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The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype

 
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He is a crook. He cheated people out of money they had counted on. He’s the infamous Bernard Madoff — and the media never miss an opportunity to point out that he is Jewish.

Jews for ages have been accused of being unscrupulous and money-mad, and the Madoff episode seems to have given fresh ammunition to anti-Semites who foster the Jews-are-greedy stereotype — which they do typically on the Internet, where morons, weirdos, losers, creeps, and other assorted wackos can happily and anonymously express their psychopathology.

Abraham H. Foxman, author of a splendid new book “Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype” and the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, believes that the Jews-are-greedy stereotype is one of the three pillars of anti-Semitism, the other two being 1. the Jews rejected and killed Jesus and 2. they are concerned only with the welfare of fellow Jews.

Jews are, of course, accused of everything under the sun. A few years ago, when anti-Polish jokes were fashionable, Jews were accused of spreading such jokes. As if we Jews weren’t busy enough depressing agricultural prices and electing a socialistic president and causing the Black Plague and everything else!

The Jews=avaricious libel has a long history.

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Abraham Foxman writes, in his new book “Jews & Money,” “Unfortunately, Madoff’s ‘Jewishness’ became, for some people, the central story of the Madoff scandal.”

The stereotype has existed for around 1,000 years, points out Sol Gittleman, Alice and Nathan Gantcher professor at Tufts University in Boston, ever since the Middle Ages, when the church forbade Jews to own land, to farm, to join crafts and guilds. “They were limited by church law to going into money-lending and usury,” he says. So, historically, Jews became indelibly associated with unpleasant money matters.

Foxman notes that over the centuries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe, “the role of the moneylender became freighted with ethical problems that easily translated into a stain on the character of Jews.” He quotes the poet Heinrich Heine: “In this way, the Jews were legally condemned to be rich, hated, and murdered.”

Sleazy publications, like the forgeries known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, reinforced the Jews-are-crooked stereotype. And then, of course, there was Shakespeare’s play, “The Merchant of Venice” (Shakespeare probably never met a Jew — they had been expelled from England), along with Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist,” with its portrait of the vile Fagin. (Dickens, when he later became acquainted with Jews, deeply regretted creating Fagin.) Jews are lucky that Ebenezer Scrooge was an upstanding English businessman.

Is the Jews=money-mad libel weakening in the United States? Paul Volcker, the esteemed former secretary of the treasury, wrote in the introduction to Foxman’s book that his sense is that “the stereotype of the avaricious Jew, isolated and insulated from the broader society, has been substantially reduced over my now long lifetime. This is a genuine achievement of an open and tolerant American society.”

Still, a telephone poll conducted by the Anti-Defamation League, in late 2009, of 1,747 American adults found that 18 percent agreed that “Jews have too much power in the business world,” 13 percent that “Jews are more willing than others to use shady practices to get what they want,” and 12 percent that “Jews are not just as honest as other businesspeople.” (Those surveyed were skewed toward African Americans and Hispanics, to check their particular responses.)

Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and a columnist for this newspaper adds that the stereotype “remains a constant in American life, as indeed it does elsewhere in the world. It sits beneath the surface, waiting for excuses to rear its head. We saw this during these last few years as the economy tanked and the banks got the blame. As everyone (except us) ‘knows,’ the word ‘banker’ is a synonym for Jew.”

Are Jews disproportionately employed in the business world even today? As stockbrokers, executives, money managers, and so forth? There seems to be no good evidence for this. (But for a minority opinion, see “The Other ‘Jews and Money’ Book.”)

If Jews do make up a larger-than-expected percentage of business types, that might explain why they may seem disproportionately represented among white-collar criminals.

Certainly there have been famous Jewish malefactors, like Arnold Rothstein (accused of fixing the 1919 World Series), Mickey Cohen, Bugsy Siegel, and Meyer Lansky. (Lansky, who ran gambling casinos, was once asked why he knew so many underworld types. He replied, “Who do you think comes to gambling casinos, yeshiva students and rabbis?”)

But these were sleazy blue-collar criminals. Madoff, on the other hand, was a much-admired businessman who fell into disgrace — a different sort entirely. In the same category was Bernard Bergman (1911-1984), the Orthodox rabbi who ran nursing homes and was convicted of Medicaid fraud in 1976 and sentenced to four months in prison. And, of course, there’s influence-peddler Jack Abramoff, recently released from prison.

