Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Bernie who Madoff with the Loot -- Fifty Billion

It was said of Lev Bronstein, a revolutionary in post-Czarist Russia, who -- to dissociate himself from his Jewish roots -- changed his name to Leon Trotsky: “It’s the Trotskys who make the revolutions, and the Bronsteins who pay the bill.”

We are 5 million Jews in America, and ten percent of us are Orthodox. So: 500,000 Orthodox Jews . . . 5 million American Jews. There are one or two of these crook situations each and every year. One or two out of 500,000 . . . one or two out of 5,000,000. The large-yarmulka’d rabbi of the 1970s nursing home scandal. The Brooklyn yeshiva condemned by United States Senator Sam Nunn for drawing federal Pell Grant funds for students who do not exist in a yeshiva that does not exist to eat meals that do not exist. The junk bond dealer. The Washington lobbyist. The fellow who fled America for Switzerland, then got pardoned by a departing President who said the pardon was requested by Israel’s Prime Minister. The New Square Chassidic community that bullet-voted for Hillary for U.S. Senate after Bill did not pardon but commuted sentences of three of their chassidim. The East Coast Chassidim, West Coast Orthodox Union lay leader, and Israeli bankers involved in a federally indicted money-laundering scheme. And of course Postville. Some are “Orthodox.” Some are otherwise denominated.

We Jews are such a profoundly ethical and honest community. How many prisoners in the federal prisons really ask for kosher meals? Five? Eight? Nine?

Yet, there comes a point where it no longer seems or feels like only three out of 500,000 -- because this is the area of stereotype. It plays and feeds into stereotype. And therein lies the profound sensitivity.

Stereotypes are foolish, built on apocryphal presumptions. Do Jews really know more about money than do others? Clearly, anti-Semites throughout history have thought so, always keeping a Jew around to head the Treasury or the Exchequer. Even Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, when they expelled all Jews from Spain, asked one individual Jew, Don Isaac Abravanel, to stay behind to do the books. Insane! If Jews know so much about managing money and turning a profit, why is Israel unable to manage without American largesse? How did Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke help preside over the American fiscal fiasco? And was it Mayor Abe Beame who took New York City into bankruptcy? And Robert Citron in Orange County?

Who got the idea that Jews know so much more than anyone else about how to manage money? Yet several Presidents seem to have brought in some Jewish monetary advisors. FDR had Treasury Secretary Morgenthau. Nixon had Herbert Stein as chairman of his Council of Economic Advisors. Carter had W. Michael Blumenthal. (Shhhhh! He was not really Jewish despite being named Blumenthal.) Clinton had Robert Rubin. Certainly, to employ a double negative, there is no reason that a Jew should not be welcomed as an economic advisor if she is best for the job. And certainly Jewish deep thinkers populate the entire spectrum of economic thought from a range of liberals including Paul Samuelson to conservatives like Milton Friedman and even objectivist-libertarians like Ayn Rand (Shhhhh! She was Jewish despite changing her name to Rand . . . from Alice Rosenbaum.)

It is impossible to avoid noting that this latest crook, Bernard Madoff, was prominently positioned in the Yeshiva University lay hierarchy. (He personally is not Orthodox, nor is he nominally so or thus quasi-denominated.) He also invested hundreds of millions of charitable dollars in his Ponzi schemes. We need to do something as a community akin to what Jews in America did 100 years ago to separate ourselves in the popular imagination from the likes of Arnold Rothstein and Bugsy Siegel and Legs Diamond and Meyer Lansky. And we did.

Whether it means refusing to count these characters in minyans, to give them aliyas, to permit them to attend banquet dinners, taking their names off synagogue walls and out of siddur/chumash inside-covers, or the like, it seems necessary to do something to separate our community from them.

There should always be a chance for teshuvah -- sincere, heartfelt repentance. Absolutely -- that is a core Jewish value and belief. And someday in the future, maybe after therapy, after restitution, after complete repentance (teshuvah g’murah), new books can be dedicated, and new minyanim can be formed with their inclusion. They can be given new honors. But there needs to be a separation, a havdalah g’murah, pending teshuvah.

