What led me to write Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype was the cumulative effect of a host of recent anti-Semitic statements focusing on money matters.
A number of these comments made a deep impression on me. One was the claim that Lehman Brothers, immediately before its collapse, transferred $400 billion to Israeli banks. It reminded me of the Hezbollah charge, made shortly after Sept. 11, that they had "learned" that 4,000 Israelis did not show up for work at the World Trade Center that day. As absurd as these conspiracy theories are, they do take hold. There's no room for complacency.
There was also a comment on an online news site: "Ho hum, another Crooked Wall Street Jew. Find a Jew who isn't Crooked. Now that would be a story."
Or, "Just another Jew money changer thief. Trust a Jew and this is what will happen. History has proven it over and over. Jews have only one god — money."
So I embarked on this project to tell the story of how the stereotype about Jews and money came into being, and what its consequences have been through the centuries, and on into our time.
The accusation is pernicious at any time. On a personal level, it leads to distrust of Jews and legitimizes comments about people that are hurtful. On a societal level, it opens up a variety of attacks against Jews that can be very damaging.
Shakespeare's Shylock in the "The Merchant of Venice" embodies what took place historically. Jews will do anything for money, which leads as well to the idea that Jews have no loyalty to any group other than their own. We know where such ideas buried in the subconscious of a population can lead when exploited by a demagogue.
Of course, the period of 2008-09 was not any time. It was one of great anxiety, a perfect setting for conspiracy mindsets. The world financial system was in trouble, extremist terrorism continued, and Iran was working on its nuclear program.
In such a setting, I thought it important to speak to the broad public that may not be sensitive to these issues, both as to how offensive these accusations are and how dangerous they are. My mantra is that anti-Semitism is not a history lesson, it's a current event.
Let me cite just a few examples of how my theme is alive and well beyond comments on blogs and websites.
When a recession hit Malaysia in the late 1990s, the prime minister, in a country without Jews, seeking to avoid speaking of the complexities of the economy, attributed the cause to international Jewish currency dealers who were manipulating the currency to serve their interests and against the interests of Malaysia.
When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke before the U.N. General Assembly in 2009 as the world economy was sinking, he told his audience that Zionists "have been dominating an important portion of the financial and monetary centers … in a deceitful, complex and furtive manner."
Further examples appear in ADL polling of European attitudes toward Jews. In a survey conducted late in 2008 and early in 2009 in seven European countries, 40 percent of those surveyed indicated that Jews have "too much power in the business world," and 41 percent indicated that Jews have "too much power in international financial markets."
In other words, the potency of this stereotype remains intact. And what this should tell us, and what my book is about, is several seminal points:
· First, with all the appropriate attention being paid to the "new" anti-Semitism — hatred of Jews in the guise of anti-Zionism — the classic stereotypes remain powerful and undergird the new manifestations;
· Second, because of ongoing economic anxiety, blaming the Jews for corrupting the world economic system is likely to surface again and again; and
· Third, the explosion of the Internet and the ability of extremists, conspiratorialists and anti-Semites to reach new audiences and stoke the emotions of millions means that younger generations need to be educated on this subject.
Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is also author ofThe Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control, among other books.