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Chapters in American Jewish History are provided by the American Jewish Historical Society, collecting, preserving, fostering scholarship and providing access to the continuity of Jewish life in America for more than 350 years (and counting). Visit www.ajhs.org.
There are few excuses for the behavior of Jewish gangsters in the 1920s and 1930s. The best known Jewish gangsters–Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Siegel, Longy Zwillman, Moe Dalitz–participated in the numbers rackets, illegal drug dealing, prostitution, gambling and loan sharking. They were not nice men. During the rise of American Nazism in the 1930s and when Israel was being founded between 1945 and 1948, however, they proved staunch defenders of their people.
The roots of Jewish gangsters lay in the ethnic neighborhoods of the Lower East Side; Brownsville, Brooklyn; Maxwell Street in Chicago; and Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Like other newly arrived groups in American history who were blocked from access to respectable professions, a few Jews used crime as a means to “make good” economically. The market for vice flourished during Prohibition and Jews exploited the illegal market created by the bans on alcohol, gambling, paid sex, and narcotics.
Few of these men were religiously observant. They rarely attended services, although they did support congregations financially. They did not keep kosher or send their children to day schools. However, at crucial moments, they protected other Jews in America and around the world.
The 1930s in America were a period of rampant anti-Semitism, particularly in the Midwest. Father Charles Coughlin, Detroit’s “Radio Priest,” and William Pelley of Minneapolis, openly called for Jews to be driven from positions of responsibility, if not from the country itself. Organized Brown Shirts in New York and Silver Shirts in Minneapolis both outraged and terrorized American Jewry. While the older and more respectable Jewish organizations pondered a response that would not alienate non-Jewish supporters, others–including rabbis-asked the gangsters to break up American Nazi rallies.
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