Text size

The British Jewish historian Cecil Roth once wrote that the writing of the economic history of the Jews is always deficient since, because of the fear of anti-Semitism, Jewish historians have tried to downplay the importance of Jewish influence on the economy. The documentary television series now being screened on Channel 10, "The Oligarchs," focuses on billionaires of Jewish origin who constitute the dominant part of the new group of extremely wealthy persons that has emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The question that naturally arises is how, all of a sudden - in a totalitarian society that in the past had been characterized by oppression and anti-Semitism - these Jews have succeeded in gaining so much influence over the new economy. The answer is connected to the historical model of the Jews' integration into economies during a period of change and restructuring.

The creator of the series, Aleksander Gentelev, tried to explain the roots of the loathing of the oligarchs by saying, "They, the Jews, mustn't have so much power." Interviews with passersby in the street reveal anti-Semitic sentiment, but the approach that is emerging in the Russian media is more complex. In a number of public opinion surveys that were conducted recently, understanding and even affection for the oligarchs is evident, because of their talent and their success. On July 23, the British newspaper The Guardian published the result of a recent survey that was taken among 18- to 24-year-old Russians. Forty-two percent of them see the oligarchs as a model for admiration - more than those that admire sports and television stars. The results of a public opinion poll that represents the public as a whole - and which were published in Pravda a week and a half ago - show that the attitude toward the oligarchs is balanced: There is no extreme enthusiasm for them and there is no marked hostility. On the one hand, there is evident admiration of their contribution to the economy and the momentum of privatization, and on the other hand there is agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin's measures to put a stop to their growing wealth and their efforts to gain control of Russia's natural resources.

The New York Times reported this month that the group of oligarchs - Jews and non-Jews - numbers 36 individuals who control $110 billion, a sum equivalent to one-quarter of Russia's gross national product.

The press in Rusia often describes the wealth and the hedonism of the oligarchs in general, focusing on colorful figures like Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea soccer club. A week ago Pravda reported on Abramovich's buying spree, which has included, among other things, a luxurious house in the heart of London that cost 47 million euros (in addition to seven other residences elsewhere in Europe). The newspaper compares the oligarchs to the hedonistic Arab sheikhs.

The potential for anti-Semitism that is inherent in the struggle against the oligarchs seems obvious when we recall statements by heads of the Kremlin, who often blamed the "Abramoviches" for all evils. The official Soviet press was known for extreme anti-Semitism and for attacks on Zionism and world Jewry, using Nazi terms. Apparently today, the heads of the administration as well as the media (apart, of course, from anti-Semitic articles in the fringe press) are being cautious not to turn the struggle against the oligarchs into a struggle against Jews. President Putin is enjoying wide public support for his fight against the oligarchs, including the continued detention of Mikhail Khodorkhovsky, the owner of the Yukos oil company, even though the deliberations on the charges against him have not yet begun.

In the Russian press, they are writing that the era of the oligarchs is coming to an end and are using the classical image that, like before Napoleon's defeat in 1812, Russia's "General Winter" is drawing near.

The prominent place that is taken by Jews among the Russian oligarchs fits in to the long history of relations between Jews and their environment. At the beginning of the era of capitalism, Jews succeeded in assuming key positions in the new economy precisely because they were prevented from belonging to the various guilds and because they were forbidden to purchase real estate or to own industries. Therefore they turned to finance and lending on credit. When, in the twilight of the feudal period, vast new opportunities emerged along with a need to initiate and create trade connections between countries - Jews were able make use of the ties and the skills they had developed.

A similar process happened to Jews in the Soviet Union. In the communist period they suffered from harsh official anti-Semitism and endless personal harassment. All that remained to them was to observe the situation from the sidelines, to accumulate knowledge and ambition, and to wait for an opportunity. With the collapse of the USSR, when many feared to enter an economy that appeared to be on the brink of falling apart and on the brink of civil wars - some Jews (it must not be forgotten most of the Jews were and remain of limited means to this day) - were numbered in that small group that was able to take the risk and participate in the unrestrained process of privatization in the collapsing Soviet Union. Some of them, even by their own account, also used force and cunning to exploit the opportunity that the anarchy created.

In 1748, the French philosopher Charles Louis Montesquieu explained that the Jews had always been victims of the regime that took control of their property and extorted money from them. Sophisticated commerce was born and developed, according to him, on the background of the distress and the harassment of the Jews, who had to find new and varied ways to protect their wealth. "Out of the harassment and the oppression of the Jews," said Montesquieu, "commerce grew."