03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ulmer to Jews: I Meant It as a Compliment!

But I meant it as a compliment!

That was the gist of the apology yesterday from Jim Ulmer, one of the two South Carolina Republican leaders responsible for the dunderheaded remark last week about penny-pinching Jews. As you may recall, Ulmer and a fellow county political chief penned an op-ed in Orangeburg's Times and Democrat praising Senator Jim DeMint's opposition to congressional earmarks. "There is a saying that the Jews who are wealthy got that way not by watching dollars, but instead by taking care of the pennies and the dollars taking care of themselves," they wrote.

In his apology, Ulmer said the comment was "truly in admiration for a method of bettering one's lot in life."

Thanks, Jim. I think. Well, maybe not.

Ulmer may have thought he was praising Jews (for the record, I'm a member of the tribe) by honoring what's widely believed to be an uncanny ability to become rich enough to give their kids $100,000 Bar Mitzvahs, complete with champagne fountains, American Bandstand dancers and major-league baseball stars.

But it's the kind of compliment that leaves a bad taste. "Admiration" for a particular trait of a minority group is rarely a simple matter of respect and clap-on-the-back congratulations. Instead, it usually comes backstopped with ambivalence, envy, resentment, disdain, a lurking sense of anxiety and threat. Think of the stereotype that African-Americans are good at sports, or that Chinese people work harder than the rest of us and thus are more likely to get into Harvard. Hidden in these reductive images is a fear of being overpowered or invaded or emasculated.

Non-Jews have been accusing and applauding Jews for being consummate money-makers for centuries. The stereotype of the grasping, miserly Jew arose in the Middle Ages when Jews were excluded by edict from the powerful Christian craft guilds, rendering them unable to pursue trades like glassblowing and metalwork.

At the same time, the Catholic Church's injunction against usury - Luke enjoined Jesus' followers to "lend, hoping for nothing again," later interpreted as a warning against lending money at interest - prohibited Christians from entering that lucrative profession while leaving it wide open for Jews. Across Europe, Jews in the Middle Ages seized the opportunity, partly to gain some political leverage as a shield against the virulent anti-Semitism of the time. But their participation in money-lending - always one of the least sympathetic of professions - made them easy targets of resentment. That anger often led to harassment and outright violence.

Hundreds of years later, the stereotype of the wealthy Jewish merchant or money-lender followed immigrants to the United States. Here, Jews received a warmer welcome than anywhere else in their diasporic travels, but they were still typecast as Shylocks, always counting their pennies.

The Jews had plenty of Gentile defenders in America in the 1800s and 1900s, some of them highly-placed. But even their friends were unable to sidestep the old stereotypes, trapped within the same lexicon of admiration, caricature, and contradiction that distinguishes anti-Semitic statements.

So the sympathetic author Herbert Eaton was able to write in 1879, in an assertion practically designed to stoke fear among the old WASP elites,

It being a rule that a Jew should be rich, it follows that without money he is not so highly esteemed among his own people. Everyone expects to see a Jew become rich. It is safe to say, that within the next century two-thirds of the wealth of the United States will be in the hands of the American Hebrew.

He ends that essay with the following wish: "Would that all Americans were as wise as a serpent and as cautious as a Jew."

So when Jim Ulmer insists he was just expressing admiration for Jews and their economic success, I can't help but hear echoes of Eaton and every Gentile who ever reproduced the stereotype of Jew as grasping pawnbroker, as rapacious money-lender, as international banker, as stingy merchant. The only astonishing part is that it's not 1879. It's 2009. And the double-edged, subtext-heavy compliment is alive and well.