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.
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.
Instead of teaching their children to farm or be blacksmiths, these financiers – at the time, more like glorified pawnbrokers – passed on the art of lending money. The tradition would pay off when boatloads of Central Europeans landed at Ellis Island in the 1800s.
Jews have historically taken advantage of the opportunities afforded them, and in those days there was hardly a better way for a poor German Jew to cut his teeth than selling cheap goods in rural America.
The story of the Lehman brothers – turning an Alabama cotton business into a global financial titan – is typical, almost a cliché, of how Jews rose from peddlers to shop owners to international financiers in the course of a few decades.
The saga of Lehman Brothers came to a sudden end Sept. 15, not coincidentally at the same time that Jews once again became the scapegoat for this country's, and the world's, economic problems.
Since then, conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites alike have been busy bombarding financial blogs, Jewish journalism outlets, and their self-serving forums with comments about how former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Lehman Brothers, and others are orchestrating this crisis to crush the goy.
It's the same trope that's been repeated since long before the rise of the House of Rothschild: The "international Jew," as Henry Ford deemed this global tribe, starts wars and manipulates markets for self-gain and schadenfreude.
And it's just as vacuous now as it was then. Jews are certainly prominent in the US financial market, but they remain an underwhelming minority.
Time magazine's list this month of the "25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis" includes, by my count, six Jews – which means that more than 75 percent of the culpable were not Jewish. Among the blameworthy were former President Bush, disgraced subprime lender Angelo Mozilo and, ahem, the american consumer. There is little Jews can do to kill this old canard. But they can learn from the mistakes that enabled one of their own to use the communal bonds in American Jewry to orchestrate the biggest con in US history.
Though some Jewish money managers have proved to be scoundrels at best, like Shylock, it is not because they are Jewish – just as Christianity did not inspire Ken Lay to cheat Enron's shareholders. Indeed, Jews may be the easy historical target, but scapegoating misses the moral of our own failures. The real responsibility lies with all of us.
• Brad A. Greenberg, senior writer for The Jewish Journal and creator of TheGodBlog.org , is working on a book about the facts and fiction of Jewish power.