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Jews and Money: Let’s Talk About It

Jews and Money: Let’s Talk About It

No one likes to talk about Jews and money. Too much history has gotten between the two, to say nothing of the present: see the Beck/Soros fracas, for instance, or Al Pacino in Broadway’s "Merchant of Venice." But now seems as good a time as any to tackle the connection. Thankfully a few provocative books are trying to do just that.

First is ADL director Abe Foxman’s "Jews and Money: The Story of A Stereotype," which tries to debunk the notion that Jews are over-represented in finance, or disproportionately wealthy. Then there is the genuine history book by Jerry Muller, called "Capitalism and the Jews," which takes as its premise that Jews are indeed disproportionately involved in money–or its opposite, communism, at least historically speaking.

Muller’s is the more interesting of the two, as he argues that the Jewish involvement in finance is a marriage of convenience, not the avaricious scheme propounded by anti-semites. Muller explains how Jews in medieval Christian Europe were the only ones allowed to engage in finance, since charging interest–or, making money off of money–was a Christian sin (Dante put usurers in the seventh ring of hell, alongside murderers and homosexuals).

But less well known is the pre-Christian linkage between Jews and money, dating back to Aristotle’s Greece. In the seed bed of Western civiliatization, Jews too were something of a pariah, and just as later Christians would deny Jews the right to own land, Greeks did as well. The only way Jews could participate in economic life was by working in the burgeoning financial system built to support trade: which is to say, money lending, banking and finance. In other words, capitalism.

But this also went against the Grecian moral value which held that virtuous work was only to be found in physical labor. Conversely, charging interest, a foundational tenet of capitalism, was ignoble.

To be sure, Muller shows how Jewish rabbinic law encouraged Jews to enter finance. By the early medieval period, rabbis made it kosher for Jews to charge interest–but only on non-Jews. That played into anti-semitic notions quite well. Muller argues further that the value Jews placed on education and abstract thinking also lead many to pursue the headier business of finance.

Still, the argument could be made that Jewish leaders encouraged Jews to enter finance for no other reason than that it was all that was available to them. In necessity, sin never had a better enemy.

Because Foxman sees only anti-semitism in the association with Jews and money, he cannot allow for this kind of historical understanding. And yet, he is absolutely correct to argue against the nasty bigotry that too often attends any mention of Jews and money. For that is just as much a reality of contemporary discourse–again, see Beck, and for that matter, Ahmadinejad–as it was in the days of Marx.

And about Marx: we should not forget that Jews were just as involved in the antithesis of capitalism–communism–as they had been in capitalism.

Muller takes this on too, arguing that Jews found in communism an illusionary escape from anti-semitism. For everyone, including Jews, communism also offered an alternative to the rapid industrialization of the 19th and early 20th century. The problem with industrialization was that it left out millions, and was intimately connected with capitalism. (For more on this, read Dickens.)

The other alternative was of course nationalism–be it the Italian, French, or German sort. But nationalism was too strictly limited to homogenized ethnic types. Jews again didn’t fit in, so communism it was.

To be fair, Jews had their own kind of nationalism too, which also encorporated swaths of communist thought. They called it Zionism, which was the Jewish alternative to the Jews’ misbegot romance with communism. How communism played out in Russia–pogroms after the bolshevik revolution, followed again by the terror of Stalin–made Zionism seem immensly attractive. Jews could have their own mythic agrarian collective in the desert, free from capitalism, anti-semitism, and the like.

But that too would meet a less accomodating reality. And we still live with the consequence.

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