Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Thought About Madoff

It's not generally been my M.O. to talk about things I know next to nothing about - such as politics, economics, and religion. But I'm about to make an exception.

The more I read about this Bernie Madoff guy and his Ponzi scheme that swindled individual and institutional investors out of $50 billion, the more I had this nagging thought: bad enough this guy is a royal scumbag, does he have to be Jewish, too?

It seems an odd and petty concern, but it's actually rather relevant, especially in light of the fact that so many of the individuals and charities who lost some or all of their funds to Madoff were also Jewish. This includes some very heavy hitters in philanthropic circles, people like Carl and Ruth Shapiro, Robert Lappin, and even Elie Wiesel. Not only did they lose money, but deserving charities, hospitals, schools, and nonprofits also lost out on major gifts they were depending on from these people and many others like them.

Still, why dwell on the religious affiliation? I guess because I'm having flashbacks to the sweltering summer of 1977, when David Berkowitz, aka Son of Sam, was arrested for killing six people over the course of a year (he later amended his confession to take credit for only three of the murders). I distinctly remember my parents expressing shock, not merely at the scope and scale of the crime, but also at the fact that the serial killer was Jewish. Jews simply don't do that sort of thing.

My sisters and I were raised in a household where we often heard, either overtly or subtly, that Jews are somehow better than other people. Smarter, more industrious. More civilized than to put mayonnaise on a roast beef sandwich or buy retail. I don't think we actually ever believed that, but it was an attitude that pervaded our home. And to be fair, our parents grew up in quite a different community and world than we did, and their attitudes reflected the challenges they faced being Jewish.

One thing that is probably true is that Jews, as a group, became integrated more quickly in American society and became, as a group, more financially successful and politically powerful in less time - and relative to their size - than most if not all other immigrant groups. Part of this, I'm sure, is that they were white. Another reason, I believe, is that Jews have a long history of ghettoization; in most societies in which they have lived, they have been a subject people, kept separate from the mainstream and constrained in how and where they lived and worked. As a result, they were forced to rely on each other, support each other, and conduct trade with each other.

When they came to America, the same patterns held. If a Jew needed clothes, he went to a fellow Jew who was a tailor. If he needed a chicken slaughtered according to the laws of kashrut, he went to a Jew who knew how to do it. Sore throat? Let Rachel make you some soup. This continues to this day. I am 46 years old, and I have never had a non-Jewish doctor or dentist in my life. When Jews need an accountant or a lawyer, they go to a Jew; when they need an appliance, they find a Jew with wholesale connections. For generations in America, Jewish money stayed in the Jewish community. Fortunes were made. And when it came time to invest this money, where do you think they went? Yes, to Jewish stockbrokers.

When you think about it, it's been a long time since a single man has harmed so many Jews as Bernie Madoff has done. And the fact that the perpetrator is Jewish really is striking.

Elie Wiesel, speaking in New York earlier today, called Madoff a "psychopath" and said his punishment should include being placed "in a solitary cell with a screen, and on a screen, for at least five years of his life, [would be] pictures of his victims." The Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which provides aid to Jewish refugees overseas, lost almost all its financial assets because of Madoff: $15.2 million. A writer in the Times of London noted, "It takes an extraordinarily heartless conman to swindle a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and Nobel Peace Prize winner out of all of his charitable funds."

Of course, just as with the Holocaust, not all the victims are Jewish, and Madoff's religious affiliation has no bearing on his guilt or punishment. But it does make me think that if the Jewish community diversified not only its investments but also its various networks of vendors and service providers, they may find that non-Jews are just as honest, reliable, and skilled - and maybe more so - as their fellow Jews.

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