Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner
December 2014
Guest Introduction: Prof. Robert A. Rockaway 
Professor Emeritus, Tel Aviv University
Author, But He Was Good to His Mother: The Lives and Crimes of Jewish Gangsters  
(Gefen, 2000)

     Until the 1980s, very little published material dealt with American Jews and crime. The American Jewish establishment worked to dissuade any discussion, research, or publishing related to Jewish criminality, reflecting, in turn, the widespread insecurity that second generation Jewish Americans felt about their status and position in America. Jewish leaders experienced and remembered powerful anti-Jewish attitudes during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and feared anything tarnishing the "nice Jewish boy" image they sought to project.


     When I began my research on Jewish gangsters and the role Jews played in organized crime, more than one communal leader asked me to refrain because it was "bad for the Jews" and could generate renewed antisemitism. When I was invited to lecture on the topic at American universities, wealthy Jewish donors often threatened to withdraw their support if I was allowed to speak. (In point of fact,no invitation was ever withdrawn and none withheld-as far as I know.)


     My research found that American Jews played significant roles in organizing crime on a national scale. During the Prohibition era, many Jewish gangsters achieved significant notoriety, among them: Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, Abner "Longy" Zwillman, Max "Boo Boo" Hoff, Louis "Lekpe" Buchalter, Meyer "The Little Man" Lansky, Isadore "Kidd Cann" Blumenfeld, Dutch Schultz Flegenheimer, and Moe Dalitz. Jewish criminal syndicates dominated criminal activities in Detroit, Newark, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. Their illegal activities encompassed bootlegging, extortion, prostitution, drugs, kidnapping, and murder-with a little bribery of police and government officials thrown in. And yet, little had been written about them.


     The situation has changed, as the last three decades have witnessed a growing literature on Jews and crime. One reason for this turn is that antisemitism has fallen considerably, while Jews' advancing generational status in the United States has helped generate more confidence about their status and position in the general society. Further fueling the rise in scholarship on Jewish criminality is that many more Jews pursue academic careers as historians and sociologists of American Jewry. In addition, the State of Israel has provided an image of the Jews as a "normal" people, with all the flaws and failings of other nations and groups, including crime. The changed atmosphere has resulted in a spate of doctoral dissertations, monographs, and studies treating Jewish criminality.   


     The BJPA Readers Guide: Jews and Crime presents current research on criminal behavior and deviance within the Jewish community that were once considered off-limits for serious research. Topics include sexual and domestic violence, crime and community, gun crime, financial crime, and spying for Israel, among others. While the topics may be depressing, they show a new openness and maturity within the American Jewish community to discuss and publish subject matter that was once taboo.  





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