Myriad hypotheses have been floated already about what compelled Goldman Sachs executive director Greg Smith to write the New York Times op-ed that shot around the globe this week.
Smith’s broadside against Goldman’s “toxic and destructive” culture has been depicted as the ranting of a disgruntled employee, the “objection of the underclass of younger bankers and traders stymied by a lack of career mobility” and a sure sign of an impending midlife crisis.
But what if Smith, a South African Jew, was simply continuing a South African Jewish tradition of speaking truth to power?
Tony Karon, of Time magazine, has spent years as an outspoken critic of Israeli policy. Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s controversial book on Israel’s military cooperation with apartheid-era South Africa caused a few red faces in Jerusalem in 2010. Next week, as he gins up publicity for the release of his book, Peter Beinart will launch another attack on the American-Jewish establishment for fueling disillusionment with Israel among young, Jewish liberals.
Though their motivations are different, each of these post-apartheid Jews seems to have been driven by an ethical impulse and a desire for social justice. (One of Smith’s friends testified to Smith’s “high moral fiber”, another called him a “very ethical, idealistic guy”)
Could such qualities stem, in part, from being raised in apartheid-era South Africa, as Karon was, or by apartheid-era parents, as Polakow-Suransky and Beinart were?
“If you are a South African Jew, you come from a situation where you are the beneficiary of” an evil system, Karon told the Forward.
Although apartheid-era South Africa was suffused with anti-Semitism, Karon said prejudices were mostly suppressed in favor of fostering a close relationship with Israel. Jews were victimized, but compared to black South Africans they led a life of privilege.
Karon said most South African Jews were happy to maintain that status quo. But a small, yet vocal minority felt compelled to act.
When Nelson Mandela went on trial during the early 1960s, almost all of the white defendants alongside him — including Lionel Bernstein, James Cantor and Dennis Goldberg — were Jewish, Karon said. They and others like them had the passion and ethical drive to sacrifice their privileged position for a higher calling, Karon added.
Almost the same could be said of Smith’s decision to so publicly quit Goldman while lamenting the “decline in the firm’s moral fiber.” (Though the same too, could be said of Darth Vader’s principled decision to quit the Death Star.)
Of course, correlation does not equal causality. You can only push such a theory so far. “It’s definitely part of the make up,” Karon said, “but I wouldn’t turn it into a thesis or a trend.”