Exhausted by the Israel discourse? Blame backlash fatigue. 

Exhausted by the Israel discourse? Blame backlash fatigue. 

I’d mostly forgotten about Ivan Boesky when I heard he died Monday at 87. But news of his death brought me back to some of my earliest assignments as a Jewish journalist — and how they relate to this week’s controversial Washington Post story about a group of Jewish machers seeking to influence the debate over Israel.

In 1987, Boesky, a high-flying investor with a lifestyle to match, pleaded guilty to insider trading. Not every crime perpetrated by a Jew is a “Jewish story,” but because Boesky was a generous donor to Jewish organizations, Jewish leaders freaked out.

I remember reporting on anguished internal conversations about accepting philanthropy from tarnished donors, but if anything the “external” discourse was even more fraught. In his greed, in his celebration of excess, in his illegal manipulation of the financial system, Boesky — like his erstwhile ally, junk-bond-king-turned-convicted-felon Michael Milken — was an antisemite’s fever dream. Jews braced for a backlash they considered inevitable.

The Boesky scandal also landed just a few years after Jonathan Pollard, a U.S. Navy analyst, was arrested for spying for Israel. Pollard embodied a different category of antisemitic stereotype — “dual loyalty” — which was even more of a threat to the Jews’ sense of security.

Jews watched the horizon for a wave of antisemitism that never came. In May 1987 the American Jewish Committee commissioned a poll asking if Americans thought any less of American Jews as a result of Pollard’s and Boesky’s bad deeds. The answer in both cases turned out to be no. “No more than one percent of the respondents attributed Boesky’s malfeasance to his ‘Jewish background,’” JTA reported at the time.

Nevertheless, the Jewish fear of being implicated by the bad behavior of another Jew is persistent, and captured in a famous Yiddish phrase: “a shanda fur die goyim,” or “a shame before the gentiles.” It’s an expression of insecurity, articulating a sense — well founded in history — that the Jews’ precarious status as a minority can be undermined by a homegrown villain or a society looking for scapegoats.

Groups like the Anti-Defamation League often brace for a backlash after high-profile cases of calumny by Jews. When Bernie Madoff admitted in 2008 to masterminding a Ponzi scheme that duped Jewish individuals and organizations, the ADL carefully tracked the antisemitic fallout — even while pointing out that Jews were the victims of Madoff’s scheme and explaining that Madoff represented Madoff, not “the Jews.”

There is at least one significant difference between the Boesky era and the Madoff era: the internet. The ADL tracked dozens of antisemitic comments about Madoff on financial bulletin boards, the comments sections of local and national newspapers, and extremist websites — all just coming into their own. If more than 1% of Americans were thinking antisemitic thoughts about Boesky in 1987, it was much harder for them to get the message out.

In the context of 2024 and the Israel-Hamas war, it is almost quaint to consider how a Boesky or a Madoff could send chills down the spines of Jews. In retrospect, the scandals were ripples; the backlash over the war has been a tsunami. It doesn’t matter if Jews agree or disagree with Israel’s actions — their Jewishness makes them targets of the current backlash. On college campuses, in progressive circles, in literary and artistic settings, they are being isolated and excluded for showing a hint of empathy for or attachment to a Jewish state.

Jewish and Middle Eastern restaurants and other ostensibly “Zionist” places have been targeted by protesters and vandals. Synagogues have received bomb threats. Jewish musicians have had their concerts cancelled. Pro-Palestinian demonstrators protested at the opening of a Holocaust museum in the Netherlands.

It is in the context of this barrage of anti-Jewish scapegoating that the ADL bashed the Washington Post for an article last week on a group of pro-Israel “billionaires and business titans working to shape U.S. public opinion of the war in Gaza.”

The article reports on a WhatsApp group chat in which the “titans” appear to arrange for the screening of Israeli government films documenting Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel and strategize on how to use campaign contributions to reward pro-Israel politicians. The article also cites sources and WhatsApp messages to report on a Zoom chat between members of the group and NYC Mayor Eric Adams, urging the mayor to send cops to clamp down on the pro-Palestinian encampment at Columbia University. Some members even offered to “pay for private investigators to assist New York police in handling the protests.”

The ADL tweeted that the newspaper “should be ashamed of publishing an article that unabashedly (and almost entirely on anonymous sources) plays into antisemitic tropes by inferring a secret cabal of Jews is using wealth & power to influence governments, the media, the business world & academia.”

This came after Fabien Levy, Adams’ deputy mayor for communications, said that he was “shocked” by the Post story. “The insinuation that Jewish donors secretly plotted to influence government operations is an all too familiar antisemitic trope,” Levy, who is Jewish, said in a post on X.

Levy also notes in the story that when the NYPD twice entered Columbia’s campus to disperse protesters, it was in response to “specific written requests” from university leadership, including the school’s Muslim president, Minouche Shafik.

The story appears to go out of its way not to describe the group’s members as Jewish, although all of the members it names — including “Kind snack company founder Daniel Lubetzky, hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb, billionaire Len Blavatnik and real estate investor Joseph Sitt” — are.

Yet it abounds in the kind of language about power, finance, and collusive influence that triggers Jews sensitive to antisemitism: The group “privately pressed” Adams (as opposed to what?); the group’s activism “has stretched beyond New York, touching the highest levels of the Israeli government, the U.S. business world and elite universities”; members of the group “wielded their money and power in an effort to shape American views of the Gaza war, as well as the actions of academic, business and political leaders — including New York’s mayor.”

On the other hand, the challenge for the ADL and other watchdogs is to explain why a report on Jewish and pro-Israel political influence is prima facie antisemitic when Jewish mainstream groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are organized specifically — and proudly — to assert just that influence. More than one X user tweeted back at the ADL that “the truth can’t be antisemitic.”

Except when it can be. As the story moved downstream, it fueled the kind of gleeful commentary that often can seem indistinguishable from antisemitism. The New York news site Hellgate asked, “Who should have a voice in deciding whether” the NYPD should be deployed in breaking up a campus protest? It’s a good question if the subject is campaign financing and how money and connections subvert the political system. It’s a more loaded question when it suggests that there is something “remarkable” about a group of deep-pocketed lobbyists donors seeking to influence elected officials.

You can also read the WaPo story the way many Jews read about the Boesky and Madoff affairs and direct your ire at the Jews who reinforced antisemitic tropes through their illegal or, perhaps in this case, ill-advised behavior. Of course, that raises the question: Should influential Jews not lobby for their shared interests, lest it be seen as reinforcing anti-Jewish stereotypes?

To be a Jew has always meant to be on guard against shande and brace for the antisemitic backlash. It’s a measure of the superheated atmosphere since Oct. 7 that it also means guarding against behaviors that in another time would have been considered legal, conventional, and uncontroversial. In New York last week, a theater canceled a play with Holocaust themes, according to the Dramatists Legal Defense Fund, because of security concerns raised by its insurance company.

If Jews seem a little defensive, you might blame backlash fatigue.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Andrew Silow-Carroll of Teaneck is the editor in chief of the New York Jewish Week and senior editor of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He is the former editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News.

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