Why do so many notorious white-collar criminals seem to be Jewish?

A key reason: The media give plenty of play to anything embarrassing that Jews do. The Madoff story was shouted from the rooftops — usually accompanied by the fact that he was Jewish. Foxman reports that an article in The New York Times two days after Madoff’s arrest “managed to use the word ‘Jewish’ three times in its first nine paragraphs.”

But, Foxman goes on, when a non-Jew is accused of a heinous financial crime, his non-Jewish background may be totally ignored. Robert Allen Stanford, who ran an offshore investment empire based in Antigua, was also accused of a multi-million-dollar fraud, and in 2009 the Times ran a lengthy profile of Stanford. “How often was Stanford’s religion [Southern Baptist] mentioned in the 41-paragraph article?” Foxman asks. Answer: zilch.

How many people know what religion that former jailbird Martha Stewart is? Answer: Catholic. If she had been Jewish, you would have known.

Stereotypes: A definition

Simplistic generalizations about a group of people, allowing others to neatly pigeonhole them and treat them accordingly. As in: “Old people have blue hair and wear polyester pant suits.” And, said of opera singers: “The higher the voice, the lower the intelligence.” W.B.

Media excess has also been implicated in the abuse heaped upon the late Rabbi Bergman.

Alan Dershowitz, the noted lawyer, has written in his book, “The Best Defense,” that “Bergman only controlled a handful of nursing homes, not the 117 attributed to him by the press; that the allegations of patient abuse were based on a report about conditions in nursing homes in general some 18 years earlier; that the special prosecutor after an investigation ‘was unable to produce even a single current allegation against Dr. Bergman involving patient care....’” Dershowitz was Bergman’s lawyer.

By the same token, when a Jewish businessman or woman does something praiseworthy, the media may largely ignore his or her religion.

Aaron Feuerstein ran a textile plant, Malden Mills, in Lawrence, Mass. It was destroyed by fire in 1995. The plant had employed 2,400 people; the damage was estimated at $500 million. Yet two days later, Feuerstein paid everyone’s salary checks on time — together with a planned bonus of $275 for everyone. He paid full wages to his employees for up to four months while the plant was rebuilt and new machinery was bought.

Eventually, the enormous debt that Feuerstein assumed to finance the rebuilding caught up with him, and — after a business slump in 2001 — Malden Mills filed for bankruptcy.

Feuerstein, writes Foxman, “has become something of a folk hero and a role model for thousands of people, especially in business.” But not everyone knows that “Feuerstein happens to be an Orthodox Jew, who draws his guidance on all ethical matters from Jewish tradition, religious teachings, and ultimately the Hebrew scriptures.” Yet this aspect of his life was “largely neglected” in accounts in the media.

Indeed, Foxman concludes, “Among the world’s great religions, Judaism is the one that places the greatest emphasis on moral behavior in relation to money — a fact that most non-Jews have never been taught.”

Occasional sensational crimes —highlighted by the media — may also give a misleading impression about other religious groups. Doesn’t it seem, from the media, that Catholic priests are the ones mainly guilty of abusing young children? But as Valerie Tarico, a psychologist, wrote recently, Protestant clergymen are equally, if not more, guilty. Google “Tarico Protestant.”

Getting back to Jews, people also seem to forget about the stomach-turning white-collar crimes committed by non-Jews. Remember Robert E. Brennan? He created the notorious penny-stock brokerage firm, First Jersey Securities. It peddled pump-and-dump penny stocks to unsophisticated investors, who lost enormous sums of money. (His henchmen bought a stock and thus drove the price up, then — after the suckers had bought in — dumped their own holdings.) First Jersey went bankrupt in 1987; Brennan was convicted of securities fraud in 1994 and ordered to pay $75 million.

He declared bankruptcy in 1995, but concealed some of his assets — including $500,000 in poker chips and $4 million in municipal bonds that he had hidden in his basement. He then had an associate sell the bonds overseas and buy stocks — which netted him $16 million.

For bankruptcy fraud and money laundering he was sentenced to nine years and two months in prison. His release date is a year from now, Dec. 26, 2011.

