The word in Yiddish is shanda.
Peter Beinart didn’t use that word, but when he flayed Jared Kushner in The Forward yesterday, he was deploying a venerable, haimish trope ordinarily applied to bad actors that bring the Jewish people into disrepute. I have a problem with that.
Beinart begins by flaunting his own Jewish credentials, describing his reading of Jewish texts and nodding to the wisdom of the sages: Beinart is just another Jew, a member of the mishpucha, showing tough love to a transgressor. Then he recites the Kushner family’s well-known heritage of persecution and contends that “the challenge for Jared Kushner, and everyone in our extraordinarily privileged generation, is to remember our ancestors’ suffering and honor their memories by defending the weak, vulnerable and oppressed today.”
If by “privileged generation” he means “American Jews,” then we are all, by definition, required to side with the oppressed. Just about all of us are descendants of persons fleeing persecution, after all. Then Beinart makes an implicit, logical leap that Jews escaping persecution in the first half of the 20th Century are the equivalent of Syrian refugees and persons from majority-Muslim nations barred from this country by Donald Trump’s executive order. By conflating the two, Beinart comes to a conclusion: Trump’s son-in-law, Kushner, has failed to live up to this purported ethical standard, and in the process has betrayed not only his heritage and community but the branch of the Jewish religion that “produced” him.
Beinart asks how this “Modern Orthodox golden boy” could invite members of Trump’s cabinet to Shabbat dinner “only hours after his father-in-law’s executive order banning refugees from entering the United States? How could he pose in a tuxedo alongside his wife Ivanka on Saturday night as that executive order wreaked havoc on innocent people’s lives simply because they hailed from the wrong countries?”
Well, perhaps Kushner doesn’t believe he was doing anything wrong. Perhaps he doesn’t believe that he was dishonoring his ancestors. He might even feel that he is honoring them. Perhaps he agrees with the executive order. He might even have a different view of his religious teachings. Who knows. What has his religion got to do with it, anyway?
Apparently, a lot.
Beinart maintains that Kushner’s “failure”—he also refers to it as a “moral failure”—is “not his problem alone. It should chill every modern Orthodox educator, rabbi, and parent in the United States. How could the modern Orthodox community, a community that prides itself on instilling Jewish knowledge and ideals in its children, have failed so profoundly?” By this line of thinking, Kushner is a defective product of a theological production line, and rabbis are not leaders of flocks but factory managers, or perhaps cult leaders engaged in a form of mind-control. Beinart is only half-joking, I imagine, when he suggests that the yeshiva that Kushner attended “should conduct the kind of after-action report that the military conducts when its operations go awry.” He goes on to suggest that “every synagogue where Kushner prayed regularly should ask itself whether it bears some of the blame for having failed to instill in him the obligations of Jewish memory. Even if it is too late to influence Kushner, Modern Orthodox leaders still can work to ensure that they do not produce more like him in the years to come.”
One can argue that there isn’t the slightest parallel between Nazi persecution of Jews and the troubles besetting Syrian refugees today. Or one can believe the parallels are exact. One can even argue that Judaism requires us to oppose not just Trump’s refugee policies but everything about the man. That’s not what concerns me.
Let’s assume for a moment that the refugee order is immoral and illegal—which happens to be my opinion—and go on to assume that Kushner is complicit in it, that he has a moral obligation to shun his father-in-law, and that his failure to do so is reprehensible. Let’s assume all that. What bothers me is the contention that the moral failings of this one Jew reflect upon the faith in which he was raised. That argument is reminiscent of the trope that Islam—not “radical Islam” but just run-of-the-mill practice of the religion—churns out terrorists because of the horrid teachings of imams and the Quran. Surely Beinart doesn’t embrace that theory. Yet he seems to believe that Jews are empty vessels, incapable of independent thought, acting at the direction of clerics who “produced” them.
When did anyone ever argue that Catholicism “produced” members of the Mafia—quite a few of whom were church-going, religious Catholics? I’ve written about organized crime for years and never encountered anyone suggesting that with a straight face. Yet the public record is filled with examples of observant-Catholic Mafiosi, among them “Jack the Dandy” Parisi, a notorious waterfront mobster who told his jailers at Sing-Sing that he was a regular parishioner at his local church. He went on to murder a slew of people for Murder Incorporated. Shall we blame the Catholic Church? Trump has claimed that he has deep religious beliefs and that the Bible is his “favorite book.” So why isn’t the Presbyterian religion being held to account for his behavior? Why the lack of garment-rending angst among Presbyterians?
If we’re going to hold Judaism and its various branches to account for what Jews do, there’s plenty of blame to send in that direction.
Anyone who has covered organized and white collar crime as long as I have knows that there are scads of Orthodox Jewish criminals out there, now and throughout history. Quite recently, a federal indictment alleged that a ring of ultra-Orthodox Jews engaged in massive voter fraud—yep, real, live voter fraud—in Sullivan County, New York. One of the most notorious white-collar criminals of recent years is Sholam Weiss (no relation), now serving an 845-year prison term, who was raised as a Hassidic Jew. Shall we hold the Hassidic community responsible for Weiss or the alleged voter fraud scheme? Anti-Semites certainly are. Just take a look at a slew of Facebook pages when the Sullivan County indictment was announced.
Similarly, anti-Semites feast on tales of Murder Incorporated, which included in its ranks Jewish killers like Dandy Jack’s colleague Samuel “Red” Levine, who supposedly was a religious Jew. No one would argue that Levine, Weiss, 1930s gang boss “Lepke” Buchalter, Meyer Lansky, the Syrian Jewish scamster “Crazy Eddie” Antar, or an array of other shanda over the years were somehow “produced” by their religion.
Except anti-Semites. That’s because anti-Semites hold Jews to a different standard than other people. It’s what anti-Semites do. Non-anti-Semites should be wary of doing the same thing, lest they be—well, shanda seems like the right word.
Related: Jared Kushner, Shanda