“Sonka of the Golden Hand,” a Jewish woman criminal, being put into irons, Sakhalin Island, Russia, 1915. (YIVO)

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Crime and Criminals

In Western tradition, a number of factors combined to create the image of Jews as a group with a special propensity for criminal activity. Theological considerations were paramount in the premodern period when Jews were viewed as committers of deicide and as members of the “synagogue of Satan,” capable of any abomination. They were a threat to Christian souls (by propagating apostasy) and bodies (accused of poisoning wells or of ritual murder).

Christian critics charged that the Talmud not only encouraged but even commanded Jews to harm Christians in any way possible. In the Middle Ages, the range of Jewish economic pursuits was restricted, forcing them into activities such as moneylending, that violated the moral economy of the Christian worldview. In the early modern period, these beliefs spread from the West to the lands of PolandLithuania, where the substantial Jewish population was firmly embedded in the national economy. This gave rise to charges of cheating and exploitation. In Muscovy, where there was no significant Jewish presence, the perception of Jews as criminals was largely confined to the charge of deicide and a general desire to harm Christians.

At the end of the eighteenth century, by which time the Russian Empire had become home to the largest Jewish population in the world, perceptions had changed under the impact of Enlightenment ideas. Many Enlightenment thinkers held that Jews were superstitious and backward, hostile to Christians and willing to exploit them. They were moneygrubbing and alienated from the surrounding population. Enlightenment thinkers believed, however, that these negative features were a consequence of the hostile environment created by centuries of Christian persecution. It was felt that a relaxation of restrictive legislation, combined with the influence of modern, progressive ideas, would result in the “civic betterment” of Jews and their transformation into good subjects. These were, in varying degrees, the guiding principles that directed policies of the Russian, Austrian, and Prussian states after the partitions of Poland. All three states sought to “improve” the Jews, but all assumed a high degree of Jewish criminality as a result of the Jewish people’s degraded state. All legislated against “Jewish” criminal pursuits.

Until the end of the nineteenth century, criminal statistics in Eastern Europe were impressionistic at best, but they did indicate some areas of criminal activity in which Jews were especially active. Jewish criminality, or more accurately, criminal activity by Jews, fell into two main categories: such activity as defined by the criminal code of the state, and violations by Jews of restrictive legislation directed only, or primarily, against them.

Violations of the Criminal Code

The physical location of Jews on the borderlands of empires and their concentration in urban settings and in certain types of trade and commerce made certain criminal activities stereotypically “Jewish.” Foremost among these was smuggling. The porous and artificial nature of national frontiers in Eastern Europe, the capricious nature of import duties, protectionism, and the sizable profits to be made, ensured that smuggling was a common phenomenon. As the predominant trade and commercial class in the Russian, Austrian, and German borderlands, with connections across frontiers, Jews were well situated to engage in such activity. All manner of goods were smuggled, including tobacco, specie, and counterfeit banknotes. Jewish merchants of Shklov, for example, a town that became a major frontier entrepôt after the first partition of Poland in 1772, engaged in a massive operation to smuggle counterfeit banknotes into the Russian interior, under the protection of the town’s owner, Count Semen Gavriilovich Zorich, a former favorite of Empress Catherine II. Shklov merchants extended their activities to Moscow, where Russian merchants accused them of fraudulent bankruptcies and other financial irregularities. An official investigation into these claims prompted a ban on the enrollment of Jews in the merchant estate in Russia’s interior provinces, the first of the restrictions that were to create what subsequently became the Jewish Pale of Settlement.

