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The Immigrant Jew in America

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LIVING IN AMERICA: THE JEWISH EXPERIENCE  CONCLUSIONS 

The Russian Jew in Philadelphia*
X. LAW AND LITIGATION
by Isaac Hassler, LL. B.
Member, Philadelphia Bar

* - From "The Immigrant Jew in America"-- issued by the National Liberal Immigration League, New York City, 1907.
Also included in earlier 1905 edition of "The Russian Jew in the United States."

What is the relation of the newly arrived Jew of Eastern Europe, generally termed for convenience, the Russian Jew, to American law In the absence of statistical information or because of ignorance of his peculiar mental and native equipment, erroneous conclusions might be arrived at. The conspicuous presence of the Russian Jew in our courts calls occasionally for hasty, often prejudiced opinions, which the light of the real facts must dispel. If the Russian Jew seems to appear with frequency in the courts, the tendency of the observer, however calm and reserved, to magnify the impression of a novel and individual spectacle must not be forgotten. In the general melange of all kinds of persons of which the assemblage at the courts is made up, few will specially attract the eye save those who are distinguished by some peculiarities of appearance or address or language. Recent immigrants of any nationality almost will be liable to the distinction. The"outlander" is very easily singled out from the throng in whatever country he may be. But in our courts many nationalities, such as English, Irish and German, for obvious reasons, will attract but little special attention because of their near approximation to accepted American types. But when to a latent prejudice is added the striking individual appearance of the Russian Jews, it will be seen that the impression made by them, standing out clearly as they do in the eye of the observer from the rest of the crowd of litigants and suitors, may easily be exaggerated, and a rapid judgment will come to the sincere but perhaps erroneous view that Russian Jews make over frequent appearance in the public formns. Under such circumstances "one swallow may make a whole summer." This caution is here expressed because the writer has found the view to exist upon the part of many persons that the Russian Jew is unduly litigious.

Something needs also to be said of the Russian Jew's previous life and circumstances. His status under the laws of his native land is uncertain. The only certainty consists in the restrictions which are laid about him and which forbid his assertion of public rights of the commonest order. He is not equal WIth Russian Christians before the Russian law. It must not be supposed that this dulls his desire for the rights that are withheld and makes him indifferent to their acquisition or importance; on the contrary, as is natural with any people, particularly a people of strong intellectual and moral fibre, the desire it merely whetted by deprivation. Again, in consequence of this civic discrimination and by force of Russia's policy, with respect to him, the Jew is shut out of the current of the national life, such as there is, and is thrown back upon himself. From the cares of every day existence, his religion and its books are his recreation, nay, even the chief aim and purpose of his life, and discussion of Jewish law, particularly as contained in the Talmud, becomes the intellectual bread upon which his strong mentality is nourished. The Jewish law will rival in every respect the most important bodies of law which have appeared among men in history; it has its codes and codifications, digests and dicta, precedents, professors and students; great underlying principles, refined scholastic distinctions, quibbles and strength, as have all systems of law It differs from any modern system in that it makes no distinction between civil law and moral law; all the "civil" law is moral law and all the "moral" law is civil law, a thing which is not true of the common law in force in England and many parts of the United States, in which obligations ex foro conscientia are not necessarily enforceable in foro legis. There is a whole great range of human relations, rights, and obligations into which the common law does not enter and with which it does not concern itself, but the Jewish law concerns itself with all relations between men, and even between men and God and has been the supreme regulation of Jewish life for long centuries. An aptitude for law, an appreciation of its value, a delight in its intellectual contests, and a reverene for its decision is a natural inheritance of the Jewish peopIe. The repressions of Russian policy do not destroy this abiding faith in law; and the freedom of America encourages it. So much for a few points of general application.

The situation of the Russian Jew in Philadelphia doe
s not differ materially from his situation in other cities of similar size except in a small degree caused by local peculiarities. He is alert, progressive, and thrifty. He enters quickly into business and by hard work and energetic application has made a place for himself in a short time. He is fairly successful in the small shop and by gradual stages comes to have the large manufacturing establishment, and his signs may be seen in all the important wholesale streets of the city. He is a handicraftsman and an employer of labor, and there is probably no branch of trade in which he is not represented in some way. In the mazes of business and investment with others, intricate relations result naturally in a proportionable amount of "lawing" and its incidents. He is a quick student and has early learned the lesson that legal advice in time is a preventive of law suits; conscious of certain handicaps of speech and the other concomitants of a foreign birth, he avails himself freely of the training and skill of the lawyer.

