Jews and Money: the dirty little secret of anti-Semitism is no secret. It has been a major factor fueling Jew hatred for hundreds of years, certainly since the Middle Ages. It is the perception of non-Jews that we who are Jews have extraordinary claims on money. We magically know how to earn it, to spend it, to make interest off of it, to wheedle it out of Gentiles, and to control international markets with no consideration for the welfare of our native homelands because international Jewry crosses all borders and works exclusively for its own benefit. There is nothing we will not do to gain money, nor is there any amount too small for a Jew to wish to lay claim to it. Around the world there is a view that all Jews are rich, and it is a belief so widespread in some countries and communities that no amount of counter-evidence can force a reassessment of its self-evident "truth." In fact, not only are Jews rich, but we are cheap, and it is because no amount of money is too small for us to grasp that we are able to amass our fortunes.
I say all of this because in a moment of financial crisis such as we are living through today, the old canard rises like a Phoenix. The good news is that we don't see it being used in mainstream media as an explanation for the current financial meltdown. The bad news is that remarks and rumors about the pernicious influence of Jews on Wall Street are being broadcast on Internet comment boards and blogs and the usual anti-Semitic Web sites that thrive on conspiratorial Jew-hate. But while we may take some comfort in seeing the problem limited to extremist margins, its ability to spread like a virus through the World Wide Web puts us on alert. And on the Web, rumor often becomes "fact" in some people's minds and can threaten to go mainstream.
To give you a good idea of what I'm talking about, here is a small sampling of comments we've found out there in the digital world in the wake of the recent bank failures and the government bailout. If you'll look at the screen now, we will show some of the comments appearing on the finance message boards of Yahoo.com:
• What is a GS Jew? Goldman Sachs? Jews are greedy, rotten slime balls
• … the same Jewish bankers have been robbing us in this same manner for nearly an entire century now
• They [Jews] love money nothing else, no faith or religion can be so heartless to their victims
And here, on the screen, are some anti-Semitic images that have appeared on Internet blogs, hate sites and in the Arab media.
A widely circulated rumor on the Internet has suggested that just prior to the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other major investment banks, "$400 billion in funds was secretly transferred to Israeli banks." Although the story had no basis in fact, it traded in the same kind of conspiracy theory that emerged after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when it was claimed that "4,000 Jews" did not report to work at the World Trade Center that day because they had been given advance warning by the Israeli government.
And although no respectable American leader would engage, at least publicly, in expressing these sorts of stereotypes, or in scapegoating Jews for what has already been called the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the international scene is different and less comforting. We find similar commentary, for example, in the Middle East where Jew-hate has become a cottage industry. If the Arab media is not in the least squeamish about portraying Israeli Jews as hook-nosed Hasidim plotting the blood-drenched destruction of the Palestinian people, or making callous and wholly unwarranted comparisons of Zionism to Nazism, then we can hardly be surprised when political leaders in the region seek political advantage by engaging in overtly anti-Semitic stereotyping in the midst of a worldwide financial catastrophe.
Just a few weeks ago, for example, Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhum, blamed what he called the "Jewish lobby" for the global financial crisis. He went on to say it "controls the U.S. elections and defines the foreign policy of any new administration in a manner that allows it to retain control of the American government and economy."
Perhaps not to be outdone, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in another of his public incitements against the State of Israel, included these remarks about Zionists: "Although they are a miniscule minority, they have been dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers as well as the political decision making centers of some European countries and the US in a deceitful, complex and furtive manner."
I need hardly remind you that characterizations of "furtive" but all powerful Jewish cabals manipulating financial markets and governments bear the stamp of that classic in paranoid, racist literature, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, contrived by the Czarist secret police around the turn of the previous century. Although thoroughly discredited as a forgery, it purports to be an account of the secret plans of Jewish leaders seeking to attain world domination in the last years of the nineteenth century. However, the document is still being used to stir up anti-Semitic hatred. It has taken root in bigoted, frightened minds around the world.
The Protocols have become a major source of Arab and Islamic propaganda. Between 1965 and 1967 alone, approximately 50 books on political subjects published in Arabic were either based on the Protocols or quoted from them. In 1980, the Jordanian delegate to the United Nations, spoke about the Protocols as a genuine document. In October of 1987 the Iranian Embassy in Brazil circulated copies of the Protocols, which it said "belongs to the history of the world." Arab television has run a series based on the idea that the infamous document is a genuine revelation of Jewish attempts to take over the world. It is the lie that never dies.
But the Protocols are only one in a long line of representations of "the Jew" as one who has a particular relation to money and a secret power that he shares with his brethren. A quick run-down of earlier precedents – both historical and cultural representations – reminds us that the foundations for the myth of the all-powerful Jewish financial wizard are deeply embedded in world psychology. So, we have:
• The Medieval Jew, forced by historical circumstance to alone act as moneylender to his Christian neighbor who was not permitted to engage in lending money at interest. Trade and other occupations were closed to Jews. This economic dynamic created resentment toward the Jew who already lived as a figure apart from Christian society.
• Shakespeare's Shylock became an enduring image of the venal Jew who would demand his pound of Christian flesh
• Court-Jews throughout the German principalities supplied kings and princes with the credit they required to cover their personal extravagances and their political wars
• Dickens's Fagin, leader of a gang of boy-thieves, became another enduring fictional image of the Jew as greedy and amoral, beyond the realm of Christian rectitude
• The emergence in European capitals of the five sons of Meyer Amschel Rothschild as banking magnates cemented an image of Jewish control of the international levers of finance; it did not matter to the world that Meyer Amschel, who became a Court-Jew by dint of his own industry, had grown up in the closed Jewish ghetto of Frankfurt where every aspect of daily life was under strict control.
