Anti-Semitism and the economic crisis
Neil Malhotra and Yotam Margalit
THE MEDIA coverage of the Bernard Madoff scandal made extensive reference to
Madoff's ethnic and religious background and his prominent role in the
Jewish community. Because the scandal broke at a time of great public outcry
against financial institutions, some, including Brad Greenberg in The
Christian Science Monitor and Mark Seal in Vanity Fair, have reported on its
potential to generate a wave of anti-Semitism.
This concern makes good sense. In complex situations such as the current
financial crisis, where the vast majority of us lack the relevant expertise
and information, biases and prejudices may play a significant role in
shaping public attitudes. To evaluate just how large a role, we conducted a
study (part of a larger survey of 2,768 American adults) in which we
explored people's responses to the economic collapse and tried to determine
how anti-Semitic sentiments might relate to the ongoing financial crisis.
In order to assess explicit prejudice toward Jews, we directly asked
respondents "How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?" with
responses falling under five categories: a great deal, a lot, a moderate
amount, a little, not at all. Among non-Jewish respondents, a strikingly
high 24.6 percent of Americans blamed "the Jews" a moderate amount or more,
and 38.4 percent attributed at least some level of blame to the group.
Interestingly, Democrats were especially prone to blaming Jews: while 32
percent of Democrats accorded at least moderate blame, only 18.4 percent of
Republicans did so (a statistically significant difference). This difference
is somewhat surprising given the presumed higher degree of racial tolerance
among liberals and the fact that Jews are a central part of the Democratic
Party's electoral coalition. Are Democrats simply more likely to "blame
everything" thus casting doubt on whether the anti-Jewish attitudes are
real? Not at all. We also asked how much "individuals who took out loans and
mortgages they could not afford" were to blame on the same five-point scale.
In this case, Democrats were less likely than Republicans to assign moderate
or greater blame.
Educational attainment also correlates with variation in anti-Semitic
attitudes. Whereas only 18.3 percent of respondents with at least a bachelor's
degree blamed the Jews a moderate amount or more, 27.3 percent of those
lacking a 4-year degree did so. Again, we get a similar reversal when
examining the blameworthiness of individuals who took out loans they could
To assess more deeply whether the tendency among a subset of Americans to
blame the Jews is meaningful, we conducted a controlled experiment. The
question of interest is whether anti-Semitic sentiments affect people's
thinking about the preferred response to the economic crisis. For example if
people associate corruption on Wall Street with Jewish financiers such as
Madoff, what is the impact on their views about bailing out big business?
To address this question, we carried out a simple but powerful experiment.
Participants in a national survey were randomly assigned to one of three
groups. All three groups were prompted with a one-paragraph news report that
briefly described the Madoff scandal. The text was the same for all three
groups, except for two small differences: the first group was told that
Bernard Madoff is an "American investor" who contributed to "educational
charities," the second group was told that Madoff is a "Jewish-American
investor" who contributed to "educational charities," and the third group
was told that Madoff is an "American investor" who contributed to "Jewish
educational charities." In other words, group one did not receive any
information about Madoff's Jewish ties; group two was told explicitly that
Madoff is Jewish; and group three received implicit information about Madoff's
religious affiliation. In a follow-up question, participants were asked for
their views about providing government tax breaks to big business in order
to spur job creation.
The responses of the members of the three groups are revealing and
disturbing: individuals explicitly told that Madoff is a Jewish-American
were almost twice as likely to oppose the tax cuts to big business.
Opposition to tax cuts for big business jumped from 10 percent among members
of group one to over 17 percent among the members of group two, who were
explicitly told about Madoff's Jewish background. This difference is highly
significant in statistical terms. The implicit information contained in
Madoff's charitable history also produced an aversion to big business, but
to a lesser degree, with opposition to corporate tax breaks in this case
increasing to 14 percent.
This result is most likely not a coincidence. First, when we examine the
results of the experiment on Jewish voters, we find that respondents had the
exact same policy preferences in all three groups. In other words, the
information about Madoff being Jewish only had an effect among non-Jews.
Furthermore, we examined how the experimental groups answered questions on a
set of other proposals that did not deal with the business sector, but
rather with federal support for state governments or with tax breaks for the
middle class. On these other issues, no differences were observed in the way
members of the different groups responded, suggesting that anti-Semitic
sentiments may particularly affect views on wealthy institutions.
Other political research, too, suggests that U.S. public opinion is not
immune to anti-Semitic stereotypes. For example, Adam Berinsky and Tali
Mendelberg of MIT and Princeton, respectively, have found that exposure to
anti-Semitic stereotypes, even stereotypes that people outright reject
(e.g., that "Jews are shady"), can have an indirect effect of making other,
less patently offensive stereotypes of Jews (e.g., that "Jews are
politically liberal") more salient in people's minds. Indeed this is
consistent with the finding that information about Madoff being Jewish can
have an indirect, and perhaps even unconscious, effect on people's thinking
about the response to economic crisis.
The findings presented here are troubling. This is not the first instance of
an economic downturn sparking anti-Semitic sentiments. Financial scandals
are widely regarded as contributors to the rise of anti-Semitism in European
history. Famously, the Panama Scandal-often described as the biggest case of
monetary corruption of the nineteenth century-led to the downfall of
Clemenceau's government in France and involved bribes to many cabinet
members and hundreds of parliament members. Nonetheless, the public's fury
centered on two Jewish men who were in charge of distributing corporate
bribe money to the politicians. In her classic The Origins of
Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described the Panama Scandal as a key event
in the development of French anti-Semitism. The Stavisky Affair, in which
the Jewish financier Alexandre Stavisky embezzled millions of francs through
fraudulent municipal bonds, broke out 40 years later and had a similar
effect of nourishing the accusation that the Jews were behind the corruption
in financial dealings.
Crises often have the potential to stoke fears and resentment, and the
current economic collapse is likely no exception. Therefore, we must take
heed of prejudice and bigotry that have already started to sink roots in the
United States. The negative attitudes toward Jews reported here are not only
dangerous in and of themselves, but they may also have bearings on national
policy matters. The media ought to bear these findings in mind in their
coverage of financial scandals such as the Madoff scam. In most cases,
religious and ethnic affiliations have nothing to do with the subject at
hand, and such references, explicit or implied, ought, then, to be avoided.