Gil Troy: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

Center Field: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-8-09

I felt no shame about Madoff or Israel’s actions in Gaza. But reports of my fellow Jews’ cravenness made me cringe. Many American Jews are reeling from a series of blows to their standing as America’s model minority. Following autumn’s economic meltdown, Bernard Madoff confessed to his $50 billion scam, the Gaza war triggered new waves of anti-Semitism and now Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu seems poised to lead a conservative Israeli government. The disappointment of America’s mostly liberal Jews in Bibi’s resurgence is compounded by worries about how the conservative Netanyahu will get along with the liberal US President Barack Obama, especially because each thinks he is the smartest man in the room. All this fretting suggests many American Jews are much less secure in their Promised Land than most admit.

Yes, it is logical to lament American Jews’ financial straits individually and collectively, to despair at Madoff’s evil in robbing charities along with individuals, to find the vicious backlash against Israel’s justified actions alarming and to worry about American-Israeli relations. But shame is the unfortunate emotion escalating these reasonable concerns into collective anxiety.

The New York Times has described Americans Jews’ embarrassment, suggesting Madoff’s crime reflected some communal moral failure. Moreover, the article explained, “Jews are also grappling with the implications of Mr. Madoff’s deeds for their public image.”

Novelist Nathan Englander told The Forward that Madoff’s crime “really raises up for me this primal thing of,  ‘This is the kind of thing that looks bad in a general Jewish way.’ It gave me that ‘circle the wagon’ mentality that I don’t have very often.” I confess I feel no shame about Madoff, Israel’s actions in Gaza or Bibi’s rise. Or at least I felt no shame until I read about American Jewish embarrassment. In the Times, one rabbi discussing Madoff mentioned the “shanda factor,” using the Yiddish term for “an embarrassing shame.? This disgrace, we learned, was stirring anti-Semitism.

The full expression the rabbi should have taught is a shanda fur die goyim, something which embarrasses Jews in front of non-Jews. The rabbi probably was nervous about using the word goyim with the Times’s reporter, given that the term is often perceived as setting Jews up as superior to non-Jews. Actually, the phrase reflects Jews’ historic insecurity. “Shanda fur die goyim” evokes the image of Jews perpetually on probation, with our people only tolerated as long as we are on our best behavior or perform some salutary social function.

Perhaps I have spent too much time in Israel, where, alas, there are plenty “shandas fur die yiddin”: Jews acting disgracefully in front of their fellow Jews. From cruel mobsters who strut around Netanya, occasionally mowing down civilians while rubbing out rivals, to settler hooligans menacing Palestinians and IDF soldiers, to the corrupt prime minister (for life?) who has overstayed his welcome, Israel has its share of scoundrels.

But brazen behavior triggers the correct reaction – outrage not embarrassment, condemnation not cowering.  The Zionist idea was that in our own country Jews would behave normally – sometimes heroically, sometimes despicably – without being on probation. True, as nationalists, we mourn our people’s losses, celebrate successes and regret any of our people’s sins. But the leap from condemning a fellow citizen’s crimes or excesses to worrying that a fellow Jew’s sins or unpopularity may lead to a backlash against me personally, descends from the realm of normal national solidarity to the wandering Jew’s pathological insecurity; never at home, never at peace.

The American Jewish community’s cravenness is particularly shocking considering that so many Jews star in the great American success story. In a twisted way, Madoff’s fraud demonstrates how accepted Jews are in America today. The extent of Madoff?s reach – and damage – from his Palm Beach country club to the secretive sanctums of Swiss banks, from the board of Yeshiva University to the shores of Abu Dhabi, shows that in today’s globalized economy, successful Jews can do business anywhere.

Fears that Madoff’s crimes or Israel’s actions cause anti-Semitism imputes to anti-Semites a logic they lack. Too many of us have spent too many centuries trying to figure out what we did wrong to encourage anti-Semitism. This search focuses on the wrong actors in the play. Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jew, but of the anti-Semite, as Jean-Paul Sartre taught.

Anti-Semitism reflects the anti-Semites’ twisted cosmology, not the Jews’ sins; it is an irrational hatred, not a rational response belonging to the world of cause and effect.

When Nicholas Leeson’s trading losses broke Barings Bank in 1995, no English people worried that his sins would reflect on their own integrity. Allen Stanford?s recent $8 billion fraud triggered no discussion about his religion. A rational assessment of the Madoff scandal would note how much this criminal harmed Jews, and how quickly Jews condemned the man and the underlying materialism, undermining the notion that “the Jews” perpetuated some crime against humanity. (By contrast, consider how Islamist terrorists perpetuate crimes in Islam’s name, yet few Muslims denounce them.)

An honest appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would identify this as a national conflict with religious overtones, but the ones making it a religious war are mostly the Islamic jihadists. And a fair assessment of Bibi Netanyahu’s record in dealing with Bill Clinton’s administration would note his pragmatic streak; many right-wingers thought he was too accommodating during the 1998 Wye River Summit.

Bernard Madoff’s sins are his sins, not the Jewish people’s. And even when Jews debate Israel’s actions or Bibi’s policies, Jews are far too settled in America, and America’s ties to Israel run too deep, to justify so much skittishness. Ultimately, the Madoff story is as much a quintessential American tale of the man on the make as it is a Jewish story. Madoff is a criminal, not a shanda, while Israel’s actions have been necessary and moral, not disproportionate or shameful.

The shanda is still feeling so wobbly in a land that has been so welcoming.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books.

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