(JTA) — The saga of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling took yet another bizarre turn when he went on national television this week and started touting the virtues of Jewish mutual aid organizations.
In a CNN interview that aired Monday night, Sterling’s attempt to apologize for the inflammatory racial remarks that may cost him his team veered into a tirade against Magic Johnson. The Jewish tycoon argued that the basketball legend, who has a charitable foundation that addresses HIV/AIDS issues, is insufficiently philanthropic, and Sterling invoked the tradition of Jewish free loan associations to make his point.
“What does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything. The Jewish people have a company, and it’s for people who want to borrow money at no interest,” Sterling told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “They want to give them a fishing pole. We want to help people. If they don’t have the money, we’ll loan it to you. You don’t have interest. One day you’ll pay us back.”
Earlier in the interview, during another attack on Johnson, Sterling said, “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African-Americans – maybe I’ll get in trouble again – they don’t want to help anybody.”
What Sterling was describing – and thrusting rather uncomfortably into the media glare – is a more than century-old communal institution that has helped both Jews and non-Jews with interest-free loans.
His words were not exactly welcome news to the professionals who run these organizations.
“I’m sorry that he mentioned us,” said Cindy Rogoway, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Francisco and vice president of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. “I just think he’s a disgrace to himself.”
Sterling’s remarks, however, do shed light on what has been a quiet corner of the Jewish charitable world.
Jewish free loan societies grew out of the landsmanschaften, or mutual benefit societies, organized by Jews from Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and transported to America when they immigrated.
Drawing on the biblical admonition not to charge interest to fellow Jews, the interest-free loan societies became a key financial resource for immigrants, providing funds for housing and education, as well as capital for small business expenses such as pushcarts and sewing machines.
“One of the main reasons that Hebrew free loan societies became so popular in the United States is that many immigrant Jews used these as access to capital for business,” said Shelly Tenenbaum, a professor of sociology at Clark University and the author of “A Credit to Their Community: Jewish Loan Societies in the United States.” “Business was a very important vehicle for Jewish immigrant mobility.”