Dr R Balashankar
Capitalism and the Jews, Jerry Z Muller, Princeton University Press, Pp 267 (PB), $19.95
Jews as a community have always been ‘associated’ with money in public mind. Such notions have been reinforced by jokes and characters in fiction (Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, for instance). In a highly intensive book Capitalism and the Jews, Jerry Z Muller analyses the relations between finance and the Jews. Says he, “For Jews, Jewish economic success has long been a source of both pride and embarrassment. For centuries, Jewish economic success led anti-Semites to condemn capitalism as a form of Jewish domination and exploitation, or attribute Jewish success to unsavory qualities of the Jews themselves.”
Jews have lived long as a diaspora, ever since their dispersion from the Land of Israel till their modern state was formed. Like other diasporic merchant minorities they developed the trading skills. Such minorities, Muller says, are characterised by the combination of specialised economic competence and political powerlessness, unlike other minorities, say the Muslims in India who are just the reverse. Their economic prowess is not so visible but they wield a lot of political power, much beyond their legitimate strength.
Jews migrated to liberal nations and welcoming societies and tried to assimilate while still holding intact their identities. But they discovered, repeatedly, that these liberal societies could also turn hostile and illiberal. Some sections of Jews even crossed over to Communism, as that ideology promised a recognition beyond the religion and the race. Yet another development in the community was the birth of Zionism.
Hence, Muller looks at these distinct points in separate chapters on Capitalism and the Jews, Jewish response to capitalism, the Jew as a Communist and the Economics of Nationalism and the fate of the Jews in 20th century Europe. In each of these broad chapter heads, Muller analyses the political, economic, and socio-cultural developments, with a constant touch on the subject matter — the Jews. “Within western Christendom, the image of commerce was closely connected to that of the Jew, who was regarded as an outsider and wanderer, able to engage in so reviled an activity as moneylending because he was beyond the community of shared faith.”
He feels that “Jews have been a conspicuous presence in the history of capitalism, both as symbol and as reality. Yet the relationship of the Jews to capitalism has received less attention than its significance merits.” The book traverses the boundary between general and Jewish history and between intellectual, economic and political history.
There is an interesting point made by Muller on the “religious intellectualism” of the Jews. “Theirs was a religion oriented to continuous contact with texts: a culture of handling books, reading them, and reflecting upon their message.” These learning skills, he says, easily translated into other secular areas — medical, legal, financial etc. They tended to excel, coupled with the strict mitzvot (discipline) prescribed by the religion and followed by their society.
Muller explains the historic contexts that helped the Jews to surge ahead, wherever they were, which often turned out to be the cause of misery for them, with the entire nations becoming enemies overnight. The Jews were bound to excel, even in their normal course. The book offers an interesting and new perspective into the economic history of the Jews, which is a by-product of their religious and cultural history. Jerry Muller is a leading historian of capitalism and is professor of history at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC and has authored books.
(Princeton University Press, 41 William Street, Princeton, New Jersay 08540)