Prostitution and prejudice

Submitted by cathy n on 14 January, 2007 - 3:30

Prostitution and prejudice

Steve Cohen looks at the suprising history in Prostitution and Prejudice, The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery 1870-1939 by Edward Bristow, (Clarendon Press)

The issue of sex work has recently been dominant in both the popular press and also in feminist and left circles. One reason for this was the murder of five women in Ipswich. Another is because of government legislation introduced to outlaw trafficking generally and trafficking for sexual exploitation in particular.

This legislation had received a mixed reception amongst both some feminists and also groups opposed to immigration control. For instance the No One Is Illegal group makes the distinction between trafficking (where there is force or deception) and smuggling (where there is consent).

Some feminists argue that “consent” can never be given where sex is a commercial transaction.

Of course all traffickers — those who trade in people for profit — are scum. What politically is really required by those opposed to immigration controls and wanting to offer solidarity to those wanting entry here is a modern form of underground railroads — such as helped free slaves in the USA in the antebellum period. And sex work along with other migrant labour has many of the attributes of modern slavery.

However the reality is that many women wishing to flee war, mayhem and poverty and to avoid immigration controls do see traffickers as a route to freedom. And the British state in ostensibly criminalising trafficking is actually attacking these women by erecting yet another form of immigration control. It is not minimising exploitation. It is maximising border patrol. The British government, after a lot of pressure, has now said it will sign up to the extremely limited European Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings, which allows for temporary residence for those trafficked. Up until now when brothels in Birmingham and elsewhere have been raided to the fanfares of a prurient media exposure the migrant women found there have not been offered protection in this country — they have been deported.

It has always been the case that it is women who have found themselves as victim of so-called “regulatory” legislation. This was noted by Sylvia Pankhurst shortly after the first explicit anti-sex trade trafficking laws in the 1912 Criminal Offences Amendment Act. In the Women’s Dreadnought of 19 December 1914 Sylvia wrote an article critical of the legislation called “Protecting Women?”.

The original 1895 Criminal Offences Amendment Act is important for two reasons.
First because of its content. It criminalised sex work and therefore sex workers. I agree with the argument that such legislation is reactionary as it attacks women (the Act also in passing outlawed male gay relationships).

Second the legislation is also significant as it shows how the issue of sex work was at that time a matter of huge popular resentment.

According to Judith Walkowitz in her book Prostitution and Victorian Society, the Act was demanded by a mass demonstration of 250,000 people through Hyde Park where “for one brief moment, feminists and personal rights advocates joined with Anglican bishops and socialists”.

As a lawyer and member of No One Is Illegal I was surprised to find there has been no comprehensive study on the history of trafficking and anti-trafficking legislation in this country dealing both with trafficking for sex and for other forms of labour exploitation. I should have realised some of this history by virtue of knowing that under the 1905 Aliens Act Jewish women sex workers in Cardiff had been deported. The Jewish Chronicle of 30 April 1909 reported a meeting in Cardiff organised against women sex workers where it was stated that:

“Owing to the leniency of the Cardiff stipendiary magistrate a few years ago, two Jewesses out of thirty seven who had been before him were allowed to remain in Cardiff, the other thirty five having been deported”.

But I was surprised to discover that this major history of sex trafficking internationally was sub titled “The Jewish Fight Against White Slavery 1870-1939”. And I was stunned to read the contents. These show the centrality of Jews — as procurers, traffickers, pimps, brothel owners, madams and sex workers — in the global trade appropriately termed “white slavery” . Of course the trade was not exclusively Jewish. But it was disproportionately so.

It stemmed from the towns of Eastern Europe (as young women flocked there from the shetyls in search of employment and independence) all way round the world, to Western Europe, to South America, to the USA, to Africa, Asia. It was a Cook’s tour of the world’s fleshpots. Talk about hidden history! And it been especially hidden (i.e. suppressed) history in the Jewish community in that community’s continual search for upward mobility and respectability as a defence against anti-semitism — an ultimately futile defence in my view.

In fact the author of the book deliberates whether its mere publication will generate yet more anti-semitism — for it apparently confirms the stereotypical image of the Jew as corrupt in general and sexually corrupt in particular. As such it links in with that most vile of anti-semitic myths, the blood libel accusation and the defilement of Christian children. In fact, for what it is worth, most of the women procured or trafficked by Jews were Jewish themselves.

In my view it is progressive for such a book to be published. Even at the time of the height of white slavery there was an anxious debate within the Jewish community as to whether speaking out about what was happening would cause richus (trouble) and whether even the mere mention of the truth would “give our enemies a sword to smite us with”. Certainly it is the case that propaganda about white slavery spread by anti-semites such as Arnold White contributed to the 1905 Aliens Act in the UK.

