David Arenberg had everything going for him. He was smart, the son of a research scientist and a teacher. He graduated in 1980 from the elite University of Chicago with a degree in psychology and went on to become a left-wing tenants’ rights organizer in New York City. But in 1987 he suffered a “personal tragedy” and a “political defeat” that he doesn’t want to discuss but that prompted him to leave his organizing work. Always a moderate drug user, he says, he began abusing cocaine. His brother tried to rescue him by recruiting him to run a small trucking company. Despite that work, and later taking up tenants’ rights once more, he continued his drug use and also adopted a new line of work—using computers to engage in sophisticated financial ripoffs.
Arenberg was arrested and jailed briefly for forgery in 1996, but only became an even more active con man when he was released. Finally, in 2001 Arenberg was arrested for driving under the influence. The arrest led to charges of fraud, forgery, identity theft, and vehicle theft, culminating in consecutive sentences totaling more than 13 years. Today, with four years left to serve, Arenberg, 53, is trying to sort out his life. He sent Intelligence Report the following account of his experiences as a Jew in a state prison—a harrowing tale of surviving severe prejudice in an unforgiving environment, but also a remarkable story of self-discovery.
I am always the last person to eat. It’s part of a compromise I worked out with the skinheads who run the western state prison complex where I am incarcerated. Under this compromise, I’m allowed to sit at the whites’ tables, but only after the “heads,” and then the “woods,” and then the “lames” have eaten.
Not that there’s anywhere else I could eat. The prison yard is broken into five distinct racial categories. There are the “woods” (short for peckerwoods) that encompass the whites, the “kinfolk” (blacks), the “Raza” (American-born people of Mexican descent), the “paisas” (Mexico-born Mexicans), and the “chiefs” (Native Americans). Under the rules that govern interracial relations, different races are allowed to play on the same sports teams but not play individual games (e.g., chess) together; they may be in each others’ cubicles if the situation warrants but not sit on each others’ beds. They may go to the same church services but not pray together. But if you accidentally break one of these rules, the consequences are usually pretty mild: You might get a talking to by one of the heads, or, at worst, a “chin check.”
Eating with another race, however, is a different story. It is an inviolate rule that different races may not break bread together under any circumstances. If you eat at the same table as another race, you’ll get beaten down. If you eat from the same tray, you’ll be put in the hospital. And if you eat from the same food item, that is, after a person of another race has already taken a bite of it, you can get killed.
This makes it difficult for me, of course, to fit into the chow hall. Jews, as we all know, are not white but imposters who don white skin and hide inside it for the purpose of polluting and taking over the white race. The skinheads can’t allow me to eat with them: That would make them traitors of the worst kind—race traitors! But my pasty complexion makes it impossible for me to eat with other races who don’t understand the subtleties of my treachery and take me for just another wood. So the compromise is that I may sit at certain white tables after all the whites have finished eating. In exchange, I must do free legal work as directed by the heads and remit to them a portion of the legal fees I collect from everyone else I do legal work for on the yard.
This compromise was brokered by the more “mainstream” Nazis on the yard, the Aryan Brotherhood. They became involved because when I first got here, one of the first cases I handled resulted in getting a 21-year sentence for one of their members vacated. This gave me instant credibility: Even if a “hands-off-the-Jew” policy could not be established, a “hands-off-the-Jewish-lawyer” policy could be and was.
The Aryan Brotherhood (AB) is the political rival of the skinheads. They are the old guard, the white leadership that has run the yards for years. Their membership consists mostly of long-term inmates, most well over 40. By contrast, the skinheads have a much younger membership that is rapidly advancing upon AB turf. So the AB’s “defense” of me has a political component as well: I am the enemy of their enemy and therefore their friend. The AB understands that I provide a service they can exploit. But they also perceive the skinheads’ hatred of me. So they allow me to stay on the yard, taking credit for my legal work and inadvertently discrediting the anti-Semitism of the skinheads in the process.
