(These "How to Think About" articles are intended to help you to think through issues in the news about which you may be undecided. We tell you how to think about it. What to think about it is up to you.)
Goldman Sachs, the huge and hugely profitable investment bank, has become a symbol of the financial excesses that helped to bring on the current recession. Because Goldman is thought of as a "Jewish" firm, and because it dominates the financial industry, criticism of Goldman, or of bankers generally, is often accused of being anti-Semitic. Commentators including Rush Limbaugh and Maureen Dowd have been so accused. When, if ever, are such accusations fair?
If you believe that Goldman has done nothing wrong, then any criticisms of Goldman or use of the firm as a symbol of the crisis are obviously unfair to Goldman. Furthermore, they would raise the legitimate question of "Why pick on Goldman?" and the possibility that anti-Semitism is part of the explanation. Similarly, if you believe that anything Goldman did wrong was done wrong by lots of others, the question of "Why pick on Goldman" arises, as does the same obvious answer.
Unfortunately for Goldman, it is not obviously blameless in the crisis. It was never so reckless that it risked going under. It borrowed only [sic] ten billion dollars from the Federal government, even that under duress, and paid it back as soon as possible, with interest. But the firm engaged in complex transactions that amounted to betting against its clients. Throughout the crisis, it enjoyed an implicit government guarantee on the grounds of being "too big to fail." The government bailed out one of Goldman's biggest borrowers--the insurance company AIG--saving Goldman billions in losses. And its profits and executive bonuses revealed, at the least, a lack of sensitivity at a time when millions are losing their jobs.
Even if Goldman did nothing in particular wrong, its status as one of only two remaining huge investment banks on Wall Street (the other is Morgan Stanley) might make it a legitimate focus, especially given its reputation, even before the crisis, for ruthlessness.
Is it legitimate to think of Goldman as a Jewish firm? Messrs. Goldman and Sachs, who founded the firm in the nineteenth century, were Jewish, as have been most of its partners since then, almost all of its leaders, and its current CEO (Lloyd Blankfein). It was founded because Jews were excluded from other firms. At this point Goldman is a publicly traded stock that anybody may own, and probably most of its employees are not Jewish. (Just as Jews are more than welcome at "gentile" firms like Morgan Stanley).
Is it legitimate to talk about Goldman as a Jewish firm? That's a different question. Many American Jews think "Jewish" when they hear the words "Goldman" and "Sachs," but still cringe whenever they hear the connection made in public, especially by non-Jews. Certainly any explicit suggestion that Goldman's alleged misbehavior and its Jewishness are related in any way is anti-Semitic.
But what about comments about Goldman Sachs that draw on the classic stereotype about Jews and money, without making any explicit connection to it being a Jewish firm? That depends on which stereotype you mean. There is the stereotype that Jews thrive and tend to predominate on Wall Street and in the financial professions generally. This is true, but so what? There is no mystery or conspiracy involved. Jews in Europe were excluded from many occupations for centuries. They couldn't own land and be farmers. Here in the United States they couldn't climb the executive ladder at big corporations. They were not welcome at investment banks run by Protestants. So they founded their own.
The stereotype that Jews gravitate toward, and often do well in, finance is so innocent that, ironically, bringing it up is suspicious. What does it have to do with anything?
Rush Limbaugh brought it up the other day. He said on his radio show that President Obama may be appealing to anti-Semitism with his recent populist criticism of banks and bankers. "There are a lot of people," Limbaugh said, "when you say banker, people think Jewish." He didn't mention Goldman Sachs. Abe Foxman, longtime head of the B'nai Brith Anti-Defamation League, declared that Limbaugh's remark was "offensive and inappropriate" and "borderline anti-Semitic." Limbaugh and his defenders protest that Limbaugh clearly was referring to other people, "people who have--what's the best way to say--a little prejudice about them," and not endorsing such views himself. And the transcript bears him out.
By Foxman's standard, even to mention that many bankers are Jewish is anti-Semitic (even though it's true), and attributing this view to others (while professing to be worried about it) is no excuse This may be over-the top. We live in a culture of umbrage, in which everybody seems to be taking offense at something somebody else says. Foxman is one of the nation's foremost umbragists.
However, Limbaugh's supporters make too much of the fact that, read literally, his remarks took the form of defending Jews against unfair maligning. There can be something creepy about "philo-semitism," or a professed special fondness for Jews. Even when it is sincere (as it may well be in Limbaugh's case), it rests on an acute feeling of "otherness" about Jews that makes many Jewish Americans rightly uncomfortable.
Sometimes the stereotype about Jews and money takes a harsher form: Jews are greedy, they lie, cheat and steal for money, they have undue influence with the government, which they cultivate and exploit ruthlessly, and so on. In recent weeks, many have said this sort of thing about Goldman Sachs, but with no reference to Jews. Are they all anti-Semites? No. It ought to be possible to criticize Goldman in the harshest possible terms--if you think that's warranted--without being tarred as an anti-Semite. (Many of Goldman's harshest critics, unsurprisingly, are Jewish. Jews can be anti-Semites, too.)
Then there is this oft-quoted passage at the beginning of a lengthy rant against Goldman Sachs by Matt Taibbi last July in Rolling Stone: "The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money." This sentence, many have charged, goes beyond stereotypes about Jews and money, touches other classic anti-Semitic themes about Jews as foreign or inhuman elements poisoning humanity and society, and--to some critics-- even seems to reference the notorious "blood libel" that Jews use the blood of Christian babies to make matzoh.
Taibbi claims to have been utterly blindsided by accusations that his article was anti-Semitic. He says he finds the idea "ludicrous." He denies any relation between his words and classic anti-Semitic stereotypes. His critics find this impossible to believe. Could such a sophisticated writer (the article skewers Goldman with great skill and style) actually not know about the stereotypes and ancient lies that this passage echoes, and could he actually be surprised that there would be people calling his article, fairly or otherwise, anti-semitic? It may be possible to call Goldman Sachs a bloodsucker without being an anti-Semite. But is it possible to call Goldman Sachs a bloodsucker and then be surprised when you're called an anti-Semite?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.