November 21, 2018

Finance: One of the Worst Jewish Stereotypes

The idea that Jews are innately good with money is among the oldest Jewish stereotypes, one that continues to impact perceptions of Jews today. In China, books touting the supposed secrets of Jewish financial success have been best-sellers. Worldwide, anti-Semites have long railed against Jews’ purported control of international banking.

As with many stereotypes, this one has its origins in actual events. Jews long have been well-represented in the fields of finance and business. This is commonly attributed to the fact that, for centuries, Jews were excluded from professional guilds and denied the right to own land, forcing them to work as merchants and financiers.

However, some academics contend that the historical evidence does not support this thesis and that Jewish financial success is instead due to the community’s high literacy rates.

Whatever its causes, Jewish business and financial success has been a major driver of anti-Semitism.

Shakespeare’s Shylock character in “The Merchant of Venice,” a money lender who demands a pound of flesh from a debtor who defaulted, is among history’s best-known caricatures of the Jewish businessman. That caricature lent a sinister undertone of greed and exploitation to Jewish financial dealings that would be invoked to justify anti-Jewish measures for centuries.

Over time, the Jewish community evolved into a uniquely educated population, incentivized to abandon farming in favor of better-paying professions and businesses.

Despite his Jewish ancestry (his parents converted their family to Protestantism when he was a child), Karl Marx, the philosopher who first popularized the idea that capitalism is inherently exploitative, singled out Jews for their role in promoting it.

Supposed Jewish control of the global financial system was a major theme of Hitler’s war against European Jews, Father Coughlin’s anti-Semitic rants and the czarist forgery of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Jews have been associated with moneylending for at least a millennium.

Medieval Christian theology held that charging interest (known as usury) was sinful, which kept many Christians from becoming financiers. The field thus came to be dominated by Jews.

The historian Howard Sachar has estimated that in the 18th century, “perhaps as many as three-fourths of the Jews in Central and Western Europe were limited to the precarious occupations of retail peddling, hawking, and ‘street banking,’ that is, moneylending.” This fed the notion among Christians that Jews were morally deficient, willing to engage in unethical business practices that decent people had rejected.

An alternative explanation holds that the Jewish penchant for finance is a result of Jewish emphasis on learning and literacy. In their 2012 book, “The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492,” economists Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein contended that, with the destruction of the ancient temples in Jerusalem and the beginning of the Jewish Diaspora, Jewish continuity suddenly became dependent on widespread religious literacy.

Those who educated themselves remained Jews. Those who did not, assimilated or converted to other faiths.

As moneylending evolved into institutionalized banking, Jews continued to occupy major positions in the financial world. Across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jews built influential banks, further feeding anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. With mass-Jewish immigration to the United States beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Jews assumed prominent positions in the growing financial center of New York, establishing Salomon Brothers, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs and others.

They also figured prominently in government financial positions. Four of the past eight U.S. Treasury secretaries have been Jews. Three of the 12 presidents of the World Bank have been Jewish.