Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, paints a gloomy picture.
Stung By severe and seemingly lasting economic reversals, Americans look for a scapegoat. Historic stereotypes, fueled By the outrageous misdeeds of investment manager Bernard Madoff, lead them to a familiar target -- the Jews.
"The pattern of stereotypes that the Madoff story activated in the minds of many people is a particularly deep-seated and pernicious one -- the age-old pattern of false and slanderous beliefs about Jews and money," Foxman writes. "Ignorance, misunderstanding and falsehood can have a cumulative effect, creating a climate in which more explosive and dangerous forms of hatred can find acceptance."
Foxman spells out the slanderous labels that have haunted Jews -- often with tragic consequences -- for centuries: stinginess, dishonesty, disloyalty, hunger for power and a desire for world domination.
While his historic perspective is right on target, Foxman's fears seem exaggerated and -- at this point at least -- unfounded. The recent history of Jews in America is a happy one. Jews have thrived in business, politics, community affairs and as good neighbors. The larger society has welcomed them and benefited from their efforts.
Even Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board who wrote the foreword to "Jews and Money," says Foxman may be overreacting.
"My sense is that the stereotype of the avaricious Jew, isolated and insulated from the broader society, has been substantially reduced over my now long lifetime," Volcker writes. "In my view, he may underplay the progress that has been made, at least in this country, in ameliorating old social and religious prejudices and shibboleths. But I also realize that I am not 'in the line of fire.' Foxman has plenty of evidence from the long history of prejudice to justify his sensitivities and forebodings."
Foxman cites recent anti-Semitic statements By Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson and Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, as well as from far-right and far-left hate groups. But even while concluding that mainstream America has shown no clear indications of adopting a "blame the Jews" mantra, Foxman finds caution everywhere he looks.
"While it is a hopeful sign that relatively few Americans openly and deliberately embrace anti-Semitic stereotypes today, it's disturbing that so many people have absorbed basic beliefs about Jews and money to the point where they don't even realize that these beliefs are false, bigoted and offensive."
In fact, Foxman writes, the Jewish approach to charity and fairness has been exemplary.
"Among the world's great religions, Judaism is the one that places the greatest emphasis on moral behavior in relation to money," he writes. "Few if any ethnic or religious groups in America have created as large, powerful and effective a force for charitable giving and work as American Jews." To his credit, Foxman softens his perspective a bit while urging that Jews continue those efforts without looking over their shoulders.
"Since there is no way that Jewish behavior can be tailored to escape the condemnation of bigots, Jews simply have to try to live good lives according to their best values and beliefs, without being defensive or reactive -- even though this is never easy."
Peter Simon is the News' retired education reporter.
Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype
By Abraham H. Foxman
236 pages, $26