A Jewish prisoner in San Quentin is demanding that California reclassify him from "white" to "non-white," giving a curious twist to America's long-shifting attitudes toward Jewish ethnicity and race.
The petitioner is Stephen Liebb, 47, an Orthodox Jew and one-time lawyer, who is serving 25 years to life for first-degree murder.
In a phone call from the maximum-security state prison, Liebb explained the background of his lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections, now pending before a federal judge in San Francisco.
When new convicts arrive at the prison receiving center, they are classified by race -- white (including Jews), black or Hispanic. A fourth category is "others," which includes Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans.
"As a 'white,' I am assigned to a two-man cell, where my white cellie often has a tattooed swastika or SS lightning bolts on his body and belongs to the Aryan Brotherhood or Nazi Lowriders," Liebb said.
He has not been physically attacked, Liebb said, but he has been subject to slurs and insults by inmates, as well as prison guards, and he lives in a general environment of intimidation.
Dr. Corey Weinstein, who has been working for 32 years with prisoners as a volunteer physician and for 14 years as a human rights activist with the California Prison Focus in San Francisco, believes that "you find the most racialized environment in the United States in prisons, and California is one of the worst."
Under such conditions, "Many Jewish inmates won't come out as Jews and won't participate in Jewish services or activities, even though they would like to," he said.
It is therefore difficult to pinpoint how many among California's 162,000 state prisoners are Jewish, with estimates running from 300 to 1,000.
Contrary to common assumptions, Jews don't commit just white-collar felonies, such as fraud or embezzlement.
"Their crimes run the whole gamut," Weinstein said.
Liebb's case is an example. He was raised in an Orthodox family, educated in New York yeshivas, then graduated from Syracuse University with highest honor.
He moved to Los Angeles to study atÂ UCLA Law School, graduating in 1980, according to UCLA records. He passed the bar examination, started to practice law and then the unthinkable happened.
"I had on ongoing dispute with a friend," Liebb said. "I was confused, I had an emotional outburst, I stabbed him once and he died. That happened 22 years ago and I have been in different prisons since. I have been turned down for parole three times."
For the past 10 years, Liebb has petitioned through administrative channels to be reclassified from "white" to "others" without success, and is now pursuing his quest through the courts.
His present attorney is Ephraim Margolin, a one-time law clerk with the Israel Supreme Court, who expects to contest Liebb's demand against the state attorney general's office within three months before a federal judge.
Margot Bach, spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections, which runs the prison system, declined to comment on the Liebb case specifically. However, she said that on arrival, prisoners have the option of asking not to be put in the same cell with a potentially hostile cellmate, such as a neo-Nazi, and that authorities would honor such a request.
The case has attracted the attention of David Biale, professor of Jewish history at UC Davis, who served as an expert witness in a similar, though unsuccessful, case last year.
Before World War II, Biale said, America's predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Northern European society considered Jews as nonwhite, alongside Italians and other immigrants from Southern Europe; it's an attitude still prevalent among many white prison inmates today.
With the help of Liebb's family, which sends him prayer books, and the Aleph Institute, which aids Jewish prisoners, he is trying hard to maintain his heritage.
"In prison, it is easy for many Jews to become ashamed of their Jewishness," he said. "I appeal to the Jewish community not to be ashamed of us."
He closed a recent letter by saying, "The Nazis set us apart with yellow Stars of David with 'Jude' written on them. We knew we were despised, but at least were given our identity. Here [in prison] we are despised, but denied our identity." Â