What made these Jewish immigrants turn to crime?

COMES the New Year (the Jewish New Year, naturally), comes the new job!

I’ve just commenced my tenure of a five-year Senior Research Fellowship at the prestigious Institute of Historical Research, part of the School ofAdvanced Study of the University of London.

I plan to use these unrivalled facilities to research the contribution Jews have made to the development of crime and criminality in the UK since Oliver Cromwell sanctioned our readmission to this country in 1656.

Ethnic minorities typically legitimate themselves in the eyes of their host communities in one or more of the following ways:

(a) Through the acquisition of wealth.

(b) Through entry into politics.

(c) Through entry into the professions.

(d) Through success in the world of entertainment.

(e) Through success in the world of sport.

(f) Through success in the criminal underworld.

In America, we can see all these social dynamics at work in the case of the blacks, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews and — more recently — the Latinos, and much research has been published in the cases of each.

But in relation to the United Kingdom and its Jewish populations, although studies have been published that address wealth, politics [my own work], the professions, entertainment and sport, very little serious research has been carried out into the interface between British Jewry and Britain’s criminal classes.

This is not because Jews have not played a prominent part in Britain’s criminal underworld. Quite the contrary!

“Ikey Solomons,” on whom it is thought by some that Charles Dickens modelled Fagin in Oliver Twist, is the subject of an entertaining biography by J J Tobias.

Some interesting but limited work has been done on Jews and the criminal underworld in 18th-century London. In the early 19th century, the persistence of Jewish-owned brothels in the capital became a communal scandal. They were condemned — publicly — by Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschell in 1836.

Professor Colin Holmes, of the University of Sheffield, has recently published [in a book of essays dedicated to the late East End Jewish historian Bill Fishman] an essay on The Reubens Brothers: Jews, Crime and the East London Connection, 1887-1911.

There have, of course, been numerous studies of Jack the Ripper, who has been positively identified as a Jewish schizophrenic, Aaron Kosminsky.

Coming to more recent times, Jews have inevitably featured in studies of white-collar crime, such as the Guinness Affair (1985).

Nor have prominent Anglo-Jewish paedophiles escaped attention: I have myself written about the sexual crimes of the late Sidney Greenbaum (died 1996), sometime Quain Professor of English Language at University College London, whose Dictionary of National Biography entry I co-authored.

But all these studies — valuable in themselves — tell us little about the wider picture.

Why have Jewish immigrants to these shores become involved in criminal enterprises? Were they simply criminal immigrants? Have Anglo-Jewish criminals favoured some types of crime rather than others? Is it true that Jews are “over-represented” in certain forms of criminal activity but “under-represented” in others?

And how, precisely, has Jewish involvement in crime in the UK modulated the Jewish relationship with “native” criminals as well as with wider sections of British society?

In America, a number of scholarly studies have been published asking not dissimilar questions. But no comparable scholarly, longitudinal study of Jewish crime and Jewish criminality in the UK has ever been published.

This is not accidental. In the 19th century and for much of the 20th, great communal pressure was brought to bear on historians of British Jewry to ensure that what they wrote supported a positive image of Britain’s Jewish minorities.

The first history of Anglo-Jewry to be written by an Anglo-Jewish writer — a pamphlet, published in 1847 in Chambers Miscellany — the work of a woman of Marrano descent, Grace Aguilar, contained the following astonishing assertion: “Jews are still considered aliens and foreigners . . . little known and less understood.

“Yet they are, in fact, Jews only in their religion — Englishmen in everything else. A Jewish murderer, adulterer, burglar or even petty thief is actually unknown.”

The fact is that there were plenty of Jewish criminals in Britain in the 1830s and 1840s, and it is difficult indeed to believe that Aguilar did not know about them.

But later historians were also careful to tip-toe around Jewish criminal manifestations.

It’s only towards the end of the 20th century that Jewish criminality was more than merely obliquely hinted at.

It is this gap that I now propose to fill.


© 2017 Jewish Telegraph