Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Ethics: Gaming the System

At TOO we have had several articles on the culture of corruption that pervades many traditional Jewish communities. Edmund Connelly’s “The Culture of Deceit” presents examples going back to the 18th century, citing Wilhelm von Dohm, a Prussian official that Jewish communities were engaged in “the breaking of the laws of the state restricting trade, the import and export of prohibited wares, the forgery of money and precious metals.”

In short, von Dohm describes traditional Jewish communities as far more resembling a mafia-like group engaged in organized crime than what we think of as a religion. Alexander Solzhenitsyn describes how Jews invented elaborate ways to get around laws on selling liquor and to avoid the military draft; they also sold shoddy goods to the Russian military with all that that implies  (see “The Mesira Mentality: Laws are Made to be Broken“).

Connelly describes

the arrest of 44 people, including several rabbis, in a money laundering and influence peddling scheme involving  payoffs to public officials in New Jersey. Rather than marginal figures, the rabbis involved were highly respected pillars of the Syrian Jewish community — a traditionalist Jewish group that remains largely separate even from other Jewish groups. What’s fascinating is that Rabbi Israel Dwek,  a founder of the New Jersey synagogue at the center of the scandal, renounced his own son, Solomon Dwek, because the son had cooperated with the FBI after being indicted on bank fraud charges. The father’s actions were entirely within the Talmudic Law of Moser — the prohibition of a Jew informing on another Jew.

Rabbi Dwek was also involved in a tax fraud scheme in which Jews would receive a kickback of 90% of their charitable contributions. Again, this behavior is not from an isolated bad apple, but occurs at the highest level of these communities.

A recent Forward article by Jay Michaelson (“The Creeping Jewish Fundamentalism in our Midst“) compares the ultra-Orthodox to an organized crime syndicate:

In recent months, the Forward has depicted the coercion and ignorance prevalent in American ultra-Orthodox communities: in brilliant essays by Judy Brown and Shulem Deen, in exposés of Hasidic money laundering, and longer ago in its award-winning coverage of the Agriprocessors meat processing plant. And of course, “fervently Orthodox” leaders have defended, justified, covered up and explained away sexual predators in a way that would make a Vatican official blush.What has emerged from all this is a picture of a subculture that looks more like “The Sopranos” than like “Fiddler on the Roof” — a world in which a small elite maintains power at the expense of thousands of serfs.

The Agriprocessors scandal refers to events in Postville, Iowa at  a Kosher meat processing plant. The Hasidic Jews working for Agriprocessors had no interest conforming to community norms — even seemingly trivial ones such as taking care of their lawns, shoveling their sidewalks, or raking their leaves. They had no concern about the community as a whole; they treated their neighbors like strangers.
Anthony Hilton makes a similar point in an article on the Hasids in Montreal. There is
a long history of acrimony between the Hassids and their mostly French Quebecois neighbors over complaints that the Hassids generally try to ignore municipal regulations they find inconvenient — building codes, parking regulations, etc. Their massive intercity buses stop illegally on residential streets, their diesel engines waking people at odd hours of the night. And they have a reputation for getting away with a lot thanks to municipal officials allegedly wanting to avoid confrontation.
The Kosher processing plant in Iowa also had no concern for the law. A Forward reporter “turned up hard evidence of appalling abuse: substandard wages, inadequate safety measures, horrific accidents, routine short-changing of pay, bribe-taking by shift supervisors and more.” There were also violations of child labor laws and Sholom Rabashkin, the CEO, was convicted of financial fraud and is serving a 27-year prison term. Four other plant officials were convicted on immigration and document fraud charges, and three faced child labor charges. Two managers indicted on document charges fled to Israel.
The fact that Israel is a safe haven for many Jews indicted for crime elsewhere may be seen as another example where the laws and customs of other groups are not seen as binding on Jews. But, according to the article, Jewish fundamentalists both in Israel and in the U.S. are out to “game the system”:

What we’ve also learned is that this entire apparatus of fear, manipulation and power mongering has been supported by you and by me.

We’ve learned, for example, that flagship institutions of ultra-Orthodox life are basically on the dole. Seventy-six percent of students at one of the most prominent yeshivas in the country, in Lakewood, New Jersey, are receiving Pell grants. Indeed, the top three institutional recipients of these grants are ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.

The Chabad-affiliated Michigan Jewish Institute scored $25 million in federal aid meant to go to low-income students, despite an appalling academic record and due largely to chicanery involving an online application mill.

And of course, Haredim in Israel put their American brothers to shame, diverting millions of shekels to schools that don’t provide a basic Western education, rabbinates filled with cronyism and a welfare system that keeps an entire sector of the population dependent on government subsidies.

In other words, the entire edifice of ultra-Orthodox power rests on gaming the system.

Thus even the wider Israeli society is seen as an outgroup to be exploited without any ethical constraints. Another example: Despite taking a very large chunk of social service spending, there is a chronic dispute over Haredim serving in the Israeli military.
This mentality extends beyond the ultra-Orthodox. When a ceiling collapsed at a crowded wedding in Israel due to shoddy construction in 2001, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon condemned the Diaspora mentality of avoiding laws:  “It’s shocking to hear boastful and haughty words like: ‘Laws are meant to be circumvented.’ How many times have we heard people who’ve returned from trips abroad, who make fun of the citizens of the countries they visited, because they act like nerds: They stand in line, they make sure to pay.”
Despite the high-flown sentiments one can easily find in standard discussions of Jewish ethics (but see here), there is something basic going on here—the fundamental ethical difference between ingroups and outgroups that has always been central to Jewish behavior if not official Jewish philosophy. Again, it’s not as though this phenomenon is typical of a few bad apples—it pervades the entire community.  These communities are the ultimate free riders.
But what does it say about Judaism in general? Michaelson:

I think, deep in the hearts of non-Orthodox Jews there lingers the belief that the Haredim are the real Jews, or the safeguards of our future, or perhaps the sweet, cuddly Tevyes of our imagined Yiddish roots.

Michaelson of course disputes that the Hasids are the real Jews. But it’s worth remembering that the great majority of Eastern European Jews who immigrated to American are the descendants of the Hasidic, Yiddish-speaking culture that dominated in Eastern Europe (see here, p. 20). The Hasids have been the wellspring of the Jewish population for a very long time.

Those who managed to get away from what Michaelson calls a “hierarchy of power and abuse” may not be as extreme, but it’s not surprising that we can see a lot of the same tendencies in muted, less obvious form  in the mainstream Jewish  community. Indeed, although freed from the traditional hierarchical social structure, mainstream American Jews still exemplify the ingroup-outgroup psychology of traditional Jewish groups. Here we have emphasized ethnic networking and other sequelae of ethnocentrism (e.g., loyalty to their ethnostatemoral particularism and other cognitive biasing mechanisms (all on display in Anthony Julius’s history of Anti-Semitism in England; see Andrew Joyce’s review), and hostility toward the historical culture of the West—the theme of Jews as a hostile elite).

And yes, I do think Jewishness has something to do with Jewish involvement in financial fraud, quite possibly including the latest by shark-lover, Steven Cohen.

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