Jewish community now grappling with money-laundering headlines

Days after the news broke of the Syrian Jewish community’s alleged involvement in the New Jersey Corruption Sweep to end New Jersey Corruption Sweeps (for now), Jewish voices are addressing the ugliness of it all.

On Aish.com, an Orthodox site, Rabbi Yitz Greenman writes about the power of greed. He writes, in part:

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We live in America and the law of the land states that one is innocent until proven guilty. Let us not assume guilt. But, if in the unfortunate event that the news turns out to be true and some of these people are proven guilty, many will ask: How can this be?

Not to sound callous, jaded, crude or insensitive, but the answer to me is that such a situation is not so difficult to imagine. It’s all a function of greed and jealousy. In fact, maybe we should ask the question differently: How come it’s such a rarity? Why doesn’t this happen more often?

We live in a very materialistic society, comprised of have and have-nots. No matter what a person has in our day and age, it is literally impossible for someone to “have it all.” Coupled with the most dazzling ads that Madison Avenue inundates us with daily, everyone is trained from early childhood to see themselves as “have-nots.” I don’t have this, that and the other thing. This creates an environment of lack and dependency on things.

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The Rabbinical  Council of America, which represents Orthodox rabbis, released this statement today:

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The Rabbinical Council of America expresses its deep dismay over the recent charges brought by the United States Attorney General against numerous individuals, including several prominent rabbis. We are appalled at the allegations which, if true, violate the letter and the spirit of Jewish law, decency, good citizenship, and the norms of our great society.

Jewish Law has always emphasized the importance of observing and respecting the laws of the land. They are essential for our shared wellbeing. No individual stands above the law. If a citizen violates the law then he must be subject to the penalties imposed by the legal system of our great country. Nonetheless, we must all keep in mind that those accused are entitled to a presumption of innocence and due process.

Members of the Syrian Orthodox Community have been particularly affected by these allegations, and the stereotypes that have arisen as a result in recent days.The RCA wishes to extend its support to the Syrian Jewish community and its rabbis. They are an honorable, pious, and charitable community, led by many distinguished rabbis. The alleged misdeeds of the few should not be used against the innocent many. We join with our brethren in the Syrian community and with our fellow Jews in praying that the community find the strength to weather this storm, and that they restore themselves to function as the great community they have always been.

We are committed as rabbinic leaders for ourselves and our communities to serve as positive role models for all of our fellow Americans. We pledge to do our best in the days ahead so that the entire Jewish community can continue to be a model for all of our fellow Americans as law-abiding and ethically responsible citizens, striving to live in accordance with the highest religious and civic standards of justice and morality.

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And the Jewish Week has extensive coverage of the whole affair, including anger in the Orthodox community at the Jewish informant whose cooperation was key to authorities bringing down the alleged money-laundering scheme.

Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network and an Orthodox Jew, writes a column in which he offers harsh criticisms of some within his own community: “Is it possible that there is something in the Orthodox community in general and the haredi community in particular that creates fertile ground for this type of fraud? I’ve too often witnessed, here and in Israel, a perverse notion that we few who feel bound by the laws of God are free to flout the laws of man. That the seriousness with which we hold halacha (Jewish law) forces us to view state law as trite, flawed — unimportant at best, a nuisance at worst.”

Harsh.

And Jewish Week boss Gary Rosenblatt writes about what the news means for relations within the Jewish world. He says, in part:

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Many Orthodox Jews refuse to acknowledge that their less observant brethren can be serious about their religious and spiritual lives, and see them more as a threat to continuity than as sharing the path to a Jewish future. Better not to associate with them, some rabbis say, for fear of appearing to legitimize their beliefs. And there is a distinct element of schadenfreude among Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox Jews on reading of financial and sexual abuses within the haredi community, a sense of satisfaction in seeing those alleged holier-than-thou Jews brought low, shown to be as flawed as the rest of us.

But there is plenty of guilt to go around, and the front-page photos of bearded rabbis being led away in handcuffs represents a chillul HaShem, a desecration of God’s name, for us all.

Everywhere you look: pictures of rabbis in handcuffs

All the media coverage of the New Jersey corruption sweep — featuring black-hatted, bearded rabbis — is bound to be making a lot of people uncomfortable today.

It’s a pretty ugly affair, for the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn and New Jersey and the fabled institution of crooked Jersey pols (all that’s missing is Tony Soprano in cuffs).

Five rabbis — including the national Syrian-Jewish community’s top rebbe — are accused of laundering money, in part through Jewish charities. Yuck.

I’m sure that many are on the lookout today for anti-Semitic reactions and stereotypes — and there are plenty of nasty comments on several websites I’ve perused.

Media coverage will also be dissected for Jewish cliches.

Right off the bat, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a respected commentator on many religious and cultural issues, released a statement taking the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s website to task for bordering on “Jew-baiting.” He thought that yesterday’s initial coverage of the arrests was eager to play up the involvement of Jews and rabbis, but offered few specifics about who is accused of doing what.

Hirschfield writes:

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When a headline reads, “NJ officials, NY 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…”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 paper harbors deep resentment against Jews who they see as over-privileged, stand-offish people who operate as a law unto themselves? Is this the 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?

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Hirschfield doesn’t seem to take into account that the early news reports were based on what was likely the only information available. The Star-Ledger’s Web reports — and everyone else’s — have been regularly updated as more info was released.

This morning, there seems to be plenty of specifics about who is accused of doing what.

As far as the Syrian Jewish community goes, from what I’ve read, it may well qualify as an “enclave.” It is certainly a “tight-knit” community. Is it a “wealthy” community? I don’t know, but it may be.

I don’t see those three terms as necessarily pointing to a “deep resentment” against Syrian Jews by the editors and reporters of the Star-Ledger. How were they supposed to be describe the Syrian Jewish community?

Hirschfield concluded his statement with this:

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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.

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The corruption sweep is a huge story. If the allegations turn out to be true — certainly not a given — it would be a deep, long-term black eye for the Syrian-Jewish community. I wonder how many members of the community are worried about media coverage today.