The Wiz­ard of Lies: Bernard Mad­off and the Death of Trust

Diana B. Henriques
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

Diana B. Hen­riques, a finan­cial reporter for the New York Times, has writ­ten an inter­est­ing, but hard­ly defin­i­tive, account of the Bernard Mad­off Ponzi scheme which sur­faced in Decem­ber 2008. Among the ques­tions she was unable to answer were: when did Mad­off actu­al­ly begin his finan­cial chi­canery, pre­cise­ly how much mon­ey did his vic­tims lose, and were Madoff’s wife and two sons complicit. 

Hen­riques makes a good but nec­es­sar­i­ly ten­ta­tive case that, in fact, they were inno­cent. Madoff’s eldest son, Mark, was so shamed by the rev­e­la­tions con­cern­ing his father that he com­mit­ted sui­cide in Decem­ber, 2010, soon after agree­ing with his wife that she and her chil­dren should change their last name to Morgan. 

Mad­off was a swindler par excel­lence. He con­vinced many of the world’s most astute finan­cial advi­sors and insti­tu­tions that he was able, both in good times and bad, to make steady invest­ment gains of around ten per­cent per year. This is, of course, impos­si­ble. He also shrewd­ly appealed to the sta­tus striv­ings of the gullible rich by con­vinc­ing them that he did not accept every­one as investors, and those that he did should be grate­ful for being grant­ed entry into this exclu­sive club. 

The Mad­off scan­dal par­tic­u­lar­ly impact­ed Amer­i­can Jew­ry. Mad­off and most of his biggest investors were Jews, many of them mem­bers of the Palm Beach Coun­try Club, a pre­dom­i­nate­ly Jew­ish water­ing hole in Flori­da. Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions which had invest­ed with Mad­off were severe­ly affect­ed by the scan­dal. The Amer­i­can Jew­ish Con­gress had to close its doors, and the activ­i­ties of oth­er Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions had to be scaled back. These includ­ed the foun­da­tion estab­lished by Elie Wiesel. 

Abra­ham Fox­man, head of the Anti-Defama­tion League, feared the scan­dal had cre­at­ed a per­fect storm for the anti-Semi­tes.” In fact, it was an exam­ple of the dog that did not bark. There is no evi­dence that anti-Semi­tism sig­nif­i­cant­ly increased because of it, and, in any case, anti-Semi­tes did not need the exam­ple of Mad­off to con­firm their pre­con­cep­tion that Jews were mer­ce­nary and dis­hon­est. Thank­ful­ly, most Amer­i­cans believed otherwise.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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