Will Wall St. crisis spur anti-Semitism?
Some Jews find cause for anxiety
New York (JTA) — In the world according to the comedy writers at “Saturday Night Live,” the pyramid of complicity in the current financial crisis runs like this:
On the bottom are poor and minority homeowners victimized by predatory lending. Next come condo-flipping yuppies out for a quick buck. They're followed by rapacious bankers who cashed out before the economy crumbled. And on top are billionaire financiers who pocketed the government bailout and quickly moved it offshore.
In the SNL imagination, the top two categories seemingly are populated by Jews.
In a skit broadcast Saturday night, barely a day after Congress authorized a massive bailout of the ailing financial industry, the jokesters at SNL conjured a post-vote news conference in Washington featuring these four categories of characters.
Playing the part of the rapacious bankers were Herbert and Marion Sandler, the Jewish owners of a savings and loan sold to Wachovia Bank for $24 billion in 2006.
“Actually, we've done quite well. We're very happy,” Marion cackles in a thick New York accent, as the screen identifies her and her husband as “People who should be shot.”
The financier is George Soros, the Jewish Holocaust survivor and financier, who in his thick Dr. Strangelove accent brags that he pocketed the government bailout money and converted it into Swiss francs because he has taken a short position on the U.S. dollar.
Are these caricatures anti-Semitic?
As of Tuesday morning, the clip had been pulled from the show's Web site, but not due to concerns about Jewish sensibility. "Upon review, we caught certain elements in the sketch that didn't meet our standards," NBC said in a statement. The network said the Sandlers had called to complain about the clip, and the tagline "People who should be shot" was removed, along with a reference to "corrupt activities."
Regardless of whether the writers intended to paint Jews as responsible for the crisis, the skit is almost sure to aggravate a growing concern: that Jews ultimately could find themselves blamed for the nation's financial meltdown.
“There is definitely a fear among certain Jews in this industry,” said a Jewish employee with a top New York investment bank who asked that his name be withheld. “And it's because it's spreading past Wall Street now. There's a growing animosity towards the wealthy, and especially the wealthy that have made money on Wall Street and real estate and finance, as so many Jews have -- some legitimately, some not so. It's very easy to generalize that it must be the entire Jewish people.”
Others in the industry are not so sure about a backlash against the Jews.
Daniel Cohen, who works in investment banking at JPMorgan Chase, said he has neither seen nor heard anything worth getting worked up about regarding fears that anti-Semitism could be a consequence of the financial crisis.
“I don't think it's ever crossed my mind, to be honest,” Cohen said.
While global crises of all stripes historically have drawn out fringe elements eager to scapegoat Jews, the prominence of Jews in the financial industry -- and the conspicuously Jewish names adorning many of the nation's top investment banks -- have given the conspiracy theorists an unusually rich trove of ammunition and many Jews a cause for anxiety.
“As we witnessed after 9/11, whenever there is trouble or uncertainty in the economy or world events, Jews become the scapegoats, and ugly anti-Semitic canards are given new life,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
Last week, the ADL reported a “dramatic surge” in anti-Semitic Internet postings related to the economy. The group said the Internet chatter is not limited to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites, but has spread to mainstream Web sites such as Yahoo! and AOL, where “hundreds” of anti-Semitic messages have flooded financial discussion boards.
Bill Cunningham, a popular conservative radio host, told JTA he had received two or three calls in the past few weeks from listeners who mentioned Jewish control of the banking system.
“I've been on the radio 25 years,” said Cunningham, who is nationally syndicated. “I had not heard that until this money crisis began.”
While such sentiments occasionally find public platforms, the locus of anti-Jewish agitation -- and its most articulate and virulent expression -- is found on known anti-Semitic and white supremacist Web sites such as the Vanguard News Network and Overthrow.com, a Web site published by the American National Socialist Workers Party.
Writers on these sites lay responsibility for the crisis squarely at the feet of Jewish bankers and Zionists. They allege that Jewish government officials, notably U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Rep. Barney Frank, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee, supported a congressional bailout to help their co-religionists on Wall Street. A Frank character also was featured on the "Saturday Night Live" skit.
Some posts also have taken aim at Congress for taking off over Rosh Hashanah, which fell last week amid marathon negotiations on the bailout. The bill eventually was passed late last Friday.
“Look at how they are portraying these people who are staying up late in the capitol to pass this 700 billion dollar bailout,” wrote one commenter on a forum of the Vanguard News Network. “They're makin it look like they're 'workin hard', 'takin action', 'reaching a solution' ... Yeah, they are probably sittin around eating crumpets while the Jews are driving away with truck loads of hundred dollar bills.”
Another commenter on the site wrote that “jew monsters” are seeking to bankrupt the entire planet.
“It's really more like vampires sucking a corpse dry,” wrote the commenter, identified on the site as Sgruber. “Jews are destroyers. They aren't after their own long-range advantage. Long-range they want the earth plunged into a Dark Ages of endless poverty. This is why the jews must be killed. They are rats eating the grain and the brain of the world.”
Unlike the white supremacist sites, most of the anti-Jewish sentiment on well-trafficked mainstream Web sites are confined to mostly unmoderated message areas hosted by Yahoo! and Google. Many are replete with spelling an grammatical errors, and are heavy on name calling.
The ADL praised such sites for doing their best to delete anti-Semitic messages, though it cautioned that due to the volume and the free-for-all-nature of the Internet, comprehensive policing is nearly impossible.
Deborah Lauter, who heads the ADL's civil rights division, said that Yahoo! saw a significant decrease in anti-Semitic material following the release of the ADL report on Oct. 3.
“While we can't know for certain the exact reason for the decrease, we suspect it is due to action by Yahoo rather than any increased restraint by Finance Message Board members,” Lauter wrote in an e-mail to JTA. “New problematic posts are almost non-existent and the majority problematic material posted since early September has been deleted.”