In the reign of Nicholas I, the alleged Jewish propensity for smuggling led, in 1843, to a ban on Jewish settlement within 50 versts of the Austrian and Prussian borders, as well as expulsions of whole Jewish villages. Besides heavily taxed items, such as tobacco, Jews smuggled a wide variety of less obvious contraband, such as Jewish religious texts that had not been passed, as required, by the Russian censor. Later in the century, Jewish smugglers played an important role in the importation of revolutionary literature into the Russian Empire. By the end of the century, Jews were identified with the smuggling of would-be emigrants across the frontier—the going rate was 12 rubles per person, with discounts for Jews. The linkage of Jews with smuggling prompted a public controversy in 1900, when the playwrights Viktor Krylov and Savelii Litvin depicted a Jewish criminal gang, led by a rabbi, in their antisemitic play Kontrabandisty (Smugglers; originally titled Syny Izrailevy [Sons of Israel]). A very different treatment of the same theme was Oyzer Varshavski’s 1920 Yiddish novel Shmuglars (Smugglers), where the Jewish recourse to smuggling during the German occupation of Poland symbolizes the moral breakdown of shtetl life in the chaos of war.

Drawing depicting a Jew in kuna (stocks) in the anteroom of a synagogue. From Toyznt yor Pinsk (Thousand-Year-Old Pinsk) by Benzion Hoffmann (New York: Pinsker Branch 210, Workmens Circle, 1941). (Courtesy Roberta Newman)

Smuggling was a high-risk operation, and there were violent clashes between bands of smugglers and border patrols. In other ways too the criminal record belies the widespread stereotype of Jews as docile victims of a hostile majority population. Although of little interest to national authorities, there was plentiful violence within the Jewish community, exemplified by brawls between adherents of different Hasidic tsadikim. Nor was Jewish–gentile violence a one-sided affair. In the marketplace, Jews were not shy about insulting non-Jewish customers and competitors, nor of participating in the violence that followed. There were several celebrated cases of murder of informers by Jewish communities. Jewish military deserters also represented a violent criminal element, capable of banditry and murder. However, on the whole, criminal statistics in the Russian Empire do suggest that, per capita, Jews were less prone to acts of physical violence than their non-Jewish neighbors. Jewish communal norms that discouraged overindulgence in alcohol clearly played a role here.

The involvement of Jews in the production and sale of distilled spirits, dating to the period of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, led to a major area of lawbreaking by Jews. The trade in spirits in the nineteenth-century Russian Empire was a state monopoly, leased out to tax farmers who produced and sold the product. This system was at once notoriously corrupt, risky, and extremely profitable. A number of family fortunes, such as that of the Gintsburg banking dynasty, had origins in the vodka trade. The rules governing the tavern trade were very specific regarding conditions under which vodka was sold; it was virtually impossible to follow them and make a profit. Thus, involvement in the vodka tax-farming enterprise entailed widespread violation of the law and the suborning of tax inspectors and local officials. In 1894, the old system was replaced by a state-run monopoly; thereafter, Jews were accused of bootlegging and illegal tavernkeeping. Village taverns were centers for the fencing of stolen goods, especially livestock. Since Jews were major dealers in livestock within the Pale of Settlement, rustling was also a much-resented criminal activity associated with them.

Evasion of military service, after it was made mandatory for Jews in 1827, was hardly a crime restricted to Jews. Given the general mobility of the Jewish population, however, it was more easily achieved. The claim that Jews were evading this most important of civic obligations became a major weapon in the arsenal of judeophobe polemics. The government took the problem very seriously and imposed special measures to deter or punish it. These included heavier recruitment rates for Jews and heavy fines on the families of evaders. Jews and judeophobes contested recruitment figures, seeking to show that Jews were proportionately under- or overrepresented in the army. At the end of the century, Jews were accused of disseminating revolutionary propaganda in the ranks of the military. 

Taxes and levies, including military recruitment, were collected from the Jewish community under a system of collective responsibility, or krugovaia porukha. Special communal taxes, such as one on kosher meat, farmed out to collectors within the community, provided tax revenues. This system encouraged corruption and caprice. Before the abolition of the kahal in 1844, the leaders of numerous communities were accused of embezzling taxes, or improperly administering the recruit levy.

