The media coverage of the Bernard Madoff scandal made extensive reference to Madoff’s ethnic and religious background and his prominent role in the Jewish community. Because the scandal broke at a time of great public outcry against financial institutions, some, including Brad Greenberg in The Christian Science Monitor and Mark Seal in Vanity Fair, have reported on its potential to generate a wave of anti-Semitism.

This concern makes good sense. In complex situations such as the current financial crisis, where the vast majority of us lack the relevant expertise and information, biases and prejudices may play a significant role in shaping public attitudes. To evaluate just how large a role, we conducted a study (part of a larger survey of 2,768 American adults) in which we explored people’s responses to the economic collapse and tried to determine how anti-Semitic sentiments might relate to the ongoing financial crisis.

In order to assess explicit prejudice toward Jews, we directly asked respondents “How much to blame were the Jews for the financial crisis?” with responses falling under five categories: a great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, not at all. Among non-Jewish respondents, a strikingly high 24.6 percent of Americans blamed “the Jews” a moderate amount or more, and 38.4 percent attributed at least some level of blame to the group.

Interestingly, Democrats were especially prone to blaming Jews: while 32 percent of Democrats accorded at least moderate blame, only 18.4 percent of Republicans did so (a statistically significant difference). This difference is somewhat surprising given the presumed higher degree of racial tolerance among liberals and the fact that Jews are a central part of the Democratic Party’s electoral coalition. Are Democrats simply more likely to “blame everything” thus casting doubt on whether the anti-Jewish attitudes are real? Not at all. We also asked how much “individuals who took out loans and mortgages they could not afford” were to blame on the same five-point scale. In this case, Democrats were less likely than Republicans to assign moderate or greater blame.

Educational attainment also correlates with variation in anti-Semitic attitudes. Whereas only 18.3 percent of respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree blamed the Jews a moderate amount or more, 27.3 percent of those lacking a 4-year degree did so. Again, we get a similar reversal when examining the blameworthiness of individuals who took out loans they could not afford.

To assess more deeply whether the tendency among a subset of Americans to blame the Jews is meaningful, we conducted a controlled experiment. The question of interest is whether anti-Semitic sentiments affect people’s thinking about the preferred response to the economic crisis. For example if people associate corruption on Wall Street with Jewish financiers such as Madoff, what is the impact on their views about bailing out big business?

To address this question, we carried out a simple but powerful experiment. Participants in a national survey were randomly assigned to one of three groups. All three groups were prompted with a one-paragraph news report that briefly described the Madoff scandal. The text was the same for all three groups, except for two small differences: the first group was told that Bernard Madoff is an “American investor” who contributed to “educational charities,” the second group was told that Madoff is a “Jewish-American investor” who contributed to “educational charities,” and the third group was told that Madoff is an “American investor” who contributed to “Jewish educational charities.” In other words, group one did not receive any information about Madoff’s Jewish ties; group two was told explicitly that Madoff is Jewish; and group three received implicit information about Madoff’s religious affiliation. In a follow-up question, participants were asked for their views about providing government tax breaks to big business in order to spur job creation.

The responses of the members of the three groups are revealing and disturbing: individuals explicitly told that Madoff is a Jewish-American were almost twice as likely to oppose the tax cuts to big business. Opposition to tax cuts for big business jumped from 10 percent among members of group one to over 17 percent among the members of group two, who were explicitly told about Madoff’s Jewish background. This difference is highly significant in statistical terms. The implicit information contained in Madoff’s charitable history also produced an aversion to big business, but to a lesser degree, with opposition to corporate tax breaks in this case increasing to 14 percent.

This result is most likely not a coincidence. First, when we examine the results of the experiment on Jewish voters, we find that respondents had the exact same policy preferences in all three groups. In other words, the information about Madoff being Jewish only had an effect among non-Jews. Furthermore, we examined how the experimental groups answered questions on a set of other proposals that did not deal with the business sector, but rather with federal support for state governments or with tax breaks for the middle class. On these other issues, no differences were observed in the way members of the different groups responded, suggesting that anti-Semitic sentiments may particularly affect views on wealthy institutions.

Other political research, too, suggests that U.S. public opinion is not immune to anti-Semitic stereotypes. For example, Adam Berinsky and Tali Mendelberg of MIT and Princeton, respectively, have found that exposure to anti-Semitic stereotypes, even stereotypes that people outright reject (e.g., that “Jews are shady”), can have an indirect effect of making other, less patently offensive stereotypes of Jews (e.g., that “Jews are politically liberal”) more salient in people’s minds. Indeed this is consistent with the finding that information about Madoff being Jewish can have an indirect, and perhaps even unconscious, effect on people’s thinking about the response to economic crisis.

The findings presented here are troubling. This is not the first instance of an economic downturn sparking anti-Semitic sentiments. Financial scandals are widely regarded as contributors to the rise of anti-Semitism in European history. Famously, the Panama Scandal—often described as the biggest case of monetary corruption of the nineteenth century—led to the downfall of Clemenceau’s government in France and involved bribes to many cabinet members and hundreds of parliament members. Nonetheless, the public’s fury centered on two Jewish men who were in charge of distributing corporate bribe money to the politicians. In her classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt described the Panama Scandal as a key event in the development of French anti-Semitism. The Stavisky Affair, in which the Jewish financier Alexandre Stavisky embezzled millions of francs through fraudulent municipal bonds, broke out 40 years later and had a similar effect of nourishing the accusation that the Jews were behind the corruption in financial dealings.

Crises often have the potential to stoke fears and resentment, and the current economic collapse is likely no exception. Therefore, we must take heed of prejudice and bigotry that have already started to sink roots in the United States. The negative attitudes toward Jews reported here are not only dangerous in and of themselves, but they may also have bearings on national policy matters. The media ought to bear these findings in mind in their coverage of financial scandals such as the Madoff scam. In most cases, religious and ethnic affiliations have nothing to do with the subject at hand, and such references, explicit or implied, ought, then, to be avoided.