Wall Street: The man American Jews hate more than Ahmadinejad

As if the financial crisis weren't enough to distract our allies from Iran, along came Madoff.

Bernard Madoff 248 88  (photo credit: AP)
Bernard Madoff 248 88
(photo credit: AP)
Last week, during a conference call with American reporters and Jewish activists about Iran's nuclear ambitions, US Congressman Brad Sherman noted that he thought the threat was so dire that he was missing a hearing on the $700 billion bank bailout to talk about it. Sherman, a Democrat who represents the heavily Jewish Sherman Oaks neighborhood in Los Angeles, added that he thought his constituents wouldn't mind - but then immediately voiced a political truth that has been simmering in the Jewish world all autumn: "I'm not sure they want the focus of the incoming administration to be on asking them to make sacrifices to deal with an Iran nuclear program that is not causing them any pain right now." And that was before the Madoff financial scandal detonated, leaving a multibillion-dollar crater in the middle of the American Jewish community. The disconnect between American Jews and Israelis showed up everywhere: At breakfast briefings about the Iranian threat, during conference calls, even during the General Assembly meeting last month in Jerusalem, when outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stood before the visiting American delegates and exhorted them to help lobby their government for sanctions to stop the Islamic Republic from going nuclear. "Israel cannot afford it," he said, making an unfortunate pocketbook parallel. "The Jewish people cannot afford it." Instead of applause, there was only silence and tight grins as the audience shifted uncomfortably. The more forthright among them said later what they had been thinking: What the American Jewish community really couldn't afford right then, with donations down and programs shrinking, was a junket to Israel. For once, they felt, the threat was at home, rather than along the fragile borders of the Jewish state. Now, American Jewry feels its future is under immediate existential attack - from a threat that was hidden within all along. UNTIL THIS week, Jewish investors were no more or less exposed than everyone else to the economic downward spiral. The Wall Street firms that went down - Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers - had Jewish roots, but they were no longer the Jewish companies they used to be. As a result, Israelis could be forgiven for being a little bit dubious about their American cousins' claims about financial despair, especially in the face of a genuine existential threat. Sure, okay, 40 percent of everyone's investment portfolios had been wiped out, but, hey, America was so rich to start with, and there was still the other 60% in the bank. It's just money, right? Bernard Madoff changed all that. Here was a Jewish financier who, despite having billions in investments from large banks, appears to have focused heavily on building his investor network in the Jewish community. And the ripple effect is already being felt in Israel among organizations dependent on foundations that had invested in what Madoff himself allegedly described as "a giant Ponzi scheme." This is not to say that Jewish causes have been the only, or even the biggest, losers in the implosion of Madoff's $50 billion securities operation. European banks, in particular, have lost billions. But by shafting Jewish megadonors, Jewish charities and Jewish institutions - from hospitals and schools to nursing homes - Madoff earned himself a dubious honor once also bestowed on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: A full photo on the front page of the New York Post. The headline that ran with it? "The Most Hated Man in NY."