An important part in the legal life of the Russian Jew is played by Russian Jewish notaries public. A number of Russian Jews hold commissions as notaries and have offices in the Russian Jewish district. Their contact with law gives them a smattering of legal knowledge and they not only authenticate papers notarially, but do a quasi-legal business, drawing with more or less skill contracts and papers, engaging in real estate transactions, insurance, and the like, and acting as semi-professional, semi-friendly advisers generally. These "notary public shops," as they have been aptly termed, are the necessary local requirement of a people who need legal services and who turn naturally to those they know best for such assistance. Usually there is a qualified attorney-at-law who either maintains a branch office with the notary public or to whom the latter refers the more difficult part of his business.

No other class of citizens not native born figures as largely in the civil lists of the courts, because no other class as quickly makes its way in the industrial world and enters so keenly into its life and intricacies. But as compared with the whole population, and keeping in view the Russian Jew's business interests, statistical data do not show any undue litigiousness.1 Of a total of 1,330 cases listed for trial in a trial term of the Philadelphia courts of common pleas, Russian Jews were plaintiffs or defendants or both in 112 cases, a percentage of 8.42; a similar list of 770 cases of another period showed 54 Russian Jewish cases, a percentage of 7.01. The percentage of Russian Jewish case may safely be placed between seven and eight, a result verified from other court list data. This is close to the Russian Jew's actual percentage of population and would indicate a closer identification with its business and othe interests than is, the case with other immigrant people whose percentage of "lawing" is not so high and whose activities are correspondingly not so great. The figures therefore show not an indication of obnoxious assertiveness, but a plain result of business and industrial activity.

In the magistrates' or justices' courts (having a civi jurisdiction of cases where not more than one hundred dollars is involved) no very accurate information is obtainable, owing to their number and the relative inaccessibility of their records. Certain magistrates in sections of the city near to the Russian Jewish districts have a large proportion of their business emanating from Jews. The cases are vigorously pressed and as vigorously fought but one of the magistrates, who had a large amount of this class of business, informed the writer that there is a strong tendency to arbitrate cases, and this is a well known practice, whether before or after a case is begun in court. Some rabbi, a well-known banker, or business man, a notary public, is selected as arbitrator and the difficulty is peaceably adjusted. The rabbi has great influence in this direction and it would seem is most frequently the arbitrator.

A reference to his standing in the world of real estate including its buying, selling, mortgaging and the like which is closely allied to the world of general law, will show that the Russian Jew is alive to the merits of the building association system, and to the merits of real estate whether for investment or personal use. A considerable number of Russian Jewish real estate brokers, agent and dealers of good standing, whose clientele grows rapidly beyond the Russian Jewish circle, attests his active participation in this important field. The daily newspaper lists of real estate transactions show an increasing number of Jewish names; and the Russian Jew is well represented at the sales at leading real estate exchanges.

That he is provident is markedly shown in these real estate dealings. He buys real estate with the idea of saving his money; he buys when he has but a small amount of money to invest, leaving the rest upon easy payment mortgage, which he slowly and surely pays off, though his earnings be but small; he buys not expecting or anticipating to be foreclosed, but intending to save and eventually to acquire clear a home, a shop, or an investment, and the mortgage acts as a spur instead of a weight. Hence he is considered a good "moral risk" in the matter of mortgage loans. He is besides steadily advancing into the field of the larger real estate and building operations.

