Why Do Some People Think All Jews are Rich?

chovynz-Money-Bag-Icon

You’ve heard the stereotypes, and the nasty little comments: “Jews are all rich.” “Jews control all the banks.” “All Jews are obsessed with money.” Some readers may have had pennies thrown at them. As a reader asked recently, where does this come from?

First, notice something: the word “all.” Any time you see that word, put on your skeptical hat! Global statements are a sign that there’s irrationality involved.

“Jews are all rich.” – Not true. Half a million Jews live under the poverty line in New York City alone, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York.  So why do people say that or think it? In purely contemporary terms, it is true that a higher percentage of Jews earn more than $100,000 than any other “faith group” in America, according to this chart from GOOD and Column Five.  It is also true that there are individual Jews who are famous for their wealth, for example, George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. But no, not all Jews are rich, and the majority of rich people are not Jewish. Some Jews are grindingly poor.

The association of Jews and money goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bible forbids usury – taking or paying interest on a loan “from your brother.” (See Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, and Leviticus 25:35-37 for examples.) Jewish law discouraged lending to non-Jews as well as forbidding lending at interest to other Jews.

However, sources of income for European Jews prior to about 1800 were extremely limited. Jews were barred from most professions and guilds. Moneylending was a viable way to make a living, especially since Christians were barred by their own laws from lending money. Thus moneylending became a niche for Jews. It was a dangerous niche, however: no one likes their creditors.

Financial skills are also portable. Jews were uprooted again and again from their homes in Europe, and those with portable skills were the best equipped to survive. One side-effect of the various expulsions was that families were often scattered to different cities. Having trusted family members in financial centers like Amsterdam, London, Paris, etc meant that money could be moved easily across the continent. For a more detailed history of Jews and banking, there’s an excellent article in the Virtual Jewish Library.

So yes, there are connections between Jews and money. But not all Jews are rich and not all Jews have access to wealth.

One way that these ideas spread was a hoax called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was produced sometime in the early 20th century in Russia or the Ukraine. It purports to be a blueprint for world domination by a Jewish conspiracy. It claimed that Jews plan to dominate the world by economic means. So even today, that is a central belief for many antisemites.

As for being “obsessed with money,” one might suggest that anyone making such a statement should take a look in the mirror!

A Very Important Class

Class with Rabbi Adar

It’s that time again – I’m teaching the class on antisemitism tonight.

I looked over my old lesson plan, and almost changed it. We’re in a different world all of a sudden. We’ve had antisemitic “incidents” in Europe ranging from murder to riots, and an ugly inquisition at a student government meeting in California.

I decided to stick with my old lesson plan, because it is the basis for what my students need to know. Hatred of Jews goes way back in history. It has taken various forms over the centuries. Roman and Greek thinkers believed Jews lazy and disrespectful by nature. Christian antisemitism began as a set of religious beliefs about Jews. Religous antisemitism gradually took political forms, as Christianity became the established religion of Europe. By the 16th century in Spain, there was talk about “Jewish blood” and a sense of Jews as a race began to creep into the European vocabulary. Judaism was no longer an error of belief: it was a physical characteristic. Meanwhile, justifications for doing worse and worse things to Jews piled up.

And then, yes, the 20th century came and with it the horrors of the Holocaust. What I want my students to understand is that the Holocaust wasn’t just “a German thing” and it wasn’t just an episode. All of European history led up to it, and unfortunately, many of the same beliefs and attitudes that gave rise to it are with us today.

Some things have changed for the better: Vatican II brought a radical change of doctrine from the Roman Catholic Church, repudiating its old antisemitism. In the United States and in some parts of Europe, there is a strong feeling of “never again.” Organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center track hate speech and hate crimes.

But we have also slid backwards in other ways. Nazi propaganda made its way into the Arab world during WWII, and so the blood libel and other horrors are still circulating, believed as fact. The Protocols of the Elders of Zionan ugly antisemitic hoax, is still circulating, too. And there are hate groups in the West as well: anyone who searches for “Jew” on Google will be greeted by an avalanche of filth.

The modern state of Israel has become a magnet for antisemitic rhetoric. Criticism of Israel is certainly a valid activity – I am not madly in love with many policies of the State of Israel and its government – but a frightening amount of the anti-Israel rhetoric one hears tumbles over the line into antisemitism.

So that’s what’s on my mind tonight. I need to make sure that those studying towards conversion understand that they are signing up for this, and that it isn’t going away. I want to communicate ways of responding, and ways to stay centered while reading the news. It’s a big job, and I feel one of the most important things I do as an “Intro to Judaism” teacher. I’ll finish with questions I’m going to ask the students:

What do you do when you hear someone say something antisemitic? How do you decide what you are going to do? What about hatred aimed at other groups such as people of color or Muslims? When did it last happen, and what did you do?

