Saturday, January 3, 2009

Another casualty of Bernard Madoff: The definition of “Jew”

[Jack's Gaza Update 7.5 is here.]

This is a dated topic, but the column I submitted to the Allentown Morning Call on the topic just ran today. Below is the text:

As a child, I didn’t know that the word “jew” could be used as a verb, that millions of people the world over believed that my family and I were, by dint of our ancestry, avaricious, unethical scoundrels. Instead, I was always taught that Judaism was a religion of ethics and honesty.

In school and synagogue and home, rabbis and parents inculcated in my peers and in me the biblical lesson (Deuteronomy 16:20), “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” The Talmud (Shabbat 31a) warned us that the first question a Jew will be asked in the afterworld is, “Did you engage in commerce honestly.” Jewish law (Tosefta, Chullin 2:24) demanded of us, “Distance yourself from ugly behavior, and from anything that might resemble ugly behavior.” Ethical behavior was inseparable from the laws of kosher, Shabbat and family purity.

As I entered adolescence, though, I saw people throw pennies at Jews to insult their supposed greed. I studied the Merchant of Venice and heard the Christian tale of the betrayal of Jesus, read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and saw copies of vicious Nazi and Muslim propaganda cartoons. I was accosted by a group of teens in a Long Island Rail Road car; they informed me that “Jews buy Sprite because it’s cheap.” Even some Jews displayed this malignant view of their own ethnicity and religion; seven years ago, then-Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Ed Rendell, a Jew, quoted his father’s observation that “the guys who spend the longest time in synagogues on Saturdays are the biggest crooks Monday through Friday.” And so I learned that, indeed, much of the world didn’t translate “Jew” as I did.

Many Jews fight this malicious rendering of “Jew” by promoting the Torah’s ethical instructions. From The Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem to the Center for Ethics at Yeshiva University in New York to Bais haVaad l’Inyonei Mishpat in Lakewood, New Jersey, to many similar efforts, Jews devote significant time, effort and, yes, money, to sustaining righteous behavior among Jews. Particular Jewish individuals stand out for their achievements in this area as well; from philanthropists to political leaders to jurists to unheralded businessmen, there are many positive ethical role models within in the Jewish community.

But despite these efforts, every new Jew-related scandal reinforces the negative stereotype and negates the positive work of all of those institutions and individuals. Whether a Michael Milken or an Ivan Boesky, a Sholom Rubashkin or a Bernard Madoff, it seems that, every year, one or two Jews gain notoriety for their criminality and thereby reinforce in the mind of many the old message that the Jew is unethical, the Jew is self-serving, the Jew is greedy. Never mind that the behavior of one man or even a handful of people cannot possibly be brought as proof of the character of millions. Never mind that Madoff has single-handedly destroyed many, many charities which served Jewish causes. The image that remains in the eyes of the world is that this Jew bilked people out of billions of dollars.

This wound is, to me, Bernard Madoff’s deepest crime and most lasting legacy. I fear that years after the people who lost their money are gone, generations after the charitable foundations and the people they served are gone, this scandalous rendering of “Jew” will remain in the popular lexicon - and Bernard Madoff will be cited as proof.

By nature and training, I try to look for some positive result even in the midst of devastation. It’s hard to find any upbeat note in this cacophany of destruction.. but, perhaps, there will be one, small, positive result: I and others will feel all the more compelled to preach to our communities, and to teach to our children, that most basic of Jewish lessons (Leviticus 20:7): “You shall sanctify yourselves, and you shall be sanctified, for I am the Lord your God.”

You can see the column itself here; the anti-Jewish comments on it are remarkable, and underscore the damage done by Madoff.


  1. I am totally appalled by the comments on the column. I know that the type of people who think those thoughts and say those things exist. I've heard and read those comments before elsewhere, but I still shudder. The ignorance those comments display and the hatred and "retzichah" they represent make you wonder about the level of education and the level of human decency in the country. I was soooo tempted to take on the commenter who signed in as "Pearl" but then I remembered that old maxim that you don't argue with the insane, the fool and the ignoramus.

  2. ProfK-
    I thought Hans did a nice job with Pearl, though. There are ways to do it, but it's not easy.

  3. The comments are hard to follow because it looks like they've been deleting a number of them -I only wish they had kept up a bit more. That one loony is still on there, writing. (shudder)

  4. Neil-

    Yeah (s)he's an interesting one, that's for sure.