Thursday, July 7, 2011

Mistaken Attribution

If enough people claim something is true, can we believe it to be true? Recently a query on H-Judaic, a list serv for Judaica, asked for the source of the “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” Many people have attributed this statement or aphorism, “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans” to Milton Himmelfarb.

When quoting someone usually we put the statement in quotation marks and in academic publication a citation or source is supplied. However, no one can give a citation probably because he never wrote it. Milton Himmelfarb (October 21, 1918 – January 4, 2006) worked for the American Jewish Committee for more than 40 years. He was one of the editors of the American Jewish Yearbook and a contributing editor of Commentary Magazine. Commentary frequently published his editorial opinions and commentary. Even the New York Times obituary (“Milton Himmelfarb, Wry Essayist, 87, Dies” / by Joseph Berger, January 15, 2006) and an article in the New Republic (April 21, 2005 “The Bashing of Bolton, &C / Jay Nordlinger ) attributed this statement to him.

Table from American Jewish Yearbook 1983 p. 117

Himmelfarb's observations on Jewish voting patterns goes back at least to an opinion in the December 1960 issue of Commentary, “In the community: Jewish vote?” In this article he talks about Jewish self-interests and voting. In general he says that Jews take liberalism as their own because it is in their self interest. He never mentions “Episcopalians” as a group. In June 1973 in the Commentary article, “The Jewish Vote (Again)” he talks about the Jews voting according to their own self interests. He says, “… American Jews had become economically to resemble the Episcopalians, the most prosperous of all white groups, their voting behavior continued to be most like the voting behavior of one of the least prosperous of all groups, the Puerto Ricans.” Which is the closest to the aphorism that everyone claims Himmelfarb wrote. Himmelfarb stated that if Jews were voting by economic self-interested they would have overwhelmingly voted for Nixon. They did not. Some of his ideas on Jewish voting also appear in his book, The Jews of modernity (New York, Basic Books, 1973).

Why do so many people think that Himmelfarb said the aphorism? First, it seems to be a concise condensation of many of his writings on Jewish voting patterns. Second, it gives credence to the observation. However, I question the need to put the statement in quotes. I could find nothing in American copyright law that forbids false attribution of statements or works. Some statements that were made famous by Benjamin Franklin were no created by him. Some statements attributed to Mark Twain and even famous rabbis were never authored by them. By attributing a statement to a famous person the true author is both modest and trying to make the statement more important than it is. False attribution and misrepresenting an author’s is not allowed under the Australian Copyright law. (Copyright Act of 1968 section 195 AD).

The statement does not misrepresent Himmelfarb’s ideas, but I question if it is even protected by copyright. Obvious facts, lists, and directories are not automatically protected. If you make a list of ingredients, a shopping list, or list of facts they are not automatically protected. If you were to read a table that had a voting report of elections broken down by groups and made the statement, “Jews vote like Puerto Rican New Yorkers,” this would be a reports of facts. It would not be protected by copyright. Likewise if you read government earning statistical report and said “Jews are in the same economic earning group as Episcopalians,” this would be an obvious fact that is not copyrightable. Before you jump on my case, the context of how you use the facts may make them copyrightable. If the statement was part of a larger work and this was analysis, it would be probably be protected. Short sentences out of context are usually not protected.


Jewish Community Relations Council of New York said...


I knew Milton Himmelfard z"l and personally heard him use the quote. Perhaps this was something that he used in his speeches, but not in his written work.

David Pollock

Daniel Stuhlman said...

Thank you for your comments. I was only able to use written sources. No one who quoted him gave any source for the quote. If this was a well known quote why did no one before you say anything?