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'I Worry for My Kids': Race Panic, Jewish Memory and Jewish Amnesia

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"Brought Up to Lives of Crime"

When the New York City Police Commissioner speaks, people listen -- even if the issue is the uncomfortable topic of ethnicity and criminality.

So it's news when he says "it is not astounding that with a million" of one race living in New York, "perhaps half of the criminals should be of that race."

"Among the most expert of all the street thieves," the commissioner asserted, "are [their] boys under sixteen, who are being brought up to lives of crime. Many of them are old offenders at the age of ten." The child "emulates the adult in the matter of crime percentages -- 40 percent of the boys... and 27 percent of those arraigned in the Children's Court being of that race."

In the week that a federal judge found the New York Police Department violated the constitutional rights of young men of color in carrying out their "stop-and-frisk" policies -- a tactic permitting the detention of young men of color without probable cause -- perhaps the Commissioner's words don't come as a surprise.

Except that the statement was made not in 2013, but in 1908. The Police Commissioner who said it was not Raymond Kelly, but Theodore A. Bingham.

And the "race" he was talking about was "Hebrews."

"The crimes committed by the Hebrews are generally those against property, " Bingham warned. "They are burglars, firebugs, pickpockets and highway robbers -- when they have the courage."

Imagined Crimes

The stop-and-frisk verdict comes at what feels like a unique a moment in American history. Between the George Zimmerman acquittal (and President Obama's response to it), and the buzz around the film Fruitvale Station, many Americans are finding themselves grappling for the first time with issues of race privilege.

For some, it takes some imagination to identify with the reality of Latino and African Americans. Jews, on the other hand, have lived a different history. Commissioner Bingham was not the first person to suggest that Jews had a special predilection toward criminal behavior. Especially in Europe, Jews were accused of a panoply of imagined crimes. From poisoning wells, to desecrating communion wafers, to profiteering and usury, invented crimes have been used as a pretext to harass, imprison, and murder Jews for hundreds of years.

Perhaps best known is the infamous Blood Libel, in which Jews were imagined to abduct and kill Christian babies, in order to use their blood to make Passover matzah. As a result of this slander, countless numbers of Jews -- many of them young men and boys -- were abducted and slaughtered. Even when they escaped this fate, Jewish boys in Eastern Europe were routinely apprehended by the Czar's army, conscripted for decades of "service," often never to be seen by their families again.

Some have questioned the logic of white Americans donning hoodies and claiming, in solidarity with the Martin family, "I am Trayvon." But make no mistake: for hundreds of years, it was Jews who were "stopped-and-frisked." For most of our history, perhaps more than any other people, we were Trayvon.

If anyone could identify with innocent young men deemed suspicious for no other reason save their ethnicity, it would be Jews. If anyone could identify with anxiety about how their children will be treated by the ruling authorities in their cities and towns, it would be Jews. If any parent could imagine what it would be like to have your unarmed child stalked and killed -- a born suspect -- it would be a Jewish parent.

The reality, however, is not so simple.

"I Worry for My Kids, and I Worry for Your Kids"

At the same time Commissioner Bingham was writing his screed, Jews were beginning the process of integrating themselves into mainstream America. Anthropologist Karen Brodkin Sacks, author of How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race In America, writes that the "GI Bill and FHA and VA mortgages were forms of affirmative action that allowed male Jews and other Euro-American men to... become professionals, technicians, salesmen and managers in a growing economy."

As we've moved up the economic and social ladder, many Jews have remembered our history as a despised and targeted ethnic minority. And many haven't.

For a number of Jews, official Jewish responses to the Zimmerman verdict were disappointing. The ADL released a statement acknowledging that the trial pointed to "unresolved issues of race in our country," but undercut that sentiment by emphasizing that the anti-discrimination organization doesn't "question the verdict in the Zimmerman case." Other Jewish organizations simply remained silent. Some individual Jewish writers and rabbis decried the verdict, as well as Zimmerman's actions (see, for example, Michael Lerner, Eliyahu Fink, Eliyahu Federman, and Aryeh Cohen), but the leaders of our largest Jewish organizations seemed only too willing to forget our shared history of oppression.

The news this week was more disappointing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is a descendent of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe on both sides of his family. Yet, in response to the repudiation of his police force's race-based stop-and-frisk policy, he used classic language of fear and suspicion. "I worry for my kids, and I worry for your kids. I worry for you and I worry for me," he offered. "Crime can come back any time the criminals think they can get away with things."

As long as Mayor Bloomberg refuses to delineate between young men of color and "the criminals," he is trading in the same fear mongering used in the not-too-recent past to demonize young Jewish men. And he is helping to create a climate in which juries "understand" why a man like George Zimmerman would feel threatened by an unarmed boy like Trayvon Martin -- threatened enough to kill him.

This climate of fear has left mothers bereft of their sons, then as now. "A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children," reported the prophet Jeremiah 2500 years ago, the Babylonian sweeping through Jerusalem, filling the streets with blood and misery. "She refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more." Mayor Bloomberg may worry for his kids. But it is the Rachels of today, mothers of young men of color, who are losing theirs.

Remember that You Were Slaves

Jewish mothers have wept for their sons at too many moments in our history. In Exodus, we're told that Pharaoh announces to his people that the Israelites are becoming "too numerous," and that the solution is to enslave and murder them. The Torah instructs Jews to eternally remember that history, repeating dozens of times that it is a Jewish obligation to "remember that you were slaves" -- to prevent any other group from suffering a similar fate.

In 1908, Jewish activists protested Commissioner Bingham's characterization of Jews as born criminals. He was forced to issue a retraction. Today, we as Jews live in an unprecedented moment in Jewish history, when many of us have achieved the American Dream. Now, with our future brighter than ever, it is vital that we remember our past -- when we were born suspects, when we walked the streets in fear for ourselves and our children, when Jewish mothers worried whether their boys would come home -- and stand with today's victims of fear and suspicion, standing for justice, compassion, and righteousness.