A friend recently sent me a YouTube video entitled “Rappers Love Jewish Lawyers.” The mash-up consisted of more 25 rap songs that referred to Jewish lawyers in one way or another, mostly positively (“I had a Jewish lawyer/and he aced the case,” “young Jewish bulldog/keeping the case right,” “a good Jewish lawyer/turn a 10 to a 2-4.”) Everyone from Jim Jones to Kanye West is rapping about their Jewish lawyers, putting them somewhere between women in hot tubs and money to toss among the things rappers want.
This desire for a Jewish lawyer has fascinated me for a long time. First, I’m a Jew. (Despite the name Johnson, I’m Jewish–the product of a Jewish woman and a North Dakotan, who converted for marriage). Second, I’m a lawyer, and for three years I was a public defender in Manhattan. I’ve heard the request for a Jewish lawyer on many occasions, almost exclusively from African-American defendants. They often didn’t want a Johnson, but rather a Horowitz or a Silverman.
I remember transferring a case to an attorney with the last name Levy and watching my client practically jump out of his seat with joy. Another client refused to speak to me because he wanted the “Hebrew” attorney who had represented him the last time he was in court. And once, during a tense trial preparation session with my supervisor and a client, my supervisor stepped out, leaving my client and me to continue discussing the case alone. My client, a charming man who had had a few too many drinks and drove the wrong way down a major avenue in Manhattan a few months prior, turned to me and noted solemnly that we would really have to prepare for this case because the Assistant District Attorney looked like a Jew. I nodded, unsure how to respond. I wanted to say, “Oh, we’re all Jewish. I’m Jewish, my supervisor is Jewish, his supervisor is Jewish. If it’s Jews you want, you got ‘em!” Instead, I assured him we were preparing diligently.
It was hard to know what he meant by the comment. Do African-American defendants–both indigent and rich–want Jewish lawyers (and, by extension, fear them as adversaries) because they think Jews are smart and hard-working, or because they think Jews are clever manipulators who will do anything to get ahead?
There’s been a lot written about anti-Semitic perceptions of Jewish lawyers that seems to indicate the latter, but I want to make an argument for the former. Or, at least, that the case isn’t so clear. I never experienced a word of anti-Semitism from any of my clients. I often shared information about myself with them–that I couldn’t calendar a case for a certain week because it was Rosh Hashanah; that I had just returned from a vacation in Israel to visit family; or, in answer to the surprisingly frequent inquiry about whether I believe in God, I would say yes, but not that Jesus is my savior. I generally adored my clients, even the ones who requested new counsel based on religion.
And while I’m sure that there are some negative feelings about Jews that motivate these requests, I also think there is a sense that Jews are outsiders who fight like hell against the establishment. There are Jewish district attorneys, to be sure, but I would bet there are twice as many Jewish public defenders and defense attorneys. And I don’t think that’s lost on the communities who find themselves in the vice grip of the criminal justice system. In many ways, I perceived that wanting a “Jewish” lawyer was almost disconnected from the lawyer actually being Jewish. The client who requested his former “Hebrew” attorney then objected to me being a woman once I assured him I was a Jew. In some ways, “Jewish” becomes a stand-in for “white male,” in a world in which white males hold nearly all the power. As one former colleague noted, in this sense the request is a strategic choice, especially for a black man who knows that race is a huge factor in court and that the cards are already stacked against him. Sometimes “Jewish” is just an adjective for someone who gets the job done, who turns “a 10 into a 2-4.” Another colleague of mine still recalls a warm and effusive letter she received from a client thanking her for her good work and telling her that if she continued to work hard she could one day be a Jewish lawyer.
This is certainly a complex topic. It involves issues of history, education and race relations. No one gets that more than a public defender. But my point is to challenge some of the negative and dismissive reactions I’ve heard to the “Rappers Love Jewish Lawyers” video. Yes, the first time a client asked me to get him a Jewish lawyer, “anti-Semitism!” rung in my head. Over time, I realized the issue wasn’t quite so clear. When Jadakiss and Cam’ron rap about having a Jewish lawyer by their side, that has an effect on their listeners. And the effect isn’t exactly one of anti-Semitism. In many ways, it reflects a strange relationship that actually exists in courtrooms across the country. There is no doubt in my mind that the criminal justice system in the United States is racist. As a result, poor black men find themselves defendants in criminal cases every day. By law, they must have a lawyer. That lawyer is not infrequently Jewish. Blacks and Jews are, by choice (if you’re a famous and wealthy rapper) or not (if you’re everyone else), slogging through the criminal justice system together. Ultimately, these sorts of realities, more than hot tubs and throwing bills, are the stuff of great rap songs.
Thea Johnson is a Thomas C. Grey Fellow at Stanford Law School. She was formerly a public defender with The Legal Aid Society in Manhattan.