Similarly, we must give real thought to changing the way we do business as an organized theological and spiritual community. Are we too material-focused? Do we respect money more than good deeds? To paraphrase Rav Michael Broyde's quote of Rav Emanuel Rackman's observation: Do we teach that it is more important to do good in this world -- or that it is more important to do well? Do we honor people who are monied more than people who exude righteousness? (Yes, a monied person simultaneously can exude righteousness. I have known some such people, like Jack Nagel of Los Angeles, and they have touched my life by their example without really donating my way.)

What a moment of opportunity we have before us to teach our community and our young people real Jewish values! Or to capture some of these thoughts in a public statement promoting reconsidered public policy. We have before us -- right now -- an opportunity to propose or suggest standards that limit or regulate the vulgar excesses of Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah parties. (How many meals can a Jew eat in three hours? Does every thirteen-year-old merit a life-sized ice sculpture of his luminescence and deserve to have 300 adults compelled to watch a fifteen minute retrospective of his life-and-times as though compiled by Ken Burns?)

What a moment of opportunity to reinforce condemnations that rabbinic organizations repeatedly have published against those who conduct synagogue-centered poker games and casino-like gambling. To teach people that the great names that have lived in Jewish history are those of rabbis who taught Torah, scholars and teachers, pioneers who built Israel, other pioneers who built and defended Jewish communities throughout the world -- and monied people who distributed their wealth generously. The greatness of Baron Rothschild, Moses Montefiore, Baron de Hirsch, Haym Salomon, Jacob Schiff, and others was not their riches but their philanthropy. They did not sit on their money and hoard it. They worked hard for it, took real risks in the world of industry, and then shared generously with those less fortunate.

What an opportunity we have! To require that every public event/banquet include at least one major award to be conferred on a humble less-prominent person purely for his or her profound leadership in Torah and ethics, regardless of money. To teach about honesty. To invite to schools the person who returns a lost bag of cash that he finds left behind in a taxi. This is the moment to turn this shame into a moment of pride.

And, even as we truly have a remarkably proud record throughout the world as a law-abiding community – can you think of a safer place to walk alone in the middle of the night than in a frum neighborhood that is not plagued by midnight interlopers from outside? -- we need to teach our yeshiva kids again and again, nukh a-mol un takeh nukh a-mol, that financial crimes are cardinal sins because they implicate the name and honor of HaKadosh Barukh Hu.

And now a final exposition: “Why is the religion of these isolated perpetrators relevant?”

In Torah terms, the problem is Chilul Hashem. Their actions desecrate the Holy Name of the G-d of Israel Who took us out of Egypt and brought us to Mount Sinai to receive His Word and to transmit its glory to the Nations around us.

And in secular terms, the problem is in the stereotype. If David Berkowitz, the non-Jewish “Son of Sam,” went around murdering blonde women in their cars with his .44-caliber gun, it still did not feed a stereotype. Jews are not stereotyped as killers/murderers.

But this Madoff thing fits a stereotype. For some prejudiced non-observant Jews, it fits one intra-Jewish stereotype: “Oh, those Orthodox! They are so strict about their supposedly high standards. They think they are so much better than we are. Why, one of their rabbis would not even drink wine that I poured for him! They won’t eat my food – even though they will eat the food of people who hire illegal aliens and employ child labor. So they are oh-so-holy, but when it comes to being honest, they take a back seat, those Orthodox. I’m a better Jew than they are, any day of the week. We may eat pork on Yom Kippur, but we are better Jews than they are. Because we have Jewish hearts.”

Cardiac Jews.

That is why Madoff -- who is not Orthodox in the first place -- is a problem of Chilul Hashem of one sort, when dealing with one sub-group of non-observant Jews. And it is not an answer to respond that the Reform Community Day school in Los Angeles is named for a junk-bond dealer who perpetrated crimes of financial shame. How can that be an answer? What kind of response is that? Rather, that is the road of falling into the same silly trap when, in fact, we all should be working together as Jews of all stripes and spots, denominations, genders, and politics, to eradicate financial malfeasance and defalcations.

