An ugly bias is back: blaming Jews for financial woes
Conspiracy claims die hard. But responsibility lies with all of us.
The stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew goes back a long way. Zacchaeus was a greedy little tax collector. Fagin was a hideous creature who forced orphans into his organized network of pickpockets. And Shylock, perhaps the most infamous Jewish moneylender of all? Well his avarice ran so deep that he demanded a "pound of flesh" from an indebted Venetian merchant.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Canonized in the Christian Bible and two classics of English literature, these characters reinforce prejudices that Jews have struggled against for centuries. This scapegoating has been particularly venomous during difficult economic times. And these are those times.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported Feb. 10 that a survey of 500 people in each of seven European countries – Austria, France, Hungary, Poland, Germany, Spain, and Britain – found that 40 percent felt Jews have too much power in business and nearly a third blamed Jews for the global financial crisis.
Though the ADL has not surveyed American anti-Semitism since 2007 – when 18 percent shared the sentiment that Jews have "too much control/influence on Wall Street" – the Jewish defense organization reported a spike in anti-Semitic chatter online after Wall Street collapsed last September.
And that was before anti-Semites were gifted their poster boy for Jewish grifting. In December, Bernard Madoff confirmed every suspicion about Jewish moneylenders when he reportedly admitted to running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme.
Crooked. Evil. Innately able to rob you blind while shaking your hand and smiling.
"Is Bernard Madoff Jewish? Very. Oy," a headline from Los Angeles's Jewish Journal responded the day after his arrest.
Jews have lived more comfortably and prosperously here than anywhere else, but even American Jews can't escape the stereotype that they are, at best, penny-pinching cheapskates or, far worst, immoral monetary manipulators.
Today, Jews make big money and are bigwigs in, among other influential professions, the financial industry. But much as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" would like you to believe otherwise, the connection between Jews and money is more complicated than a worldwide conspiracy to control the financial markets. (Shocking, I know.)
The confusion begins with a Hebrew word for money – mammon. In the New Testament, Jesus uses this word to refer to the god of greed. But to Jews, mammon, like the manna that sustained the Israelites in the desert, refers to the lifeblood of survival, a godly pursuit for the protection of the Chosen People.
Nomadic life led Jews to city centers along trading routes, where they often were barred from the respectable crafts. Before they became doctors and lawyers they carved out niches as traders and financiers. Ironically, their edge as moneylenders was courtesy of the Roman Catholic Church, which forbade Christians from charging each other interest; Jews had the run of the market.