Did anything good happen in 2009? It’s hard to find the silver lining in this year of crisis and shame for the Jewish world — as hard as finding a likable character in “A Serious Man,” a film whose dark Joban overtones of unjust absurdity fit the zeitgeist perfectly. Hope was most definitely last year’s poster. We’ve had worse years, to be sure, but rarely have we suffered so much from wounds that were primarily self-inflicted.
During a single 48-hour period in late August, as children were returning to classrooms in Israel, Shas Knesset member Shlomo Ben Ezri began a prison term for corruption charges, former Finance Minister Avraham Hirschson arrived at the Hermon prison to begin serving a five-year sentence for embezzlement, the sexual harassment trial of former President Moshe Katzav began, and former Prime Minister Olmert was indicted for corruption.
Four cases, four major public figures, all in two days. Who knew that the expression “Chosen People” could refer to a police lineup?
It was no better here. Google “Jewish” plus “scandal” and you’ll come up with 4,890,000 hits. Even assuming a number of anti-Semitic sites, that’s a lot of hits. Narrow it a little, by adding the term “Madoff” and the number is 696,000.
The fallout from the financial scandals continues to rock our world. I can only imagine what Jews in their 20s and 30s are thinking right now. How can we expect people to choose Jewish destinies when our most venerated institutions have been devastated by greed, corruption and denial? With Moses, Akiba and Maimonides having been replaced by our new Ponzi double-play combination of Madoff to Dreier to Rothstein, they can justifiably ask whether the People of the Book have become the People that Cooks the Books. (Madoff, of course, was convicted on charges of running a Ponzi scheme, New York lawyer Marc Dreier was convicted of securities fraud for bilking investors out of $700 million, and South Florida’s political rainmaker Scott Rothstein is charged with running a $1.2 billion Ponzi scheme; he has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.)
We’ve long known that our margin for moral error is minute. One slip up in Gaza, or not even, and the world comes crashing down on Israel with trumped-up charges of crimes against humanity.
We justifiably fume against the world’s hypocrisy, but as damaging as allegations against Israel are, the Wall Street scandals were even more devastating, feeding into every anti-Semitic fantasy that has haunted Jews since the Middle Ages. When the Gaza war raged last winter and then the UN’s Goldstone Report was issued in the fall (it accused both Israel and Hamas of war crimes), we slipped comfortably into survival mode, as we have so often before, suppressing self criticism in the face of the need for what Israelis call “hasbara,” a kind of truth-with-blinders that enables us to focus on winning influential hearts and raising needed dollars.
But “us-against-the-world” couldn’t work with the financial scandals. When AJCommittee director David Harris wrote in The New York Times that the media should not focus so much Madoff’s Jewishness, his anger was misdirected. He claimed correctly that no one cared about Rod Blagojevich’s religion, but that begged the point. It’s not that The Times was preoccupied with Madoff’s Jewishness. It’s that we were.
The Madoff scandal tapped into the deepest veins of Jewish insecurity, bringing new life all the horrid canards that have tormented Jews in schoolyards for generations. How do you get two Jews into a taxi, the anti-Semite asks? No need to toss in a penny anymore. Just throw in 10 percent guaranteed annual return, backed by “Smilin’ Bernie!”
Venerable foundations lost their funding, untouchable institutions withered at the vine, and just when we thought things couldn’t get stinkier, Sheryl Weinstein, former CFO of Hadassah, confessed that her affairs with Madoff had not been purely financial.
This was the year of living medievally, bringing back such old standards as blood libels (the Goldstone Report), feudalistic labor practices (former Agriprocessors CEO Sholom Rubashkin) and a pound of flesh (the Brooklyn-Jersey Syrian kidney connection). Rabbis acted medievally too, especially in Israel, circling the country with incantations to protect against swine flu and releasing a string of Talibanesque halachic rulings, sanctioning the murder of non-Jews, overturning conversions, and contributing to an atmosphere of intolerance that, some suggest, incited the murder of homosexuals at a Tel Aviv social club.
