Essay

On Anti-Semitic Tropes and the Naming of the Federal Reserve Chair

By | September 10, 2013

(Getty/Bloomberg)

(Getty/Bloomberg)

In a scene from the 2010 film The Social Network, the actor who portrays Larry Summers brushes off the WASPy Winklevoss twins, who come to his office bearing grudges against Mark Zuckerberg. Expecting understanding—perhaps even compassion—from the then-president of Harvard, the two undergraduates meet, instead, with a dismissive and impatient Summers. “You don’t get special treatment,” he tells them.

Later, the real Larry Summers confirmed that the scene was fairly accurate. “I’ve read somewhere on occasion that people think I can be arrogant. … And if that is so, I probably was on that occasion,” he told an audience at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce luncheon, in 2011. Summers was put off, he explained, by the young men’s swagger. 

It’s instructive, now, to think back to this scene, as the White House is on the verge of announcing President Obama’s choice to lead the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve Board, a.k.a. the Chairman of the Fed. Replacing Ben Shalom Bernanke will likely be either Federal Reserve Vice Chair Janet Yellen or former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Donald Kohn is another nominee, and many economists have penciled in as their wish-list candidate Stanley Fischer, the former governor of the Bank of Israel and Ben Bernanke’s graduate school thesis advisor.

All of these men and women are members of an elite group of economists. Summers is an Obama administration insider. Yellen has spent more than thirteen years at the Federal Reserve and was president of the San Francisco Federal Reserve. That Summers, Yellen, and the other Fed chair frontrunners are also “members of the tribe” (or, of Jewish descent) is a detail rarely mentioned in the discussion of Obama’s nominees. 

That omission might seem glaring when we consider the long history of anti-Semitic ideas linking Jews, money, and power. And while there’s more than an echo of anti-Semitic tropes in the criticism that has been directed at Summers (he’s described as aggressive, brash, and having too much power), his Jewishness, and that of so many of the other figures in line for the post, has not been discussed much in the public sphere. It’s a sign that the United States has succeeded where other countries have not—in debarring anti-Semitism from the political conversation.

It’s not as if this were the first time Jews were prominent at the Fed. Considering the level of anti-Semitism in America during the 1930s, it’s more surprising that Eugene Meyer, who led under FDR as the fifth chairman of the Fed, was Jewish at a time when anti-Semitism was unavoidable among the ruling elite. (Jewish financier Bernard Baruch was part of FDR’s New Deal “brain trust,” but historians have found plentiful proof that the Roosevelt family disliked him and his Jewish social circles. Leaving a party given in Baruch’s honor, Eleanor Roosevelt expressed the disdain so common among her milieu for those deemed parvenus: “The Jew party was appalling. I never wish to hear money, jewels and sables mentioned again.”). After that, Richard Nixon was the next president to appoint a Jew (Arthur Burns) to the position. As recently published transcripts reveal, Nixon had mixed feelings about this. A weak economy and rising unemployment fueled his imagination regarding Jewish conspiracies. Characteristic of Nixon’s illusions on the topic were his comments to advisor Charles Colson: “There’s a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this, working with people like [Fed Chairman] Burns and the rest. And they only talk to Jews.”

Nixon’s fears about Jewish control were neither new nor unique. Witness the mid-nineteenth century European debate over “the Jewish Question” (or Jews’ national status as a minority group). As historian David Nirenberg has argued, this conversation became an arena in which to criticize Jewishness as an identity that inculcated habits of self-interest and acquisition, rendering Jews unworthy of equal citizen rights. In fact, those looking to classical Jewish texts would have found that Judaism was a tradition that expressed scrupulous concern for honest dealings in business and economic transactions. In rabbinic Judaism, we also find the term for respectful and refined behavior, derech eretz, or “the way of the land.” “Derech eretz comes before Torah,” an important rabbinic commentary explains, teaching that before one can personify the Torah’s goodness, one has to be a decent human being, a mensch. One of the hallmarks of prejudice, however, has long been its detachment from reality. Far more than expressing truth about its target, prejudice tells us much more about the prejudiced. To the Christian culture of Europe, Judaism was about moneymaking, opponents of Jewish emancipation asserted, citing the Jewish role of economic middleman as their evidence.

Did this mean that Jews had to convert in order to free themselves of the God of money? Karl Marx didn’t think so, and his contribution to this discussion (his 1844 “On the Jewish Question”) argued that if Jews had become enslaved to capitalism, so too had everyone else. “Judaism,” as defined by Christian nineteenth century European culture, was not a confessional faith, but an orientation in which God was money. It was an identity that could be constructed by any individual, regardless of whether he was born to Jewish parents or not. Into this conversation Marx’s comments were telling: he was not defending Judaism as a religion, but using the materialistic attributes that Christians associated with Judaism in order to prove how universally self-interest and money were held as first principles. Jews were not so special; everyone had become disenchanted with the world.

Today, one needn’t look too far online to find contemporary echoes of this anti-Semitic trope about Judaism and money. Yet, the fact that Jewishness has not been anywhere near center-stage in discussions about the Federal Reserve Chair nomination is noteworthy. A few years ago, when Justice Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, legal scholar Noah Feldman found that the absence of discussion around nominees’ religion was “cause for celebration.”

Celebratory lights are dimmed slightly in this case when we notice how the identity politics conversation has shifted from religion to gender. Summers’s brash, pushy, competitiveness (sound familiar?) has been transposed from a Jewish to a male type, and it is frequently contrasted with Yellen’s “softer” demeanor, which has led some to question whether she can get the job done as effectively.

The twist in this transposition is that the values have been reversed. Despite the long tradition of American elites’ viewing Jewish financiers as an external threat, as in the work of William Dean Howells and Edith Wharton, the Jewish aggressiveness that had once been a flaw—an unwelcome character type in opposition to gentlemanly, WASP behavior—currently is seen as triumphant. Summers’ acerbity is cited as a drawback to his candidacy, but almost as frequently it is matched by assertions of his brilliance, and both characteristics are part of a ying-yang relationship.

The value of having so many Jewish actors in this drama (we can add one more: Jack Lew, the U.S. Secretary of Treasury), is that it becomes apparent, to anyone still harboring doubts, that Jews are not the sole owners of these stereoyptically “Jewish” traits and that not all of the Jews involved show even a hint of them. 

Summers’s likely triumph (and even if he is not appointed Fed chair, no one can dispute his remarkable career success) says far less about Jews than it does about American culture and politics. A slew of historical taboos and “gentleman’s agreements” were broken in order for Yellen and Summers to become the frontrunners for Fed Chair. This social inclusion is for the good. Yet, the style of leadership that Summers embodies is another matter. It doesn’t tell us much about Jewishness, but it is still something worth debating.

Rachel Gordan is the Ray D. Wolfe Fellow at the University of Toronto.

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