However anti-semitism is never in fact about the truth or otherwise in respect to real Jews. It is always about myths and conspiracies. Today it is exactly the same in respect to Zionism. And in reality Jewish prominence in the international sex industry was (like the prominence of Jews in medieval usury) itself ultimately the result of anti-semitism — of the marginalisation of Jewish life to the social and economic fringes. In this marginalisation it was women who existed on the absolute fringes.

Some of the information uncovered in Prostitution and Prejudice is remarkable. For instance in country after country procurers and traffickers were excluded from mainstream Jewish institutions. So they established their own parallel institutions. These functioned as both trade associations but also performed religious functions with their own synagogues and burial grounds (and rabbis). Generally the women sex workers were also “permitted” to worship in these synagogues and be buried in these grounds.

The whole arrangement reminded me of a gross caricature of the Mafiosa gangster/businessmen themselves caricatured in the movie Some Like It Hot. In Johannesburg this cartel was inaugurated (most had formal charters) as the American Club. In New York it was known as the Independent Benevolent Association, run by evil monsters with names straight out of Damon Runyan and running the Manhattan Preparatory School as a front for the “training” of the oppressed sex workers, with some of its members operating as part-time strike breakers. In Buenos Aires it was the Zwi Migdal Society whose cemetery can still be visited. The existence of the trade had consequences within the wider Jewish community.

Like the Indian outcast, the Dalits, like unkosher meat, all those involved in the trade were denounced as “ritually impure” as “the unclean ones”. However it was the sex workers, the women, who were most ostracised and the least powerful.

The Jewish middle classes tended to organise elitist “rescue” groups within the philanthropic anti white slavery movement. Their work should not be underestimated — particularly “travellers aid” where wearing Hebrew badges they would try to make contact with single women at the docks, Tilsbury being an example, as these women embarked or disembarked and sometimes intervening to stop deportations (Jewish pimps also gathered at the docks for their own reasons).

Occasionally they sponsored vigilante groups against the women — an example being in Cardiff in 1903 through the Jewish Vigalence Society. Jewish workers hated the gangsters and pimps who controlled the trade. In May of the revolutionary year 1905 the Warsaw workers attacked the brothels, dens and cafes around which the trade was organised. They also attacked the sex workers.

The Central Committee of the Warsaw Bund, the Jewish revolutionary party, organised to physically defend the women. This was serious stuff. In the course of a few days several combatants were killed including at least one sex worker.

In Buenos Aires members of Poale Zion (the workers Zionist party) had a bloody battle with pimps in a theatre during the showing of the play Miriam which itself is about white slavery.

In Chicago the Jewish branch of the Socialist Party held mass meetings explaining the economic causes forcing women into the sex trade — polemicising with the rabbis who argued it was all about spiritural decline and the Zionists who argued it was a product of life in the galut (the disapora).

In Germany Jewish feminists (organised in the Judischer Frauenbund lead by Bertha Pappenheim and comprising 20 per cent of all German-Jewish women) saw solidarity with sex workers and fighting white slavery as a number one priority.

There is one example of Jewish sex workers revolting en masse against their pimps and leaving the trade. This was in Johannesburg in 1908. As Edward Bristow writes “There must have been a Sparticus in the group and it would be nice to know who she was”.
There exist today major Jewish communities, particularly in Argentina and Brazil, who are descended from trafficked women.

The white slave trade was in effect ended by the Holocaust. The source of the women was literally liquidated — though this is not a point made by Bristow who argues the trade had already ceased by the late 1930s. The renewal of the trade in the last few years – with the source again often being East Europe but the controllers no longer being significantly Jewish – is another story.

But there are lessons to be learned from the original story. One is that there is no point in keeping any of this secret. Just the reverse. We need to remember the women victims of yesterday. And we need to solidarise with the women sex workers of today and reject all notions of vigilanteism and/or criminalisation.

Moreover it should be re-emphasised that none of the original story is accidentally “hidden” or “lost” history. At the time it was very well known. There were popular yiddish plays and novels such as Sholem Asch’s Mottke the Thief. Rather it is consciously suppressed history. It has been suppressed by the self proclaimed Jewish leadership, the machers, in the name of “respectability”.

Jewish communists fighting the machers of today need to be acutely aware of this — as the history of socialist struggle within the community has been suppressed for exactly the same reason. Our opposition to the traffickers, the procurers and the pimps — alongside our fight for open borders and equality for all — does not require us to embrace either respectability or its historic myth.

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