This was all allowed to happen because the AB, notwithstanding the swastikas and KKK hoods tattooed on their arms, are not fundamentally ideological. Their racism derives primarily from economic considerations: By enjoining the different races from trading with one another, they enforce their share of the lucrative drug market. The price of drugs on the yard is 10 times higher than it is on the street, and the AB is the largest single supplier. The Raza’s drugs may be cheaper and better, but they are not available to the woods.
The skinheads, by contrast, claim to be fundamentally ideological. They exist as a political entity, they say, organizing to fight the big war, the race war, which will reassert white political dominance in the world. They take the public position that they do not approve of drugs, that they keep their minds clean by reading Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, and that their bodies are highly trained fighting machines. Every afternoon you can see them marching around the yard in locked step, polished boots gleaming in the baking sun, with skinhead tattooed on their foreheads and shaved for war carved on the backs of their skulls.
The skinheads are so ridiculous, both in the way they present themselves and in their social views, that it is easy to caricature and dismiss them. But that would be a mistake. The skinheads are the fastest-growing segment of the prison population.
I grew up in a Chicago suburb, Evanston, Illinois, next door to Skokie, the infamous site of an attempted march by Nazis in the late 1970s through a city with a large Jewish population, including a high number of concentration camp survivors. Because Evanston and Skokie shared a high school, I knew many of these survivors, whose children were friends of mine. When the Nazis threatened to march, these were the people who were prepared to take their places on the front lines, baseball bats in hand, ready to meet the fascists.
My parents were left-liberals who had become more conservative over the years but in whom political activism, especially against fascism, was instinctual. It was one of their guiding principles that there is no debating with fascists. Fascists are interested not in ideas but in political power. So every time the Nazis did publicly organize since then, I was there to oppose them, not with the force of my intellect but with the strength of my fists.
Despite my lifelong opposition to Nazis, I grew up with essentially no identity as a Jew. My father, while he was of German-Jewish origins, was an atheist and a scientist, and my mother, while being a little fuzzy on the God question, sided with my father in not providing my brother and me with any religious training.
Nor did the neighborhood I grew up in do anything to confer Jewish identity on me. Although Evanston was not as heavily Jewish as Skokie, my neighborhood was at least a third Jewish. But being in a heavily Jewish environment did not enhance my identity; if anything, it made being Jewish taken for granted. Jews were everywhere. We were jocks and nerds, boozers and freaks, businessmen and scientists, Republicans and radicals. Being Jewish was no big deal.
When I went to prison, it was the first time in my life that I stood out as a Jew. Jews are virtually unheard of in the state prison system, and if going to prison was a cultural shock and an eye-opening experience for me, meeting a Jew was a cultural shock and an eye-opening experience for a good number of men on the yard. All the old stereotypes—of Jews being stingy, greedy, and dishonest, of Jews controlling the world’s money supply, of Jews running the entertainment industry and thus establishing the cultural standards of the world; in short, all the old stereotypes which I never really believed existed—were in full force on the yard. I have been safe, but only because I reached an accommodation with my Nazi tormentors. But the bottom line is, I am, and will remain, a pariah.
Thus, it was my oppression by skinheads and others when I went to prison that has caused me to discover a Jewish identity. I had dealt with Nazis before, but only in the aggregate, when I was part of a large force opposing a clearly unwelcome presence. But on the prison yards, if Nazis are not in the mainstream, certainly hatred of Jews is taken for granted. And for most of the time I have been in prison I have been the only Jew here. The isolation and extreme prejudice have forced me to consider myself, for the first time in my life, fundamentally a Jew; that is, I am a Jew before I am a socialist, an activist, a lawyer, a convict, or a musician.
When I first came to jail, I tried to hide my Judaism. I thought about changing my name so it would sound less Jewish. Not anymore! The oppression I suffered, the alienation and loneliness I felt, and the spiritual thirst that is starting to be quenched have caused me to finally come into my own.
I am a Jew! It has become my fundamental defeat of the Nazis. Because I have finally come to this bone-deep understanding, I will walk out of the prison gates a changed man, a man who has returned to the mark after having strayed for so many years. I will have finally come home.
Excerpted from Intelligence Report (Winter 2009), a quarterly published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Tracking the radical right in the United States, it is distributed free of charge to law enforcement officials, journalists, and scholars. www.splcenter.org