Voices | Who We Were, Who We Are Now

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Jewish girls in 1909
Girls march against child labor in a May Day parade, New York City, 1909 (Photo Library of Congress)

By Liz Spikol

In the beginning of the 20th century, not too long after my maternal great-grandfather
arrived in New York from Eastern Europe, the police commissioner of New York City, Theodore Bingham, published a treatise titled “Foreign Criminals in New York,” in which he described the inherent criminality of two groups that were perceived as a non-white menace at the time: Jews and Italians. The Russian Hebrews, as he called Ashkenazi immigrants, “are burglars, firebugs, pickpockets and highway robbers — when they have the courage; but, though all crime is their province, pocket-picking is the one to which they seem to take most naturally.”

Bingham described the threat of Jewish boys under 16, “who are being brought up to lives of crime,” he wrote. “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.”

This insistence on seeing Jews as criminals was nothing new by the time Bingham published his paper in 1908, and persisted for years afterward, as Aaron Welt wrote in a recent paper on “Policing the Jewish Quarter 1910-1920” in the journal “American Jewish History.”

Today, most white Jews do not reflexively fear the police. We are not regularly stopped and challenged to account for ourselves.

Yet had I been born when my grandmother was, in 1910 in New York, I would have grown up as a vision of criminality and threat to the police; I would have lived in a community where I had to be corralled and controlled. I can’t imagine the physical tension my relatives must have felt in their shoulders every day when police officers came to the neighborhood, how exhausted they must have been from trying to behave well despite knowing that behavior had nothing to do with it.

That’s what it’s like for black Americans today, who are saddled now with the perception of “inherent racial traits of criminality,” as Welt wrote of the Jews. A black man can’t be unaware of a broken headlight, because getting pulled over can be life-threatening. He can’t throw on a hoodie and pop out to the ATM without watching his back. If he’s drinking coffee, birdwatching, going for a jog, or talking on the phone, he has to be vigilant, always, because he is being watched and assessed, his “danger” manifest simply by the color of his skin.

Something happened over the years to transform white Jews into people who are no longer feared by the rest of society.

This is a kind privilege that black people can never experience. Our entire culture has to change if we want to grant black Americans the kind of transformation other white ethnic groups have gone through.

As I write this, there are still headlines of chaos in many U.S. cities, of protests and looting. I don’t know what’s going to happen or even what the mood will be when this piece comes out in a few days. Whatever transpires, we must not forget how we got here. We must summon the experience of our relatives who feared the police with good reason, who were unable to walk a street with the lightness of being and anonymity many of us — though not all — enjoy today.

My heart is broken. It’s broken for the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It’s broken for the independent business owners whose livelihood is compromised when their stores are looted. It’s broken by the white supremacist groups fomenting violence by posing as protesters and skewing the narrative. It’s broken by our division, our tragic rupture.

Growing up, I was taught to celebrate Jewish resistance and uprising. We Jews know how it feels to be raging, to be broken, to live in terror of our fellow human beings. We know how it feels to want to fight back. I hope we can all hold hope in our hearts for each other and move forward to live together without fear. We have to find a way.

Liz Spikol is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent, an affiliated publication of the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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