Magazine article The New Yorker

Thief or Crook?

Magazine article The New Yorker

Thief or Crook?

Article excerpt

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. …

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