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!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • 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.