In New York magazine, Alana Newhouse looks at Bernie Madoff, Solomon Dwek, and the question of Jewish exceptionalism:
Even liberal, assimilated Jews can’t help but believe that there is something special—better, smarter—about their people. Except when their people show up in handcuffs on the news—at which point the arguments turn to Jewish ordinariness: Every group has its criminals, we are no better or worse than anyone else, to think any different is to hold Jews to a higher standard than other groups are held, etc.
Well, you can’t have it both ways. The fact is that Jews are exceptional. There can be no debate that various historical factors—including a communal reverence for intellectual acuity, along with centuries of marginalization—primed Jews for, first, survival, and then uncommon achievement. The rub is that those very same factors might have predisposed them to distinction in less-savory domains. Maybe we can’t have Philip Roth and Leonard Bernstein without Bernie Madoff and the informant behind the Jersey busts, Solomon Dwek.
Or maybe not. Maybe, in fact, it isn’t Madoff and Dwek who are exceptional but rather average Jews who are. That the sight of a Jewish criminal on the front page gives heartburn to Jews comprehensively disconnected from the crimes—including even those who profess to be comprehensively disconnected from any form of Jewish identity or culture—is the truly exceptional thing. This ethnic attachment is a consequence not simply of fanatical closeness but of a long history in which Jews were judged collectively for everything they did, beginning with the crucifixion they didn’t do.
It may be a little more complicated than Newhouse makes it. Jews have a tradition of judging themselves as a community – going all the way back to the initial question in the Torah about keeping one’s brother, the Kol Nidre prayer on Yom Kippur that is said as a group, tikkun olam, etc. We are not simply individuals, but part of a community, responsible for each other and for others in the world. It is not inconsistent to say both that we have set forth exceptional standards for ourselves and that we realize that, as individuals, we are no better or worse than anyone else.