Bad for the Jews?

Illustration by Dan Goldman

By now it’s safe to say that this Yom Kippur, the tally of collective Jewish sins will be particularly long. Between Bernie Madoff and the bust that roped five rabbis and three New Jersey mayors (not to mention smaller misdeeds, like that prison bar mitzvah), it’s been a tough year. For a people so historically obsessed with how the outside world views them, they have of late found themselves quite frequently, uncomfortably, in a spotlight of shame, wondering what, exactly, have the chosen people been chosen for?

Let’s set aside the issue of piety, the question of how such religious men could commit such crimes. We all know that religious observance is no guarantor of ethical behavior. The question is of Jewish exceptionalism, and it is, to understate it, a thorny one. Hitler designed an entire political philosophy—and attendant death machine—based on the belief that the answer to this question was a resounding “yes.” But awkward as this may be, this is, from a different perspective, a view shared by many Jews themselves, like the man who sends me the same e-mail once a month about the number of Jews who have won Nobel Prizes. (“Remarkably, Jews constitute almost one-fifth of all Nobel laureates. This, in a world in which Jews number just a fraction of 1 percent of the population.”) And it’s not just kooks and your grandmother: Even liberal, assimilated Jews can’t help but believe that there is something special—better, smarter—about their people. Except when their people show up in handcuffs on the news—at which point the arguments turn to Jewish ordinariness: Every group has its criminals, we are no better or worse than anyone else, to think any different is to hold Jews to a higher standard than other groups are held, etc.

Well, you can’t have it both ways. The fact is that Jews are exceptional. There can be no debate that various historical factors—including a communal reverence for intellectual acuity, along with centuries of marginalization—primed Jews for, first, survival, and then uncommon achievement. The rub is that those very same factors might have predisposed them to distinction in less-savory domains. Maybe we can’t have Philip Roth and Leonard Bernstein without Bernie Madoff and the informant behind the Jersey busts, Solomon Dwek.

Or maybe not. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t Madoff and Dwek who are exceptional but rather average Jews who are. That the sight of a Jewish criminal on the front page gives heartburn to Jews comprehensively disconnected from the crimes—including even those who profess to be comprehensively disconnected from any form of Jewish identity or culture—is the truly exceptional thing. This ethnic attachment is a consequence not simply of fanatical closeness but of a long history in which Jews were judged collectively for everything they did, beginning with the crucifixion they didn’t do.

Indeed, it was precisely this quality that perhaps predisposed them to become victims. Madoff’s many Jewish clients trusted him because he was Jewish, and the Ashkenazic organ broker was willing to hear out a Syrian Sephardic Jew precisely because there was a yarmulke on his head. But this very set of qualities, this instinct to trust because of a shared tribal history, is also what has inspired, among other things, a uniquely effective network of charities that serve tens of millions of Jews and non-Jews alike. Here, too, exceptionalism works both ways. Now Jews just have to accept it.

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Bad for the Jews?