The Madoff Effect on American Jews

madoff-picBernie Madoff, the Jewish-American businessman recently arrested for securities fraud, may prove to be the single most harmful individual to the American Jewish community in recent history. Bernie Madoff's $50 billion ponzi scheme will have far reaching repercussions for America's Jewish population. In the short term, Jewish organizations, charities, and individuals have suffered tremendous financial destruction from Madoff's ponzi scheme. A thoughtful article in the Claremont Independent by John-Clark Levin summarizes how Madoff relied on American Jews to fund his Ponzi scheme, "Madoff relied on friends of friends to widen the net, milking billions out of the 'Jewish circuit' of parties and country clubs on the Eastern seaboard. From Jewish synagogues, trusts and charities to Hollywood moguls like Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, Madoff exploited shared cultural and social ties to fleece them all." Brandeis University, a historically Jewish university, has been forced to sell its' art collection out of desperation since many of its' top donors lost fortunes in the Madoff fund. Even for Jews not invested in Madoff's fund, his ponzi scheme will generate hostility towards Jews, conspiracy theories, and anti-Semitic violence. Some Jews at the Claremont Colleges I have spoken with seem to believe that the Madoff scandal will spawn little anti-Semitic hatred because the overwhelming number of Madoff's victims were Jews. Sadly, I believe they underestimate the power of prejudice. Most importantly, Madoff's crime fits perfectly into the anti-Semitic caricature of a corrupt and greedy Jew exploiting the financial system for personal gain by robbing his business partners. Additionally, the world economy is in the middle of possibly the worst recession since the Great Depression. From Nazism in Weimar Germany to the Russian pogroms of the late 19th century, Anti-Semitism has always flourished in difficult economic times and this recession seems to be no exception. The financial industry's pivotal role in causing the recession might have been enough without Madoff to spawn conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the recession. A survey by the Anti-Defamation League found that 31 percent of people in seven European countries blamed Jews in the financial industry for the global economic crisis. Additionally, widespread hostility to Israel's recent offensive in Gaza is thought to be the cause of many recent anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and has further contributed to the climate of anti-Semitism in which Madoff-related conspiracies will flourish.

Some may object that I am overstating the case for Madoff scam's fueling anti-Semitism. After all, the mainstream media has, for the most part, ignored or downplayed Madoff's Jewish identity largely thanks to political correctness and a sense of journalistic responsibility. The problem is that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories thrive through blogs, chain e-mails, and word of mouth; as a few seconds of internet research will confirm. If history is any guide, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that rewire history will thrive even in the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Most disturbingly, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have a long shelf-life, witness the ongoing popularity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. No doubt, many Madoff conspiracy theories will gain widespread acceptance among the closed and poorly educated societies of the Middle East: a host of conspiracy theories blaming Jews for causing 9/11 are still quite popular in the region. In this way, Madoff conspiracy theories will further dampen peace prospects between Israel and its Arab neighbors.