A Dilemma Bigger Than Free Pork: A Rambling Review of Abe Foxman’s New Book Jews & Money

Money-grubbing crooks only out for their own kind. An alliance more threatening than the Freemason. Rich, cheap, greedy, controlling, dishonest shysters: Abe Foxman’s new book is a barrel of laughs. Read More

By / November 4, 2010

  • Money-grubbing crooks only out for their own kind.
  • Judases willing to betray their own for a quick buck.
  • An alliance more threatening than the Freemasons and more enmeshed in society than that secret society.
  • Big nosed, free air swilling, free pork pondering, copper wire inventing, wandering the desert for 40 years looking for a quarter someone dropped, rich, cheap, greedy, controlling, dishonest shysters.

At best these are harmless playground taunts, the standard go to insult hurled by those who have no idea where these stereotypes originated. At their worst they’ve been the rationale for shifting the blame of faltering economies and civil unrest. One need look no further than Weimar-era Germany to see how that story played out.

Throughout history Jews have been pushed to the fringes and relegated to certain trades either by religious decree–someone else’s religious decree mind you–or by virtue of no one else wanting to do the dirty work. The business of money has tended to be that profession. Stick with something for long enough and you’ll develop an acumen. But nobody likes shelling out a cut for the taxman and when the business of money is your stock in trade you’re bound to be maligned; the shylock coming to collect you’re figurative pound of flesh; an economic scourge

In the new book Jews & Money: The Story of a Stereotype (Palgrave-Macmillan) Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, traces the roots of society’s long-held attitudes towards the aforementioned subjects and seeks to determine who and what drives them and what can be done to reverse certain negative sentiments. At its best we get a praiseworthy history of society’s contempt towards Jews and their money, one that stretches from the ancient biblical temple moneychangers through Europe in the Middle Ages and Renaissance and on up through the 20th and 21st centuries. At its worst Foxman’s pointed attacks rely too heavily on assumptions and inferences drawn from the three main tenets of anti-semitism—deicide, disloyalty to anyone but themselves, and a penchant for manipulating the world around them through financial means—attacks that fall flat, especially in light of recent events.

To be fair, the finger wagging goes every which way: towards conspiracy theorists who posit Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke are pulling the strings of finance for the benefit of world Jewery; towards fringe groups to the far left and far right; towards mainstream media and their perceived biases–Matt Taibbi in particular is taken to task for his 2009 assault on Goldman Sachs and, Foxman insinuates, the Jews who run it as a “blood-funneling and money-sniffing vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity”; towards comedians like Woody Allen, Sasha Baron Cohen, and Fran Drescher (though Drescher should be held accountable for the atrocities her sitcom The Nanny wrought on the television viewing public); towards the gonif Bernie Madoff.

Madoff was a crook and the truth about fantastic conspiracies is that they don’t really exist and in normal times that would be all well and good but these aren’t normal times we live in.

The unrest from insurgent factions on the far right has created a volatile political climate. In 2008 the bottom fell out on the speculative housing market. Credit lines tightened in markets across the globe. Thousands of jobs evaporated over the next few months. Iceland fell apart. Greece is still a teetering column. The last days of the Bush administration and much of the current one saw the U.S. government extend unprecedented bailout loans to Wall Street firms. Deep seeds of resentment have given rise to the Tea Party. Though Foxman pays America’s newest political party a nod as “one to watch” whether deliberately or not he completely overlooks the eventual threat this group, whose lightning rod moment was the government bailouts to big Wall Street firms, poses to the Jews.

Let us consider for a second the modern Jew in business who shares only the vaguest connection with their old world and biblical ancestors. They are the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the wave of Jews that fled to America to escape pogroms. They came to America with nothing and instilled a work ethic to move out off the ghettos of the Lower East Side (where coincidentally some have now returned to and resettled though at a much inflated cost). They have their elaborate coming of age rituals—the ones that include a kiddush luncheon with the honoree’s name is spelled out in giant block letters of cream cheese, hardly what the great tzadikim had in mind.

And anyone who has done a turn on the bar and bat mitzvah circuit will tell you that the ostentatious cocktail parties that have become a rite of passage for large swaths of conservative and reform Jews in America serve a distinct purpose: they are a finishing school for the future moneyed class; a year and a half long immersion course where tomorrow’s doctors, attorneys, and Wall Street hot shots learn how to schmooze it up.

We are potentially on the verge of the worst era of anti-semetism since, well, since the last spat of severe anti Jewish sentiment brought on by a faltering economy and a need to play the blame game. Thus far there has been an uneasy truce between the freshly minted Tea Party—spin-masters who have successfully recast the current president, a black progressive liberal from Chicago, as a Marxist Manchurian Candidate…where have you heard that one before?—and Zionist and moderate Jews who love Israel for their own personal reasons. One group votes like Puerto Ricans—though they are said to earn like Episcopalians—while the other would prefer to keep Puerto Ricans off mainland U.S. shores if only they could legally figure out how. Calling the plays as they come, both share a common enemy in fundamentalist Islam and, some would say, to a greater extent, Islam as a whole. The party’s ire over the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center in New York gave a preview of what it is capable of. But the shaky unspoken peace between the New Right and American Jews is worrisome and completely unsustainable. If and when the Muslims—even the most moderate ones—are no longer seen as a threat it is not so far-fetched to imagine that same rage coming down on the Jews who are perceived to control Wall Street; the Jews who Foxman alleges that Taibbi insinuates are the ones that pushed complicated financial products on trusting investors, pensions funds, and the central banks of several nations; the Jews whose alleged grasp on the monetary system has wrought so much havoc on world economies. Through much conjecture wherein any reference to financial institutions, blood, snakes, or other images used at one time or another to disparage Jews is treated as a direct affront Jews & Money seems to completely miss this obvious and looming point.

On a recent Sunday afternoon a man making copies at a local Kinko’s was approached by two Hassidic gentlemen in coat and black hat who asked if he was a Jew. Indeed he was. They inquired as to what he was making copies of and finding out it was for something other than a commercial venture the first Hassid advised the man that he ought to focus his energies in other directions. “We all have our hobbies and mine is making money,” the second Hassidic intoned in a thick guttural Yiddish accent.

Those unsolicited remarks may be little more than a minor PR disaster for someone looking to dispel old stereotypes—they’re certainly not doing anyone any favors—but are they the ones to be held accountable for the stigma of Jews as monsters with an insatiable hunger for lucre?