Why it matters that Madoff is Jewish

Josh Nathan-Kazis of New Voices asks the question in a Q & A with the Forward’s J.J. Goldberg:

What is the answer to David Harris’ implied question? Why does it matter that Madoff is Jewish? And why don’t Jews think that it matters?
First of all, it matters because he operated through a network of Jewish associations. His Jewish communal involvement was part of his scheme. In a larger sense, [it matters] because of the long association of Jews and Wall Street and finance. It figures into anti-Semitic mythology. His being Jewish is relevant in some way that I think most people can’t put their finger on. It’s relevant because his story seems to be a fairy tale come true. It’s exactly what everybody has in the back of their minds. Jews and polite gentiles don’t want to talk about it because it reinforces anti-Semitic stereotypes. Stereotypes are exaggerations of truth, frequently unfair but very rarely unfounded. …

From there the conversation eventually moved into larger questions about Jews, wealth and assimilation:

So if that’s what capitalism had to do with Madoff, what was it about Jewish culture that created Madoff?
I’ve done a little bit of thinking about it. Certainly the fact that Jewish culture is so exhibitionist. Conspicuous consumption has something to do with it. That’s at the heart. Now, where does that come from? In the 1930s, the ADL had what they called a Bureau of Jewish Deportment. They put out booklets advising people how to behave in Miami, which was mainly gentile then. You don’t wear furs in the summer on Collins Avenue. They wouldn’t have said it if it wasn’t being done. Why would somebody wear furs on Collins Avenue in the summer? What are they trying to show? They want to show that they’re successful, they want to show that they’re not their grandfather the tailor in Russia. Jews went into finance in the Middle Ages, Jews invented international trade. So it’s in the tradition-it’s in the culture. Maybe because it’s a portable culture, it’s an urban culture, it’s a culture that was not rooted in physical labor. It was entirely survival by wits. And if it’s entirely survival by wits, and if everybody’s against you, then a whole lot of things become imaginable.

And this culture survived the generations of poverty? People who are wealthy now, their grandparents were destitute, and their great-grandparents were destitute. I’m not sure when poverty hit the Pale, but-
The 1600s. It was a long time. So, you know, there’s a mystery here. It’s worth solving. But I don’t know anybody who studies it. I know a historian who wanted to write about Jewish history. Their first book was about Jewish gangsters. Dropped the topic. Took too much heat. Because nobody wants to hear about it.

How has wealth affected the Jewish community?

There’s been exponential growth of Jewish wealth, partly because there’s been exponential growth of wealth. The top marginal tax rate under Eisenhower and Kennedy was 90%. [Today,] America’s got the lowest taxes in the industrial world. It all changed in the mid 1970s. People blame Reagan, but it really started under Carter. Along with deregulation came the lowering of the taxes. You removed the rules for getting rich, and you let people keep more of that money. And the sky was the limit. The Jewish organizations, for a bunch of reasons, grew and grew and grew during those years. There was always a myth that the richer Jews were more assimilated. Nowadays, the poorer Jews are more assimilated because they can’t afford [Jewish life]. The Jewish community grew by the graces of the donations of the wealthy. And then it built up this infrastructure that was dependent on the donations of the wealthy. It became harder and harder to act independently of the interests of the wealthy. …

Click here to read the full interview.