A Jew arrives at Israel’s Haifa port, trying to smuggle two bags of coffee. “What do you have in the bag?” the customs officers ask him. “Bird feed,” he replies. “Since when do birds eat coffee?” “They’ll eat it if they want; if they don’t, they won’t.”
Jewish bootlegging has not only provided material for jokes: Sometimes Jews found themselves moving goods to one country from another illegally to preserve their way of life; in other cases, the incentives were less noble. From lipstick to Ecstasy, here are some highlights of the history of Jewish smugglers.
Despite their image in collective memory and popular culture as primitive (such as Anatevka, the romanticized shtetl of “Fiddler on the Roof”), European shtetls were hubs of commercial activity. After the first partition of Poland, in 1772, Russia subsumed Eastern Poland and the shtetl country of Ukraine. Trading activity in the region slowed down because the tsarina Catherine the Great outlawed a long list of imported items — such as paper, notebooks, silk, cashmere, gloves and lipstick — that she thought were “dangerous” to Russian culture. In many cases, shtetl-dwelling Jews were able to bribe customs officers to bring their goods across the border, but anti-Semitic discrimination often made the toll too high for any profit to be made, so many Jews turned to smuggling. “Jews were more likely to be involved in smuggling than in other criminal ventures in Eastern Europe because they were disproportionately involved in trade in general,” Glenn Dynner, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, told the Forward.
Jean Lafitte, one of the most infamous pirates and smugglers of the early 19th century, claimed in his diary that he had Jewish grandparents. He played a major role in the smuggling that occurred after America’s Embargo Act of 1807, which prohibited American trade with England and France. He based himself on a small island in Barataria Bay, an inlet near the large port city of New Orleans, and turned it into a smuggling port, shipping large amounts of tobacco and sugar past customs agents into New Orleans. His brother, Pierre Lafitte, ran a blacksmith shop in New Orleans, the equivalent of the modern “front” company.
During the Civil War in the United States, Jews were often unfairly accused of smuggling cotton into Confederate states. The North had restricted trade with Southern cities, and this disruption of free trade created opportunities for smugglers, who brought clothing, quinine and processed foods to the South and cotton to the North. Because Jews had always been involved in trade and could be found on both sides of the conflict, depending on whether they lived in the North or the South, they were suspicious in the eyes of some Americans, and were assumed to be involved in illegal activities. It still came as a surprise to Jews when Ulysses Grant on December 17, 1862, issued General Order No. 11, which called for all Jewish people to be expelled from his territories for “violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department.” Even though the order was revoked 11 days later, General Order No. 11 brought American Jews together, according to the historian Jonathan Sarna. “It was directed not at smugglers but at ‘Jews as a class,’” Sarna wrote in an email to the Forward. “This was an unprecedented threat to the Jewish community and all Jews understood that.”
The early 20th century saw the rise of big-name Jewish criminals such as Meyer Lansky, Max “Boo Boo” Hoff and Abner “Longy” Zwillman, who were involved in the large bootlegging networks of the Prohibition era. Less is known about illegal alcohol trading that took place before the Prohibition amendment went into effect in 1920. Larger companies dominated the market, and many low-income Russian immigrants lacked the initial capital needed to start a successful business. These Jews set up illegal alcohol stills in tenement buildings in New York and Philadelphia. After 1920, many of them sold and smuggled alcohol to keep their source of income alive.
In 1940, the Nazi regime ordered all Jews in Warsaw, Poland, to move into the confining and unsanitary ghetto. Because food was scarce, lives depended on goods smuggled in from the outside. Soon it became clear that being smuggled out of the ghetto would be the only way to survive. Irena Sendler, a Polish social worker, smuggled 2,500 babies and children out in potato bags, coffins and even toolboxes as she pretended to be inspecting the ghetto’s conditions. She survived arrest and torture, and lived to be 98 in Warsaw.
In the late 1990s, an Israeli Canadian named Sean Erez set up one of the biggest Ecstasy smuggling rings in the United States by using Hasidic Jews in New York as couriers. Erez and his associates roped in young Orthodox boys by telling them that they would smuggle diamonds from Europe. Erez counted on the fact that the Hasidic adolescents would join in a scheme that allowed them to rebel against their restrictive lifestyle. In the operation’s peak year, the Hasidic carriers brought more than 1 million Ecstasy pills from Holland through John F. Kennedy International Airport. As the carriers’ mistakes added up over time, Erez and his associates were arrested in 1999 and 2000, respectively. “Holy Rollers,” a feature film based on the debacle and starring Jesse Eisenberg, was released in 2010.