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Q & A with… Prof. Jerry Z. Muller

By Cindy Mindell

WASHINGTON, D.C. – What has shaped Jewish success in capitalist societies? Historians have rarely taken up the challenge to explore the phenomenon, but earlier this year, Prof. Jerry Z. Muller published a series of essays, “Capitalism and the Jews” (Princeton University Press). The chair of the history department at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. will be keynote speaker at the UConn Stamford Center for Judaic & Middle Eastern Studies’ Oct. 19 Louis J. Kuriansky Annual Conference, organized around the same topic.
Author of numerous articles on economics, antisemitism, European history, and economics, Muller spoke with the Ledger about why Jewish populations have been both disproportionately successful in capitalist societies and the system’s loudest critics.

Q: How did you develop an interest in the connection between Jews and capitalism?
A: When I was in graduate school at Columbia University, my minor field of study was modern Jewish history and I have maintained an interest in the subject ever since. I spent a lot of time from the late 1980s through 2002 writing a book called “Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern Europe Thought.” That dealt with the way in which major thinkers in Europe from the 18th century to the present have thought about capitalism. One of the things that struck me when I was researching that book was that often there was a link between the way they thought about capitalism and the way they thought about Jews. That was for two interrelated reasons: one was because Jews had long been involved with commerce in general and also with the lending of money. In pre-modern Christian thought, there was a link between Jews and the lending of money and the presumptive illegitimacy of usury, lending at interest. The second reason was that Jews were disproportionately involved in commerce as well. So all of that led me to draw together a lot of research done by other scholars on the various linkages between capitalism and the Jews.

Q: The mere mention of “Jews” and “capitalism” in the same sentence can automatically raise the specter of antisemitism for some. How does your book deal with that connection?
A: I try to open up the discussion beyond the fear factor. My research is not just about Jews and money, but Jews and capitalism. One important phenomenon is the propensity of Jews to do disproportionately well in professions that require high education. I try to deal with that question of why Jews have done disproportionately well in the free professions – medicine, law, accounting, etc.
There are several themes in the book. One has to do with the way in which thinking about Jews and capitalism has gone together in the minds of non-Jewish thinkers and non-Jewish political movements. The second essay addresses the issue of the extent to which Jews tended to do disproportionately well in capitalist societies when they were given a modicum of legal equality.
I look at the range of Jewish ideological responses to capitalism, and focus on one of the most radical Jewish responses to capitalism – Communism. This is a very important theme of 20th- century Europe and beyond, but is not well understood by Jews or non-Jews. On the whole, very few Jews tended to be Communists, but Communists who were of Jewish origin did tend to be disproportionately salient and publicly visible. The Jews who did join tended to be more literate and more in command of multiple languages, and for those reasons above all they tended to rise in the hierarchies of the Communist party, especially in the world of words – ideology and propaganda. They came to the ideology for the same reason as others: they were distressed at what they saw as the negative effects of capitalism, and were living in societies or subcultures with substantial poverty, seen as the inevitable result of capitalism. For Jews and other ethnic minorities in Russia and elsewhere, those who were discriminated against, there was an additional attraction: Communism would do away with all distinctions, and promoted the idea of a universal brotherhood of Man, which was disproportionately attractive to ethnic minorities. Of those Jews who did become involved in Communism, many tended to be more educated than their non-Jewish counterparts.
The last essay has to do with another kind of connection between capitalism and Jews, the way in which the development of capitalism in multi-ethnic societies in which Jews had occupied a commercial niche led to the rise of ethnic nationalist movements, part of whose platform was to extrude the Jews from national economic life. I look at how that, in turn, provided an important impetus for the rise of Zionism, or Jewish nationalism.
The larger point of the book is that there are many sorts of linkages between capitalism and the Jews, and those who want to understand the modern fate of the Jews should be aware of that range of linkages. There have certainly been places outside the Christian world where Jews have been overrepresented in commercial activity – the Muslim world, for example – but the emphasis on the illegitimacy of usury and its connection with the Jews is by and large the phenomenon of the Medieval Christian world. It has been picked up more recently in the Muslim world. Muslims are even more adamant about usury than Christians, but Jews weren’t connected to it in the Medieval world, but the linkage has now been picked up by Osama Bin Laden and others.