Brennan is an alumnus of Seton Hall University, a Catholic school, to which he contributed vast sums of money. Another Seton Hall supporter, Dennis Koslowski, once CEO of Tyco International, is famous for using Tyco money to buy $6,000 shower curtains and a $15,000 “dog umbrella” stand for himself. Koslowski is also in prison.

Also to the point, as Gittleman reminds us, Madoff was guilty of perpetrating a Ponzi scheme — where money from newer investors goes into the pockets of older investors and the scheme inevitably blows up. And Charles Ponzi (1882-1949) was not Jewish.

In any case, anyone who believes the stereotype that all Jews are avaricious must also believe that the Irish are drunkards, the Scots are cheap, Italians are violent, the English are snobs, and so forth. These insulting stereotypes should also be made to disappear.

What to do

To fight against the Jews=crooks stereotype, Foxman recommends being on guard perpetually — and perpetually being prepared to complain.

For example, “If you turn on a TV news panel and hear one or more of the commentators uttering remarks that sound biased — about Jewish financial power, let’s say — don’t just change the station or fume silently and ineffectually. Take a few minutes to check the facts … and then send an e-mail or make a phone call to the station to express your views. You may be surprised to find how powerful a few forceful complaints from ordinary citizens are.”

What if someone you know makes racist remarks? You might emulate Muriel Siebert, the first woman broker on the New York Stock Exchange. She was taken out to lunch by a businessman who proceeded to make all sorts of anti-Semitic remarks. Later, she sent him a note:

“Roses are reddish/Violets are blueish/You may not know it/But I’m Jewish.”

Getting the media to be more circumspect about identifying people’s religions might also be helpful.

Charles Asher Small, founder and executive director of the Yale Institute for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, says: “The media have to engage in serious training and education on these matters. They pass off too many stereotypes and assumptions as true. There is a need for the media to become sensitive to various forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism.

“If someone’s Judaism is an important part of a story — the robber of a synagogue is Jewish — maybe it should be mentioned. The question is, are the media treating him differently than they would treat other criminals doing the same sort of crime —who are not Jewish?”

If the media are going to mention that a criminal is Jewish or a member of any other minority, Small believes, they should do it for everyone — Presbyterians and Lutherans and Baptists and whatever.

And what should do you if you hear someone tell an anti-Semitic joke, such as one that alleges that Jews are money-mad?

Englemayer responds: “There are so many jokes about Jewish attitudes towards money — how do you get 50 Jews into a VW Beetle? Toss in a penny — and too many Jewish so-called comedians who tell them. People say we shouldn’t be so thin-skinned as to complain about such things. Absolutely untrue. The success of such jokes always depends on the perception of the listener that there is a kernel of truth in them. We need to complain and protest at every opportunity. People need to know that these jokes are unacceptable and hurtful — and, above all, untrue.”

 

More on: The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype

 
 
 

That other ‘Jews and Money’ book

Another book called “Jews and Money,” subtitled “The Myths and the Reality,” published back in 1982, concludes that the financial success of Jews in America has created a new kind of anti-Semitism.

“The new anti-Semitism seems rooted less in religion or contempt, and more in envy, jealousy, and fear,” writes Gerald Krefetz, an investment consultant. “Anti-Semites’ perception of Jewish economic success is far greater than the facts warrant…. [But] Jews are now subject to a new kind of racism, anti-Semitism due to affluence…. It is contemporary Jewish wealth and status that is the new target of the anti-Semites and the cause of Jewish insecurity.”

 
 

The case of Jack Benny

Jack Benny (born Benjamin Kubelsky), who lived from 1894 to 1974, was a beloved comedian on radio, television, and in the movies. In his most famous skit, a robber accosts him and demands, “Your money or your life!” Benny doesn’t answer. When the robber repeats the demand, Benny finally says, “I’m thinking it over!”

He portrayed himself as an inveterate skinflint. His idea of an appropriate present for a close friend: a pair of shoelaces.

Question: Did this famous Jewish comedian’s portrayal of himself as a miser add to the stereotype that Jews are money-mad?

 
 

Foxman surprised by response to his book

Readers of Abraham Foxman’s new book, “Jews and Money,” have told him that it’s lively and informative. But some readers have registered an objection.

