Jewish criminals are really nothing new

A major spread in the Globe and Mail dissected the checkered career of Jeff Givens, the former owner of the Just Desserts restaurant, scene of the gruesome murder of Vivi Leimonis in Toronto some years ago.

Canadian Jewish News
December 23, 1999

Jewish criminals are really nothing new
Morton Weinfield

No one wants to start the so-called new millennium on a sour note. But it seems to me that there have been a series of news stories of late which have turned a spotlight on Jewish criminals active directly or indirectly in Canada.

A major spread in the Globe and Mail dissected the checkered career of Jeff Givens, the former owner of the Just Desserts restaurant, scene of the gruesome murder of Vivi Leimonis in Toronto some years ago.

Other news accounts have dealt with the more exotic saga of Joseph Prushinowski of the Tash chassidic community of Boisbriand in Quebec, an alleged arch swindler now on trial in Jerusalem.

But more troubling have been the stories, published and whispered, about Russian (and Jewish) criminality. As I write, police have cracked down on a widespread, criminal operation said to be "eastern European," dealing in crimes ranging from drugs to sophisticated bank card fraud. Several of the names seem Jewish - though many are not - and reports stress the fact that these criminals are co-operating with non-eastern European gangs.

Other newspaper stories have included reports on the alleged Jewish kingpin of the "Russian Mafia," Semyon Mogilyevitch, who was involved in the now failed YBM Magnex International. And the murder of a 15-year-old Russian Jewish immigrant by a gang of teens in Toronto has raised the issue of Russian Jewish kids involved in youth gangs and other sorts of delinquent activities.

Many Jews dislike any talk of such issues, whether by non-Jews or Jews. They feel it feeds into anti-Semitism, and also besmirches the reputation of the vast majority of honest Jews, including immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

Here are some facts: The crude criminality rate for Jews - the number of convictions for indictable offences per 100,000 people, is higher than the rate for all Canadians, 269 to 173. And the rate for such convictions for Jews is double the Canadian average among juveniles, 98 to 46! So clearly the problem of Jewish involvement in crime is serious!

Oops, I made a slight mistake. While the numbers above are accurate, they are the figures for 1923, not 1999. (If I had current data, the Jewish rates would be far below the Canadian average.)

What is the point? First, a technical consideration. The Jewish criminality back then was less serious than those numbers suggest. When you control for the fact that most Jews were urban, and crime is always higher in urban areas, the adjusted criminality rate for Jews drops dramatically, to a level comparable to or below that for non-Jews. Second, it is likely that official crime statistics in those days were biased against immigrants and the poor, for a variety of reasons. (Some things do not change.)

On the other hand, there was a significant amount of Jewish crime in the 1920s and 1930s, in the major cities of Jewish migration in Canada and the United States. There was juvenile delinquency, as well as organized Jewish crime, and the former would often feed into the latter. Some academic researchers have explored the history of Jewish crime and criminality as part of the integration process. Others have focused attention, with some nostalgia, on "tough Jews." This is also the title of a 1998 volume by Rich Cohen which looks at Jewish gangsters in America.

There has always been a link between immigration and crime, and Jews have not differed from other immigrants: Italian, Irish, Asians, Latin Americans, Jamaican, Africans and others. A host society that wants the immigrant scientists, entrepreneurs, workers, cab drivers and artists will have to be prepared for a small proportion of criminals. It should surprise nobody that some recent Russian Jewish immigrants, coming from a society where anti-Semitism was rampant, where individual enterprise was discouraged or illegal, and where the government itself - and by implications its laws - was seen as repressive, should have gravitated to crime as an outlet. Much the same was in fact true for earlier generations of Jews suffering under and then fleeing czarist rule.

Jews should be vigilant that the mainstream press does not go overboard on the matter, and terms like "Russian Mafia" should be used selectively and accurately, if at all. Many so-called Russian Jewish criminals may be barely Jews at all, or are, in fact, non-Jews.

At the same time, the organized Jewish community should not shrink from confronting internal social problems. It would do well to channel more resources to guiding younger generations of Jewish immigrants towards a smoother integration where possible. In the meantime, no panic. There is nothing new here, and it will all work out just fine.

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