Jewish Run-ins with the Police — Past and Present
When New York was still New Amsterdam, Asser Levy demanded the right to serve in the citizen militia — the colonial equivalent of the police.
New York’s professional police force, founded in 1845, at times fixated on Jewish criminals. German-Jewish immigrant Adam Worth, who robbed banks on both sides of the Atlantic, was notorious as the “Napoleon of Crime.” Almost as famous as western outlaw Billy the Kid (born of Irish parents on New York’s East Side), Worth became one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s models for Sherlock Holmes’ arch-enemy Professor Moriarty.
Serious friction between Jews and the police began with the influx of East European Jewish immigrants. In 1902, when Rabbi Jacob Joseph died, assailants showered his funeral cortege of 25,000 mourners with brickbats (known as “Irish confetti”). Using billy clubs, police joined in shouting: “Kill those sheenies! Club them right and left!”
The Yidishes Tageblatt in 1900 had condemned a police riot as “a terrible pogrom against Negroes.” But not until Police Commissioner Theodore A. Bingham blamed rampant criminality on Jewish immigrants — describing them as “burglars, firebugs, pickpockets, and highway robbers, when they have the courage” — did New York’s Jewish community form the Kehilla, or Jewish community council. Despite recanting his false charges that Jews committed half of New York’s crimes, Bingham was fired. Historians Leonard Dinnerstein and Arthur A. Goren tell this story.
In 1924, the NYPD’s Shomrim Society, modeled on a Catholic officers’ association, was launched. In addition to the Shomrim Society for Jewish police professionals, there are currently volunteer neighborhood shomrims, particularly in Brooklyn, where Haredi Jews live in an uncertain climate, almost 30 years after the Crown Heights riots.
By the 1930s, a career in policing looked increasingly attractive to young Jews seeking job security. Some estimate that there are a few thousand Jews in the NYPD — though relations with the community can still be tenuous.
Outside of Manhattan, Orthodox Jews — appalled by anti-black racism, but angered by their treatment during coronavirus shutdowns and efforts to keep them from congregating in violation of public safety laws — have opposed the NYPD. Concerned Haredi communities oppose “defunding the police,” as do many, if not most, New York Jews. Some progressive Jews not only support defunding, but seem to equate being “a good Jew” with backing even more radical changes urged by some Black Lives Matter activists.
In Los Angeles after World War II, police chief William H. Parker led the “police professionalization” movement. Things changed after the Rodney King riots, which caused the LAPD to question Parker’s militarized model for professionalization. Los Angeles, with the support of both African-American and Jewish communities, moved toward community-oriented policing that made the reformed LAPD — and not the NYPD — the new national model. Those are the kind of reforms needed today.
Amid calls to reduce funding to the police — and transfer responsibility for non-violent responses to other agencies — it must be asked if a defunded LAPD can satisfy calls for change, while also protecting neighborhoods and small businesses of all ethnicities. Jews from Los Angeles to New York have a stake in the answer.
Historian Harold Brackman is coauthor with Ephraim Isaac of From Abraham to Obama: A History of Jews, Africans, and African Americans (Africa World Press, 2015).