Jews Embarrassed by Jews: Slumlords — and Goldman Sachs

Jill Jacobs writing in the Forward presents an interesting comment on Jewish ethics  (When the Slumlords Are Us”). She essentially corroborates Edmund Connelly’s work on “The Culture of Deceit”:  Not only are sharp business practices common among religious Jews, they are encouraged in the sense that Jews with a well-deserved reputation for unethical business behavior are welcomed into the highest reaches of the Jewish community: “Some of these offending landlords have more than Jewish names. At least a couple have been accorded positions of leadership and prominence in their Jewish communities because of the money they give to Jewish groups and causes.”

That’s the important point. It’s certainly the case that all religions have their bad apples. But with Judaism, being a bad apple is quite compatible with being a pillar of the community, as long as you continue to donate generously to communal causes.

Because she has such a strong sense of being Jewish, she feels personally embarrassed because of the behavior of her landlord: “One day, the landlord himself dropped by the building. I shuddered when I saw his long black coat, black hat and bushy beard. Would the other tenants, mostly Latino families, think that all Jews treated others with such neglect?”

Yes, they probably would. That’s how human stereotyping works. The fact is that most people who develop negative attitudes about Jews probably do so as a result of personal interactions with Jews, not by delving into Jewish history or ruminating on the causes of our current malaise. Jacobs notes that she could talk all she wanted about lofty Jewish ethical principles, but it didn’t do much good when reality was so at odds with the lofty theory:

Inevitably, heartbreakingly, someone would say to me, “Jill, you’re telling us that Judaism says all of these great things about how landlords should treat their tenants. So why is it that my landlord, a religious Jew, won’t turn on the heat?” Or worse: “You’re the first Jew I’ve ever met who’s not a slumlord.”

Anti-Semitism among Blacks has often been the result of similar negative personal experiences during the period when Jews owned the stores and apartment buildings in Black communities. Jews have mainly moved on to higher callings than running stores and apartments in Black areas, their places taken by newer arrivals. Similarly, a survey conducted by the Jewish Labor Committee in 1945 indicated that the attitudes of working class Americans were shaped by actual experience with Jews. They saw

the Jew as a cheating storekeeper, a merciless landlord or rental agent, an unscrupulous pawn-broker, or an installment salesman and insurance collector who will take away the collateral or let the insurance lapse at the first delinquency. To this is added the idea that the Jews own all business and that at least most Jews are in business. All this is so because the Jews are money-crazy, selfish, grabby, take advantage of others, cheat, chisel, lie, are ruthless, unscrupulous, and so on. (See here, p. 50).

Jacobs recounts some attempts to make such unethical behavior unaccaptable within the Jewish community. She mentions some successes, but such efforts are up against the particularist, ingroup morality that has always characterized Jewish behavior and is clearly spelled out in Jewish religious writing: One moral standard within the group, and a completely different standard outside the group. Beginning with the Enlightenment, Jews put in a great deal of intellectual work inventing a universalist ethics for Judaism as a “light unto the nations” — a moral exemplar for the rest of humanity. But it was always a sham and continues to be so in the contemporary world. As reported by Haaretz, just recently, a rabbi on the West Bank wrote about how it’s permissible for Jews to kill pretty much any non-Jew even if they are not responsible for threats to Jews:

“It is permissable to kill the Righteous among Nations even if they are not responsible for the threatening situation,” he wrote, adding: “If we kill a Gentile who has sinned or has violated one of the seven commandments — because we care about the commandments — there is nothing wrong with the murder.”

Several prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Yithak Ginzburg and Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, have recommended the book to their students and followers.

The result of this Judeocentric ethics is that, apart from the efforts of Ms. Jacobs, there is far more concern about molding public perceptions than about altering Jewish behavior. This came up with the Bernie Madoff affair:

As in the [Michael] Milken case, the default  strategy is to proscribe any mention that a person like Madoff, who feeds into all the negative Jewish stereotypes, is Jewish. Indeed, some voices within the Jewish community are bemoaning the fact that Madoff’s Jewishness is so central to the media coverage. For example, in a letter to the New York Times, David A. Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee wrote, “Yes, he is Jewish. We get it. But was this relevant to his being arrested for cheating investors, or so key to his evolution as a businessman that it needed to be hammered home again and again?”

It’s well known that when the financial meltdown first hit, the ADL was concerned about “a dramatic upsurge” in anti-Jewish messages on Internet discussion boards devoted to finance and the economy in reaction to the huge bailout of Wall Street. The ADL press release is predictable in its attempt to characterize such outbursts as irrational hatred against Jews: Abe Foxman complained darkly that in times of economic downturns, “The age-old canards [the ADL’s favorite word is ‘canard’] about Jews and money are always just beneath the surface.”

The recent indictment of Goldman Sachs for security fraud is doubtless causing similar angst in Jewish circles. Yesterday’s front page headline in the LA Times screamed “E-mails show Goldman traders rushed to bet against the mortgage market as crisis spread.” [Addendum, headline for 4/27, print edition: Senate Evidence Mounts against Goldman; online: Goldman Played Key Role in Mortgage Meltdown, Senate Investigators Say] Based on documents released prior to Senate hearings this week, the article and the impending Senate hearings are sure to once again place Goldman and  Jewishness front and center in the public’s mind as the main villain in the meltdown — whether this is deserved or not. After all, despite the fact that any mention of the Jewishness of the key figures is verboten in the MSM, Goldman Sachs is an icon of Jewish financial power. Everyone knows that its basically a Jewish firm. It certainly doesn’t help that Lloyd Blankfein heads Goldman and is its publicly visible face. Nor does it help that the deal that brought the charges netted the firm of another Jew, John Paulson, $1 billion. (Paulson is worth $12 billion and is #45 on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans.)

Nor does it help that another firm that is being prominently mentioned as engaging in practices that exacerbated the mortgage meltdown is Magnetar whose principals, including founder Alec Litowitz, are all Jewish.  According to this article, Magnetar actively sought to include the worst possible mortgages into its CDO’s, then managed to get them rated as AAA investments, and then bet massively against them, leaving large financial institutions holding the bag.

Given the enormity of the repercussions of the economic crisis, it is only natural to seek the culprits. The fact that Goldman is  the most prominently featured firm and that other Jews also profited so greatly from the crisis while engaging in questionable practices will naturally feed into the stereotype of Jewish financial perfidy — a stereotype that goes back at least to the 19th century. (See Edmund Connelly’s discussion of Albert Lindemann’s historical research.)

But one thing we can be sure of, if anyone breathes a mention of Jewish involvement in the financial collapse in the mainstream media, the ADL will come out with its guns blazing. Truth is no defense.

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