top of page
< Back

Book Notes: Capitalism and the Jews, J. Z. Muller

Michael Alpert

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Capitalism and the Jews, J. Z. Muller (Princeton University Press 2010) isbn 978-0-691-14478-8, pp. 223, $24.95. While traditionally the highest respect in Jewish communities has been paid to scholars and rabbis, wealth (which implies the wise handling of capital) has been admired, provided its owners applied their wealth to the public weal, specifically to charity and the support of learning. In this attractively produced volume the author asks whether, if the Protestant ethic is at the root of capitalism, as Max Weber's famous book claimed, there is a specifically Jewish ethic or talent which has a similar effect. Jerzy Muller, Professor of History at the Catholic University in Washington DC, claims that the subject has been avoided because it does not fall into easy categories. Jewish success seems to contradict the theory that equal oppor? tunities give rise to equal outcomes. Capitalism itself is so often the butt of hostility that to examine Jewish success in it is tantamount to appearing anti Semitic, even blatantly so. In any case, as Muller points out, human qualities are not calculable in mathematical terms. Nor can Jews be categorized like the Chinese as a merchant community living in a diaspora, for, unlike the Chinese, Jews have had a cosmic religious significance for the Christian world where, until modern times, they were the barely tolerated 'other', the deicides, who must be allowed to exist as witnesses of the divine word, but maintained in humiliation because of their sin. Muller claims that it was Jews' commercial experience in the pre-modern world, together with their emphasis on literacy, which made for success in modern commercial societies, where business acumen and booklearning pro? duced dividends. However, ethnic nationalism, which excluded Jews, led them towards liberal, socialist and eventually Zionist (that is, Jewish nation? alist) solutions. 22?</page><page sequence="2">Book Notes People who fundamentally suspected the role of the market and the lending of money, thought of it as 'usury', a term which in some minds was extended to many kinds of unfair commerce, and seen as parasitic. Since the Church forbade lending at interest, while Jews were permitted by their doc? trines to lend at interest for business purposes, capitalism, money-lending and even selling at a profit were linked with Jews. These became first a sym? bolic and then a real object of fear and hatred, perhaps even more so because the high risks of lending money in the Middle Ages led to high interest rates and thus accusations of avarice. Karl Marx saw Jews as the ideal participant in the market society which he wished to overthrow. French anti-Semites in particular attacked nine? teenth-century Jewish investment bankers as usurers. The German eco? nomic historian Werner Sombart argued that capitalism suited Judaism, whose followers were accustomed to setting distant goals, the deferred grat? ification that Weber for his part noted as contributing to the rise of capital? ism in Protestant societies. Some thinkers saw the Jewish involvement in capitalism as a result of inherent racial characteristics, in terms of the intrin? sic content of Judaism or as a result of historical circumstances. Anti-Semites characterized the worst aspects of capitalism as quintessentially Jewish. The British economist Keynes published a lecture in 1930 in which he con? demned modern capitalism for subordinating the present to the future, an attitude which he blamed on the Jews who had introduced the idea of immor? tality into human thinking. Finally, in this first essay Muller discusses the views of Hayek, who sees the Jews as representing the spirit of the capitalism which is the only way that the world can progress. In this rich and tightly argued book Muller reproduces three more of his own academic papers and articles. The second one discusses how Jews approached capitalism despite the antipathy of many Jews to it. The third essay develops the latter theme and examines the attractions of Communism, while the fourth essay analyses the roles of nationalism, economics and the fate of Jews in the last century. Michael Alpert</page></plain_text>

bottom of page