Why The New Jersey Rabbi Sting Stings

Does it matter that so many of the men arrested today in New Jersey and New York on charges that include money laundering and organ trafficking are Jewish?  And not just Jewish but rabbis and community leaders?

Of course it matters to Jews.  This is big news from New York to LA, with all the attendant hand-wringing and oy-gvalting that goes along with the revelation of a prominent crook who, as my mother would say, happens to be Jewish (see Madoff, Bernard).

But you’ll notice a lot of those arrested have Italian surnames.  Is the Italian press full of oy veys (in Italian, of course)?  No.  But Jews see a Goldstein in handcuffs, and feel viscerally the shame, the guilt, the fear of backlash…

Some resent it.  Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of CLAL, who made his resentment at the press’s emphasis on the “Jewish” angle clear in this email:

When New Jersey Mayors, politicians and rabbis get arrested for money laundering, it’s news that should be reported. It’s especially important for Jews to hear this news and address the discomfort created by religious leaders behaving badly. Isn’t that what we ask of other groups when their leaders do the same?

But the coverage, which initially began in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, suggests that the motivation for the coverage may be less than appropriate. In fact, it may be nothing less than an excuse to vent deep resentment at a particular portion of the Jewish community.

When a headline reads, “NJ officials, NY rabbis caught in federal money laundering, corruption sweep”, one expects a story which describes that event. In this case however, no mention is made of any rabbis actually getting arrested. Despite plenty of details about various politicos being taken into custody, there is nothing about rabbis.

This may be a big deal, but the headline and the story don’t match – where is the info on the rabbis? This kind of coverage actually borders on Jew-baiting, and it potentially says something at least as ugly about the author/editors as it does about those who committed any crime. Consider the following quote found on the paper’s website and carried on CNN:

The arrests…“began with an investigation of money transfers by members of the Syrian enclaves in New York and New Jersey,” the newspaper said on its Web site, NJ.com. Those arrested Thursday “include key religious leaders in the tight-knit, wealthy communities,” the report said.

“Enclaves”? “Tight-knit, wealthy communities”? Could it be that the paper harbors deep resentment against Jews who they see as over-privileged, stand-offish people who operate as a law unto themselves? Is this the moment to celebrate how “those people” will now get their comeuppance? If not, why describe the community in classically anti-Semitic ways instead of calling out the specific leaders who broke the law, violated the religious rules of their own community and should be punished to the full extent of the law for any wrongdoing they committed?

This story needs to be told, but it needs to be told better than this. It needs to be about justice, not just desserts. By the way, when all this calms down, the Syrian-Jewish community should also take a good look at itself to see what they do which contributes to their being perceived of this way by their neighbors.

While victims of bias should never be blamed for the bias against them, in most cases for a stereotype to take hold it must be rooted in some partial truth. Ironically, coverage like that in the Star Ledger will make that ever less likely to happen, confirming the kind of hostility which is used by any community looking for a reason to turn inward.

But J.J. Goldberg, the editorial director of The Forward, had perhaps the most insightful take on the Jewish reaction in a post Madoff interview with New Voices magazine. He said our reaction is shock not because we’re afraid of anti-semitism but because we naively hold our religion inviolate:

It’s because we hold Judaism so dear, we don’t want to think it’s capable of creating problems. In 1993, there was a wave of Pell Grant fraud cases where people were setting up phony schools to apply for Pell Grants and then keeping the money. [The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations] had two days of hearings. [Anti-Defamation League National Director] Abe Foxman wrote a letter [to John McCain] complaining that all of the witnesses that had been called up represented yeshivas. He said, the way this has been set up it could create the unfortunate impression that this is some particularly Jewish pattern of crime. And McCain wrote back and said, it is. Yeshivas were this huge network of institutions where people study full time. They had been mainly supported by the billionaire Reichman family from Toronto. [The Reichman family] went bust, and all of a sudden there are all of these cases of fraud and money laundering. Anything to support this impossible system. But you can’t talk about Judaism leading to wrongdoing. It can’t be. Judaism is only good.

The less involved you are in daily Jewish life, the more inviolate it has to be. Think of Superman and [the city of Kandor] in the little bottle in his Fortress of Solitude. It has to be preserved because there’s nothing you can do with it. Flowers that you press into a Bible. The less you can do with it the more you need it to be perfect.

Goldberg traces the problem of corruption in the Jewish community to the rise in wealth (well, one could argue, it is kind of hard to be tempted to money-launder when you have no money).  He says:

Before the modern age, Jews lived in ghettoes. They could tax themselves. Tzedakah was not voluntary. Shabbes wasn’t voluntary. The first synagogue in America, Shearith Israel in New York, adopted a rule saying that if you violated Shabbes you got fined. It didn’t work. People just resigned from the synagogue. [The community] had lost enforcement power. And once you’ve lost enforcement power, you’ve got to ask for it. And once you’ve got to ask for money, you become dependent on the wealthy. Rabbis now depend on the goodwill of a few rich people. And so the balance of power between the moralists and the hedonists shifts. There used to be a check. The moral authority of the Jewish community had enforcement power. Now it’s around for entertainment. Instead of scolding Jews, now they scold goyim. They have no authority to scold the Jews. None. Rabbis lose their jobs for being moral scolds. So there is no more moral authority.

I don’t know if the people arrested are guilty, but if they are, Goldberg’s harsh last statement—“There is no more moral authority”—will be just a bit harder to disprove.