“The crimes committed by the Russian Hebrews are generally those against property. They 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. Among the most expert of all the street thieves are Hebrew boys under sixteen, who are being brought up to lives of crime.”
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This bracing appraisal wasn’t made by a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, in 2015, but in a famous article by a New York Police Commissioner, Theodore Bingham, in 1908. And he wasn’t referring to Mexicans, obviously, but to the “Hebrew hordes”, as they were often called at the time, who had fled the Czarist persecutions in Russia. The song, nonetheless, sounds familiar.
“Wherefore it is not astonishing that with a million Hebrews, mostly Russian, in the city, (one quarter of the population), perhaps half 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,” Bingham wrote. The Jewish community was up in arms, vigorously protesting Bingham’s wild exaggerations, but the damage was done. It was another brick in the wall that would soon shut the gates of America to Eastern European Jews.
Nativist sentiments, like the ones that Trump has kindled in recent weeks, had been sweeping America in the economic ups and downs of the last two decades of the 19th century. Republican President Benjamin Harrison’s administration warned against “large numbers of degraded and undesirable persons” about to sweep the country. An Immigration Restriction League was set up, with widely respected Republican Senators Henry Cabot Lodge and William Dillingham serving as allies and spokesmen. Although their ostensible mission was to restrict immigration of all people from “Southern or Eastern Europe”, everyone knew that their main target were the Jews, who, as historian Howard Sachar wrote, were portrayed at the time “at best in the familiar guise of pawnshop owners and clothing dealers, at worst as white slavers and gangsters.”
Sustained efforts to limit Jewish immigration to America continued throughout the years leading up the First World War, but were only partially successful: some bills pushed through Congress by nativists and the restrictionist lobby were vetoed by successive presidents. The advent of the war, however, brought immigration to a complete halt, first because of the battles raging in Europe, later because fear and loathing and anti-Semitism had spread throughout the land. Branded before as criminals, shysters and anarchists, in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution, Jews were being viewed as Bolshevik agitators as well, bent on overthrowing America and corrupting its values.
In 1921, Congress introduced an ethnic-based quota system, which limited immigration to 3% of any group’s portion of the U.S. population in 1910. Three years later, the screws were tightened even further, in a bill sponsored by another Republican lawmaker, Albert Johnson from Washington, with the specific aim of singling out Jews: the quota was lowered to 2% and the deciding year was rolled back to 1890, before the massive wave of Eastern European Jews had come to New York.
It was estimated at the time that close to a million Jews had been preparing to emigrate to America, but now found themselves trapped. In recent years, right wing propagandists have been railing - often for ulterior motives, as a way of attacking Obama - against Franklin Roosevelt’s “abandonment of the Jews.” But America had turned its back on Europe’s Jews way before Roosevelt came to power; were it not for the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment that Trump is stoking now, together with the lethal mix of religious and racist hatred of Jews that was rampant in those years, America could have saved countless more Jews than Roosevelt, even if he had bombed Auschwitz or provided sanctuary to many more refugees.
The U.S. might desperately need immigration reform but that does not excuse the deathly Jewish silence on Trump’s outrageous statements. He might not mean to cast aspersions on the entire Mexican people, but that does not excuse his demeaning generalizations about those that are here. True, the Anti-Defamation League’s former chief Abe Foxman condemned Trump’s “hate speech” after the New York billionaire had first mentioned Mexican “killers and rapists who are coming into this country” [and the group called on Trump to condemn Friday’s attack on a Mexican homeless man in Boston, supposedly inspired by Trump’s tirades]. But the ADL has been a voice in the wilderness. Jews have mostly kept mum as Trump advocates forcefully deporting 11 million illegal Mexican immigrants and as he proposes an end to “birthright citizenship” in order to prevent the birth of “anchor babies” to Mexican immigrants and others. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, meanwhile, playfully depicted Trump earlier this month as the “most Jewishly-connected” candidate of all.
If one wants to be generous, one can ascribe the American Jewish muteness to other preoccupations, ranging from summer vacations to arguments over the Iran deal. Perhaps, like some Republican presidential hopefuls, they are simply afraid of the kind of verbal retribution that Trump might unleash if he is criticized. Others still might be motivated by the kind of deep seated hatred of Obama that has caused many Jews to hear, see or speak no evil of any of his potential adversaries.
The most disconcerting possibility, however, is that Jews are losing their historical support for immigration as a defining value of the American ethos; that they are no longer moved by the plea “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” written by Emma Lazarus and engraved on the Statue of Liberty.
Faced with the apparent indifference of their immensely successful and prosperous offspring towards Trump’s outrageous agitation against immigrants, the original criminal vermin and despicable degenerates who emerged from the Lower East Side and other poverty-stricken ghettos might even be turning in their graves.