We felt pangs of insecurity, not because of raging anti-Semitism (an Anti-Defamation League poll placed American anti-Semitic attitudes at the lowest point since they started doing surveys in 1964), but because of the growing split we sensed between America and Israel. At year’s end, two-thirds of American Jews stood by an American president whose standing in Israeli polls was in the single digits. J Street tried to position itself as an alternative to AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, but the only alternative American Jews seemed to seek was one of disengagement with Israel altogether. We looked for stability and leadership from our community leaders, and the United Jewish Communities responded by disappearing, only to emerge with yet another makeover (Jewish Federations of North America).
To top off this Jewish annus horribilis, Paul Abdul is leaving “American Idol.”
So what do Jews do when all this bad news strikes? We do what we do best: ruminate. Soul searching, which would have been healthy, too often gave way to mudslinging. The YIVO institute sponsored a public venting a few weeks after the Madoff story broke, and Pandora’s Mudpile was opened wide. Martin Peretz blamed the materialism in the American Jewish subculture, “with the million-dollar bar mitzvahs and the lavish Viennese table,” he said, and he was booed lustily by the crowd. Moses Pava, a professor of business ethics, wrote: “Our Jewish communities, which once honored rabbis and scholars, now almost exclusively honor those with the biggest bank accounts. Our students and children surely take note of this.”
Madoff Disease infected the Jewish establishment by stunning leaders into a deafening numbness. Something else was lost in this peculiar mix of rumination and paralysis: the moral voice. Abraham Joshua Heschel called his Vietnam-era compatriots “a generation that has lost the capacity for outrage,” a label equally apt in this year of shame. Given the choice between damage control and constructive soul searching, we selected the former almost every time.
Emil Fackenheim famously spoke of the Commanding Voice of Auschwitz, the 614th commandment, not to hand Hitler a posthumous triumph. In 2009, a new commandment arose: “Thou Shalt Not Let Madoff Define Us.” Like it or not, Madoff has replaced Moses as our poster boy. He is us. Until we address that squarely, we’ll struggle everywhere else.
And malaise has undeniably set in. When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad came to the UN, the call went out for a huge outpouring, but only a few thousand souls convened in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza that day. With Israel’s very survival in the balance, what was supposed to be a mass rally turned into a yeshiva mixer. Having lost our sense of outrage over Madoff, we couldn’t summon the collective mojo to stand up to Mahmoud. The people have tuned out. We’re in trouble.
But there’s hope.
I recently read that the Chinese character for crisis does not mean opportunity, as has been claimed by every motivational speaker this side of Confucius. However, if you rearrange the letters of the Hebrew root word for crisis, tzara, (or the Yiddish “tzuris”) you get the word tzohar, a window or threshold, a glimpse of the sun’s radiance and balm. So from tzuris, crisis, we see a healing light at the end of the tunnel, a chance to cross the threshold of new possibilities.
And we get this without the help of the Chinese.
In 2009, Joseph Telushkin helped fill the ethical chasm with the publication of the second volume of his “Code of Jewish Ethics.” The great annual conclave of Jewish educators known as CAJE ceased to exist, but something new began to take shape. As parent foundations folded, worthy projects found new homes and startups sprung from the ashes.
The cyber world exploded with Jewish possibility. Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, Sergey Brin’s Google, and Craig Newmark’s Craigslist revolutionized social networking — and may have saved the Iranian people in the process. Sports Illustrated had an Israeli swimsuit covergirl (Bar Rafaeli) and Michael Jackson had a rabbi (but PLEASE, Shmuley, enough with Jon and Kate). The religious streams licked their wounds and began to focus on what was heretofore unthinkable: joint projects. And as we marked the 28-year cycle of the sun, the denominations demonstrated a renewed commitment toward environmental awareness and ethical eating. Meanwhile, while Natan Sharansky claimed that assimilation is “eating” the Jews, Birthright Israel transformed the landscape by escorting its 200,000th young Jewish adult to the Jewish homeland.
Israeli innovation provided the world with hope for greener cars, faster chips and the promise of new treatments for everything from Alzheimer’s to blindness. Israel exported its first NBA player, Omri Casspi, and should have brought back its first Oscar, for “Waltz with Bashir,” a moving film about how a mature Jewish nation deals with crisis and shame. But that Oscar may yet be coming for Oren Moverman, writer and director of “The Messenger,” another timely film about, among other things, people dealing with crisis and shame.
For a year of crisis and shame, it wasn’t all bad.