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The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype

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?

Abraham H. Foxman, in his new book “Jews & Money,” raises the question about Benny — and about Jewish jokes that perpetuate the stereotype that Jews=greedy.

Foxman grants that Benny was funny, but adds that “in retrospect, the humor is a bit embarrassing. It hews so closely to the Jews-as-misers stereotype that it must have fueled or at least reinforced the belief in the stereotype among some non-Jewish Americans. It’s all too easy to imagine a gentile fan of Jack Benny making a prejudiced observation about ‘cheap Jews’ and then defending his remark by saying, ‘Come on, even Jack Benny, a Jew, admits it’s true!’”

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Foxman also raises questions about Fran Drescher of the sitcom “The Nanny,” where she is portrayed as “acquisitive, vulgar, flashy, and manipulative….” And about Sacha Baron Cohen’s film “Borat,” in which there’s a fake folk song with the line about Jews, “They take everybody money/And they will not give back.” He also has problems with Sarah Silverman, Howard Stern, and Jackie Mason for their stereotyping of non-Jews, especially blacks.

Still, the head of the Anti-Defamation League writes that he doesn’t object to Jews’ laughing at themselves, and that “I’m not uncomfortable with Jack Benny’s miser or Fran Drescher’s tacky nanny because they’re ‘too Jewish.’”

One rabbi, in response, wrote that people may not have believed that Benny was Jewish — because he married Mary Livingston, presumably a non-Jew. Actually, she was born Sayde Marks.

Another rabbi, Shammai Engelmayer, agrees that Jack Benny was not readily identifiable as Jewish: “On the air, at least, he was always celebrating Christian holidays, and never suggesting that they weren’t his holidays, and so on.”

Yet generally Engelmayer, a columnist for this newspaper and the religious leader of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park, agrees with Foxman: “If we let some anti-Jewish joke get by, no matter how stupid the joke may be to us or how lacking it is in malicious intent on the part of the teller, we give the appearance of accepting people’s right to tell such jokes.”

Foxman, in an interview, was also vexed about Jewish American Princess jokes — which convey the message that Jewish women demand luxuries. “Some of that may be funny,” he grants, “but it builds and it bolsters a stereotype that has been deadly for us.”

A final comment, from Charles Asher Small, executive director and founder of the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism: “Humor is part of our way of coping with all sorts of aspects of daily life and one’s place in society, and Jews and other groups have used humor as a way to navigate and survive during a hostile period.

“So I think that whether a joke becomes problematic depends on the context. I don’t believe in banning jokes, but we have to be conscious of who tells it and why he or she is telling it.”

Warren Boroson

 
 

The money libel: Confronting a dangerous stereotype

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.”

 
 
 
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