Madoff, Rosenblat and a communal trust betrayed.
As if things couldn’t possibly get any worse, being a Jew suddenly got even tougher.
Israel is being condemned for having unleashed its own version of “shock and awe” in Gaza. The unremitting rocket attacks inside Israel — during a purported cease-fire — generated little public outcry until Israel decided to do something about it.
Bernard Madoff’s colossal Ponzi scheme has added new currency to the old canard about Jews and money. The fact that many of his victims were Jews will neither diminish the anti-Semitic fallout nor Madoff’s standing as the world’s most infamous Jewish swindler.
Meanwhile, Herman Rosenblat, a Holocaust survivor who managed to endure the horrors of Buchenwald, somehow got his facts wrong when he decided to memorialize his story of survival, which got the attention of a major publisher, a filmmaker and even Oprah Winfrey.
Improbably, given its Holocaust backdrop, Rosenblat recounted a love story between him and a young Polish girl who, from the other side of the barbed-wire fence, tossed apples that kept him alive. Purportedly, years later — in Coney Island, of all places — Rosenblat went on a blind date with that same girl, whom he eventually married.
The problem is: this three-handkerchief tearjerker never took place. Rosenblat’s wife may be the apple of his eye, but she played no such part in her husband’s survival. Indeed, it’s not even clear where she was, or what she was doing, during the Holocaust.
Upon discovering this latest memoir fraud, Rosenblat’s publisher decided to withdraw the book, and Oprah Winfrey was reminded, once again, to check her facts before turning authors into major celebrities.
Israel, of course, will always have its enemies. There is no shortage of moral obtuseness when it comes to the Middle East. Jews all over the world, and Israelis especially, have settled in for a lifetime of Israel-bashing moral hypocrisy.
But what are we to make of the Coney Island freak show that is Bernard Madoff and Herman Rosenblat? With the entire world watching, this double-billed vaudeville nightmare can’t possibly be good for the Jews.
Madoff’s magical disappearing act with $50 billion will no doubt lead to a revival of anti-Semitism — not that it lies dormant or needs much coaxing. Courtesy of Madoff, however, Jewish stereotypes will now be broadcast in stereo. The avaricious, nefarious Jew suddenly has a real face, and he’s at the center of a global financial scandal. An elder of Zion has finally been located, his protocol was a Ponzi scheme, and he lives on Park Avenue, no less.
And Rosenblat, with his cynical and unforgivable 15 minutes of fame is now Grade-A fodder for Holocaust deniers. Here we have a survivor who maintains that his concentration camp experience was a love story where an apple a day kept the Nazis away. How bad could the Holocaust have been if Rosenblat lived and loved his way out of Buchenwald? Deniers will proclaim that the camps were not death factories but Club Meds for Jewish singles.
There is a crisis of confidence in the Jewish community, largely brought about by confidence men. Clearly, neither Madoff nor Rosenblat were motivated by tribal loyalties. Yet their respective downfalls have communal consequences. Jews were once enslaved and forced to build pyramids; now they have become slaves to those who engage in pyramid schemes.
Lessons abound in these scandals, but the focus, understandably, has so far been on the fallout from these shabby affairs. Yet the backlash we fear should also be tempered by the embarrassment we feel. Silently, privately, the Jewish community must also be reflecting on the mortifying fact that these men are, after all, Jews.
Madoff squandered the endowments of Jewish charities, but bizarrely, he also contributed to them. Giving charity is an obligation of every Jew, even those, apparently, who end up stealing from charities. And no doubt Rosenblat joined a synagogue and belonged to a community of Jews, and he shared a Holocaust legacy with hundreds of thousands.
Each of these men, ultimately, is one of us; they lived among us, they shared in our Jewish history and the arc of our continuity. It is for this reason that apart from the fear of swelling anti-Semitism there is also shame, which penetrates deeply into the Jewish psyche. These crimes and fraudulent acts were perpetrated by two of our own.
Surely that does not mean that all Jews are complicit in these crimes. Guilt is a legal term; responsibility is a moral one. The fact that individual Jews have done nothing legally wrong does not mean that we bear no moral responsibility. After all, even though we, too, are victims, these misdeeds happened under our watch.
All communities, whether it is acknowledged or not, feel the same burdens and experience the same discomforts — and certainly should. Decent Arabs and Muslims know that terrorism has become their greatest cultural export — indeed, terror is their people’s calling card — and that terrorist-related crimes are often committed in the name of the Koran. African Americans know that young, often unemployed African-American men commit a disproportionate share of inner-city crime.
Stereotypes don’t need to be repeated for them to be internalized — and even recognized — by those who are victimized by such ethnic, racial or religious characterizations.
And, yes, in the case of Madoff there is the uneasy connection between Jews and money. Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Dennis Levine and Andy Fastow — need we go further?
(Of course there are Jewish financiers who would never be included in a rogue’s gallery of Wall Street hoodlums. But that’s true of all generalizations that fail to account for the particular. When the disproportion that gives rise to a stereotype sticks — as pernicious as it may often be — it should not be ignored.)
Perhaps this is an occasion for Jews, and all Americans, to examine not just our purported values, but what, in fact, we actually value. There was a time when the Jewish community reserved its rapture for rabbis, poets, teachers, philosophers and violinists. But more recently the balance of community respect shifted in the most warped of ways. Suddenly, investment bankers, financial advisers, hedge fund managers, bond traders and real estate moguls were rock stars. We regarded them, mistakenly, as wise sages. But as we now know, many of them were not even Masters of their own Universe.
And in the aftermath of “Schindler’s List” there was so much Holocaust envy that even gentiles, like Binjamin Wilkomirski, fabricated their childhoods with false memories. Jews who didn’t actually survive the Holocaust (they fled long before the camps were even built) assumed the role of tattooed victims. As Elie Wiesel wrote in one of his recent novels, “If everyone was a survivor, then no one was a survivor.”
No wonder Rosenblat doubled-down on his own survival narrative. The truth was no longer interesting or commercial enough. Somehow he saw a profit in turning his Holocaust nightmare into a Harlequin romance.
It will take time for trust to be restored. But perhaps some value, of a different kind of asset, will arise from this mess. Such recoveries have become both the trademark and burden of what it means to be a Jew. Why should this calamitous time be any different?
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author of “The Golems of Gotham” and “The Myth of Moral Justice.”
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