This week, in an act of vicious anti-Semitism, Edwin O. Merwin Jr. and James S. Ulmer, chairmen of the Bamberg County and Orangeburg County, South Carolina, Republican parties, respectively, co-authored an op-ed in which they accused Jews of taking good care of their money. “Jews who are wealthy,” they wrote, “got that way not by watching dollars but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves.” Then they compounded the offense by suggesting that South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint shares those Hebraic virtues. Local Democrats quickly called their statement “disgusting” and “unconscionable,” and demanded that they resign. Now Merwin and Ulmer are apologizing like their political lives depend on it, which, of course, they do.
Suggesting that Jews have prospered by cheating gentiles would indeed be anti-Semitic. But suggesting that Jews have disproportionately prospered because they’re honest and frugal, which is what Merwin and Ulmer suggested, is the exact opposite.
I share the outrage at this hate crime. In fact, in an act of solidarity, I too hereby apologize. For my entire life, at bar mitzvahs, around Shabbat tables, even while I was supposed to be davening in shul, I too have accused Jews of possessing good economic habits and prospering as a result. (Though, in my defense, I have never gone so far as to suggest that those good habits were shared by the GOP.) Speaking to Jewish audiences, I have repeatedly defamed my people by recounting Milton Himmelfarb’s famous line that “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” The fact that my fellow Jews invariably reacted to this comment with laughter rather than calls to the Anti-Defamation League is a sign, I suppose, of how widely this cancer extends. Some listeners, I am duty-bound to report, even reprimanded me for suggesting that Jews only earn as much as Episcopalians when, in fact, they insisted, we surely earn more.
Given how widespread this form of anti-Semitism has become, even within the Jewish community itself, it is worth asking: What, exactly, did Merwin and Ulmer do wrong? They spread ancient and vicious stereotypes about Jews, of course. But where is the ancient and vicious stereotype? If it’s anti-Semitic to say that Jews have disproportionately prospered in the United States, then let’s condemn Nathan Glazer, Himmelfarb, and all the other sociologists who have studied the question. That Jews have disproportionately prospered in the United States happens to be manifestly true, which raises the question of why. Suggesting that they have done so by cheating gentiles—by prioritizing money over integrity, beauty, or patriotism—would indeed be anti-Semitic. That charge has gotten a lot of Jews killed over the millennia. But suggesting that Jews have disproportionately prospered because they’re honest and frugal, which is what Merwin and Ulmer suggested, is the exact opposite. It is, in fact, the most benign explanation for Jewish economic success. Which is why Jews generally favor it themselves.
I know the objection: It’s one thing for Jews to praise Jews, another for those outside the club to talk about this. But why, exactly? The reason it’s OK for Jews to say that Jews are financially savvy, presumably, is because Jews harbor no ill-intent. But there’s no reason to suspect that Merwin and Ulmer harbor any ill-intent either. As far as I know, neither has any history of hostility to Jews. Indeed, they hail from a Republican Party which, although not always kindly disposed to gays, Muslims, illegal immigrants, and atheists, is practically overflowing with philo-Semitism (affection toward Jews). And Merwin and Ulmer’s own statement was self-evidently philo-Semitic. If they weren’t praising Jews for their financial acumen, then why were they comparing Jews to their beloved Republican senator, Jim DeMint?
Lurking behind controversies like this is the belief that we should assume ill-intent on the part of people who aren’t members of our club, and thus intimidate them into refraining from any generalizations whatsoever, even when those generalizations are meant as praise. For African-Americans, Native Americans, gays, or even women, perhaps—whose entire history in this country has been marked by structural bigotry—this cynicism, while regrettable, is understandable. To praise African Americans for being good at sports or music is indeed toxic given the harm that such stereotypes have done throughout American history. Thus, perhaps if Merwin and Ulmer were party bureaucrats in Latvia, I would be inclined to support muzzling their generalizations about Jews on the theory that we should always assume the worst. But to apply that logic in the United States is to deny the essence of the American Jewish experience, which is that state-sponsored anti-Semitism has been extremely rare. That history has earned American gentiles the assumption of goodwill. In a country that has treated Jews as well as this one, Jews should take pleasure in giving their fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is a professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.