It wasn’t any particular comment during the financial crisis that led me to write “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype.” Rather it was the cumulative effect of a host of anti-Semitic statements focusing on money matters together with the uncertain environment in which Jews were living that provided the imperative for me to return to the world of authorship, my vow never to return notwithstanding.
Still, a number of the comments made a deep impression on me. One was the claim that Lehman Brothers, immediately before its collapse, transferred $400 billion to Israeli banks. It reminded me of the Hizbullah charge soon after 9/11 that they had “learned” that 4,000 Israelis did not show up for work at the World Trade Center that day. These conspiracy theories are so outlandish that one is tempted to ignore them. But, as absurd as they are, they do take hold. There’s no room for complacency.
Then there was a comment on an online news site: “Ho hum, another Crooked Wall Street Jew. Find a Jew who isn’t Crooked. Now that would be a story.”
Or, “Just another Jew money changer thief. It’s been happening for 3,000 years. Trust a Jew and this is what will happen. History has proven it over and over. Jews have only one god - money.”
And so I embarked on this project to tell the story of how the stereotype about Jews and money came into being, what were its consequences through the centuries, and the impact and danger that it presents in our own time.
The accusation is pernicious at any time. On a personal level it leads to distrust of Jews and legitimizes comments about people that are hurtful. On a societal level, it opens up a variety of attacks against Jews that can be very damaging.
Shakespeare’s Shylock figure in the “Merchant of Venice” embodies so much of what took place historically. Jews will do anything for money, which leads as well to the idea that Jews have no loyalty to any group other than their own and that Jews are naturally treacherous. We know where such ideas buried in the subconscious of a population can lead when exploited by a demagogue.
Of course, the period of 2008-2009 was not any time. It was a time of great anxiety, a perfect setting for conspiracy mindsets. The world financial system was in trouble, Islamic extremist terrorism continued and Iran was moving forward on its nuclear program.
In such a setting, I thought it important to speak to the broad public that may not be sensitive to these issues both as regards to how offensive these accusations are and how dangerous they are in our modern world. My mantra, as reflected in my decision to write this and two other books, is that anti-Semitism is not a history lesson, it’s a current event.
Let me cite just a few examples of how the theme of Jews and money is alive and well beyond individual comments on blogs and Web sites.
When a recession hit Malaysia in the late 1990s, the prime minister - in a country without Jews - seeking to avoid speaking of the complexities of the economy, attributed the suffering of his people to international Jewish currency dealers who were manipulating the currency to serve the interests of Jews against the interests of the Malaysian public.
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke before the United Nations General Assembly in 2009 as the world economy was sinking, he told the gathering of world leaders that Zionists, although a small minority,”have been dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers... in a deceitful, complex and furtive manner.”
Further examples appear in ADL polling of European attitudes toward Jews. In a survey conducted late in 2008 and early in 2009 in seven European countries, 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that Jews have “too much power in the business world” and 41 percent indicated that Jews have “too much power in international financial markets.” Perhaps most troubling, in the same survey, taken during the height of the global economic crisis, 31 percent of the Europeans surveyed said Jews were to blame at least in part for the crisis.
In other words, the potency of this stereotype remains intact. And what this should tell us, and what my book is about, is several seminal points.
First, with all the appropriate attention being paid to the “new” anti-Semitism - hatred of Jews in the guise of anti-Zionism - the classic stereotypes still are powerful and undergird the new manifestations.
Second, because of ongoing economic anxiety, blaming the Jews for corrupting the world economic system is likely to surface again and again.
Third, the explosion of the Internet and the ability of extremists, conspiratorialists and anti-Semites to reach new audiences and stoke the emotions of millions means that younger generations need to be educated on this subject.
In the end, I hope my book contributes toward three goals: waking people up to the nature and severity of the problem; encouraging adults to educate their children against such insidious prejudice; and providing a framework for leaders around the world - governmental, business, religious, cultural - to speak out when confronted with this ancient and persistent myth.
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