The Jerusalem Post
October 11, 2007
By Nathan Burstein
It’s a list of “the world’s most powerful people,” 100 of the bankers and media moguls, publishers and image makers who shape the lives of billions. It’s an exclusive, insular club, one whose influence stretches around the globe but is concentrated strategically in the highest corridors of power.
More than half its members, at least by one count, are Jewish.
It’s a list, in other words, that would have made earlier generations of Jews jump out of their skins, calling attention, as it does, to their disproportionate influence in finance and the media. Making matters worse, in the eyes of many, would no doubt be the identity of the group behind the list — not a pack of fringe anti-Semites but one of the most mainstream, glamorous publications on the newsstands.
Yet the list doesn’t appear to have generated concern so far, instead drawing expressions of satisfaction and pride from the lone Jewish commentator who’s responded in writing.
Published between ads for Chanel and Prada, Dior and Yves Saint Laurent, it’s the 2007 version of “The Vanity Fair 100,” the glossy American magazine’s annual October ranking of the planet’s most important people. Populated by a Cohen and a Rothschild, a Bloomberg and a Perelman, the list would seem to conform to all the traditional stereotypes about areas of Jewish overrepresentation.
Joseph Aaron, the editor of The Chicago Jewish News, thinks it’s a list his readers should “feel very, very good about.”
“Talk about us being accepted into this society, talk about us having power in this society,” Aaron wrote this week, in apparent reference to Jewish life in the United States. “Talk about anti-Semitism being a thing of the past, talk about Jews no longer needing to be afraid to be visible and influential.”
Printed over 15 pages before an interview with Nicole Kidman, the rankings — described on the magazine’s cover as the membership of “The New Establishment” — are less than scientific, accompanied by a paragraph-long introduction that neither defines power nor describes the methodology behind the list.
Topping the rankings for the second year in a row is gentile media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who’s followed in second place by Steve Jobs, the non-Jewish co-founder of Apple and Pixar.
Highest among the Jewish entries are Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-listed at #3, down one from 2006. The article reported that the 34-year-old Brin and his wife “wore swimsuits as they stood under the huppa.” (Page, whose mother is Jewish, was described in the spring 2006 edition of B’nai B’rith Magazine as “raised more in the mold of his father… whose religion was technology.”)
With Americans making up the vast majority of the list, the Vanity Fair 100 is also notable for some absences. Just nine of those included are women, and only two — TV host Oprah Winfrey and rapper Jay-Z — are of African ancestry.
It’s the magazine’s readers, however, and not Vanity Fair itself, who are keeping track of New Establishment members’ gender, race and ethnicity. Though the writers often include telling details about their subjects — such as that the original last name of #89, comedian Jon Stewart, was Leibowitz — it’s up to amateur demographers to track their origins.
The approach hasn’t attracted much attention this year, but set off a Hollywood firestorm in 1994 when a reporter for England’s Spectator used that year’s New Establishment as inspiration for his own article, in which critics accused him of perpetrating harmful stereotypes about Jewish control of the movie industry. (The writer, William Cash, argued that the piece was partly meant to call attention to the contrast between the traditional, white Protestant “establishment,” and the disproportionally Jewish new version.) Considerations of background don’t figure in the Vanity Fair “Establishment,” but neither, it seems, do traditional definitions of “power” as political.
Besides New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at #9, up 25 places from a year ago, just two elected officials — former US president Bill Clinton and former vice president Al Gore — appear on the list. Ranked at #6 and #19, respectively, the latter two are cited for their work after leaving office, not for the power they exerted through politics.
The magazine’s limited definition of power, then, constitutes areas in which Jews have long excelled, often by necessity, says Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard University.
In her most recent book, Jews and Power, Wisse accounts “for the achievement of Jews through the centuries,” describing it, she says, “as a consequence of their having to develop their powers of adaptation to an extraordinary degree.”
But while they’ve excelled disproportionately in areas such as business and medicine, they’ve often also limited themselves — or been limited to — fields not connected to the public exercise of power.
With the Vanity Fair rankings’ focus on leaders outside the public sphere, they may coincidentally mirror traditional Jewish patterns of achievement — and a traditional Jewish aversion to political power.
For Aaron, the list shows how “vital” Jews have become in American life. The Vanity Fair rankings, he writes, “[tell] you so much about the place of Jews in this country, about the amazing people Jews are.”