March 26, 2010
Jews, Money and History - An End to Conspiratorial Fantasies
I will readily admit that the title of Jerry Z. Muller’s book, “Capitalism and the Jews” (Princeton University Press: $24.95) is a bit off-putting. Indeed, the author himself understands how the phrase resonates for the Jewish reader.“Even today, some Jews regard the public discussion of Jews and capitalism as intrinsically impolitic, as if conspiratorial fantasies about Jews and money can be eliminated by prudent silence,” writes Muller. “For these reasons, the exploration of Jews and capitalism has tended to be left to apologists, ideologues, and anti-Semites.”
But Muller, a professor of history at the Catholic University of America and a contributor to the Wall Street Journal and The New Republic, among other publications, also insists that it is impossible to study the history of the Jewish people without examining and understanding the role that Jews have played over the centuries in commerce and capitalism, starting with money-lending in the Middle Ages and culminating in the vast family fortunes that turned the name “Rothschild” into a trope for money and power.
So Muller courageously unpacks the history of Jews and money in the four elegant essays that are showcased in his book. The first one focuses on “The Long Shadow of Usury,” one of the hot-button issues of classical anti-Semitism but also a fact of Jewish life since the Dark Ages. The second essay ponders why some Jews have been so contemptuous of capitalism while others Jews have been so successful at reaping its rewards. The third essay examines the radical response to capitalism among Jews who embraced socialism. And the final essay shows how nationalism — and, by extension, the Jewish form of nationalism known as Zionism — can be seen as “an inevitable development, deeply intertwined with many of the characteristic processes of modernity, and above all with the politics of capitalist economic transformation.”
Muller is temperate and thoughtful but he is not afraid to conjure up and confront all of the ghosts who have haunted Jewish history. “The true God of the Jews is money, Marx assures his readers, and like the jealous God of the Bible, who would tolerate no lesser gods before him, money tolerates no other relations.” Thus did Marx provide the anti-Semites, “from Richard Wagner down to the Nazi ideologist Gottfried Feder,” with a cudgel to use against the Jews: “[W]ith a twist of the argument one could suggest that the task was to rescue capitalism from its ‘Jewish’ aspects, and from the Jews themselves.”
He also reprises the argument of the late economist Milton Friedman that “the element of capitalism that has most benefited the Jews is free competition,” a credo of capitalism that “counteracts the forces of anti-Semitic prejudice.” Muller explains that “as the development of modern capitalism created new economic opportunities in Europe and its colonial offshoots, Jews were disproportionately successful at seizing them.” And he turns Marx’s ugly pronouncement on its head: “In an economic sense, and in the long run, capitalism was good for the Jews,” writes Muller. “And the Jews were good for capitalism.”
“Capitalism and the Jews” is a work of scholarship, but it’s an especially accessible and illuminating one. It is a book that every Jewish capitalist, actual or aspiring, ought to read and ponder. Indeed, Muller offers what can be regarded as a midrash on money. “Get wisdom,” we read in Proverbs 4:7. “Yea, with all thy getting, get understanding.”
Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.