Given their mercantile background and rapid urbanization, Jews adapted quickly to the new conditions of emergent capitalism that followed the abolition of serfdom in Russia in 1861. Consequently, Jews became associated with modern forms of criminality, such as insurance fraud and dishonest investment schemes. The assumption that Jews had no scruples about swearing false oaths had a long European pedigree, and produced special, insulting forms of oath taking for Jews. After the introduction of a modern legal system in the Russian Empire in 1865, Jews were widely accused of perjury and suborning witnesses, as well as of bending the law to their own interests. Jewish-run corporations and business concerns, most notably railroads built and operated by Jewish entrepreneurs, were often accused of dishonesty and malfeasance by their rivals. There is no statistical evidence to support these claims. Indeed, Jews made a significant contribution to the development of important sectors of the Russian economy.

The participation of Jews in the great transatlantic migration of people that marked the half century before the Great War expedited the role of Jewish criminals in people trafficking and white slavery, or international prostitution. The appearance in Eastern Europe of Jewish brothel keepers and prostitutes (who were legal), as well as procurers for the white slave trade (who were not), were markers of the decline of traditional Jewish communal values under the impact of modernization. Literary stereotypes, exemplified by the refined Jewish pimp in Sholem Aleichem’s short story “A mentsh fun Buenos-Ayres” (A Man from Buenos Aires; 1909) created the image of white slavery as a quintessentially Jewish occupation. Scholars remain divided as to the extent to which Jews were disproportionately represented in the trade. The association of Jews with international prostitution prompted energetic communal initiatives in Europe and in the Americas against gangs of Jewish procurers. These included the London-based Jewish Association for the Protection of Girls and Women (1885), with its branch in Buenos Aires, Ezrat Nashim, and Bertha Pappenheim’s Jüdischer Frauenbund (1904) in Germany. Anti-vice campaigners in South Africa struggled against gangs of “Peruvians” (i.e., Jews from Poland and Russia).

Some Jews in the large cities of Eastern Europe also engaged in organized crime. Jewish criminal gangs existed in a number of cities, including centers of transatlantic settlement, and moved their operations from country to country in response to local pressure. Contemporary literature, such as Isaac Babel’s Odessa stories, created a romanticized and exaggerated image of Jewish gangsters. While Babel’s Benia Krik was based on a real-life Odessa criminal, Misha Iaponchik (“Mick the ‘Jap’”), recent research disputes the existence of an extensive Jewish criminal underworld in that city.

During World War I, despite the large number of Jews in the Russian army, they were accused of treason, spying, black marketeering, and the hoarding of specie (to create the so-called small-change crisis). During the Russian Civil War and its immediate aftermath, goods, especially foodstuffs, were in short supply, not helped by Soviet efforts at forced requisitioning and control of the marketplace. The situation encouraged smuggling and black marketeering by peasants and Jews alike, but it was the latter who bore much of the blame.

Violations of Restrictive Legislation

A body of laws, dating from 1791, specified areas of the Russian Empire to which Jewish residence was restricted. These encompassed the so-called Pale of Settlement (a band of provinces along Russia’s western border) and the Kingdom of Poland. There were further restrictions within the Pale itself: the city of Kiev was off-limits to permanent Jewish settlement, while Jews were forbidden to live in peasant villages in Belorussian provinces. In 1882, the May Laws banned new Jewish settlement in peasant villages within the Pale (but not the Kingdom of Poland). A series of laws in response to the January uprising of 1861 in the Kingdom of Poland forbade Jews to buy or purchase agricultural lands in most of the western provinces. Evasion of these restrictions constituted a special category of “Jewish criminality.”

Diverse categories of Jews had the right to reside permanently or temporarily outside the Pale, and there were substantial Jewish communities in Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev. These cities sheltered numerous Jews who lived without the treasured pravozhitel’stvo (residence permit). The most common violation in the capitals was mercantile activity carried out by Jewish master craftsmen who were supposed to be plying their trade. The presence of large numbers of Jewish “criminals” was demonstrated whenever local authorities launched a serious crackdown. The most notorious episode was the expulsion of thousands of Jewish illegal residents from Moscow in 1891. The Kiev authorities conducted periodic oblava (hunts) to detain and expel Jewish illegal residents.