The field of criminal law presents some interesting features. There is a considerable amount of this class of litigation. There was a time when the presence of a Jew in the criminal court was of exceeding rarity; it is not so now. Yet this important fact must be remembered; as noted above, when the Russian Jew does appear his striking individuality will stand out in such strong relief as to leave a lasting impression and draw many to the conclusion that the Jew is occupying a considerable part of the time of the criminal court. The writer has heard court officers speak in this way; they forget the thousands of cases in which men of no special peculiarity appeared in court but remember with great vividness the Jews who pass before them. This is understandable, but quite wrong. An illustration of how this alien appearance works against the Jew may not be out of place. If a Jew in business difficulty should confess judgment to those whom he wishes to prefer among his creditors, the fact would be remembered, while if it were done by a non-Jew, no one would remember it as a tendency of the particular class. Recently a large corporation with public purposes confessed judgment in favor of certain creditors who were also its managers and officers; by this process a large number of claims against the company were effectually rendered worthless. The matter attracted passing attention but it will certainly not be stigmatized as a characteristic of the people who effected this highly inequitable result. Yet the incident was as ftagrant as any that could be cited.

An examination of the kind of crimes prevalent among Jews reveals no cause for serious alarm. The majority are assault and battery cases of a trivial description and they arise quite naturally. The living together in large numbers, several families in a house, the keen business rivalry, bring, with a people of the excitable, nervous temperament of the Jew, frequent occasions when high words pass and--infrequently--a blow is struck;--infrequently because in many cases the whole trouble is mere hot language and threatening gestures. As the slightest touching in anger is in technical law a battery, ample material for a prosecution on the part of an angry man or woman is provided. Not usually the other party spurred on by the institution of legal proceeding and as a measure of protection by way of counter offense, institutes a cross-charge, and it is found that a large proportion of these Russian Jewish assault and battery cases consist of counter bills. The result is generally that by the time the matter comes to court, both parties, now in cooler blood, are heartily sick of the whole matter, a better feeling ensues, and both cases are submitted by agreement and dropped. When they proceed so far as a trial, it generally results in the jury acquitting both sides, being unable to determine from the conflicting evidence who is guilty; the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven controls and there is a happy ending for the contestants. But not infrequently the mediation of some cool-headed friend, who makes an appeal to their good "Jewish feeling," produces the desired result of peace.

These conclusions are not merely the result of collated opinions of those informed on the subject, but are verified by statistical data. The result of one hundred and sixty assault and battery cases against Jewish defendants tried in the Philadelphia courts in one year was but twenty-nine convictions and one hundred and thirty-one acquittals.

Other crimes committed by Jews are quite below the proportion in the whole community. Some of them grow out of the Jew's prominence in business. Cases of larceny by bailee arise, as where in a dispute over the amount due by a manufacturer of clothing to a finisher, the finishe retains the articles until he is paid, and the manufacturer causes his arrest. These are really civil disputes, which, however, may be brought technically within a criminal statute; they are generally settled amicably. Isolated cases of embezzlement, forgery, larceny, malicious mischief, conspiracy, receiving stolen goods and the like, sometimes technically, sometimes substantially true, occur, but they are not unduly frequent.

Before the institution of the juvenile court, a considerable number of larceny cases appeared against Jews; so also a fair number of malicious mischief cases. Many of these were cases of petty depredations by boys which would now be met by the more adequate remedies of the juvenile court. It is true that the once unsullied name of the Jew is not now unspotted, but the fault is not so much with the Jew as with those trying conditions, for which he is not responsible, under which these deplorable results have appeared. The tyranny practiced against him in his old home and the utterly different conditions of American life to which he is suddenly transported, conditions of bad housing and the like, and the demands of a business world whose prevailing standards are not always of the highest, demanding tense vigilance and strenuous zeal, contribute to the cause.

Data of tried cases in a year show the following results: Twenty cases of obtaining money or a valuable thing by cheating or misrepresentation showed four convictions and sixteen acquittals; four cases of receiving stolen goods resulted in one conviction and three acquittals; five cases of perjury resulted in no convictions and five acquittals; of arson not a single case was found during the year in question; homicide is almost unknown.

If the keeping of bawdy houses and prostitution, once practically unknown among Jews, have made their appearance in Philadelphia as in other American cities, it is to be remembered that the former freedom of the Jews from these evils rather over-emphasizes their spread.

Some curious violations of the criminal law and the laws of marriage occur through reliance upon the provisions of the Jewish law, in ignorance of the law of the state. The gett (divorce) duly granted according to the Jewish law, is of course of no avail in the courts here, though it is in Russia.

