Material Pursuits
Fri, 12/03/2010
The Jewish Volksbank building, Ledainiai,Lithuania, 1923. Courtesy of  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
The Jewish Volksbank building, Ledainiai,Lithuania, 1923. Courtesy of American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

Did you see that anti-Semitic cover of Time? You know what I mean. The one about peace and Jews and money, which came out just before Rosh HaShanah. Many indignant folks never made it past the cover, with a Star of David made of daisies, and six black boldface words: “Why Israel Doesn’t Care About Peace.” Many who read the text were already scandalized by the second paragraph, where the cover story was pegged to “the fresh round of talks on peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The truth is,” declared Time’s Jerusalem correspondent, “Israelis are no longer preoccupied with the matter. They’re otherwise engaged; they’re making money…”

Full stop: circle the wagons. It was as if the cover had a Jewish star made of dollar signs, not daisies. Op-eds and press releases and viral e-mails abounded. Was this a vile replay of medieval anti-Semitic canards, an update of the grubby Shylock stereotype? Indeed, was Time blaming money-hungry Jews — on Rosh HaShanah, yet! — for thwarting peace? Was this not, at the very least, a way of delegitimizing Israel?

Such exegeses of Time’s clumsy cover represented, more or less, the consensus of the pro-Israel community. Many older readers were swift to recall a notorious slur from 1977, when Time, as a handy aid to pronunciation, rhymed the newly elected Menachem Begin with Fagin, the villainous Jew of Dickens’ “Oliver Twist.” Journalistic twitches like these scare many Jews. Some may be put in mind of a notorious quote from a contemporary of Dickens — Karl Marx, the kind of guy who gives self-hating Jews a bad name. “What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest,” wrote Marx, grandson of a rabbi, in his essay of 1844, “On the Jewish Question.” “What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money.”

Gevalt. Then again, Theodor Herzl, too, was a sharp critic of money-craving Jews. “Strong nations are judged by their best sons; the weak, by their worst,” he wrote in 1897, in a scathing article called “Mauschel,” which in German is a fair synonym for “kike.”

“The Germans are a nation of poets and thinkers, because they have produced Goethe, Schiller, and Kant … We on the other hand, are viewed as a nation of hagglers and crooks, because Mauschel practices usury and speculates on the stock exchange. Mauschel has always supplied the pretexts under which we were attacked. Mauschel is the curse of the Jews.”

Substitute the word “Madoff” and flash forward to our own nervous moment.

Herzl’s remedy, of course, was the creation of a Jewish state in which Jews would live normal lives, where they could stop fretting all the time about anti-Semitism and instead build modern cities and go to the opera. Herzl might even have read the Time cover story as a fulfillment of his utopian novel “Altneuland” (1902), which imagined a prosperous, enlightened and Westernized Jewish polity in Palestine: “A restless culture of innovation coupled with the number of brainiacs among the 1 million immigrants who arrived from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s has made Israel a locus for high-tech research and development ... The freeways and beaches, universities and start-ups bring to mind California, not Cairo.”

Practitioners of hasbara — the “explanation” of Israel to the world — work overtime to convey that Israel is far more than a conflict zone, an endless loop of war and peace: it’s a place where average people make a living, spend money, watch “Glee” on flat-screen TVs. Every day, we Israelis strive to transcend the matsav, the situation, and go about our business and enjoy life, as much as possible. But when Time reports it, the sky is falling.

The irony was compounded on that same eve of Rosh HaShanah 5771, when the Jerusalem Post bundled into its holiday edition a glossy 30-page supplement celebrating “The World’s 50 Richest Jews.” On the cover, an array of hundred-dollar bills, with oval-framed portraits not of Benjamin Franklin but of Jewish billionaires: Sergei Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York. Against this backdrop, a full-length photo of a chic bearded fellow in a dark suit and turtleneck and the words “Larry Ellison’s remarkable rise.”

Ellison, born in 1944 to a 19-year-old unwed Jewish mother and an Italian-American father, is No. 1 on the list, with a net worth of $28 billion. The lead article reported that the “incredibly rich and successful” software mogul and yachtsman, who lives on a California estate valued at $70 million, “only visited Israel for the first time in 2007,” at which time he toured Sderot and promptly donated half a million dollars to “reinforce a community center against rocket attack.” Not very many of the 50 richest Jews in the world, as limned by the Post, appear to have much if anything to do with Israel, though most are active philanthropists.

Of course, it’s all about context. The Jerusalem Post noted that its focus “on the more material side of the Jewish people’s pursuits” was worthy and appropriate, since Israel’s “statehood has been well established for more than six decades” and the country “seeks progress toward peace with its Arab neighbors while maintaining its qualitative edge.” Still, one has to wonder — is this sort of thing in our best interest at a time when the global economy is jittery, Americans are losing homes and jobs, Netanyahu is hard-bargaining with Obama, and Glenn Beck is ranting about George Soros, and Jews everywhere are losing sleep about flubbed flotillas and boycotts and delegitimization?

What if the “50 Richest Jews” supplement were spun by malicious bloggers into fresh evidence — supplied by the Israeli Zionist Jews themselves — that Jews run the world! On the other hand, since anti-Semites believe that anyway, what’s the difference? In search of guidance, let us rewind half a millennium to a classic Hebrew text: “Shevet Yehudah,” which means the tribe of Judah, the scepter of Judah, and also the rod that smites Judah. It was first published in Adrianople (today in western Turkey) in 1553, more than four decades after the death of its author, Solomon Ibn Verga, an exiled Spanish Jew.

It’s an edgy book, self-critical and self-protective, deliberately ambiguous. It includes a historical chronicle of Jewish woe and a fictional dialogue between a Spanish king and a Catholic sage known as “Thomas.” The book remained popular over the generations, in at least 17 editions through the 19th century. It was translated into Yiddish in Poland, back in 1591, but some of the most intriguing bits were cut out or doctored. Why? Because Ibn Verga, a concerned Jew writing exclusively for Jews, suggested that Jewish behavior provoked the Spanish anti-Semitism that culminated in the expulsion of 1492.

“I have never seen an intelligent person who hates the Jews,” Thomas tells the king. “They are hated only by the common folk, and for good reason. First, the Jews are proud and are always seeking to domineer … [T]he Jew is ostentatious. If he has 200 pieces of gold, he immediately dresses himself in silk … Therefore accusations are leveled against them, which may perhaps lead to their expulsion from the kingdom … When the Jews came to Your Majesty’s kingdom they were poor and the Christians were rich. Now it is the opposite, since the Jews are clever and achieve their purposes with cunning. Moreover, they became very rich by lending at interest…”

Stop right there: what’s going on? What kind of Jew would write this stuff? Why on earth should we read him today, in a respectable Jewish newspaper yet? Not even Time magazine would print such a thing … or would they? Jews and money: a tricky minefield. Watch your step.

Stuart Schoffman, a columnist and translator, is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and editor of Havruta: A Journal of Jewish Conversation.