A blog by Barry Edelson

A Nice Jewish Boy


The Double-Edged Sword of Tribal Loyalty

I was completing the tenth grade in June, 1974 when some state examinations were stolen from a high school in New York City, prompting the cancellation of the finals statewide. The fact that the culprits who made off with the test papers were students at a boys-only Jewish school caused a lot of breast beating and pulpit pounding in synagogues and at Sabbath tables across the region. What I recall most prominently was the stubborn disbelief that afflicted many among my parents' and grandparents' generation. It is a dead certainty that many a Yiddish-speaking bubbe went to the grave confident in the knowledge that "nice Jewish boys" were incapable of doing such a thing.

[I also remember being irked by the incident because I was scheduled to take exams in chemistry and geometry that year, and while I was only a middling student in chemistry and was glad not to have to sit for the test, I knew my geometry cold and lost the only chance of my academic career to ace a mathematics exam.]

This same blind devotion to tribe is at the heart of the wailing and moaning in some quarters of the Jewish community over the Bernard Madoff affair. That bigots the world over may find justification for their hatred in a living and breathing examplar of a Jewish stereotype is not a cause for Jews to circle the proverbial wagons and reflect on what it all means. Through much of the history of the Jewish diaspora, as in the history of any deeply persecuted people, there was a certain logic of survival in keeping close to the community and traditions that bred you. However, it is deeply amusing to observe modern American Jews, who live largely secular lives, participate actively in American democracy and devote their working lives to capitalist enterprise — the kind of people, for example, who might have invested with Madoff — suddenly finding it necessary to search their collective soul for what went wrong with Judaism and how it might affect the flock.

In Philip Roth's scathing short story, "The Conversion of the Jews", there is a character who responds to every event in the world, from international conflicts to minor incidents in the neighborhood, with the question, "But is it good for the Jews?" Lest anyone in our supposedly post-racial, multicultural world think that this line was Roth's invention, rest assured that this self-absorbed concern was nearly ubiquitous among Jews of previous generations and was often expressed in those very words. Roth's originality was in his brave and unflinching depiction of Jewish paranoia. Brave, because the merest suggestion that Jews were not justified in feeling continuously threatened would in many circles, even to this day, be met with a litany of atrocities as long as your arm (as long as three or four thousand years years, in point of fact) perpetrated by all manner of gentiles against the defenseless Jews. As the old saying goes, just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you. But what was never forthcoming in any of the exegeses of suffering to which I and my Hebrew school inmates were subjected day after day was any mention of the possibility that Jews were as capable of great wrongdoing as anyone else, including the literally unimaginable evil of preying upon one another.

Jews are certainly not unique in this respect. The most obvious (and ironic) example in the modern day is the vast veil of denial beneath which countless Muslims explain away the barbarity of fundamentalist terrorism. Even as Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants proudly take credit for leading a violent jihad against the perceived enemies of the faith, and even as suicide bombers daily obliterate their co-religionists by the dozens in the streets of Baghdad, there are still many who insist that true believers could never be responsible for such acts. Perhaps they are right, if we take them at their literal word: perhaps those who strap on explosive vests for the express purpose of killing as many people as possible cannot be considered real Muslims. Somehow, though, that doesn't seem to be what the deniers mean, any more than the Jews now wringing their hands about Madoff intend to denounce him as not being "one of our own". If this were the case, then what exactly is the hand-wringing about? Surely, it is precisely because Madoff is a Jew, and lived as a Jew, and socialized with Jews, and raised money for Jewish charities, and helped many Jewish investors increase their wealth both for themselves and their worthy causes, that the vastness and audacity of his criminality is so troubling.

The very notion that "one of our own" must de facto be considered incapable of serious wrongdoing ought to be offensive to any reasonable and right-minded person. The unsupportable concept of "exceptionalism" is not only an insult to democratic and meritocratic principles, it actually provides cover for the criminally unscrupulous who are equally distributed among the peoples of the earth. Wasn't the blind trust that Jewish investors placed in Madoff a product of Jewish tribalism, every bit as much as his felonious nature is an affront to it? He seems to have exploited the cherished belief in Jewish exclusivity brilliantly, leveraging memberships in Floridian country clubs and on philanthropic boards of directors into millions of dollars of profit for himself, and, ultimately, billions in losses for his victims. As if the sense of betrayal in seeing one's savings evaporate into thin air isn't infuriating and depressing enough, imagine the horror of being taken in by someone who, by dint of a (dubious) claim of distant blood relation, one ought to have been able to trust with one's life, let alone one's money. It's difficult to cling to a lifelong commitment to one's victimhood when the perpetrator turns out to be a sheep in sheep's clothing. You would think that no Jew through the ages had ever been double-crossed by his brother-in-law.

In the cloistered Jewish world of my childhood, just like every other self-respecting tribal environment, an abiding confidence in our superiority came hand in hand with a concomitant certainty about the inferiority of everyone else. "The Chosen" was not just a title of a best-selling novel but the centerpiece of an entire belief system. There were undoubtedly many secularized and enlightened Jews who championed the cause of civil rights for blacks and who believed profoundly in the ideals of Jeffersonian democracy, but you would not have known it from the crowd I grew up with. If most of my parents' peers were lifelong Democrats, it was only because of the protections the party was believed to provide for them, not for any larger principles that might redound to the benefit of others. Prejudice was rife. Each ethnic and racial minority group was assigned its own derogatory Yiddish epithet (though we weren't any more discriminating than other bigots: all Asians, for example, were reduced to "Chinese"). It was all too reminiscent of Annie Proulx's brutal debunking of the myth of the American melting pot in "Accordion Crimes," in which every immigrant group is shown to hold deep antipathy toward every other.

One of the corollaries of this deep-seated intolerance was, to say the least, a rather lax ethical approach to business dealings with non-Jews, as I discovered in my teens when I began working. What else would you expect, when we were taught from a tender young age that traditional Jewish law only applied to other Jews? We weren't supposed to actively mistreat the gentiles, mind you, but there wasn't any mention of consequences for doing so. It was analogous to asking polluting factories or rapacious investment banks to adhere to "voluntary" standards of conduct. We all know how well that always works out.

If Madoff made off with the money of his fellow Jews, why the surprise? The only thing that should surprise us here is that otherwise intelligent adults could actually believe that an evil man is selective about his victims. The really hard part to take is that, to Madoff, the Jews were no more than low-hanging fruit, whose unquestioning devotion to their group identity overwhelmed their good sense. Not only did their Jewishness not protect them, it made them even more vulnerable. If Jews want to waste their time agonizing about what Madoff's caper means for them, they could do worse than to ponder whether an overweaning sense of their importance to their god and each other has outlived its usefulness and become a major liability, and if a pathological attachment to a rich history of suffering isn't a poison that needs to be purged once and for all from the aching body of Judaism.

And by the way: Merry Christmas, and lots of luck with that, too.

December 24, 2008

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