How I Deal With Antisemitic Comments

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Visibility is a mixed bag for Jews. This weekend in all the excitement of being Freshly Pressed this blog saw a burst of traffic, “follows,” and “likes,” – thank you very much to those who contributed to that and welcome to new readers! It also got some really ugly antisemitic comments. I’ve been sitting quietly for while, thinking about how I want to handle the mixed blessings.

My comment policy has been pretty simple. Simple is good. I decided though to reiterate my old policy and give it its own page, so that I can point to the comment policy without having to look it up.

I will continue to delete antisemitic comments as soon as I see them. My experience in raising children and training dogs is that the less attention paid to bad behavior, the better. That doesn’t mean “ignore it” – it means don’t reward it by lavishing attention on it. Therefore I shall zap antisemitic comments and then look around and say to myself with deepest satisfaction: “What antisemitic comment? Heh.”

Questions are different. A question is at least on the surface a request for information. “Is it true that Jews are [fill in antisemitic stereotype here]?” will get a straight up serious reply from me, with historical background on its origins. Even if I suspect a question is cover for a nasty comment, I’ll entertain it because it’s an opportunity to teach.

In life, that’s how I try to deal with antisemitism also. If I am pretty sure a comment was made simply to get a rise out of me, I say, “That comment’s beneath my attention,” and move right on. If I think the comment was made out of ignorance, that’s a different matter: I’ll counter it with facts in as calm and kind a manner as I can muster. If people are listening who may be misled by the antisemitic statement, then it’s even more important for me to pursue the teaching moment, even if the ignorance is willful.

To anyone visiting this blog who wants attention (and goodness knows, most of us don’t get enough of it, unless we’re tabloid fodder) – ask a question. I love questions. I crave them. They give me topics for posts, and they give me a chance to have a conversation with the questioner, and get to know you a bit.

Thank you for reading, and bless you for asking questions!

Antisemitism, Again.

Photo credit: Beny Shlevich
Photo credit: Beny Shlevich

Antisemitism is alive and well in Europe. The news in the past few weeks has been grim: a shooting and murder outside a synagogue in Copenhagen and the kosher supermarket murders in Paris are the most serious. There has also been a disturbing video of a man being harrassed as he walks around Paris in a kippah.

These things are frightening, no doubt about it. My heart goes out to the Jews of France and Denmark. I am disturbed, though, by something I’m seeing on social media. Jews all over the world are upset, and are talking loudly about being upset, but a lot of the conversation is not constructive. Some thoughts:

1. If we are worried about antisemitism, we should learn more about it. The media are not reliable when it comes to this issue (remember the reporting about Israel last summer?) If you are interested in learning more about the intersection of anti-Zionism and antisemitism, I recommend this article by Eve Garrard, an Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Manchester. There are some excellent new books on the subject as well, both antisemitism in the past and the so-called “new” antisemitism. Better yet, organize a study group at your synagogue – not a coffee klatch to worry, but a group that will study and learn.

2. It is true that the gunmen in Paris and Copenhagen have identified as Muslims. However, blaming the current wave of antisemitism in Europe and elsewhere on Islam is far too simplistic. White Americans who identified as Christians bombed synagogues in Sacramento, CA as recently as 1999.  Again, I recommend learning about antisemitism, which has deep roots in history and Western culture.

3. Instead of worrying and ranting, how about doing something? Support the Anti-Defamation League. Send letters or emails of support to synagogues in Paris and Denmark. Many have websites, and you can search for them at the World Union for Progressive Judaism website. Ask your rabbi for more suggestions: maybe there is a local group you can join or support or a class you can take.

I am currently taking a class on the history of antisemitism, and doing the reading connected with it. When I feel ready I’ll post to this blog about some of the things I’m learning.

It is a sad fact that antisemitism has been with us in one form or another for many centuries, since classical times. We need not feel helpless in confronting it. Hysterics won’t help, nor will denial. What will make a difference is educating ourselves and supporting one another.

 

 

 

The Class I Hate to Teach

English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela
English: Antisemitic graffiti in Venezuela (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoy teaching basic Judaism: it’s my true love, my mission, my passion. “Intro,” done well, can make it much easier for outsiders to become fellow travelers in Jewish community, whether they are Gentile relatives of a Jew, or Jews who got no Jewish education, or someone looking to become a Jew.  It has to be more than facts and how-to’s, because Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s a vast array of ethnicities, customs, history, and culture – as Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan famously titled his book, Judaism is a civilization. As an “Intro” teacher, I’m a tour guide, den mother, demystifier, and spiritual director.

But there’s one class in every series that I hate to teach. Not coincidentally, it is the only class specified by the tradition as a requirement. Rabbinic tradition is rather vague about what converts to Judaism must be taught before they go to the mikveh, but it is adamant that they understand that Jews have been a despised and persecuted people. In other words, they need to be acquainted with anti-Semitism.

