Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

As A Jew, I Cringed Over Jeffrey Epstein – And Played Into The Anti-Semites’ Hands.

When I heard that Jeffrey Epstein had been arrested on sex-trafficking charges, I cringed. I’m sure I was not the only Jewish person who did, or whose first thought was,Why does this sorry excuse for a human have to be Jewish? And I probably also wasn’t the only Jewish person whose second thought was, Given that he is Jewish, why does he have to have such a Jewish-sounding name?

It’s a natural response to a people who have been hounded by Anti-Semites, to cringe when one of our own behaves in such a horrifying manner. And of course, it didn’t take long for the anti-Semites to crawl out of their holes with the reactions that prompted mine.

It may be natural to fear the wrongdoing of our own not just for its moral ugliness but for the attacks against the rest of us that such wrongdoing will surely engender. But it’s also a fallacy.

As Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt once told me when I interviewed her about her book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, it doesn’t matter how Jews behave. Anti Semitism is not based on anything rational. Rooted in a mythology of secret Jewish power, money, control, and dual loyalties, anti-Semitism and Jewish wrongdoing have little to do with each other.

We all cringe as Jews when one of our own, with such a Jewish-sounding name, turns out to be a horrible person (and it doesn’t get much more horrible than being a child rapist). But cringing over Jewish deplorables is at the end of the day something of a category error. It’s the wrongdoing, not the Jewishness, that should horrify us.

After all, anti-Semitism is a virus that does not depend on the behavior of actual Jews. They would hate us, anyway. Lipstadt compares anti-Semitism to herpes — “It’s disgusting, but it doesn’t go away. Come a moment of stress in society, come a moment of tension into someone’s life, it can pop up,” she said. Anti-Semitism is the herpes in society. “It keeps asserting itself at times of tension, at times of dislocation, and that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing it.”

They hate us when a Jew is successful in the public eye, and they hate us when a Jew is a villain in the public eye. It makes no difference.

This is why if Israel went away, or if Zionism had never existed to begin with, so-called “left-wing anti-Semitism” would still be around; it would simply have taken another form. Anti-Zionism is the excuse, the drawing-room and academic-conference respectability the anti-Semitism virus feeds upon. But it can always find something else.

It’s the same with Epstein. Any anti-Semite using Epstein as an excuse to beat up on Jews would have found another excuse, too.

Just as Muslims should not be forced to denounce “bad apples” among their own, Jews should not have to feel any special obligation to denounce Epstein just because he’s a Jew.

It’s natural to feel shame when one of our own turns out to be a villain, just as it’s natural to feel pride when one of our own is successful in politics, sports or entertainment. The thing is, that shame is playing by the anti-Semites’ rules. It’s assuming a collective responsibility for one man’s actions.

We can reverse engineer a Jewish success story to make it about their Jewish upbringing, but then we have to accept the other side of the coin: Is it his Jewishness that makes Epstein a horrible person? The anti-Semites will say yes (and they already have), but we don’t need to fall into the trap of claiming “Not all Jews.”

Many Jews are especially angry at their fellow Jews who are in the public eye for misdeeds. They are angry because they’re Jews, and so should have had a better understanding of what it means to act unethically. While understandable, it’s still playing by the anti-Semites’ rules.

Instead, condemn the man for his misdeeds, but leave the Jews out of it. Epstein isn’t going to contribute to anti-Semitism. If it wasn’t Epstein, it would be somebody else.

Cringe Over Epstein – but cringe over him as a fellow human, not as a Jew.

Howard Lovy is a freelance writer based in Traverse City, Michigan.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning journalism this Passover.

In this age of misinformation, our work is needed like never before. We report on the news that matters most to American Jews, driven by truth, not ideology.

At a time when newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall. That means for the first time in our 126-year history, Forward journalism is free to everyone, everywhere. With an ongoing war, rising antisemitism, and a flood of disinformation that may affect the upcoming election, we believe that free and open access to Jewish journalism is imperative.

Readers like you make it all possible. Right now, we’re in the middle of our Passover Pledge Drive and we need 500 people to step up and make a gift to sustain our trustworthy, independent journalism.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Our Goal: 500 gifts during our Passover Pledge Drive!

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.