Financial crises have historically led to increases in anti-Semitism, with Jewish businessmen and financiers receiving a disproportionate amount of blame for whatever went wrong. Is America beyond such knee-jerk bias? Not according to a new survey discussed in the May/June issue of the Boston Review.
As part of a larger survey of 2,782 American adults, Neil Malhotra, an assistant professor of political economy at Stanford's business school, and Yotam Margalit, an assistant professor of political science at Columbia, explicitly asked how much blame "the Jews" should bear for the present economic downturn. Among non-Jewish respondents, nearly a quarter of the survey participants said Jews deserved at least a moderate amount of blame. Just over 38 percent said they deserved at least some blame. The authors undertook the study after noting how much attention was being paid in the media to the ethnicity of Bernard Madoff, the apparent Ponzi-scheme mastermind, who is Jewish.
"Interestingly," Malhotra and Margalit write, "Democrats were especially prone to blaming Jews." Thirty-two percent of Democrats said Jews deserved moderate blame for the crisis, compared with 18 percent of Republicans. The authors found this surprising because Jewish voters have traditionally been part of the Democratic coalition and Democrats, in other surveys, have displayed higher levels of racial tolerance than Republicans. Less unexpectedly, anti-Semitism correlated with education: less-educated respondents placed more blame on Jews.
The authors also took a measure of implicit anti-Semitism. All the participants in the survey were told a brief version of the Madoff scandal, but in some versions he was described as "an American investor" and in others as a "Jewish-American investor." Non-Jewish respondents who had been primed with the information that Madoff was Jewish were far more likely to say they opposed tax cuts for big business described as being designed to create jobs. Resentment against Jewish-Americans, in other words, appeared to get transferred into resentment against business in general. The information about Madoff's ethnicity had no influence on the policy views of participants in the survey who were Jewish.
Malhotra and Margalit conclude by suggesting that the media avoid references to the ethnicity of participants in financial scandals (and presumably other crimes) when this information has "nothing to do with the subject at hand." Useful in some instances, this advice does not seem to get us very far in considering in the Madoff case: So many of Madoff's charitable-beneficiaries-turned-victims were Jewish that to omit that fact would require extremely aggressive suppression of information by the press, something it is culturally resistant to do. And even with a full media blackout, it seems hard to imagine the information not getting out somehow -- with anti-Semites absorbing and using it for their own purposes.
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