To the title.

“The only debate out there is about the title,” said Foxman in a recent phone interview. “Paul Volcker,” a former secretary of the treasury who wrote the book’s introduction, “called me and said, ‘Listen, Abe, while I was reading an advance copy I had it on my desk, and every Jewish person who walked in and saw it was horrified. Maybe you want to change the title.’

 
 
 
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Stay tuned for the return of comments

 

Jersey City Boy

Mayor Steven Fulop tells his story — and his immigrant parents schep naches

The story of the new mayor of Jersey City is a goulash — a rich, highly seasoned, aromatic stew, full of disparate ingredients that somehow blend together.

This variant is kosher.

And for added authenticity, it’s Hungarian.

Steven Fulop’s story is both as deeply American and as fully Jewish as one person’s story could be — it is our own 21st-century version of the great American dream.

Cooking alongside it is the story of Jersey City, the state’s second largest, with a century-long history of corruption and bossism that Mr. Fulop is well positioned to turn around.

Mr. Fulop’s story starts with his grandparents. All four were born in Transylvania, the heavily wooded, mountainous, lushly beautiful region that has changed hands between Hungary and Romania. As this story begins, it still was part of Hungary. World War II came late there; his mother’s parents, the Kohns, were taken from the ghetto toward its end. His grandfather, Alexander, went to a transit camp, and his grandmother, Rosa, was on one of the last transports to Auschwitz in April 1944.

Her story is so painful that when her son-in-law, Arthur Fulop, tells it, his eyes fill, even though it is a story he has been telling for decades.

 

Take my kidney. Please…

Local cantor is living donor for beloved congregant

It’s fairly easy to say “I hope you feel better” to a sick friend.

It’s much harder to put your kidney where your mouth is, but Cantor Eric Wasser of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center did.

On February 19, he donated a kidney to his friend, Harvey Jaffee of Garfield.

Mr. Jaffee was in what his doctors “were starting to call end-stage kidney failure,” he reported. He now has a functioning kidney and will be able to resume his life, and Cantor Wasser will be able to return to his. Both, they say, feel enriched and ennobled (if temporarily weakened) by the experience.

Mr. Jaffee’s kidneys had been failing for some time, and he had trekked from doctor to doctor as he tried to get on the registry for a transplant. The screening process is extraordinarily thorough. “It’s one of the most daunting things in the world,” he said. “They send you to doctor after doctor, to check every orifice you have — and some that you don’t. Sometimes I was seeing four or five doctors a week.

 

The essence is to wake us all up

Ikar founder Rabbi Sharon Brous and local leaders talk about building a living Jewish community

Rabbi Sharon Brous radiates intensely concentrated passionate hummingbird energy in almost tactile waves.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could have done what she did — created and maintained a Jewish community that has grown wildly, attracted devoted members, brought disaffected Jews back to Judaism, juggled the tensions between tradition, innovation, accessibility, and fidelity — but once you meet her, you can see that if anyone could have undertaken that impossible-sounding feat, it would have to be her.

Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue that Rabbi Brous imagined and shaped 10 years ago, is now a 580-plus family shul, with a 150-child preschool, a multigenerational membership, and a growing future. Rabbi Brous has garnered so much recognition and so many awards almost off-handedly — on the Forward’s 50 most influential Jews for years! On Newsweek’s Top 50 rabbis list for years, once as number one! Giving the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration! — that it is hard to realize that she is only 41.

 

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Two of the men have long beards; half wear mustaches. Scattered between them are two women, one of whom, of course, is the stenographer, known only as Mrs. F. Friedman. The other is the comptroller.

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The little house in the big woods

Artist’s family remembers growing up in Fort Lee

The three children grew up in the middle of the woods.

There were acres of land all around the house; waterfalls tumbled from the rocky hills and splashed down in their rush toward the mighty color-shifting river far below. There were trees to climb, trails to blaze, rocks to scale. For half of the year, glorious canopies of trees shaded their view; when the leaves fell, the children could see the river, and the ships that steamed silently upriver to unload and then headed back south again, out to sea.

It was a perfect pastoral scene, the backdrop for a bucolic 19th-century childhood.

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