Lessons From Abramoff’s Case
Lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s recent indictment and arrest on charges of wire fraud involve an already notorious individual. The U.S.
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and federal grand jury have already investigated him about his unscrupulous dealings with Indian tribes.
Because Abramoff’s public persona trades on a glossy presentation of himself as an exemplar of Jewish values, his case calls for careful attention — not only from the general public but specifically the Jewish community. As Jews who have worked with Native American communities, we feel that the Abramoff case can open a long-overdue conversation among American Jews about Native Americans today and some areas of common interest.
To start with, there are Abramoff’s dealings with tribal governments that were his clients. Marketing his influence with key members of Congress, Abramoff allegedly secured fees from one tribe to help it obtain legal rights to conduct gaming, then took fees from another tribe to help it squelch the other client’s tribal gaming prospects. If true, this stunning disregard of basic fiduciary responsibility would be but one example of his business practices with Native Americans. According to the New York Times, Abramoff wrote e-mails to his business partner, Michael Scanlon, referring to his Native American clients as “idiots,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”
According to a June 23, 2005 report in the Los Angeles Times, Abramoff used funds gained by allegedly defrauding Indian tribes to finance “a Jewish religious school that he founded” and “paramilitary operations mounted by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.” Because of the public association of Abramoff’s activities with support for Jewish causes, an affirmation is needed that he does not represent Jewish religious values regarding the ethical treatment of non-Jews and respect for the divine image of all human beings. Abramoff’s actions and words also depart from the important American Jewish traditions of respect for democracy and activism to achieve social justice.
Then there is Abramoff’s alleged conduct toward his Native American clients from a perspective grounded in Jewish sources. According to the Torah, cheating, lying, expropriation of other people’s property, misuse of funds and condescending attitudes toward non-Jews are not Jewish values, and are expressly forbidden. The idea of establishing a school to teach Torah using misappropriated funds would be total nonsense from a Jewish point of view — the worst example of faulty ethical and moral thinking.
If they prove authentic, Abramoff’s racist and demeaning references to his Native American clients would suggest that he has not been thinking and behaving according to the Jewish teachings that, as the founder of a Jewish school, he claims to espouse. The Jewish tradition teaches us that all human beings — not just Jews — are made in the image of God. Abramoff’s proffered excuse, that he was just indulging in “locker-room talk,” runs aground on the most basic Jewish teachings that you must “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16).
Abramoff’s conduct should prompt more from American Jews than a repudiation. It should serve as an occasion for forging better relations and understanding between Native and Jewish communities. If anything, Abramoff’s experience as a Jew should have made him more, not less, sensitive to the humanity and concerns of Indian people. Like Jews, American Indians know what it means to be historically dispossessed. They are struggling to assert sovereignty over what remains. Like Jews, American Indians wrestle with the meaning of their remembered past and how to accommodate to the powerful society that surrounds them.
Because of reservation poverty and forced relocation programs mounted by the federal government in the 1950s to move tribal members off reservations and into cities, Indian nations also share with Jews the experience of Diaspora. Like Jews, they have been subjected to coercive programs of conversion and assimilation, their cultures and sacred practices outlawed, their numbers diminished by genocide and their identity made more complex by intermarriage. Desecration of cemeteries and burial sites, long a problem for European Jews, remains a current horror for Indian people.
Jews should seek a higher level of understanding and better relations with Indian peoples. We are egregiously misrepresented by the likes of Abramoff. We feel pride and a sense of affinity with distinguished legal scholar Felix S. Cohen, whose “Handbook of Federal Indian Law” (1942) and other writings have been crucial to restoring federal recognition of tribal sovereignty. A secular Jew committed to democratic principles, Cohen wrote passionately about Native American self-government from a perspective informed by Jewish history:
“Our interest in Native American self-government today is not the interest of sentimentalists or antiquarians,” Cohen wrote in 1949. “We have a vital concern with Indian self-government because the Native American is to America what the Jew was to the Russian Czars and Hitler’s Germany. For us, the Indian tribe is the miner’s canary, and when it flutters and droops we know that the poison gasses of intolerance threaten all other minorities in our land.”
Haim Dov Beliak is rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom of Whittier and is co-director of Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem. Gelya Frank is a USC professor and director of Tule River Tribal History Project. UCLA law school professor Carole Goldberg directs the Joint Degree Program in Law and American Indian Studies.