It was a clever current events report of a New York Jewish soiree that itself was an attempt to take a financial tragedy and try to kvetch it to death.
Reckoning: Thief or Crook?
by Lizzie Widdicombe
As anyone in New York can attest, there are multiple Bernie Madoff trials in the works, in addition to the bankruptcy case and the criminal one. “The Talmud makes a distinction between a thief and a crook,” Rabbi David Gaffney said last week, at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, on West Sixteenth Street, which was presenting a sold-out panel titled “Madoff: A Jewish Reckoning.” “A crook is somebody who comes in with a gun and holds people up. A thief is someone who comes in the night and steals his way into someone’s home. The thief is a more despicable person in the Jewish mentality, because he thinks he’s fooling God.”
This metaphysical accounting for Madoff’s alleged crimes was the theme of the panel, which was convened by Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of The New Republic, and included the historian Simon Schama, the philosopher Michael Walzer, and the prominent businessmen Michael Steinhardt, Mort Zuckerman, and William Ackman. Steinhardt, who has a bushy white mustache and wore an American-flag necktie, was standing in the lobby before the event, talking to his wife on his cell phone. He said that she had a problem with the event, and he handed the phone over. “I don’t like the title,” she said. “What do you think it means?” After a second, she added, “We’ll see what the geniuses say.”
First up was Zuckerman, who, Peretz noted in an introduction, “sits at the table of the mighty” and “also lost a pocket of money to Madoff.” (The Mortimer B. Zuckerman Charitable Trust was invested with the Madoff-connected fund manager J. Ezra Merkin.) Zuckerman said that he disliked the phrase “a Jewish reckoning.” “It’s a Ponzi scheme,” he said. “The last time I checked, Ponzi was not Jewish. He was Italian.” He pointed out that Kenneth Lay, of Enron, “was never identified as a prominent Protestant energy broker.” He brought up the word “credit,” which, he noted, comes from the Latin credere, “to believe,” and concluded, “What Mr. Madoff did and what Mr. Merkin did was to undermine trust.”
Next, Schama talked about the historical links between anti-Semitism and capitalism, going back to the tulip bubble of seventeenth-century Holland. Quoting Thomas Carlyle’s “The French Revolution,” he said, “O shrieking beloved brother blockheads of Mankind!,” and went on, “It may be necessary for us to grieve and shriek and sit shivah over this particularly ghastly moment in our collective life.” Steinhardt, who lost money with Madoff, too, wondered, more simply, “What was so special about this guy?” Echoing Hannah Arendt, he decried “the banality of investing,” and he came down hard on the charities that had trusted Madoff.
Ackman was next, and he used his turn at the lectern to defend Merkin. “My guess is that Mort, No. 1, never read the offering memorandums,” he said. “Mort called him up and said, ‘I’d like to give you some money,’ and Ezra probably said, ‘Terrific. I’ll send you a copy of the documents,’ and his secretary filled them out.” (Zuckerman had left the panel early. The next day, he told Ackman that this was not the case.) Ackman said that Merkin wasn’t a bad man. A hand went up in the audience: “Don’t you think that, at least, we can call Ezra Merkin a lazy man?”
Ackman said no, and this led to a dispute with Peretz, who is the chairman of the Board of Overseers of YIVO, about whether it’s appropriate for charity-board members to manage their own charity’s money. Peretz said, “Let me say, YIVO didn’t have a dime with Madoff.”
“But YIVO doesn’t have a dime,” Ackman replied.
Peretz said, “There are ways to remedy this.”
The conversation turned to the S.E.C. (“a bunch of wusses”), and Peretz grew impatient. “I want a Jewish question,” he told the audience. An older woman in a purple vest raised her hand. Speaking from a theological perspective, she asked, “What would be an appropriate punishment for Bernie Madoff? Excommunication? Strip him of money, an eye for an eye?” Someone else suggested, “Stoning?”
When the session was over, the audience poured into the aisles. “I think it was fascinating,” said Ruth Westheimer, the sex doctor, who’d been sitting up front. She was especially happy because at first she’d been stuck in an overflow room with a simulcast screen. “In the Jewish tradition, there is someone by the name of Hillel,” she said. “He didn’t have enough money to study, so he’d go up on the roof and listen. I paid for my ticket. Thirty-five dollars and ninety cents.” Peretz, too, was pleased with the panel, though he wished people hadn’t been so touchy about the title. The phrase “Jewish reckoning” wasn’t supposed to have Biblical overtones, he said. “I just made it up.” ♦