Abraham H. Foxman is the go-to guy when it comes to the anxieties and interests of the Jewish community in America. As national director of the Anti-Defamation League, he is called upon whenever the headlines carry a story with a Jewish angle. To put it another way, when Foxman speaks, people listen.
For that reason alone, Foxman’s latest book commands our attention. But its highly provocative title — “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype” (Palgrave Macmillan: $26.00) — is especially provocative precisely because it squarely addresses one of the oldest tropes of anti-Semitism, the false notion that Jews are Shylocks who use their wealth to oppress others.
The stereotype has been pondered in one way or another by generations of scholars, commentators and even novelists, ranging from Mike Gold’s “Jews Without Money” (1930) to last year’s “Capitalism and the Jews” by Jerry Z. Muller. Now Foxman has joined the conversation in a book about “the evil effects of stereotyping, prejudice and hatred, and in particular the use of discredited beliefs about Jews and money.”
Foxman’s book is inspired by the recent upheavals in the American economy, which focused at times on personalities and businesses with connections of various kinds to the Jewish community. The single worst offender, of course, was Bernard Madoff, who came to symbolize the same ugly stereotype that has been applied to the Jews for centuries: “Ho hum, another Crooked Wall Street Jew,” went one Internet posting. “Find a Jew who isn’t Crooked. Now that would be a story.”
So it was that “the Bernie Madoff moment,” as Foxman puts it, prompted him to confront the old slander yet again. “Bernard Madoff has, for many people, come to symbolize not just the dangers of greed and dishonesty,” explains Foxman, “but something much more specific, questionable and troubling — namely, the supposed role of the Jew in the world of money.”
To his credit, Foxman shows how anti-Semitism is compounded of much more than the accusation that Jews use money as a weapon. But he insists that association between Jews and money, which begins in the more hateful stories of the New Testament and has never really abated, is one of the “pillars” of classical and contemporary anti-Semitism.
He reminds us that anti-Semites have never really cared about facts when it comes to Jew-hating. Thus, for example, they ignore the fact that not all Jews have money: “Like every subgroup in America, we have our pockets of poverty and suffering,” he explains. He cites a study that reports “about 25 percent of American survivors of the Holocaust are living in poverty.” And he insists that the Jewish response has been the creation of “a large, powerful and effective … force for charitable giving and work,” one that addresses both Jews and non-Jews in need.
Indeed, the essential argument in “Jews and Money” is that the authentic and essential Jewish value is tzedaka, which literally means “justice” but also refers acts of charity. “Thus, in the Hebrew tradition, charitable giving is seen not merely as an act of kindness prompted by love or generosity,” he writes. “It is also an act of justice that fulfills our innate sense of what is fit and proper. Therefore, withholding tzedaka is not merely selfish and ignoble, it is literally a crime, a violation of one of the most important obligations in the life a Jew.”
One question will present itself to the Jewish readers of “Jews and Money” — is Foxman preaching to the choir? After all, how many non-Jews who actually embrace the stereotype he seeks to debunk will find their way to his work?
As a veteran ADL activist, Foxman is not trying to change minds but rather to raise the consciousness of sympathetic but complacent readers and move them to activism. When he points out “disturbing signs of that anti-Semitic canard are infecting members of the so-called tea party movement,” for example, it appears that he is warning voters and candidates against buying elective offices at the cost of their principles.
“Whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, a Republic or a Democrat,” Foxman writes, “I hope you can agree with me that repeating, reinforcing, and trafficking in offensive stereotypes about Jews (or any other group) is both ignorant and wrong,” he writes. “And it’s not justified because it’s a sometimes handy way of scoring a quick political point.”
Toward the end of “Jews and Money,” Foxman wanders way from his argument to offer a lively critique of American popular culture and how so-called Jewish humor sometimes plays into the worst stereotypes of anti-Semitism. “Hey guys,” pleads Foxman, “anti-Semitism isn’t funny.” It’s interesting stuff — I did not know, for example, that Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame was born Jay Greenspan, or that the horrors of Kristallnacht found their way into an episode of “The Goldbergs” in 1938 — but it has little do with the premise of the book.
Still, Foxman is a kind of latter-day Jeremiah, and his warnings carry a dire message. “All of us, Jews and non-Jews alike, must never forget the power to kill that is embedded in stereotypes,” he warns. But he also insists that the struggle against anti-Semitism must be undertaken by ordinary people in daily life. “It takes courage not to join in the easy laughter when a colleague at work — or even your boss — tells a joke based on a racial, ethnic or religious stereotype,” he concludes. “It takes courage to tell the parent of one of your children’s friends that you’d prefer him not to use ethnic slurs in front of your youngster.”
So “Jews and Money” is essentially a call to action, addressed to both individuals and the community, which strikes me as yet another authentic Jewish value at work in the pages of his book. “[A]nti-Semitism is, unfortunately, not a history lesson,” concludes Foxman. “t’s a current event.”