As a white middle class citizen of the United States I have heard more subtle, passive prejudice towards Jewish Americans then any other group. Even in progressive universities I will strike up a conversation about wealth distribution and, what I can only assume is the modern day “Jewish Question,” will come up. This stereotype holds that Jewish Americans control large amounts of economic wealth in the United States and around the world, linking the Jewish heritage directly to the social ills of capitalism. This is obviously not a new judgment. But does it hold any truth? Whatever that means.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s two documentary filmmakers Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher exploring the history of Jewish Anarchism in the United States made the film Free Voice of Labor – The Jewish Anarchists. They focus on a group of self-proclaimed Jewish Anarchists who published a Yiddish newspaper Freie Arbeiter Stimme. Publication of this labor friendly periodical started in 1890 and went until 1977. During this time the publication featured poets, social critics, fiction writers, and a wide range of other authors who wrote creative and thought provoking material.
The film starts and ends with interviews from old, grandma and grandpa looking anarchists. This is not the usual image that comes into mind when one mentions a person who may call themselves anarchists, often being portrayed as violent, irrational, and militant in their beliefs.
Anarchy is often used to describe something with negative connotation. “If he gets elected we will fall into anarchy,” one might say when referring to a politician they do not like. But these film subjects are not “bomb throwers.” The subjects of this film and the filmmakers go out of their way to make this clear.
The film starts by examining the reasons why one might be an anarchist. For the revolutionaries in this film their struggle was given to them, most being immigrants in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Coming to the United States where the streets were said to be “lined with gold” was nothing but disappointment. Instead of gold they found long hours, low wages, and uncompassionate employers.
Unlike the other major revolutionary movement of the time, Marxism, these anarchists hold that no authority should have control over another body or mind, calling for a true democratic system not controlled by government, wages, or forms slavery. They are pacifists in this film and it shows not only though the subjects saying so but thought their social activities. The film highlights the unity that these people have, putting on dances and holding art and literature to the highest degree of respect.
The film puts faces on an ideology. By doing this the filmmakers can create empathy in the viewer, letting them relate not to an anarchist but a human being. This exploitation of emotion may allow for a better understanding of the ideology at hand, but this is not a constant. Anarchism is highly bastardized in the United States, which wouldn’t be a problem if the United States were full of well-informed citizens. Where is one going to learn about anarchism? In the books of the public education system? I think not. The choice to put human faces on this ideology may create an effect of better understand.
This method can also be used against the viewer, to decrease understanding of a topic by bombarding the viewer with faces and the personal affairs of the subjects, drawing attention away from issues and concepts. This is seen in the media coverage of politicians; Sarah Palin has a funny voice and totes her child around for the cameras but what does this tell me about her stance on gay-marriage? The answer has to be a solid nothing.
While I hold not doubt that there are Jewish capitalists it is absurd to suggest that they are capitalists because they are Jewish, any one can be a capitalist no matter if they are a Middle Eastern women, a Latin America man, a Jewish senator or an African American Mr. President. This film can be looked at as a historical piece, showing the working mans struggles that penetrate race, ethnicity, and religion. Lets put these silly notions of belief behind us, thank the leftists of the past for weekends and watch Steven Fischler and Joel Sucher 1980 documentary Free Voice of Labor – The Jewish Anarchists.
Watch the film online here.