Is observing the Mesirah prohibition compatible with being American?

In our essay Is the Madoff Scandal Paradigmatic? Kevin MacDonald and I noted that suspicions of Madoff were quite widespread amongst financially sophisticated elements of the Jewish community. For instance we reported David Harris, Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee saying:

the Madoff name had come up here in the AJC’s investment committee some months ago when someone suggested we ought to explore investing … with Madoff. And the chairman of our investment committee actually said, “No, I think it’s a Ponzi scheme.” He actually used those words to the ten or fifteen people in the meeting.

We asked

With so many prominent Jewish investment industry figures apparently aware that something was wrong with Madoff, the question arises: Why did they not turn him in?

We concluded that the reason was the echo of the traditional ban on “Mesirah” or “Mesira” (informing – an informer is a “Moser”). In medieval times, Jews were absolutely forbidden to tell the Civil Authorities about law-breaking by a fellow Jew, a prohibition sometimes enforced by death, as discussed in this article in the Jewish Encyclopedia.

Chris Moore has published on his website a valuable discussion of the Richard Goldstone atrocity, pointing out that this was a case of enforcing the Mesirah ban. He remarks

Goldstone today stands as an example of why Jewish Zionists should never be given any official authority in a secular society or body that subscribes or aspires to an impartial judicial or justice system… the Jew is commanded by the Law of Moser to side with his co-religionist.

This recalls our judgment:

The clear message of the facts of the Madoff scandal is that Americans generally cannot rely on American Jews to halt financial fraud by someone who is Jewish.

Americans who are not Jewish need to be more aware of the Mesirah concept, which appears to be deeply ingrained in Jewish behavior to this day – another case of the set of group strategies identified by Professor MacDonald. It makes attempting to coexist with Jews costly and problematic.

There has been a dramatic demonstration of this recently. On Thursday April 7th 2011 a bomb went off outside a Chabad Synagogue in Santa Monica, California. The following Tuesday, a suspect, Ron Hirsch — who is apparently Jewish — was arrested at a synagogue in Cleveland Ohio.

Hirsch had visited the synagogue on Sunday night, where he prayed …The next day, the rabbi saw Hirsch’s photo on a Jewish website.
“I saw the facial features, although he shaved off part of his beard,” the unidentified rabbi told ABC News. “First thing I did was call my local rabbi to see if I could report him. He said, ‘If he is a danger to society, you have to report him.’ I called the FBI in Santa Monica. They asked me to call the Cleveland Heights police. They came to synagogue, and he was sitting right in the back.” Santa Monica Chabad suspect charged for fleeing police April 12th, 2011

(My emphasis.)

So strong was the Mesirah inhibition that this Rabbi was in doubt whether to report to the authorities on a Jew who had allegedly bombed a synagogue! Had it been a question of stealing from a non-Jew, it looks certain no call would have been made.

A clear statement of the Mesirah issue appeared in Case of Informant Reverberates Through L.A.’s Orthodox Community by Rebecca Spence Forward, January 23,2008

In traditional Jewish law, if a Jew reports another Jew to the government, he is deemed a moser, and in some interpretations, a moser’s actions are punishable by death…

In 21st-century America, the laws of mesira are up for a wide variety of interpretations. While a moser in the Talmud could be killed for his actions, and some in more right-wing corners still hold this to be the case, many others contend that given the high comfort level of Jews in America today, the same standard created when Jews lived under hostile governments cannot be applied.

Reading through the torturous discussions about whether to inform (for instance here and here and here), it is clear that in observant communities the decision is made very cumbersome, with extensive consultations mandatory, and that many excuses for not acting have been established. If the punishment exceeds what the Jewish community deems appropriate, if there is a possibility of the matter being dealt within the group, and of course if the authorities or their officers can be tarred with anti-Semitism, then informing is forbidden .

The effect is to make not acting easy to rationalize.

In recent years increased consciousness of the issue of pedophilia, sexual abuse generally and drugs has driven most of the Jewish discussion of Mesirah. Some Jewish organizations like the Rabbinical Council of America have explicitly called for Mesirah to be overlooked in these cases. These are, however, situations, where harm is being done to other Jews. There appears to be no discussion of what to do when the harm is being done to non-Jews. Evidently the question does not arise.

Neither, it seems, does the question of reporting economic crimes where the victims are non-Jewish merit attention.

Of course, the evidence about Mesirah comes from the deliberations of the highly observant. But the ethos and tradition of the hard core permeates out to the more secular — as the Madoff story proves.

Many ethnic groups reflexively protect their own — one has only to think of the O.J. Simpson trial — but what others have elaborately codified and systematically asserted this behavior as an absolute duty —  even when guilt is beyond doubt?

In our essay on Madoff, Kevin MacDonald and I concluded

Americans need to ask themselves if parties with this larcenous and nomadic tradition are appropriate stewards of our national institutions.

If Americans fully understood the operation of the Mesirah code, they would ask themselves if a community practicing it is fit for full membership of their civil society.

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