By Rabbi Brad Hirschfeld
When New Jersey Mayors, politicians and rabbis get arrested for money laundering, it’s news that should be reported, as it is now on CNN and other major media outlets. I think it’s especially important for Jews to hear this news and address the discomfort created by religious leaders behaving badly. Isn’t that what we ask of other groups when their leaders do the same? But the coverage, which initially began in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, suggests that the motivation for their coverage may be less than appropriate. In fact, it may be nothing less than an excuse to vent deep resentment at a particular portion of the Jewish community. When a headline reads, “N.J. officials, N.Y. rabbis caught in federal money laundering, corruption sweep”, one expects a story which describes that event. In this case however, no mention is made of any rabbis actually getting arrested. Despite plenty of details about various politicos being taken into custody, there is nothing about rabbis.
This may be a big deal, but the headline and the story don’t match – where is the info on the rabbis? This kind of coverage actually borders on Jew-baiting, and it potentially says something at least as ugly about the author/editors as it does about those who committed any crime. Consider the following quote found on the paper’s website and carried on CNN:
The arrests resulted from an FBI and Internal Revenue Service probe “that began with an investigation of money transfers by members of the Syrian enclaves in New York and New Jersey,” the newspaper said on its Web site, NJ.com. Those arrested Thursday “include key religious leaders in the tight-knit, wealthy communities,” the report said.
“Enclaves”? “Tight-knit, wealthy communities”? Could it be that the Star Ledger harbors deep resentment against Jews who they see as over-privileged, stand-offish people who operate as a law unto themselves?
Is this the paper’s moment to celebrate how “those people” will now get their comeuppance? If not, why describe the community in classically anti-Semitic ways instead of calling out the specific leaders who broke the law, violated the religious rules of their own community and should be punished to the full extent of the law for any wrongdoing they committed?
This story needs to be told, but it needs to be told better than this. It needs to be about justice, not just desserts. By the way, when all this calms down, the Syrian-Jewish community should also take a good look at itself to see what they do which contributes to their being perceived of this way by their neighbors.
While victims of bias should never be blamed for the bias against them, in most cases for a stereotype to take hold it must be rooted in some partial truth. Ironically, coverage like that in the Star Ledger will make that ever less likely to happen, confirming the kind of hostility which is used by any community looking for a reason to turn inward.