My FaithBeat column on Saturday was about the Madoff fall-out for the Jewish community.
On Thursday evening, I attended a very provocative panel discussion about Madoff at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in NYC. One of the panelists was the always interesting Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who has a you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it estate in Bedford (that’s him feeding one of his ringed tailed lemur monkeys).
Steinhardt made a killing as a hedge fund manager before dedicating his time (and much of his money) to securing the Jewish future — as he sees fit. He was a founder, for instance, of Birthright Israel, the program that sends Jewish teens to Israel as a way to bring out their Jewishness.
He likes to do things his way. Steinhardt is very critical of Jewish communal groups, including many that have been at the heart of Jewish life for a long time.
On Thursday, he used some typically harsh language to describe some of these groups. I didn’t get into it in my column, as I wanted to focus on the question of whether the Madoff scandal will inflame anti-Semitism (the main point of the program). Also, Steinhardt has been saying this stuff for a long time.
But a report in the NYT included this:
Naming names, he called a handful of Jewish agencies “lousy, miserable, corrupt organizations”; he said contributors were “just plain stupid,” for giving them money. “They spend $150 million for about 18 anti-Semitic incidents per year,” he said.
As a result, I’ve gotten several inquiries asking me which names he named. So here goes:
He called the Jewish philanthropic world, in general, “miserable, archaic and unattractive.” Of Jewish groups, he said “So many of them do so little.”
He called the Jewish Agency “a lousy, corrupt agency.”
He belittled the Federation system, saying that there was no reason that Jews should funnel their philanthropic dollars through an outdated institution.
As he has in the past, Steinhardt hammered at the “Jewish defense” organizations. He said that there was no reason to have the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Simon Wiesenthal Center. They’re the ones, he said, who spend the $150 million.
I wrote a lengthy profile of Steinhardt in 2004 (which seems to have disappeared from LoHud) and he said the same stuff. He told me then: “It’s a bloody shame. In a perfect world, we would have the luxury of studying the nuances of anti-Semitism. We don’t have the luxury to waste this money.”
At the time, I talked to David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee, who responded:
I admire people who put their money where their mouth is, and Michael Steinhardt has done very important things for the Jewish community, no question. At the same time, he has blind spots and refuses to acknowledge them. Remove the AJC from the equation and who will stand with the Argentine Jewish community? Who will stand with the French Jewish community as it faces anti-Semitic attacks? Who will defend Israel? Who will engage a rapidly changing America with a dwindling Jewish population? Michael Steinhardt needs to listen to the views of others who are no less committed to Jewish well-being than he.
Steinhardt disagreed then. Apparently, he still does.