Whenever, and I mean, whenever, a name appears in the media of a person who’s done something significant or especially heinous, I ask the question. I know: it’s going to sound a bit chauvinistic, self-involved, and defensive. But I quietly say, “Is this person Jewish?”
You would be utterly justified to pose the question: “What difference does it make whether or not they’re Jewish? Does it change the facts? Does it mitigate or glorify the particular behavior mentioned in the story?” And you’d be correct to say this. We are all people, given to heroism, cowardice, altruism, and supreme selfishness. Isn’t our ethnic or religious background secondary to our identity as human beings?
I would say yes. Why magnify the differences between people when we share so much in common? But… for me, the ‘are they Jewish’ factor looms large. Because when push comes to shove, I take a Jewish person’s behavior personally. It reflects on the rest of the Jewish community and me. I am much more deeply connected to them simply because we’re both Jewish and historically linked in good times and bad.
For much of American Jewish history, the fear that a Jewish person’s behavior will be bad for the Jews is largely unfounded. A striking example of this is the Ponzi schemer, Bernie Madoff, who rapaciously stole millions and millions of dollars from Jews and people who were not Jewish. His crimes fit so neatly into the stereotype of Jews and money. I was convinced there would be a calamitous backlash. But there was not.
Or how about when Donald Sterling, the former owner of the LA Clippers, was banned for life and had to pay out a lot of money in 2014 for making various lewd, inappropriate, and racist comments? He was horrible. Again I was convinced we would all be tarred. Of course, there was Internet buzz in the murky zones, but there was no rise in antisemitism, no ‘you people are all alike’ accusation.
And now, the owner of the Phoenix Suns(NBA) and the Phoenix Mercury (WNBA), Robert Sarver, is the latest member of the tribe who’s been outed and punished for despicable behavior. In this case, I do not fear a backlash. Instead, I am feeling, most of all, a deep sense of shame. This is not how we Jews behave. We don’t use the n-word. We don’t make nasty comments about women’s anatomy or where they belong. We don’t use wealth and power as leverage to treat people with contempt.
Only – sadly – sometimes we do. Our communal response must be that degrading another human being is defaming God every time in every place. Sarver’s conduct is a sacrilege.
Is it right or fair to hold Jews to a higher standard? Yes. Absolutely. Our tradition is based on empathy. We are commanded to care for the powerless. We are taught in the very opening of Genesis that we are all created in God’s image. It’s never acceptable – EVER – to diminish someone else in order to feel superior. That’s a lesson we learn and teach as fundamental and non-negotiable. We must expect more from ourselves. If not, why bother raising these values? L’dor va’dor, from generation to generation, is not a slogan; it’s our mission.