Capitalism and the Jews Revisited

November 12, 2015
Twenty-Ninth Annual Lecture at the GHI
Speaker: Jerry Z. Muller (Catholic University of America)
Comment: Miriam Rürup (Institute for the History of the German Jews)

In the 29th Annual Lecture of the German Historical Institute, Professor Jerry Muller explored the intersections of Jewish history and the social and cultural history of capitalism. Professor Muller delved into the oft asked—and potentially controversial—question of why Jews have been disproportionally successful in entrepreneurial and capitalist societies. The first part of his lecture highlighted the ideological dimensions of the topic. Since ancient times, and even more so in Medieval Christian theologies, profiting from trade and especially from lending were regarded as an immoral activity. Yet, at the same time, the Church allowed Jews to engage in money lending in order to supply the increased demand for credit during the "Commercial Revolution" starting in the late thirteenth century. According to Professor Muller, the traces of this premodern stigmatization of financial activity and Jewish "usury" found their way into nineteenth-century theories of capitalism, for instance in Marx's insistence that physical labor was the only source of value. Hence, up to the twentieth century, the image of Jews and the evaluation of capitalism, both positive and negative, have often been closely intertwined.

In the second part of his lecture, Muller looked at how Jewish success was perceived differently in different political and economic settings. Specifically, in Great Britain and the United States, where the society was already highly commercialized at the time when Jews settled there, Jews could be economically successful without raising suspicions or being conspicuous. Conversely, in Eastern Europe Jews often constituted the significant portion of the commercial class leading to a much different perception within the society. Muller identified Central Europe as falling somewhere between these two poles.

In the final part of his lecture, Muller examined various explanations for Jewish success under capitalism. Religion played a role insofar as there was no religious creed denouncing commercial activities. Muller also pointed at "religious intellectualism" and a greater taste for education as an important aspect of Jewish religious culture and an advantage for economic success. Yet more important than religion, according to Muller, were economic, social, and political contexts. Jews were traditionally in the role of middlemen in pre-capitalist periods, which provided them with skills and experiences that continued to be important during capitalism. Further factors highlighted by Muller include the role of social networks and the ability to leave certain branches in a timely fashion.

In her commentary, Miriam Rürup provided historical observations and conceptual ideas about how unique the Jewish experience in this context was and stressed the need for further comparative research. She pointed to the fact that the idealization of physical labor is also to be found in inner-Jewish debates, especially in Zionist thinking. Rürup also stressed the significance attached to literacy and education by other minorities and diasporas. With regard to the uniqueness of the Jewish experience, she pointed at the experience of physical and structural violence directed against Jewish businesses; at the experience of exchanging immaterial goods (assimilation for acceptance and emancipation); and at the perception of Jews as an arcane group and their role as targets of conspiracy theories. As per usual, the lecture and comment were followed by a lively discussion.

Jan Jansen