New Voices’ Josh Nathan-Kazis (one of the bright stars of the up and coming generation) asked The Forward’s JJ Goldberg “Why It Matters That Madoff is Jewish.” After several years of following censorship within the Jewish institutional world, Goldberg’s reponse hit home completely. Part of what’s happening is a class struggle, with a handful of wealthy donors exerting control over the rest:
How has wealth affected the Jewish community?
There’s been exponential growth of Jewish wealth, partly because there’s been exponential growth of wealth. The top marginal tax rate under Eisenhower and Kennedy was 90%. [Today,] America’s got the lowest taxes in the industrial world. It all changed in the mid 1970s. People blame Reagan, but it really started under Carter. Along with deregulation came the lowering of the taxes. You removed the rules for getting rich, and you let people keep more of that money. And the sky was the limit. The Jewish organizations, for a bunch of reasons, grew and grew and grew during those years. There was always a myth that the richer Jews were more assimilated. Nowadays, the poorer Jews are more assimilated because they can’t afford [Jewish life]. The Jewish community grew by the graces of the donations of the wealthy. And then it built up this infrastructure that was dependent on the donations of the wealthy. It became harder and harder to act independently of the interests of the wealthy.
In 1994, when Newt Gingrich took over the House of Representatives, [the Republicans] introduced the Balanced Budget Amendment, which was nonsense. After years of unprecedented deficits under Reagan, they decided that Congress couldn’t control itself, so they wanted a constitutional amendment to prevent themselves from spending. The Council of Jewish Federations said it was going to really damage Jewish institutions. The Jewish community probably raises $2 billion a year for the schools, synagogues, and hospitals. It probably spends $8 billion. The rest of it is government money. So the Balanced Budget Amendment was really going to damage the Jewish community. The way I heard it, five families in three cities said, I’m a Republican, and you lose my gift if you lobby against the Balanced Budget Amendment. After 1994, the Jewish community stopped offending Republicans. Quite suddenly.
Before the modern age, Jews lived in ghettoes. They could tax themselves. Tzedakah was not voluntary. Shabbes wasn’t voluntary. The first synagogue in America, Shearith Israel in New York, adopted a rule saying that if you violated Shabbes you got fined. It didn’t work. People just resigned from the synagogue. [The community] had lost enforcement power. And once you’ve lost enforcement power, you’ve got to ask for it. And once you’ve got to ask for money, you become dependent on the wealthy. Rabbis now depend on the goodwill of a few rich people. And so the balance of power between the moralists and the hedonists shifts. There used to be a check. The moral authority of the Jewish community had enforcement power. Now it’s around for entertainment. Instead of scolding Jews, now they scold goyim. They have no authority to scold the Jews. None. Rabbis lose their jobs for being moral scolds. So there is no more moral authority.
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