Again the question, then: Why is the religion of the perpetrator relevant? I would say, because the real concern is the way that we -- all Jews -- appear in the eyes of those bigots among the non-Jewish world who may bear prejudices and stereotypes that feed off these aberrations.

There are plenty of non-Jewish crooks, frauds, and defalcators. The present Illinois Governor (still in office as of this second) was elected to shake up Springfield but instead shook down Illinois. How Jewish is a guy whose name is pronounced Bla-goy-avich? And Martha Stewart is not Jewish. And, during my high-stakes litigation career, I represented and defended powerful clients, including a solid cross-section of non-Jews who were accused of financial malfeasance.

Yet it is not a sufficient answer to say that Enron were non-Jews and that Global Crossing were non-Jews and that Charles Keating was a non-Jew who used his fraudulent gains to support Mother Theresa – indeed, she even wrote a letter to the judge in his support during the legal proceedings against him. Because, at day’s end, there are stereotypes. Stereotypes are so hard to squelch and so easy to reinforce. People truly believe that Polish people are stupid, even though they have produced a Pope of the Catholic Church, a brilliant (if disastrous) foreign policy advisor to a past American president, my favorite / sharpest / most brilliant morning talk show hostess, and at least two Prime Ministers of Israel. If an Irish person gets involved in something arising from inebriation, well, it is as though the only alcoholic beverages ever concocted were Jameson's, Powell's, and Bailey's. When an Italian person is associated even obliquely with something arising from organized crime, it feeds stereotypes, even though Italians like Rudy Giulliani led vigorous struggles against organized crime.

People of color particularly are subjects of stereotypes.

The stuff of Madoff feeds our stereotype. The vulgar use of the word “Jew” as a verb is shamefully tied with financial vulgarism. We may fight the Oxford Dictionary, but this is what it is. The stereotype is Shylock the Moneylender. It is hook-nosed Fagin who corrupts and sends urchins to steal for him. Both were fictional creations of literary minds and pens that could have designated them Anglicans, but didn't. During the Civil War, the stereotype prompted Gen. Ulysses S. Grant to issue General Order No. 11. When William Jennings Bryant railed at the 1896 Chicago Democrat National Convention against Wall Street financiers, saying “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor a crown of thorns; [y]ou shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold,” everyone understood what he was saying. He was not stereotyping the Romans on Wall Street.

This is the viciously unfair stereotype of us. In the streets of the rustic Midwest, even where no Jews live, arson-for-insurance (as contrasted from pyromaniacally setting wildfires in California) is called “Jewish lightning.” The term is so defined on Wikipedia's Wiktionary website: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Jewish_lightning I heard it for the first time while traveling in the Bible Belt. The person was a non-Jewish colleague of mine, a friend, who did not even realize that the term was offensive. (It is like absent-mindedly criticizing a Native American as an “Indian giver.”) It is Marc Rich getting pardoned by an American President who pens dishonestly in the New York Times that he did so at the urgent behest of the Prime Minister of Israel. And every single time that an outlier, isolated Jew emerges in one of these things, it builds, and it builds on itself. It builds on stereotypes. It poses the single greatest calumny against Jewish people.

That’s why the religion of the perpetrator matters to me. I wish we could figure out a way to separate ourselves in the public mind from these guys, but it is easier said than done. As long as we allow such defalcators and crooks to be honorees at our events, to have their names on our institutions' buildings and in the inside covers of our holy books, to hold positions of lay leadership in temple and synagogue boards of directors or trustees, we inadvertently become ignorant accessories, teaching children for the next generation that we accord our highest honors based not only on how deeply within his denomination he bears his bond and trust in G-d . . . but on how consummately he is deeply pocketed in bearer bonds denominated “In Gd We Trust.”

We have to aim higher. We absolutely must.

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