Thursday, February 19, 2009

Madoff in Perspective

The Madoff scandal, still in its infancy, will live in infamy. We will be reminded of his record-busting wrongdoing until the end of our days and the story will remain alive in generations not yet born. There is still much to learn and new information will come out, although I expect that unanswered questions will remain, that there will be competing versions about key details and competing theories. What is already certain is that Rabbis and other sermonizers have been given a plentitude of material. Alas, there are the sermons that have been given, the too frequent theme being that this is a Jewish scandal and disgrace.

An example is the “Letter to Madoff” posted on Newsweek’s website by Rabbi Marc Gellman who although “not comfortable with the fact that so many of the articles about you specifically identify your prominent place in the Jewish community,” laments that while Madoff “did not cause the anti-Semitic insults about Jews and money,” he “caused them to be revived” and “not since Julius Rosenberg spied for the Soviet Union has one person so damaged the image and the self-respect of American Jews.”

Self-respect is subjective and if some want to go on a guilt trip, that’s their problem. As for image, I lived through the Rosenberg story and despite many Jews publicly condemning the death sentence and more than a few claiming that the couple was railroaded, their trial and execution coincided with the great blossoming of America’s fascination with things Jewish and widespread admiration of Jews.

There are always undercurrents of anti-Semitism. What Madoff did is inconsequential in this regard. In fact, as can be ascertained by checking Gallup Poll surveys for the period, anti-Semitism in the U.S. surged in the 1930s and early 1940s as Jews were being persecuted and murdered by Nazi Germany.

It is remarkable how with the predictable assistance of the New York Times, along with too many other media transmitters of the disease and our home-grown self-sermonizers, we embrace the perverse notion of guilt by association. Madoff is Jewish, his crime was monumental but he did not do what he did because he was Jewish and we are not responsible for what he did. The theme of responsibility was trumpeted a couple weeks ago in this newspaper by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman in a column that successfully aspired to the apex of foolishness. Called “We Are One and the Madoff Problem,” we are told that “like it or not…Madoff is One with us. His filthy patch stains our quilt.” Therefore, “it is vital that the organized Jewish world respond to Madoff with a formal separation” by declaring that “Madoff’s heinous crimes are so anathema to our value system.”

I had thought that heinous crimes refer to Auschwitz or perhaps 9/11 or lynchings and not to financial wrongdoing, no matter how monumental. Hammerman’s Madoff-induced parochialism intrigues me. Compare his “We Are One” Madoff mantra to what he wrote after the Mumbai massacres which, incidentally, he did not label as “heinous.”

“Now the world is ready to listen to us – but they can only listen to us if we take our eyes off our navels and engage them, recognizing that their suffering is as great as ours.” As I wrote previously, “I can only hope that his sermons are more sensible.” According to Hammerman, when Jews are murdered clearly because they are Jewish, we are to be universalists. When a Jew commits a crime, we are to be parochial, sharing responsibility for the wrongdoing.

Michael Steinhardt, ever clear-thinking, got it right at a symposium on Madoff, saying that while the criminal was Jewish, this was not a Jewish crime. This isn’t altered by any dollar figure attached to the wrongdoing, nor by the number of Jewish charities and individuals that were defrauded. Without making light of the losses sustained by nonprofits or private investors, it remains that what charities and individuals have lost on Wall Street and other investments in the unfolding of the depression that is now gripping the U.S. and most of the world dwarfs by perhaps as much as a hundredfold Madoff’s fraudulent scheme.

The trumpeting of the theme of Jewish guilt, even when accompanied by disclaimers of such guilt, provides hate points for anti-Semites. This old and dangerous social disease is nourished by those who in the name of some ersatz moral principle assert that we Jews bear responsibility for the sins of others. As has been noted without much avail, the notion that we are all guilty inadvertently translates into the unacceptable position that those who committed the crimes may not be more guilty than the rest of us.

There is the collateral social disease of Jewish self-hate that crops up when Jews behave in ways that are inappropriate or wrongful. What we do not like is labeled as a “Jewish” attribute and this, too, provides material for those who are hateful towards Jews. Clearly, Madoff’s crimes must not be dismissed as inconsequential or of little concern, yet we must not apologize for them. Mea culpas feed the notion that we Jews share the guilt of wrongdoers.

The Madoff story has a long way to go. Rabbis have sermons to give and we cannot expect them to look a gift horse in the mouth when so juicy a subject comes their way. We should expect them, as well as our columnists and editorial writers, to be restrained in their indulging in guilt by association, as well in their indulging in Jewish self-hate.