March 13th, 2009

storyteller doll

Jewish Criminals

The D.C. Jewish Community Center's current art exhibit is Real Machers: Pat Hamou's portraits of American Jewish Gangsters, 1900-1945. In association with that, they had a program yesterday evening, which featured a panel discussion on Jewish criminals. I got there in time to have a somewhat superficial look around the exhibit, which looks like it would be worth an hour or so.

The title of the program was "From Meyer Lansky to Bernie Madoff: Talking About Jewish Criminals" and that title already suggests a problem. Namely, people think very differently about Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel and others of that era than they do about Madoff. (I should note that the scheduling of the program on the same day as Madoff's plea was coincidental, but was probably a reason the attendance was so high. I'd guess there were close to 150 people there.) That problem is exactly what the discussion focused on. The panelists were a nephew of Lepke Buchalter (of Murder, Inc.), a writer who'd written an article about descendents of Jewish gangsters (published in Moment Magazine last year) and a lawyer who has defended several high-profile white collar criminals. Each of them spoke briefly (and entertainingly), followed by questions / discussion from the audience.

In general, I'd say there was more discussion of Madoff than of the historical gangsters. One interesting point was that, aside from the gangsters running contrary to Jewish stereotypes (while Madoff reinforces them), the gangsters were typically not targeting other Jews. I'm not sure I completely agree with that, since the exhibit suggested there were at least a few gang wars between Jewish gangs. But many of the gangsters "helped" unions by beating up scabs. And, of course, Murder, Inc.'s biggest customer was the Mafia.

Another thing I found interesting is that nobody mentioned Sholom Rubashkin. Perhaps his case has not gotten quite as much general publicity, but I'd argue that it's a significant one in terms of having a specifically Jewish context. I wish I'd thought of it earlier in the evening so I could have asked the panelists to comment on it specifically.