poland, through Galicia, Ruthenia, Bukowina (Czernowitz) and Roumania to Odessa. The second part describes how the evil fanned out, partly due to Jewish mass migration to North and South America, but also because of entrepreneur? ial opportunities for the 'unclean' in Constantinople, India and the Philippines.</page><page sequence="3">Book Notes 187 The author brings out the astonishing mobility of those engaged in the traffic, partly due to periodic clamp-downs by the authorities and partly due to the seizing of opportunities afforded by temporary concentrations of young men without families, in gold-mining on the Rand or the military camps of Mukden and Harbin in the Russo-Japanese War, to cite two examples. The third part of the book deals with the specifically Jewish response, initiated by Sir Anthony de Rothschild's daughters - Constance, Lady Battersea and Mrs Eliot Yorke - with the help of Claude Montefiore and Simeon Singer in 1885. Later the ICA, the Hilfsverein and the B'nai Brith participated, and, with other organizations, the first international Jewish conference to combat the white-slave traffic was held in 1910: an event which aroused controversy in Jewish public opinion as to its advisability. But local communities also manifested their abhorrence of the 'unclean ones', and refused them the traditional religious observances on which they insisted. In Buenos Aires, therefore, they had to organize their own community, with synagogue, burial arrangements and cemetery, later known as Zvi Migdal, apparently after an eponymous pioneer of the white-slave traffic about whose actual existence Dr Bristow is undecided. Analogous provision was made in Constantinople (where the vice traders were additionally obnoxious to the established Sephardi community because they were Ashkena zim from Eastern Europe) and, to a less elaborate extent, in New York. Why there was a concentration of Jewish involvement in commercial vice in these centres, and its connection with other underworld activities, is discussed by Dr Bristow. The reasons, varying according to place, include laxity of police supervision, political corruption and the presence of an immigrant population with more young males than females. For the Anglo-Jewish historian, besides providing a general framework into which British phenomena can be set, it gives new insights. Dr Bristow argues that London provided the first instance of substantial Jewish participation in commercial vice, in the late 18th century and up to about 1850. He attributes this to the assimilation and moral laxity of the class which should have given Jewish leadership, the absence of the legal controls then available to other communities, and the criminal involvement of poor immigrants with restricted opportunities for respectable economic activity. He also argues that this manifestation had disappeared by mid-century, due to those who were successful adopting respectable occupations and those who were not being eliminated by destitution and disease; and that the recrudescence of the problem in the 1880s was a by-product of the mass emigration westwards. The present reviewer dealt briefly, in an appendix to the history of the Jewish Welfare Board (A Century of Social Service, 1959), with the Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women, which was taken over by</page><page sequence="4">188 Book Notes the Board at the beginning of 1947. While that appendix dealt mainly with the institutional provision and 'reclamation of fallen women', the account given of the international aspect of the work is amplified by Dr Bristow's research. In particular, he located a complete set of the Association's annual reports in the Claude Montefiore papers in the London Library; and, even more important, demonstrated the key role of Montefiore in obtaining the continuing financial support of ICA for the work of the Association. References in the book to commercial vice in the East End of London itself in the 1881-1914 period, compared with other centres, are limited, although its position as a way station in the international traffic between Eastern Europe and America or South Africa is discussed. Dr Bristow notes the London activities between 1895 and 1898 of Joe Silver (whose long career elsewhere in the world is chronicled) and of his 'Stamford Road gang', which recruited, by seduction and fraud, recent immigrants for commercial vice. It may be that further research may add detail, no doubt unpleasant, to the discussion on East End crime and the Jewish community by Colin Holmes in the proceedings of the Society's East End Conference, edited in 1981 by Dr Aubrey Newman. One detail added by Dr Bristow, is that examination of official statistics for the metropolitan borough of Stepney for 1901-10 suggests that 20 per cent of all convictions for brothel-keeping were against Jews (my own estimate, based on a paper in the same volume, is that Jews constituted about 3 5 per cent of the population of the borough in that period). Dr Bristow, in his analysis of the ways in which Jewish girls were either enticed or persuaded into prostitution, throws further light on the practice of stille chuppah (unregistered or unauthorized and clandestine religious mar? riage). It was not merely, as has been suggested, a natural consequence of the United Synagogue or other 'establishment' religious organizations charging marriage fees that poor immigrants could not afford: it was often an integral part of a cold-blooded procedure by which young men in the vice-trade entrapped immigrant girls, sometimes after seduction, into marriage, took them by plausible excuses to South America as their wives, sold or drove them into prostitution; and then returned to Europe to repeat the process. Dr Bristow's book does not make pleasant reading. Even the heroic efforts of the Jewish voluntary organizations and their devoted officials (such as the little-known Mr Samuel Cohen, secretary of the Jewish Association, who often had to be the Sherlock Holmes of the anti-vice campaign) had only occasional successes, despite all the efforts they put into providing volunteers to meet immigrants at railway stations and ports, card-indexing traffickers and trying to track down every case that came to their notice. Dr Bristow raises the even more disturbing question of how many of the victims were as innocent as the</page><page sequence="5">Book Notes societies believed, and in fact made a choice, knowing the economic circumstances they were leaving and the prospects that lay ahead. While Dr Bristow has tried to make quantitative assessments of the Jewish involvement in commercial vice at this period, the evidence is still so fragmentary that one can only say that, while the charges of the anti-Semites were grotesque exaggerations, Jewish involvement - at certain places and periods - while still not dominant, and even smaller perhaps than that of one or two other groups such as the French - was still more than conventional Jewish historiography has led us to believe. V. D. Lipman</page></plain_text>

bottom of page