Jewish Journal

Forget the facts in financial scapegoating: Clinging to Jewish names and faces

by Brad A. Greenberg

April 10, 2009 | 12:52 pm

My cover story for this week’s paper was a long time coming. But it’s finally here.

The article, “Why Blame the Jews?,” digs deeper into the topic that wrote about for The Christian Science Monitor in February. You’ve seen the topic on this blog off and on since the U.S. economy fell off a cliff in September. Times are tough, and when that happens, almost like clockwork, victims rediscover their favorite scapegoat. The Jews.

Here’s an excerpt from my story:

Anti-Semites have long fed off fallacious claims that Jews drink the blood of gentile financial calamity. And, reality be damned, they wasted little time before lobbing such attacks this go-around.

Given the anonymous nature of the Internet, it’s impossible to know whether such sentiments signified a new surge in hatred of Jews or were simply a sign of increased efforts by an angry few. But it appears that more than just the usual suspects have bought into the conspiracy theories and abject anti-Semitism. In February, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported 40 percent of Europeans in seven countries — Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Spain — believe Jews have too much power in business and nearly a third blame Jews for the economic crisis.

“Jews run the world,” Draskovics Andras, a leader in the right-wing Hungarian Guard movement, said in remarks televised on Hungarian TV last month. Jews “need only 2 billion people for their tricks, and the rest of mankind will be executed.”

Though less socially acceptable in the United States, anti-Semitic attitudes appear to be just as common.

In January, Neil Malhotra, an assistant professor at Stanford School of Business, and Yotam Margalit of Columbia University set out to determine just how much blame Americans were assigning to history’s favorite scapegoat. And though the ADL regularly finds that fewer than 20 percent of Americans harbor anti-Semitic attitudes regarding Jewish business practices, Malhotra and Margalit’s study suggests that the historic urge to outsource blame is bringing in at least a few new faces.

Primed with news articles related to the crisis, including one about Bernard Madoff, the macher who made off with billions from the American Jewish community and admitted to running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, study participants were asked the question: “How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?” They then had to choose between “a great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little and not at all.”

“Among non-Jewish respondents,” Malhotra told The Journal, “a strikingly high 24.6 percent of Americans blanketly blamed ‘the Jews’ a moderate amount or more, and 38.4 percent attributed at least some level of blame to the group.”

The campaign against the Jews began shortly after Lehman’s collapse. On Oct. 2, a rumor, based on insinuation and wishful thinking, began circulating on anti-Semitic blogs that before going belly-up Lehman had diverted $400 billion — that’s billion with a “b” — to accounts in Israel.

The origin of this claim was a Bloomberg article reporting that before the company’s collapse, its assets fell from $500 billion to less than $100 billion — a drop of $400 billion. A Lehman trustee attributed this to a “proverbial run on the bank.” The article contained no mention of Israel or Jews or any recipient of these billions, but anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists knew the only answer for the money’s disappearance was Jewish clannishness and trickery.

“The reality is irrelevant. Anti-Semites and bigots and people who accept stereotypes have nothing to do with reality. Facts don’t matter. They create their own,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said in an interview.

“Sometimes in bigotry you use a modicum of facts to build your conspiracy,” Foxman said. “If the economy was not in crisis, bigots could not use the economy as a platform on which to operate. Lehman, Bear Sterns, the current Fed chairman, the previous Fed chairman — but that assumes a classic anti-Semitic canard that all these people are in these positions because they are Jewish and therefore act out their Jewishness.”

This is familiar territory for the Jewish people. From poisoning the well to plunging Weimar Germany into desperate poverty, Jews have often been blamed for otherwise explainable tragedies (such as poor sanitation and war reparations).

Anti-Semites looked to the business pages and found Jewish names being mentioned in almost inverse relation to the stock market’s decline.

They turned to Washington and found Jewish economists being blamed for policies that precipitated the crisis and labeled as Jews several policymakers who aren’t, such as former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and his successor Timothy Geithner.

And then in early December, anti-Semites received an early Christmas gift: Bernard Madoff.

Never mind the culpability of the policies of President Bush and President Clinton, the mortgage lending practices of the likes of Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo — let alone the conspicuous consumption of the American consumer.

Anti-Semites prefer to discount the facts and cling to convenient Jewish names and faces.

You can read the rest of the my story here.

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