These are just a few of the precedents to the Protocols that became embedded in the psyche of the non-Jewish world and formed the fixed image of the Jew as an amoral financial manipulator as if by genetic predisposition. In other words, we're born that way! It's like inheriting a disease for which there is no cure. Nineteenth century literature was littered with Jewish characters whose most prominent personality trait was their greed, though some authors expressed a grudging admiration for the application of intelligence which enabled their Jewish characters to thrive and rise in society.
And unfortunately, ADL finds time and again that contemporary attitudes about Jews, at least within significant percentages of the population both here in America and abroad, are resistant to change. In our last survey of six European countries conducted in spring 2007, high percentages still believe in the traditional anti-Jewish canard that "Jews have too much power in the business world." Overall, nearly 35% of all respondents believe this stereotype to be true. In Hungary, it is 60%.
Similarly, European respondents to the survey still believe in the idea that "Jews have too much power in international financial markets." Overall, 35% of those surveyed cling to the traditional stereotype; in Hungary, it is 61%.
This is obviously disturbing, for such attitudes persist despite the fact that individual governments and the European Union have condemned anti-Semitism and sought ways to counteract it. And a recent report by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project confirms ADL's overall analysis, indicating a doubling of anti-Jewish views in Spain, for example, from 21% to 46% in just the past three years, and a rebound in anti-Jewish sentiment in Poland, to 36% from 27% in 2005, and in Russia, to 34% from 26% in the same year.
The situation in America is decidedly better, but by no means perfect. Here, stereotypes about "Jewish power" have replaced many of the classical ethnic stereotypes that used to be attributed to Jewish Americans, especially in the day when largely Ashkenazic Jewish immigrant populations, impoverished, lived in crowded urban slums and did piece-work in tenement apartments or were itinerant street vendors. In those days, aside from the exceptional and more assimilated German Jews of "Our Crowd," the image of the lower working-class Jew – families adhering to strange religious rituals or condemned to the squalor of urban poverty – prevented Jews from easy integration into American society and its institutions.
Today, on the contrary, based on a survey in October 2007, we find a persistent 15% of Americans believe that Jews have "too much power in the U.S." and 20% believe that we have "too much power in the business world." Even before the current crisis, a year ago, 18% believed that Jews have "too much control/influence on Wall Street" – so we can easily imagine that from these overlapping percentages emerge the kinds of Internet slanders that today tar the entire Jewish community.
Of course like all stereotypes, people predisposed to believe in them seek out only the examples that support their bias, completely disregarding counter-examples. The nefarious banker is always a Rothschild, never a J.P. Morgan or a Rockefeller. So when a long-established and well-respected Wall Street firm like Lehman Brothers fails and the financial markets quake, the anti-Semite pounces and latent anti-Semitism awakens: Aha! A Jewish firm! It's always the Jews!
Never mind that Wall Street was once the fortress of Anglo-Saxon Protestant America that has over recent decades accepted into its ranks a widely diverse population of financial go-getters at all levels, including American Jews, African-Americans, Irish and Italian Americans, Latino-Americans and, in vastly increased numbers, women.
It seems practically impossible to disabuse the 15%-20% of Americans and nearly 40% of Europeans of their entrenched ideas that associate Jews – and Jews only -- with financial savvy and success, so-called sharp dealing, and financial conspiracies from which Jews – and Jews only – emerge victorious. Besides, anti-Semitism, like most racism, is not rational. If Jews are not hated for being rich, then we're hated for being communists … or, nearly as bad, we are despised for being bleeding heart liberals!
To have to point out that many a corporate titan or Wall Street financier who profited handily during the recent bubble was not Jewish is to find oneself both stating the obvious and engaging in a childish exercise. Besides, it doesn't impress the committed anti-Semite who perhaps learns in childhood, at ground level, the truly odious use of the word Jew as a verb, as in "The shopkeeper 'jewed' me down."
That many American Jews also now fear for their pension funds or the possibility of foreclosure on their homes escapes the anti-Semitic imagination. That Jewish social services agencies that feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, or aid the sick will also feel the tightening of credit or the limits of largesse in an economic downturn is, again, something unimagined by those who simply assume that all Jews walk away from economic panics with golden parachutes or are forever cushioned from the financial stresses of everyday life.
It is my job, ADL's job, and unfortunately the job of Jews worldwide, to remind our fellow citizens that when the markets quake, the ground shakes underneath us as well.
As Americans, we are all undoubtedly going to see harder times and the new President will need our best wishes and our best ideas. What we can not afford is to blame any one group or profession for the mess we are in. We must roll up our sleeves and work together to keep our country afloat and to limit the number of people who are in dire economic distress.
Jewish philanthropy and Jewish commitment to social service – the commitment to tikkun olam, to repair the world -- is, after all, the side of the coin that the economic anti-Semite neither sees nor imagines. All Jews, rich and poor, are called to tzedakah, to acts of righteous giving, each in the way that his or her purse will accommodate. Don't expect the anti-Semites to notice. We give charity not for the thanks we receive, but for the good it will do another. We do it not because we are genetically disposed to generosity, but because it is among the highest values of our heritage, which is indeed rich in ethical principals.