As he serves a 150-year sentence for running the biggest Ponzi scheme in American history, Bernard Madoff surely has a lot of time to think about his crimes and their ramifications. But in an interview last week with Politico, Madoff showed that he was a man apart — imperious, disconnected, unrepentant and surprisingly lacking in empathy. These troubling traits may help explain how he was able to maintain such a fantastically large fraud — estimated by investors to be as high as $65 billion — until it crashed in 2008.
Among the more prominent of Madoff’s victims were Jewish organizations and individuals. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation, Hadassah, Yeshiva University and the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles were all hit hard. The American Jewish Congress was reduced to a shoestring organization. These and other organizations and individuals invested money with Madoff, a man who convinced himself and others that he was a devoted and caring Jew.
Based upon the interview, however, it doesn’t appear that Madoff feels particular remorse for what he did to the Jewish community he was a part of for decades, or to the Jewish institutions he had a hand in ruining, or for the predominantly Jewish retirees and investors who put their fortunes in his hands only to see them disappear. Thus, he told the interviewer: “I don’t feel that I betrayed the Jews; I betrayed people.” It’s almost as if Madoff thinks he ran an equal opportunity fraud.
And then he went further. “I don’t feel any worse for a Jewish person than I do for a Catholic person,” he said. “Religion had nothing to do with it.”
While it is true that Madoff betrayed “people,” the disproportionate impact of his fraud was on the Jewish community and on Jewish clients. Those clear results belie his rationalization. Madoff hurt Jews in many different ways, not all of them financial. But in the financial realm, the hurt to the Jewish community and to Jews was far greater than any other group.
Madoff did admit: “I betrayed people that put trust in me — certainly the Jewish community.” But he then muddied his confession with another rationalization: “I’ve made more money for Jewish people and charities than I’ve lost.”
Madoff’s claimed gains don’t bring much comfort. First, we don’t know whether he made that money or stole it. Second, we don’t really know whether the claimed gains are true.
Madoff comes closest to the personification of the hateful stereotype of the cheating Jew than anyone in recent memory. We wonder where that fits in his analysis.
There is, however, one thing we can learn from the interview: Bernie Madoff needs to do a lot more thinking about what he did and who he hurt. He has plenty of time.