Jewish Journal

Jews, money and a classic canard

by Brad A. Greenberg

January 15, 2009 | 9:04 pm

If you were looking for a money manager and you had to choose between Shylock, Fagin and Bernie Madoff, who would you pick?

Shylock, obviously. But the more interesting question is what do these three notorious figures—two fictional and one who lived in a fictional financial world—have in common? Well, if you’re familiar with the uncomfortable stereotypes regarding Jews and money, which means you are not Tommy Thompson, then you know the answer.

I don’t have a lot of experience as the target of anti-Semitism. But this is one canard in which I am well versed: the Jewish miser, the money grubber, the, well, shylock. It’s lesser in virulence only to the blood libel and the Christ-killer accusation. And yet, it is far, far, far more prevalent. The big question is: Why?

First, a brief history lesson:

Jews didn’t choose to become moneylenders and usurers. In Medieval Europe, the financial “industry” was one of the only fields open to them, and that was only because the church prohibited Christians from partaking in such a vile profession, one suited for, in Martin Luther’s words, “a brood of vipers and children of the devil.”

The church eventually dropped its restriction, but the moneylending tradition remained with Jews wherever they landed. I’m not sure why this is; it’s something I’m exploring for a future article. But a reasonable explanation is that money is fungible, property and businesses are not. And when anybody who looks or acts like you is having their assets seized or their community expelled by state governments every few decades, well, you look for ways to CYA.

Look at what billionaire and newspaper villain Sam Zell told The New Yorker when explaining why, as a Jew, he could never earn enough and why he diversifies his investments globally:

“I think that being Jewish means that you’re vulnerable forever. Was there a stronger Jewish community anywhere in the world a more intellectual, more successful than Germany in the late twenties and early thirties, before Hitler? And seven years later they’re building concentration camps! So, do I expect something like that to happen in the United States? Of course not. Do I think it could? Absolutely.“

Which leads us back to the question of why Jews are so overrepresented in the financial industry, as anti-Semites have reminded us to no end these past few months. It turns out the Wharton School and the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where the student body has no shortage of Jewish students, has initiated a lecture series on this very topic, “Jews in Business: Between Myth and Reality.”

The presentations grew from a yearlong postdoctoral study program at the Katz Center, which has its own series of speeches on the topic in the community. Each year, 20 fellows from around the world come to the center to study a particular issue. This year, it is Jews, commerce and culture.

“We don’t want to be intimidated by the perceptions of Jewish economic life,” said Jonathan Karp, a fellow at the Katz Center who teaches Jewish history at Binghamton University and will be the first speaker for the Wharton lectures.

Michael Gibbons, a deputy dean who approved Wharton’s role in the lectures, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Karp and other visiting scholars at the center said many Jews had indeed done well in modern business and finance. They trace the financial success of Jews in the Western world to a cultural emphasis on education coupled with centuries of persecution that forced Jews to disperse around the world - creating the foundation for global trade networks - and discrimination that shut Jews out of the most prestigious jobs. That honed a talent for spotting opportunity on the fringes of the economic world. Jews were among the first, for example, to see the mass-audience potential in movies and recorded music by black artists, Karp said.

The downside of economic success throughout much of Jewish history was that it fueled resentment and harsh treatment from competing groups, the scholars said.

“If you wanted to criticize Jewish society, you would use their . . . economic success as a stick to beat them with,” said Adam Teller, a University of Haifa historian who with Karp and Derek Penslar, of the University of Toronto, proposed devoting this year at the Katz Center to economic history.

This story, from the Philadelphia Inquirer, leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Mainly how Jews ended up being business all-stars and whether there was anything innate in Judaism that gave them this advantage. This is, of course, a difficult subject to tackle.

For deeper study, I strongly recommend Yuri Slezkine’s “The Jewish Century.” I have detailed notes on the book back at the office that I’ll share soon. Books that you might want to refrain from include “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” anything from Kevin MacDonald’s “Culture of Critique” series.

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