Wall Street, Main Street, Jew Street

I like to believe that as a 21st century American Jew, I’m no more paranoid than necessary.

But if I hear one more politician extol the virtues of “small towns,” I am fixing up a hiding place in my attic.

If I hear one more pundit bash Wall Street and grow misty over Main Street, I will check airfares out of the country.

“We grow good people in small towns,” vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin said in her acceptance speech at the Republican convention. The crowd went wild with applause.

Sen. Barack Obama told a Florida audience last month, “[Sen. John McCain] wants to run health care like they’ve been running Wall Street. Well, senator, I know some folks on Main Street who aren’t going to think that’s such a good idea.”

First the presidential election and now the financial crisis have given rise to rhetorical nativism. It is open season on the big city. In their bid for those elusive independent, middle-class voters, McCain and Obama and their seconds, Sen. Joe Biden and Palin, are fanning the myth that the real America resides in some shining Mayberry on a hill. If only those nasty money changers and culture vultures in the seething cities below would just let them sow their wheat and do their books and raise their children up good.

These tropes are not new to America; they are older than Shylock. The Jews make up the city: corrupt, scheming, complicated; while the common folk, the good people, occupy the farms and villages. The Jews lord over the metropolises, making easy money off the hard labor of others.

There’s an overlooked and ultimately sympathetic 1934 movie, “The House of Rothschild,” which perfectly captures the previous centuries of anti-Semitic caricature.

The film opens in 1750 on Frankfort’s “Jew Street,” as Mayer Amschel, founder of the Rothschild line, scurries to hide his precious guilden from the cruel tax collector.

“They keep us in chains!” he tells his boys. “They won’t let us learn a trade! They won’t let us own land. So make money. Money is the only weapon the Jew has to defend himself with.”

This stereotype and its accompanying rhetoric only ramps up in times of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, anti-Semitism was most virulent not in the cities where Jews lived but in the Farm Belt and Far West, where the image of “the Jew” lived.

Now the Anti-Defamation League reports “a dramatic upsurge in the number of anti-Semitic statements being posted to Internet discussion boards devoted to finance and the economy.”

Scan those Web sites and you quickly see what the candidates themselves likely don’t even realize: For the bigots and haters, Wall Street is code, the city is code, Hollywood — a staple enemy in the culture wars — is code. They’re code for “Jew.”

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when Palin said, “We grow good people in small towns,” she was quoting the late Westbrook Pegler, a notorious anti-Semitic columnist who called Jews “geese,” because “they hiss when they talk, gulp down everything before them and foul everything in their wake.”

Our candidates and our talking heads should be ashamed or, at least, careful. Because not only are such black-and-white dichotomies dangerous, they’re dumb.

Wall Street is not solely to blame for what’s happened — Main Street was a willing and gluttonous partner. And people on Main Street kept voting into office leaders who spouted pure pablum about “government getting out of the way” and deregulation and took their eyes off the market chicanery.

Main Street and Wall Street are inextricably bound up and always have been. Credit is as important to the economy as corn.

“Why is it everyone always talks about protecting the family farmer?” Rep. Barney Frank once told me. “What about the family shoemaker? What about the family banker?”

And those stump-speech paeans to small towns? Please.

First of all, most Americans live in cities, suburbs and exurbs. Cities aren’t cruel, shapeless Gothams and Gommorahs, they are historic centers of creativity and capital, beacons of hope and opportunity. New York is the symbol of American achievement — the terrorists on Sept. 11 didn’t go after Wasilla or some Home Depot in Delaware. Los Angeles — if it can get its act together — is the city of the 21st century, where Hollywood shapes the world’s current imagination and future reality. Ingenuity, productivity and creativity gushes out from America’s cities.

Last Sunday, I attended a fundraiser for Friends of the Los Angeles River. They closed off the Sixth Street Bridge downtown and filled it with a buffet, dinner tables and a dance floor. Maybe 300 people showed up to support a waterway whose restoration will knit together all sorts of economically and ethnically diverse communities. I stood on the bridge watching the sun set behind the rail yards, behind the downtown skyscrapers and the distant hills, and I saw in that instant how Los Angeles is a great city made up of small towns: We call them neighborhoods.

I live in one of those small towns, and so do you. I like that Wall Street, when it works well, provides the wherewithal for my Main Street to grow and compete.

So I’m not going to pack my bags yet, but I sure know where I’d run to if need be. Because no matter how much they hate Wall Street and how much they fume over Hollywood, they always say they love Israel.

I guess that’s where the good Jews live.

How South America’s Left Turn Impacts Its Jews

South American Jewish communities are surveying their surroundings anew after elections across the continent in recent years have been dominated by left-wing or center-left parties.