Similarly cases of marriage within consanguineous degrees forbidden by the state law but allowed by the Jewish law and innocently contracted, have arisen. No disposition of the authorities to punish innocent defendants in such cases appears. The rabbis have taken some steps to prevent this conflict of laws, one suggestion being a refusal to grant the Jewish divorce until the civil divorce has been obtained.

The following data of the inmates of prisons and reform institutions in Philadelphia are of interest:

In the Eastern Penitentiary (prisoners committing the graver crimes in the eastern part of Pennsylvania are sent to this prison) there were on November 11, 1904, in all 1,121 prisoners, of whom 20 were Jews, 8 percentage or 1.78, which is very small as compared with the percentage of population, which is 7.7 per cent of these, 11 or not quite one per cent of the whole number of prisoners, were Jews of Eastern Europe, Russia, Austria, etc.; 7 were Jews born in the United States, one in England, and one in Scotland. The nativity of the parentage of these has not been ascertained. The following were the crimes committed by the Eastern European Jews: Murder 1,2 larceny and receiving 1, larceny and entering 2, burglary larceny and horse stealing 1, false pretenses 1, forgery 1, counterfeiting 1, assault and battery with intent to rape 1, distilling whisky without giving bond 1, breaking and entering 1.

In the Philadelphia county prison the total number of convicts (December 12, 1904) was 509, of whom 18, or 3.54 per cent, were Jews. Of these, 12, or 2.36 per cent of the total number of prisoners, were born in Russia, 3 in the United States, 2 in Germany and 1 in England. The following were the charges: Larceny 6, aggravated assault and battery 2, forgery 3, receiving stolen goods 3, robbery 2, burglary 1, involuntary manslaughter 1.

Grouping these data it is found that Jews are inmates of the prisons for serious crimes to the extent of 2.66 per cent, while the Jew's percentage of the population is 7.7 per cent, or nearly three times as great.

Juvenile delinquency among Russian Jews has perhaps aroused the most discussion. The causes of this are again largely economic; housing conditions are bad; the parent are hard-working and too busy with earning the livelihood to pay sufficient attention to their children, who, left to themselves, learn idle or vicious habits on the street and in the thousand ways of imitative childhood. Beside many children very early help in the family support ane as newsboys in large numbers on the streets and in the lower classes of employment are deprived of the opportunity of refining influences. In addition, the child, quickly Americanized, speedily finds a gulf between itself and its parents in respect of religious and other sentiments, and the parental authority grows less and less of a restraint. The juvenile court, with its system of probation officers, and Jewish agencies and the settlements and other kindred institutions, is working acceptably with this condition.

In the House of Refuge for boys at Glen Mills, Pa. (which is a high grade corrective institution and not a prison), out of a total of 766 inmates, 61, or 7.96 per cent, were Jews, almost all of whom were Eastern European. Of these, twenty-seven were charged with larceny, twenty­four with incorrigibility and the others with various delinquencies, such as running away from home, fighting, keeping bad company, malicious mischief, and the like.

In the Girls' House of Refuge, out of a total of 127 inmates, 8, or 3.81 were Jewish, all charged with being incorrigible.

There is no specifically Jewish institution to receive delinquent children, but Jewish organizations are providing private places for their care. There is no doubt that the previous rarity of delinquency of this kind among Jews accentuates the dismay felt at its recent manifestation. As economic conditions better for the Jew, however, and as some of the agencies now at work grow in influence and assist where the parents are unable to influence, the matter will be adjusted.

The Russian Jew on the whole appears in a favorable light from the standpoint of the law. Such criticisms as may be made are apt to be exaggerated, and where just should rather be made against conditions for which he is not responsible and of which he is the victim. He has not lost his character as, and is pre-eminently, a law-abiding citizen, earnestly interested in the welfare of the state, and no less keenly alive to his civic responsibilities than to his civic privileges.
 


1 It is estimated that there are about 100,000 Jews in Philadelphia (of whom 76.000 are Russian Jews), out of a total population of 1,800,000 for the city.
2 As noted above, it is an isolated case.

 

 


 



 

 


 











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