Let's Discriminate Against All The Jewish Lawyers

A Noble American Profession Has an Ignoble Past

The Ruling Class: In the early part of the 20th century, hardly anyone within the upper reaches of the American legal establishment had a good word to say about lawyers from Jewish backgrounds.
Getty Images
The Ruling Class: In the early part of the 20th century, hardly anyone within the upper reaches of the American legal establishment had a good word to say about lawyers from Jewish backgrounds.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published March 10, 2013, issue of March 15, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Charles Boston’s colleague, George Wickersham, a former United States Attorney General, couldn’t agree more. Writing in the 1920s, he allowed how the contemporary American bar was filled with a “pestiferous horde of aspiring lawyers whose spoken English is of the most imperfect character and who lack the faintest comprehension of the nature of our institutions or their history and development.”

Or how about this, from the pen of Harlan Fiske Stone, the dean of Columbia University Law School, who would go on in the 1940s to become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lawyers who are Jewish, he categorically declared, constituted the “greater numbers of the unfit who exhibit racial tendencies toward study by memorization and who display a mind almost Oriental in its fidelity to the minutiae of the subject without regard to any controlling rule or reason.”

At other moments, it wasn’t so much the intellectual bravura, ethnic origins or accented English of Jewish lawyers that disturbed America’s custodians of the law. It was the way they seemed to have transformed the practice of law from a noble, ethical profession into a gritty business.

Take, for example, the remarks of Henry Drinker, one of the nation’s leading authorities on lawyerly ethics during the interwar years.

“These fellows that came out of the gutter and were catapulted into the law,” he wrote, referring to the Jews, “were merely following the methods their fathers had been using in selling shoe strings and other merchandise… that is, the competitive methods they use in business down in the slums.”

Now and again, these harsh comments were softened by slightly more welcoming and encouraging ones, like that made by the dean of one urban night school with a significant enrollment of Jewish students. Every graduate, he observed, “might become a factor for law and order in his immediate neighborhood. His example and influence [might] help to mold the different elements of a cosmopolitan city into one composite mass of law-abiding citizens.”

True enough. But in the overwhelming majority of instances, Jewish lawyers were believed to be constitutionally unable to understand that the law was more than the sum of its provisos. As their critics would have it, the Jews had “little inherited sense of fairness, justice and honor as we understand them,” and were “committed only to their own selfish advancement.” How, then, are “we to preserve our Anglo-Saxon law of the land under such conditions?”

Cherishing a vision of the United States that was nativist and Christian in equal measure, the cultural custodians of the American bar made little allowance and even less room for those who, by birth and religion, stood outside their frame of reference.

Happily, some things have changed since then — and for the better.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen. http://jd.fo/d4unE
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.