Although Ernest Saunders’s (ne Shleyer) resignation from Guinness produced misleading talk in Britain about the “North London Jewish fraternity,” the Boesky scandal in the United States did have a direct connection to the Jewish community. Boesky was the Chairman of the fund campaign of the United Jewish Appeal—Federation of Jewish Philanthropies and a trustee of the Jewish Theological Seminary which named its magnificent library after him. Boesky was also closely associated with the Republican Party’s attempt, through the National Jewish Coalition, to win Jews to their cause.
The prominence of Jews in finance—especially when things go wrong—has been a worrying feature for communities stretching all the way back to the Golden Age of Spain. But should this he so in the United States today, a society of immigrants and minorities where antisemitism is at a low ebb?
Last autumn, Forbes Magazine published its annual list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. Edward S. Shapiro who is Professor of History at Seton Hall University has calculated that at least one hundred are Jews “of one sort or another”. Mr Boesky was listed well down at no. 332, having accrued only $200 million. There were a few Italians, one Black, no Hispanics—all of whom are more numerous than the Jews. Many of these wealthy Jews made their money in real estate whilst others are in retailing, publishing and entertainment. Despite the success of such Jewish enterprises, there is alarm in certain circles.
One of the present-day fears of American Jewish communal leaders is that too many young Jews are going into the professions and academia and not enough into business. From whom will Jewish philanthropies receive major gifts on which they depend and which they previously received from wealthy businessmen? (Ironically, this is the same Jewish establishment which downplayed Jewish economic achievement, rarely held up the businessman as role model and encouraged the “normalization” of the Jewish economic profile.) (Edward S. Shapiro, Judaism, Winter 1987).
This, of course, differs from the approach which many rabbis voiced in the wake of the Boesky affair. From all sides, Reform, Orthodox and Conservative, rabbis condemned Boesky not so much for his own misdemeanour but as a symbol of the values and aspirations which secure an increasing dominance in Jewish perspectives in the United States today. Boesky’s name has been removed from the JTS library but the unspoken implication is that an appropriate substitute is being sought to replace his name on the plaque.
Rabbi Wolfe Kelman of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly suggested that the trend was actually in the opposite direction—”in the past few years, the brightest young Jews have been going into investment banking instead of medicine and law”— and bemoaned the fact. Clearly the professional aspirations of young Jews is a subject which requires careful research; even so the debate on the conflict between practical considerations and ethical admonitions is a fundamental one and will undoubtedly deepen in the years to come.
Jewish Quarterly Summer 1987