Efforts to bar Jews from the countryside were unsuccessful in the short term. In the decade following 1882, the number of rural Jews in the Pale increased in many provinces. Attempts to restrict Jewish ownership of land faced similar obstacles. Jews circumvented these laws by securing long-term and fraudulent leases, or by acting through proxies. Finally, many Jews who left Russia did so illegally, without passports, by being smuggled across the frontier.

While Jews tended to think of themselves as a loyal and law-abiding community, antisemitic discourse portrayed them as a distinctly criminal race. Antisemites in interwar Poland especially stressed this theme. Jews responded to these charges with statistics, such as those published by Liebmann Hersch, professor of statistics and demography at the University of Geneva in 1938, which concluded that the rate of criminal activity of the Jewish population was half that of non-Jews. Nonetheless, the stereotype followed the Ostjuden as they migrated to Western Europe. An important trope of Nazi antisemitism was to portray Jews as a closely linked criminal collective. This assumption was used to justify legal restrictions on Jews in Germany after 1933. Likewise, during the occupation of Poland and the Soviet Union, military action that formed part of the Final Solution was camouflaged as measures taken against “criminal elements.”

Revolutionary Activity and Terrorism

“Urke Nakhalnik will give a lecture on the topic Underworld and Overworld.” Polish/Yiddish poster. Artwork by Kultura. Printed by Filharmonja, Łódź, 1934. (YIVO)

Numerically, Jews did not play a significant role in the Russian revolutionary movement until the end of the 1870s, although a few individuals did participate in the Russian populist movement. The Russian government and revolutionary propagandists conducted a debate in the early 1880s as to whether or not Jews were overrepresented in illegal political activity. Throughout the period from 1881 to 1917, individual Jews, who were thoroughly acculturated and assimilated into Russian society, played important roles in virtually all branches of the revolutionary movement, some assuming leadership roles. With the founding of the Bund in 1897, this activity took on a specific Jewish coloration. Within the provinces of the Pale, Russian officials often identified the Bund as their major security concern. The prominence of Jews allowed both the Russian government and the political right wing to portray the revolutionary movement as “Jewish,” and to regard Jews—especially acculturated ones—as a disloyal political element. Antisemitism became an essential ingredient of the counterrevolutionary movement in Russia. Individual Jewish revolutionaries gained notoriety as political terrorists, the double agent Evno Azev (1869–1918) being the most notorious example.

Judeophobes directed a variety of fantastic charges against the Jews, such as the claim that Jews were engaged in a worldwide anti-Christian conspiracy, led by a “secret kahal.” Jews were also accused of ritual murder, as in the notorious Beilis Affair (1911–1913). The stereotype of “Jewish criminality” was, in essence, a judeophobe myth, but one that enjoyed widespread belief.

Suggested Reading

Edward J. Bristow, Prostitution and Prejudice: The Jewish Fight against White Slavery, 1870–1939 (Oxford and New York, 1982); Arcadius Kahan, Essays in Jewish Social and Economic History (Chicago, 1986); Hillel Kieval, “Antisémitisme ou savoir social?: Sur la genèse du procès moderne pour meurtre rituel,” Annales: Histoire, sciences sociales 49.5 (1994): 1091–1105; John D. Klier, Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855–1881 (Cambridge, 1995); John D. Klier, “Christians and Jews and the ‘Dialogue of Violence’ in Late Imperial Russia,” in Religious Violence between Christians and Jews, ed. Anna Sapir Abulafia, pp. 157–170 (Basingstoke, U.K., 2002); Charles van Onselen, “Jewish Marginality in the Atlantic World: Organised Crime in the Era of the Great Migrations, 1880–1914,” South African Historical Journal 43 (2000): 96–137.