The Link Between Jews and Money Is No Longer Taboo

After years of focusing on anti-Semitism, more and more historians are daring to deal with a subject long considered untouchable

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Al Pacino, in a 2004 film version of 'The Merchant of Venice.'
Al Pacino, in a 2004 film version of 'The Merchant of Venice.'Credit: Steve Braun/Sony Classics/Kobal/
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

The correspondence between Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt includes a letter that Arendt received from the German philosopher’s wife, Elfride, in April 1969. She informs Arendt that she and her husband have decided to build a small, one-story house in their backyard, and to give up the large house they’d been living in near Freiburg. The new structure “would cost about 80-100,000 DM, which we do not have, of course, but we have valuables.” To pay for the house, they decided to sell the original manuscript of Heidegger’s “Being and Time,” from 1927, which was by then considered one of the century’s seminal works of philosophy. “But as we know nothing about money, we have no idea how much this manuscript is worth and where one might be able to offer it for sale,” Elfride Heidegger writes.

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What prompted Elfride Heidegger, who was apparently quite the anti-Semite, to consult on financial matters with Hannah Arendt – a Jewish intellectual who in the past had been her husband’s lover, and of whom Elfride was evidently not very fond (as reflected in earlier letters written by the husband)? The answer is contained in the question: The Heideggers surmised that Arendt, being Jewish, knew a lot more about money than they did. Although she was a political philosopher, they assumed that the blood of a financial adviser ran in her arteries.

Hannah Arendt, political philosopher and scholar, smoking a cigarette (1969).Credit: AP

Heidegger himself wrote in his “Black Notebooks,” from the period of Nazi rule, that world Jewry has a “marked talent for calculation” that endangers “Being” itself (translation by Greg Johnson). It turns out, however, that, when the need arose, the Heideggers did not balk at appealing to that imaginary accounting skill.

Arendt, for her part, seems not to have been surprised: She immediately offered some advice, though a certain air of grievance is discernible in her reply: “In response to your inquiry, I am writing immediately to tell you what I know – which is not much.”

This anecdote exemplifies the centuries-old stereotype according to which the Jews have an innate knack for dealing with money. It’s an image that clung to the Jews even when they were paupers. After the establishment of the State of Israel, the stereotype seemed to fade somewhat, as the new Jew envisioned by Zionism was purportedly an expert in farming and fighting, not in banking. But today it is perfectly clear that the “Jew and money” stereotype is almost as potent as it was a century ago. Suffice it to recall President Donald Trump’s remark to Jewish leaders during the election campaign, “You’re not going to support me, because I don’t want your money.”

Considering the dark history of the subject of the connection between Jews and money, the actual economic history of the Jews is a highly sensitive issue. Jewish history has been described as “a head without a body.” As the historian Jonathan Karp notes, the character of Shylock – the notorious usurer in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” – has cast “a long shadow of defensiveness over Jewish self-perceptions.” Nevertheless, over the past decade, historians have been increasingly focusing on the economic life of the Jews and trying to dispel the mystery and the myths that envelop the subject. Karp has termed this an “economic turn” in the field of Jewish studies.

Until not long ago, most historians preferred to delve deeply into the history of anti-Semitism, or to study the origins of kabbala or analyze Jewish philosophy – and not dwell, for example, on the story of the Jewish trading and banking empires. That subject was largely neglected by Jewish historians themselves; they left it for thinkers who possessed anti-Semitic inclinations.

A striking example is German sociologist Werner Sombart, who in 1911 published the influential book “The Jews and Modern Capitalism” (English edition, 2001, translated by M. Epstein). In response to sociologist Max Weber, Sombart argued that it was the Jews, not the Protestants, who invented capitalism. The Jews’ compatibility with capitalism, he thought, was related to substantive traits in Judaism, which, from the dawn of history, trained the Jews in “the subjugation of the merely animal instincts in man.” In a highly dubious manner, the sociologist associates abstract Jewish thinking with the Jews’ nomadic desert origins: “The sharp outlines of the landscape in hot, dry countries, their brilliant sunshine and their deep shadows, their clear, starlit nights and their stunted vegetation – cannot all these be summed up in the one word, abstraction?”

Actually, Jewish scholars have often sought to emphasize the socialist elements of their culture, a tendency that was consistent with the leftist bent of many Jewish intellectuals in the mid-20th century. But that situation seems to be changing. Not a few contemporary Jewish intellectuals have embraced capitalism as a legitimate economic approach, and are not ashamed of it. As such, they are proud to present their co-religionists as pioneers of capitalism.

One of the latter group is the historian Jerry Z. Muller. In his 2010 book “Capitalism and the Jews,” Muller homes in on the Jewish financiers who established the Deutsche Bank and the Dresdner Bank. A similar approach is taken in “The Chosen Few” (2012), by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein. Their book describes usurious moneylending as a Jewish trade, one in which Jews specialized of their own volition, in order to exploit their relative advantages over the uneducated general population. In this way, the authors maintain, the Jews brought prosperity to the countries in which they were active.

The past decade has also seen the publication of many studies that promote less sweeping claims, but describe global networks of commerce in which the Jews played a crucial role throughout the modern era. Thus, Sarah Abraveya Stein, in her 2012 book “Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews and a Lost World of Global Commerce,” tells the story of the Jewish trade in ostrich feathers and other luxury items, which flourished from the 1880s until World War I. She maintains that in these and other networks, the Jews “functioned as the glue that bound together a global market.” Historian Francesca Trivellato has written about the role played by Sephardi Jews in international commerce during the 17th and 18th centuries, and Cornelia Aust, in her forthcoming “The Jewish Economic Elite,” traces the role of Ashkenazi Jews in this story.

These works are in the forefront of the study of Jewish history, but the Israeli educational system would rather focus on other aspects of the history of the Jewish people, even though, for example, the influence exerted by the Rothschild family on Jewish history was certainly greater than that of the writings of philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, or even Maimonides.

And by the way, these themes sometimes become intertwined. Both Isaac Abarbanel and Moses Mendelssohn were philosophers and financiers both. Baron Walter Rothschild was not only a banker, but also a zoologist, who classified more than 150 species of insects and owned 300,000 stuffed birds. Apparently, you don’t always have to make a choice.

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