It’s the one class to which I bring a printed-out lesson plan, because I know I will go off-topic like a giddy puppy at the first opportunity. I march through the list: the misgivings about Jews in classical civilization, Christian attitudes about Jews that took shape in both church doctrine and in civil law, and the obsession with Jewish ancestry that surfaced in Spain in the 16th century that presaged full-blown ethnic hatred of Jews in the Western world.  I talk about Herzl’s realization, as he covered the Dreyfus affair, that the Jews of Europe faced something terrible. I talk about all of that as a prelude to the Shoah. And then we talk about the “New” anti-Semitism.

We talk about the memes that have dogged Jews through history: blood libel, moneylending, court Jews, conspiracy, communism, socialism, anarchism, pinko-Commie-whatever-ism. I tell them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  I tell them about the origins of the term “Anti-Semitism,” that it was invented by a German journalist as a sophisticated-sounding substitute for Judenhass, Jew-hatred.

Some students who have been engaged Christians at some point in their lives practically writhe with discomfort. I name those feelings, and acknowledge that when you’ve got one foot in each community, this can be very hard listening. I share the fact that it was hard for me, when I took the class long ago. Some Jewish students look distant, and I suspect they are running through unpleasant memories and feelings. Maybe, like me, they just hate the topic.

My impulse is to comfort. I bring cookies. I reassure. But I march relentlessly through that lesson plan, because it is important that they know this stuff. I have a duty to see to it that they understand that when you sign up to be a Jew, you sign up for this, too. For Gentiles in the class, it is important to know why Jews seem “sensitive” about some things, why some topics are funny only if you are a genius like Mel Brooks and can take them all the way off the deep end.

Usually the evening ends off topic: I get to the end of the list, and we trail off from “Jews run the media” into jokes and trivia about Hollywood and Jews. If I’m artful, we’ll leave on an upbeat note.  But I’m always relieved when the evening is over, because I hate this topic.  I hate, hate, hate it.

Can We Talk?

Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza
Children in Town Under Fire by Rockets from Gaza (Photo credit: Israel Defense Forces)

I walked out of a movie this afternoon (Lincoln, it’s good), flipped my phone back on, and was greeted with a personal message on Twitter:

“All nations regret that they cannot exterminate 15m jews 40 times for killing 600m their nationals in all wars and revolts”

I had to read it a couple of times before I could understand what it said. I run across anti-Semitism all the time on the web, but it is not often addressed personally to me. When I investigated further, I realized it wasn’t personal, not really: the person sending it had sent the same message to dozens of Jews or Jewish-sounding people on Twitter. I reported him and blocked the account. Yuck.

It’s been a rough week. I lived in Israel for a year, ten years ago, and I formed an attachment to the country and its people that will never leave me. I was there at a hard time – the 2nd Intifada – and that cemented my respect for Israelis. They live through times that most of us cannot imagine, and the vast majority of them carry on their lives with grace. I listen to Israeli radio, and was aware of the rockets raining down on Sderot and other communities in the south, and noticed that no one in the media outside of Israel seemed to give a hoot. The BBC never mentioned it, CNN never mentioned it, and it was not mentioned on Al Jazeera, either. Were I not “tuned in” to Israeli sources, I wouldn’t have known about it, because no one else cared to report it.

Then, ten days ago, the Israelis finally retaliated. Had France been shelling Britain for months, we’d have seen some fireworks from the Brits before now. Had Mexico been shelling Texas — well, it’s Texas. Of course they’d shoot back. But when the Israelis finally shoot back they’re the bad guys?

For more about Pillar of Defense, better thought out and with great links, take a look at Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s A Few Thoughts About Operation Pillar of Defense.

For ten days now, I’ve been watching Jews argue over this and my heart is breaking. I listen to Jews call one another names, fail to give each other the benefit of the doubt, and read things into each others words. If one says he’s praying for peace, there are half a dozen folks ready to have his head because he wasn’t enthusiastic enough about war. If she speaks up for Israel’s right to defend herself, a different half dozen are ready and waiting to descend with words of flame.  And all I want to do is scream, “STOP IT!”

My fellow Jews: we do not need to be enemies against one another. There are plenty of people in the world that hate us, like the creep who sent me that tweet. He has read the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other lies, and he’s ready to exterminate us all. He doesn’t care whether we belong to AIPAC or J Street. He doesn’t care if we love Israel or deplore its existence. He just hates Jews.

If you want to talk about your position, I will listen. I may not agree, but that is not a condition of my listening. If you want to talk about your position, will you listen to me as well? Can we talk about our fears? Can we talk about our hopes?

I love the Jewish People. I really, really, really like Jews. And this is breaking my heart.