I wrote the following, to sum up some of my experiences today, and to clarify some very deep misconceptions about the role of Jews and rabbis in this scandal.
Incidentally, the single most helpful thing I have read to explain the scandal is the Department of Justice press release, here: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/2009/07/doj-press-release-on-nj-corruption-and-money-laundering-arrests.php.
What do the rabbis have to do with the mayors?
What you need to know about the Jewish side of the New Jersey corruption scandal
What do the rabbis have to do with the mayors?
A nervous caller to my office this morning was certainly wondering.
"Rabbi Scheinberg? Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"Because my neighbor just told me that the mayor and the rabbi in Hoboken were arrested! I said, 'no, not Rabbi Rob, there's no way!' But she said, 'You know, sometimes it's the people who seem most trustworthy are the ones who you have to watch out for..."
Thus began my day this morning. Over the course of the day, I had more conversations with people who had read the headlines, including the words "Hoboken" and "rabbis' and "arrested," and were concerned that perhaps I, or the synagogue, were involved in the corruption scandal.
Later in the day, as I walked around Hoboken and children waved to me and said, "Hi, Rabbi," or when I visited someone in the hospital and introduced myself as the patient's rabbi, I got a sense that, to those who overheard the conversations, the title commanded less respect than yesterday, and that the word "rabbi" had been dragged through the mud today. And it made me furious at those rabbis who ostensibly share my religion but seem to overlook the Jewish ethical tradition, just as I am furious at the corrupt politicians. The traditional term for these religious leaders is "mechalelei ha-shem" - "those who desecrate God's name."
It was fascinating to see the initial news reports that sought to make sense of this peculiar story that included both corrupt politicians and corrupt rabbis. In those early hours, reporters and commentators struggled to come up with a coherent narrative that linked corruption with money-laundering and that linked the misconduct of the politicians with the misconduct of the rabbis, and that somehow linked it all to that tantalizing news about trafficking in human body parts.
And it was disheartening to see how the story motivated many on-line anti-Semites to make blanket condemnations of rabbis and Jews in general as responsible for the woes of Hudson County, New Jersey, and the United States. (Just look at the comments sections of nj.com for plenty of examples.)
By mid-day, people who were following the news reports closely realized that there were really two almost completely separate stories here: the rabbis/money-laundering story, and the politicians/corruption story.
What did these two stories have in common? Simply that it was the same cooperating witness, Solomon Dwek, who assisted the FBI in all these investigations. He is a member of the Syrian Orthodox Jewish community on the New Jersey Shore. In the course of being prosecuted for his own financial misconduct, he chose to become a cooperating witness, presumably to reduce his own punishment. He then gave the FBI access to whomever he could. He started by giving them access to the institutions and leaders of the Syrian Jewish community in Deal and Brooklyn, exposing the elaborate money-laundering scheme. Then, he started to approach various mayors and political leaders, posing as a developer and dangling bribes in exchange for preferential treatment in the zoning process.
So what do the rabbis and the New Jersey mayors have in common? Almost nothing, except that their arrests happened to take place on the same day, and the same witness was involved.
It is of course terribly damaging and embarrassing to the Jewish community that there were so many observant Jews, including at least five rabbis, apparently involved in financial misconduct. But headlines like "Mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus, and several rabbis arrested in corruption probe" make it appear that rabbis are the big players in corruption in New Jersey, when that is obviously not the case. And as the witness in the case was an Orthodox Jew from the Syrian community, it is not surprising that that's the first community to which he led the FBI. Had he been from a different ethnic or religious group, it could have been a different group in the headlines.
But for those who catch just snippets of the radio news bulletins, or those who quickly scan the newspaper headlines, all these distinctions will sadly mean nothing. The mayors and the rabbis will always be linked in their minds, and the story will be seen through the lens of whatever stereotypes about Jews and rabbis they already had.
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