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April 14, 2008

Holiday from ethics

Tonight, once again, we turn to the repellent Randy Cohen, the so-called "ethicist" who writes a column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine. In Sunday's column, a writer tells him (second item) that he, the writer, used to work in an insurance company, where the only Jewish employee was a friend of his. The Jewish employee invented Jewish holidays to take off. Was it ethical of the letter writer to remain silent, when he (unlike the employer) knew these were fake holidays?

Before I tell you the answer Cohen gives, let's consider this outside the context of Jewish holidays.

The situation is basically equivalent to a far more common situation: someone has a friend he knows is regularly faking illness when he calls in sick. Does the person have an obligation to tell the employer about this? Probably not, right? That's not his job. If he was directly asked about it, though, it's not his job to cover up for the friend, either. But probably, if he stays silent, without any actual participation, he won't incur ethical guilt. (The person might have some qualms about remaining friends with the crooked guy, but that's another matter.)

This is roughly what Cohen advises. Cohen's short answer about the Jewish holidays is this: Remaining silent "was an acceptable choice. Your coming forward was permitted but not required; you had no obligation to police the vacation requests of your co-workers (or to steer your friend to the path of righteousness)."

Fair enough, but as usual Cohen just can't shut up when he gives the short answer.

The first qualification of his answer, which I think is a joke (though with him it's hard to tell): "Of course, had you been asked directly if Kasha Varnishka was an authentic Jewish festival, you would have had to reply: yes, it commemorates the glorious victory of the Maccabees over a recalcitrant side dish." Ha, ha.

Next, Cohen states what should be obvious: "This is not to justify your friend’s actions. He lied to his boss and burdened his co-workers, who presumably filled in for him while he was out cavorting."

Also good, but he still can't shut up.

What bugs me is that Cohen adds:

So says my head . . . but my heart says mazel tov! This imaginative scheme imposed a tax on ignorance, penalizing an employer for lacking even a cursory grasp of a world religion's holidays. Such a plan could encourage all of us in our diverse, immigrant nation to learn more about our neighbors, or reward them with extra vacation time if we cling to our provincialism. Diwali — real or imaginary?
A tax on ignorance? That's like saying that an employee's theft is a tax on the employer for having inadequate security. Who gives that employee the right to impose a "tax"? Or, to put it more bluntly, who gives the right to that employee to claim that his fraud has some public benefit? Randy Cohen, that's who.

We don't know from Cohen's column whether the Jewish employee was an observant Jew who observed the real holidays but also added a few of his own, or whether he was someone who just took advantage of the fact that Jewish holidays exist. That information would have added a little color to this story. But it's really not that important.

The Jewish employee's fraud is not entirely a private matter between him and his employer (and his God, for that matter, if he believes in one). The fraud, if it comes to light, exposes other Jews to unfair suspicion when they observe the holidays. In this case, we're told, the employee was the only Jew at the company, but if he had been caught, the employer would have had every reason to feel suspicious about requests from Jewish employees who were hired in the future.

Besides, if there were ever a way of planting the seeds of antisemitism in people who have no opinion about Jews one way or the other, I'd say this is a pretty good way to do it. Being a Jewish crook is bad enough; being a crook who uses his Jewishness to defraud is far worse.

Far be it from me to accuse someone of insufficient maturity, but I'm going to do it, anyway: Cohen's making light of this is pretty damn immature.

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