More tawdry news on the Madoff front. Lawsuits have been filed against Stanley Chais and Jeffry Picower for receiving what appear to be suspiciously generous and apparently preferential returns for their investments. An investigative report by ProPublica documents that Picower and his family withdrew an astonishing $5.1 billion from Madoff — more, apparently, than Madoff himself. Chais and Picower had been two of the most generous donors to Jewish causes, as well as a number of non-Jewish causes. (Just four months ago, Israeli non-profits held an event to honor Chais for his generosity through the years).
What this means is that the damage to Jewish institutional life seems to be both deeper and more insidious than was first suspected when Madoff bomb first went off and vaporized endowments and fortunes. Jewish philanthropy was awash in fictional money; now, we learn, it may also have been steeped in dirty money — money that helped obtain awards, encomiums, board seats and status.
This is, of course, the currency of philanthropy. Donors give money, and in return they get recognition, respect, publicity, loyalty, and a good (or a least a better) name. There’s a certain logic in this, and even a certain social benefit: Many big donors wouldn’t give a penny, or certainly not as much as they do give, if they weren’t paid back in prestige. They buy a little prestige, and society gets money for good works.
Generosity is only truly generosity when the money is given for the sake of the giving, but life is imperfect, and such is the way of the world.
But let’s not fool ourselves about the devil’s side of this devil’s bargain. The Madoff affair isn’t the first time we’ve seen big Jewish donors turn out to be big Jewish crooks. When you use money as a gauge of character, you get what you pay for.