For a certain kind of US Jew who regards the media as an irritant and the European media as a scourge, the headline at the BBC website confirmed all their worst suspicions. “US rabbis arrested in crime probe,” it read, ignoring the mayors and other public officials caught up in a federal sting aimed at rooting out corruption.
Even we Jewish media professionals scoured the coverage of the corruption probe, looking for signs of bias. Did the papers get the right balance between the Jewish angle and the general one? Did they demonstrate that the accusations were an aberration? And what exactly did they mean when referring to the Syrian-Jewish community as “close-knit” and “wealthy”? What’s next: “hook-nosed” and “money-grubbing”?
So far, the vast majority of the coverage seems to have got it right. As for “close-knit” and “wealthy” — those were not stereotypes, but accurate descriptions of the Syrian-Jewish communities in Brooklyn, NY and Deal, NJ.
With each scandal involving prominent Jews we brace for the “inevitable” backlash. Milken, Boesky, Pollard, Madoff, the Spinka sect, the Deal deal. We’re convinced the media will overplay the Jewish angle, and antisemitism will infect the mainstream.
And yet, the “inevitable” never seems to come. The media do their job, the antisemitic web crazies do theirs, but the rest of the country seems to absorb the scandalous news as a case of what look like a few bad apples. And while we’re waiting for a backlash, we avoid asking the difficult questions, such as: what in our own communal practices allowed the scandal to blossom?
In this case, however, the door to introspection has not only cracked open, but swung wide. Some Jewish leaders, like Mark Charendoff of the Jewish Funders Network, are asking if there is “something” in the Orthodox community that “creates fertile ground for this type of fraud”.
Perhaps the Syrian Jews are an easy whipping boy for such introspection, just as some Reform and Conservative Jews love advertising evidence of Orthodox wrongdoing. But if there is to be a silver lining to this embarrassing episode, it will be that the entire Jewish establishment, Orthodox and otherwise, will examine the ways they leave themselves open to fraud or exploitation, or turn a blind eye to what in this case appears to be schemers and crooks.
And then we can turn back to bashing the media.
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News