Consider these findings from a recent research survey on Bernie Madoff: Jews are two-and-a-half times more likely than non-Jews to correctly answer the question: "What is Madoff's religion?" Jewish respondents are seven-and-a-half times more likely than non-Jewish respondents to believe that the con man's religion is significant. And Jews are more likely than their non-Jewish counterparts to agree with the statement that "people might think less of Jews because Madoff is a Jew."
You get the picture. Jews are sensitive to the fact that they share a religious identity with modern history's most notorious fraudster. But perhaps you're not surprised by these findings. After all, we know it doesn't feel so hot when a Jew knowingly cheats thousands of people and institutions out of their money. We don't need a survey to tell us so when we feel it in our kishkes.
So where's the news here?
Well, consider this: This survey didn't take stock of the views of an adult population. Rather, it gauged the opinions of college students. And these students — contrary to fulfilling the stereotype of disengaged Jewish youth — expressed outright concern and, in many cases, loathing at what Madoff did. Just like the rest of us.
This past March, I conducted a survey as part of my doctoral research on news coverage of scandal. I sent the survey to every student who self-identifies as Jewish at a mid-sized northeastern university (academic ethical guidelines prevent me from naming the university). I heard back from 119 of them.
I also sent the survey to a sample of non-Jewish students on the same campus. I heard back from 152 of them. This survey represents, as far as I can tell, the first attempt to quantify how a college-aged population thinks about Madoff. And I found a clear difference in the way Jewish and non-Jewish students felt about this Ponzi schemer.
Take this example: One in four non-Jews polled agreed that Madoff's crimes reflect badly on Jews. In contrast, one in two Jewish students felt the same way. And while a little more than half of Jewish respondents and a little less than half of non-Jewish respondents correctly identified Madoff in an unmarked photograph of him, Jewish students were more likely to respond negatively when asked what they feel about him.
"I'm jewish [sic] so Im [sic] hoping he doesn't start to once again give jews [sic] a bad name and feed stereotypes," wrote one student." Wrote another: "He is jewish [sic] and so am I and this is the biggest outrage and theft is [sic] years and it happened in my community. He also stole from jewish [sic] organizations. He also went to camp with my mom."
A majority of these Jewish students ranked Judaism as important to their identity, even though 63 percent of them eat pork. Of the Jewish respondents, more than 90 percent have had a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, and a little less than half have visited Israel.
The results of this survey indicate the complexity of ethnic identification among a group of Jewish young adults. Among these survey respondents, there's no correlation between having a Bar or Bat Mitzvah and keeping kosher.
At the same time, a majority of Jewish respondents view Judaism as significant to their personal identity. Indeed, they feel great shame that Madoff is Jewish. Social psychology instructs us that feelings of shame and its foil — pride — stem from feelings of group attachment.
Perhaps this survey is an indication that religious attachment transcends religious observance. After all, for this group of young Jews, religious attachment is something that one feels, not necessarily what one does. We know that you don't have to be an observant Jew to feel the attachment of Judaism and identify strongly as a Jew. Most adults who identify as Jewish don't keep kosher. When we measure a person's adherence to the Jewish religion without taking into account emotional ties (both positive and negative), we're not providing a full picture of religious attachment.
The emotional attachment to Judaism is present among this sample group. The shame that Madoff made them feel proves it. Just like for the rest of us.
Hinda Mandell, a doctoral candidate in mass communications at Syracuse University, studies the role of scandal in society. She has also reported on Bernard Madoff for The Boston Globe.