Epstein Case Bad News for American Jews

July 17, 2019
U.S. financier Jeffrey Epstein (C) appears in court where he pleaded guilty to two prostitution charges in West Palm Beach, Florida,July 10, 2019; Photo by REUTERS

Such is the hyperpolarized state of American politics that even pedophilia has become a partisan issue.

Democrats and Republicans are united in their condemnation of Jeffrey Epstein, the financier turned accused child sex trafficker and abuser of underage girls, who it now appears may finally face the deserved consequences of his atrocities. But party loyalists on both sides of the aisle have quickly pivoted from condemning Epstein’s reprehensible conduct to castigating their political opponents for their ties to a convicted sex offender.

Epstein bought himself a lot of powerful friends in both parties over the years, but the selective outrage that dominates our political discourse leaves almost no room for such nuance. So Republicans beat up on Bill Clinton and Alan Dershowitz. Democrats attack Donald Trump and Alex Acosta. And the systematic abuse of countless underage girls becomes just one more political debating point that true believers on both the right and left use to attempt to undermine their opponents.

Because such knee-jerk partisanship has become so pervasive in our public discourse, we scarcely even notice it anymore and rarely summon the energy to be upset by it. But there is another aspect to this Epstein horror story that does deserve more attention, especially from American Jews. For not since the trial and execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have the Jewish community’s fiercest critics been given such valuable ammunition for their attacks against us.

When stock market swindler Bernie Madoff was convicted of stealing tens of millions of dollars in 2009, it was precisely the type of shandah that can contribute to the scapegoating of Jews. Madoff ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people, and the way he swindled them also perpetuated one of the oldest and most pernicious slurs against the Jewish people. The stereotype of greedy and unprincipled Jewish moneychangers shamelessly enriching themselves at the expense of guileless and hardworking citizens refreshed an ancient slur for a 21st-century audience.

Epstein bought himself a lot of powerful friends in both parties over the years.

But many of Madoff’s crimes were committed against other Jews, and while his thievery did reinforce an age-old trope, it was directly relevant to only one of the malicious categorizations that have been affixed to our community over the years. The accusations leveled against the Rosenbergs damaged the reputation of American Jews much more broadly. Their conviction for spying against the United States and providing top-secret nuclear information to the Soviet Union gave permission to anti-Semites of that era to publicly question our allegiance and trustworthiness to this country. Today, our critics habitually raise questions about so-called “dual loyalty” of Jews to the U.S. and Israel. But similar accusations against many who had emigrated from Eastern Europe at the height of the Cold War were much more damaging.

Which brings us to Epstein. He is an extremely wealthy individual who has used his money and his influence to largely avoid the types of harsh punishments that are imposed against most people guilty of such horrible crimes. The ugliest and most persistent of accusations against Jews is that we secretly control the world’s economic, political and media power structures. Both the nature of Epstein’s crimes and his years of successful efforts to escape full punishment are ideal examples for the most hateful conspiracy theorists to employ to further their arguments. For them, he is the latest iteration of their repulsive theory of Rothschild-esque world domination, conveniently updated for the social media era.

Jews are not the only targets of these sentiments, of course. Populism, isolationism and nationalism all flourish during times of economic anxiety and inequality. As has been the case through most of history, the worst bigotry is directed toward the “others,” outsiders who are perceived to have benefited at the expense of the rest of society. 

We are still the others. And Epstein joins the ranks of fellow miscreants such as Madoff and the Rosenbergs in making our other-ness even more difficult to overcome at the worst possible time.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC, UC Berkeley Institute and Pepperdine University. 

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