Q: What is the relationship between Jews’ economic success and philanthropy?
A: Jews have been disproportionately involved in philanthropic undertakings. There are certainly important religious injunctions to engage in tzedakah – doing positive altruistic things with money you’ve earned. That continues in the more traditional form of intra-Jewish charity, but one of the striking things is that in modern Western societies, Jews have always been disproportionately involved in general charity. That’s one of these interesting tensions, Jews giving to Jewish causes and to non-Jewish causes. For a long time, there was more social status involved in giving to non-Jewish causes. One striking example is Germany in the late 19th century, where Jews did give to Jewish causes, but wealthy Jewish businessmen would give money to endow major cultural institutions in return for which they would be given various honorary titles by the emperor.

Q: In your book, you discuss factors that gave Jews what you call “behavioral traits conducive to success in capitalist society.” What are those traits?
A: There were a number of intergenerationally transmitted cultural traits or propensities that tended to make Jews disproportionately successful in capitalist society; for example, literacy and an orientation toward written texts and arguing over written texts. First in a religious realm, but that cultural high regard for text study and argument was conducive to the acquirement of higher education which was required for entry into high professions. Because Jews had long been mostly involved in commerce, there were modes of thought having to do with the calculation of profit and loss and the search for new economic opportunities and commercial niches that weren’t being filled that Jews had a propensity to be on the lookout for. All of that gave them a kind of cultural head start in the capitalist race. Among the first texts one encountered were Talmudic legal tractates. In Eastern Europe, most male Jews had only limited opportunity to study Talmud and women had almost no opportunity. But for those who did study any amount of Talmud, you quickly get into commercial issues – property, torts, etc. Thinking about commercial matters was part of the religious tradition, which wasn’t in the tradition of Catholic clerics, for whom it was exotic stuff.

Q: What surprised you during your research?
A: What surprised me and the reason I decided to publish a book was the gap between how important this subject has been for modern Jewish history, and the amount of attention that it’s received from scholars, and in general, the dearth of scholarly accounts of modern Jewish history in recent decades. In the decades after 1945, Jews became even more disproportionately successful in advanced industrial societies, especially in the U.S., and they were conscious of the fact that in the past, disproportionate Jewish economic success had often led to antisemitism.
The other part of that is blaming problems of capitalism on the Jews. That’s an old theme and a recurrent pattern. That’s why Jews are so neuralgic on issues having to do with Jews and financial manipulation.

Q: Why did we not see a spike in antisemitic rhetoric as a result of Madoff and the 2008 economic crash?
A: I address that question in “Antisemtism and This Recession: The Dog that Didn’t Bark,” an article I wrote for The Forward in March 2010. One can point to the fact that so many of the people who work on Wall Street today, from analysts to CEOs, are not Jewish. Historically, the symbolic connection between Jews and finance has deep roots in the culture of Western Christendom. In the 19th and 20th centuries, antipathy toward Jews often went hand in hand with antipathy toward finance. Seen in historical perspective, the absence of such rhetoric in the current economic downturn is quite remarkable. Part of the answer may lie in the fact that more and more people are involved in one way or another with the financial sector, and are aware — on some level, at least — that their savings and pensions are linked to what happens on Wall Street.

Prof. Jerry Z. Muller will deliver the keynote address, “Capitalism and the Jews,” at the UConn Center for Judaic & Middle Eastern Studies’ Louis J. Kuriansky Annual Conference on Tuesday, Oct. 19, 7:15-9:30 p.m., in the Gen Re Auditorium, UConn Stamford. Respondents are Dr. Joel Blatt, resident professor of history, and Dr. William Alpert, professor of economics, both at UConn Stamford. For more information: (203) 251-9525 / StamfordCJMES@UConn.edu

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