In the course of family history research, I came across a 110-year-old episode from American Jewish history that feels relevant today.
Between 1880-1920, upwards of 2.5 million Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe (and perhaps three-quarters from Russia), emigrated to America following earlier waves of Sephardic and German Jews.
Those Jews were a fraction of some 20 million people who left Europe for these shores in that period.
The newcomers, who crowded into New York City, taxed the resources available to Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham, who vented his frustrations in an article entitled “Foreign Criminals in New York,” published in the September 1908 edition of the North American Review.
Inasmuch as 85 percent of the city’s residents were foreign-born or of foreign parentage, and with nearly half not speaking English, “it is only a logical condition that something like 85 out of 100 of our criminals should be found to be of exotic origin,” he wrote.
Immigrants “bring among us the predatory criminals of all nations,” Bingham said.
The lowest percentage of native-born heads of families was to be found “in the densely congested East Side quarter, largely peopled by Russian Hebrews,” he said.
Indeed, the Jewish population of New York City nearly doubled just between 1900 and 1910.
“Wherefore it is not astonishing that with a million Hebrews, mostly Russian, in the city (one-quarter of the population), perhaps half of the criminals should be of that race, when we consider that ignorance of the language, more particularly among men not physically fit for hard labor, is conducive to crime; nor is it strange that in the precinct where there are not four native-born heads of families in every hundred families, the percentage of criminality is high,” Bingham contended.
“The crimes committed by the Russian Hebrews are generally those against poverty,” Bingham wrote. “They are burglars, firebugs, pickpockets and highway robbers – when they have the courage; but although all crime is their province, pocket-picking is the one to which they seem to take most naturally,” he continued.
“Among the most expert of all the street thieves are Hebrew boys under 16, who are being brought up to lives of crime. Many of them are old offenders at the age of 10. The juvenile Hebrew emulates the adult in the matter of crime percentages, 40 percent of the boys at the House of Refuge and 27 percent of those arraigned in the Children’s Court, being of that race. The percentage of Hebrew children in the truant schools is also higher than that of any others,” he said.
The leaders of the Jewish community – including my great-grandfather – were appalled by Bingham’s vilification and fearful of the impact his article would have on relations with non-Jews.
The American Jewish Committee, founded just two years earlier, secured a meeting with Bingham’s office and, on his return from a vacation, the commissioner issued a retraction.
“The figures used in the article were not compiled by myself, but were furnished me by others, and were unfortunately assumed to be correct. It now appears, however, that these figures were unreliable. Hence it becomes my duty frankly to say so and repudiate them,” Bingham said in a statement also published in the North American Review.
In response, attorney Louis Marshall, a co-founder of the AJC, said, “His frank recognition that he had unwittingly wronged the Jewish people will be accepted by them in the same frank and manly spirit. The incident should be considered closed.”
Even as data collected by the Federation of Jewish Organizations showed that the proportion of Jewish criminals was far less than Bingham claimed, Marshall nonetheless cautioned colleagues, “Let us not deceive ourselves with the belief that we are entirely kosher.”
Bingham’s numbers may have been wrong and his rhetoric overwrought, but anti-Semitism and nativist sentiment were growing in the country, and in the early 1920s, Congress passed a series of restrictions that severely limited immigration by Jews and others from sections of Europe.