Among the changes:

  • In 2002, Luis Ignacio “Lula” DaSilva, a union leader from a poor background, was elected president of Brazil as a candidate of the Worker’s Party.
  • Nestor Kirchner, who won the Argentine presidency in 2003, has turned his left-leaning Peronist Party into a powerhouse by championing economic austerity and straightening out a country that was in bankruptcy just five years ago.
  • Michele Bachelet, a socialist and the first woman elected president in South America, seems to be single-handedly changing Chile’s historically conservative and traditional society.
  • Tabare Vazquez, a Uruguayan socialist, led his Broad Front Party to a historic victory last year, the first time in over a century that a candidate from outside Uruguay’s two traditional parties has won the presidency.
  • Evo Morales, an indigenous coca farmer and leader of the coca grower’s union, won a wide triumph in Bolivian national elections last December. Morales is closely allied with leftist parties throughout Latin America, and is personally close both to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Venezuelan radical Hugo Chavez.
  • Alan Garcia, whose APRA Party in Peru is part of the International Socialist alliance, defeated left-wing indigenous leader Ollanta Humala in a runoff election earlier this year.
  • Ecuador a few years ago elected a left-wing president, Lino Gutierrez, who embarked on a more conservative program than he had promised in his campaign. After a popular uprising led by students and indigenous leaders, Gutierrez was forced to resign and flee the country. A center-left or indigenous party is expected to win presidential elections later this year.
  • In Venezuela, Chavez has been elected twice since 1999 and probably will win a third term in December. With his blatant anti-U.S. rhetoric, Pan-American vision, close relations with Castro and other leaders of what the U.S. State Department considers rogue regimes, meddling in other nations’ internal affairs and grand designs for development, Chavez has struck a chord with many left-wingers and the poor in Venezuela and elsewhere in South America.

The only chief executive in the region who doesn’t fit the mold is Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, a center-right politician who recently won re-election by a wide margin.

Most South American Jews arrived from Europe between 1880 and 1940. Most countries in the continent — with the exception of Argentina and, to a lesser degree, Uruguay — have small Jewish populations that are highly successful in terms of political, social and economic power.

Some say the situation is sufficiently different in each country to make generalizations useless.

“One must differentiate and classify these new governments, rather than use a broad brush when describing South America’s turn to the left,” said Ram Tapia Adler, B’nai B’rith’s director in Chile.

Bachelet, Lula and Vazquez “are pragmatic leftist presidents,” he said, while Chavez, Morales and Humala are “populist leaders who are not very trustworthy.”
Sergio Widder, Latin American director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, perceives more problems in left-wing grass-roots movements than in the governments. The Wiesenthal Center has produced a 10-minute video called, “Another World?” on anti-Semitism at the World Social Forum’s left-wing anti-globalization gatherings held in Latin America in recent years.

The Peruvian Jewish community illustrates divergent reactions to the new South American left.

Before Humala narrowly lost the June election, Guillermo Bronstein, head rabbi of Asociacion Judia 1870, the largest and most influential of Lima’s three main synagogues, said: “There is fear of Humala and his xenophobia, and a greater fear among Jewish businessmen and intellectuals that Peru under a Humala government could turn into another axis of anti-U.S. and anti-European attitudes, as in Chavez’s Venezuela and Evo Morales’ Bolivia.”

But in that same election, Isaac Mekler, a leader of Peru’s Jewish community, was elected to the House of Deputies on the Humala slate. The about-face by Mekler — a scathing critic of Humala until he was offered the position on his slate — caused tremendous divisions in the small Peruvian Jewish community. The community is waiting to see what positions Mekler will take on Jewish issues in Parliament.

Many analysts believe Chavez’s interference in the Peruvian election — he supported Humala and baited the eventual winner, Garcia — may have cost Humala crucial votes in what ended up being a very close election.

Wariness of Chavez — an ally of Iran and, lately, a fierce critic of Israel — is also evident in Bolivia, where Jewish community leader Gabriel Hercman earlier this year expressed concern about Chavez’s influence over Morales.
That wariness was evident at an American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee conference that brought more than 1,000 Jewish leaders to Argentina in May. Some Venezuelan delegates expressed dismay at actions of the Chavez government, including a 2004 police raid of a Jewish school.

Not everyone shares the concern over the advent of the left. Considering that many South American Jews lived for decades under right-wing military dictators who flirted with fascism or under governments where anti-Semitism was prevalent, some feel the recent changes are positive.

“We in South America are passing through a wonderful moment. I am absolutely thrilled with the changes that Latin America is going through: These are the dreams we grew up with in our youth being put into practice,” said Daniel Goldman, chief rabbi of Bet-El of Buenos Aires, Latin America’s largest Jewish congregation. He was referring to aspirations for democratically elected governments that at least talk about pursuing more equitable social policies.

“It’s time we looked at the capacity of individuals, not by their religious origin,” he continued. “We have had Jews participate in some of Latin America’s most horrendous governments. We must think that if a government is positive for human beings, it is positive for the Jewish community.”

Regarding the changes in Argentina, Goldman believes that Jews “have a place just like any citizen of this country, and we have to separate the feelings of the community at large from the Jewish leaders who were always closely associated with authoritarian governments. Our leaders were not up to the circumstances of leadership even when 2,500 Jews disappeared during the military dictatorship.”

Isaac Rudnik is one of the heads of the Argentine Foreign Ministry’s Latin American Affairs Department. He was named Argentina’s special ambassador to Bolivia during that country’s political crisis last year mainly because he had developed a close friendship with Morales during Rudnik’s years of left-wing activism.

After studying in Israel as an adolescent, Rudnik returned to Argentina for law school and became a student activist in the mid-1970s. The military ultimately detained him in a provincial concentration camp, where he spent seven years.
Israel ultimately helped Rudnik leave Argentina for medical care. He returned after the dictatorship fell, and continued working for social change.

“I hear criticism of Evo Morales and Chavez being anti-Semitic and I find it absurd, especially in the case of Evo,” Rudnik said. “This is a coca farmer from Bolivia who is trying to change centuries of slavery of his people. How does anti-Semitism even enter the discussion?”