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Op-Ed: Why do media love Jewish scandals?

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GREAT NECK, N.Y. (JTA) — When reading a newspaper headline like “12 Brooklyn Builders Indicted in Bribery Scheme,” do you find your heart skipping a beat as you hope they aren’t Jews, or at least Jews with recognizably Jewish names?

And when they aren’t, do you breathe a sigh of relief?

How about: “Two Americans Share Nobel Prize in Chemistry” — do you immediately look at the names to see if they’re Jewish?

If you do, then you have what my son calls Jewdar, a unique type of radar that hones in on anything Jewish, pro or con. You’re also apt to believe that the media focuses too much on Jewish malfeasance.

There is no evidence that Jews are more or less likely to be involved in dishonest behavior than anyone else. But we Jews often charge that media outlets focus more on Jewish scandals than those committed by other groups.

Scandal sells, but Jewish scandal probably sells more. Jews long have been stereotyped as sharp, cunning, crafty and dishonest, especially when it comes to money matters. Stories like the ones about allegations of money laundering by rabbis in New Jersey both feed into it and allow people to discuss it openly. After all, it’s news.

There is another reason why scandals involving Jews sell: Jews are overrepresented among activists for social justice and charity, be it the civil rights movement, the feminist movement or, going back in history, the Russian Revolution.

When those who often play a leading role in telling others what’s right and what’s wrong screw up, that’s news. It also gives others an opportunity to gloat that these annoying do-gooders, the Jews, are far from perfect.

All this explains why Jews are seen the way we are and why people love to talk and write about us when we do wrong. But it doesn’t explain why we do these things.

What is it that causes some of our most prominent fellow Jews to behave so shamefully?

Enter the venerated, at least until recently, Rabbi Saul Kassin. As the supreme leader of the Syrian Jewish community, his decision-making powers were rarely, if ever, challenged. When he walks into a filled room, everyone rises. He sits at the head of the table at public events, and people are constantly seeking his advice and bestowing honors upon him. Most important rabbis like him are often deliberately kept apart from “worldly” affairs, which are seen as beneath their spiritual dignity.

This is a prescription for losing touch with reality.

Defenders of Kassin, who was arrested in July in New Jersey on charges of money laundering, have made the argument that he and the other rabbis arrested didn’t steal money for personal gain but did what they did to benefit the community.

Theft is theft, no matter who you steal from or give to. Besides, when the laundered money goes to institutions the rabbis lead, they stand to get credit for having acquired the funding.

Another explanation presented by those who would excuse such illegal behavior is that Jews historically have lived in societies where the government was hostile to them. Jews therefore developed a negative attitude toward governmental authority generally, which they perceived as anti-Semitic, and developed a habit of skirting the law.

This is a nonsense defense. Can we really excuse people for mistaking the U.S. government with the Polish or Russian government of 60 years ago?

A government that features more than a dozen Jewish U.S. senators and many more Jewish congressmen, and which has been friendlier to Jews than any other country in history deserves better treatment than this ludicrous justification.

As to those who say the Orthodox are unfairly singled out, the facts would appear to be otherwise. Ivan Boesky, Bernard Madoff and many other disgraced Jews who went astray were not Orthodox.

Sadly, dishonesty persists in U.S. society. My own research for a book I’m writing provides much evidence that America has become a society of cheats — from the Enron scandal to the WorldCom debacle. These were not scandals committed by Jews.

Most Jews are law abiding. It’s unfair to judge Jews differently, but the reality is that’s what happens.

As long as we preach morality and as long as there is hatred of Jews, we will be held to a different standard. If you claim the high ground, you must be better than others, not just no worse than them.

(William Helmreich is a professor of sociology at the City College of New York and the author of "The Things they Say Behind your Back: Stereotypes and the Myths Behind Them.")

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