Jews and Their Money

The Enduring Legacy of Economic Anti-Semitism

By Ilan Preskovsky

There is perhaps no greater example of the anti-Semitic stereotype of the money-grubbing Jew in all of literature than the character of Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shylock is an exceptionally greedy and merciless Jewish loan shark who lends the play’s Christian protagonist, Antonio, a sizeable amount of money and literally secures the loan against a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio inevitably defaults on repaying the money, Shylock lives up to his repulsive, almost satanic nature and demands his “pound of flesh” (trust Shakespeare to coin a still widely-used phrase even at his most objectionable) as repayment. After Shylock descends further and further into an endless spiral of hatred and greed, the play climaxes with him at the mercy of Antonio and accepting a deal to make up for his evil Jewish ways by, of course, converting to Christianity.

Considering the unprecedented level of Jew-hatred by Christians during the Middle Ages, it’s hardly a massive shock that Shakespeare was, if not an outright anti-Semite, then at least someone who had no issue using blatantly anti-Semitic stereotypes in his work. What is truly astounding about Shylock isn’t that a medieval Christian like William Shakespeare might dive head first into using one of the most pernicious anti-Semitic tropes as a basis for one of his most iconic antagonists, but that it’s extremely unlikely that Shakespeare ever so much as met a Jew in his entire life.

After two centuries of persecution, the entire Jewish population was expelled en masse from England in 1290 by an edict of King Edward I and, aside for the very rare individual here and there, no Jews resided anywhere in the Kingdom of England until Oliver Cromwell reopened the country to Jews in 1655. The Merchant of Venice was written circa 1600 and Shakespeare died in April 1616 so, though there is a remote possibility that Shakespeare based Shylock on one of the tiny handful of Jews who lived in the entire Kingdom at the time, it’s far more likely that the character was simply the result of culturally ingrained stereotypes about Jews.

Even with no actual Jews in sight, it would make sense that anti-Semitism would still reign supreme in Medieval England as part of the Christian myth of Jews as “Christ-killers”, but why on Earth would so mundane a stereotype as the Shylock caricature persist in the country for centuries. And, perhaps more pressingly, why does it still hold so much sway to this day in even the most liberal democracies – up to and including the United Kingdom and the United States of America?

It’s All About the Benjamins, Baby

In very, very recent history, we’ve seen this undying stereotype raise its ugly head on both sides of the political aisle in the United States. On the right, when white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017, ostensibly to protest the dismantling of statues of some infamous Confederate figures, their ire quickly and inexplicably turned to their eternal enemy: the Jew. Now, because Jews had little to do with what they were protesting (just as what they were supposed to be protesting had little to do with the actual protest), these fine people simply defaulted to the usual claims of supposed Jewish control of the economy and the country’s wealth, making chants of “the Jews will not replace us” into the protest’s central mantra.

On the left, anti-Zionist sentiment has been on the rise throughout the world and, sadly, America’s Democratic Party is no exception. Though it certainly hasn’t fallen anywhere near as far as, say, the UK’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the Democrats do include among their members the likes of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who once again revealed the anti-Semitic underbelly of the anti-Zionism movement with her infamous “it’s all about the Benjamins, baby” tweet.

Charitably, she may well have just been complaining about the way that wealthy lobbying groups exert far too much power on the political establishment, but, even if her words weren’t intentionally meant as an anti-Jewish slur, it was certainly aimed squarely at the American Israel Public Affair Committee (AIPAC). Like all lobbying groups, there is indeed some major wealth behind AIPAC – and her larger issue with money in politics is more than fair – but why is it that Omar specifically aimed this particular complaint at the lobbying group that represents the only Jewish state in the world?

On any conceivable level, Omar’s progressive, social-democratic beliefs could not be further removed from the ideology of neo-Nazis and white supremacists, but when it came to attacking American support of the Jewish state, she fell onto exactly the same Shylock stereotype as her ideological nemeses – even if, as she claims, she did so unconsciously and unintentionally.

And these are only two examples, in a single country, in the past couple of years. Such noxious views of Jews and our apparent economic clout has become a pervasive feature of civil and not-so-civil discourse throughout the world.

In Poland, when far-right protesters encouraged their children to beat an effigy of a Jew, just what do you think that effigy looked like and what was it about the country’s (at most) 20 000 Jews do you think they were “protesting”? Rather closer to home, when the more far-left elements of South Africa’s own political establishment throw in more blatant anti-Jewish rhetoric into their usual, run-of-the-mill demonisation of Israel, take a wild guess at just what type of anti-Semitic archetype is invoked?

So ingrained is this stereotype that, on a personal level, I’ve even encountered it divorced from any obvious signs of anti-Semitism. During my first year studying journalism, I was asked by a fellow student about why Jews are “so good with money” and why there aren’t any poor Jews. It was a question asked with, as near as I can tell, no intentional animosity behind it and with a total ignorance of both the fact that he was playing into a hideous anti-Semitic trope and that there are a tragic number of Jews who are decidedly “not so good with money”. He was surprised when our lecturer called him out for making such an anti-Semitic statement and the idea that there are many Jews who live in abject poverty in this country alone all but blew his mind.

How did we ever get to this point?

Economic Anti-Semitism: A History

When considering the history of economic anti-Semitism – the proper name for this particular form of Jew-hatred – it’s hard to decide what is more ironic: that the stereotype was created as a result of anti-Semitic policies that relegated Jews to “unsavoury” jobs like moneylending in the first place, or that economic anti-Semitism has zero issue with identifying the Jew as the instigator of both the worst aspects of capitalism and socialism.

Either way, it is interesting to note that though anti-Semitism in modern Islamic countries combines both ethnic/religious and economic forms of anti-Semitism, the West is a rather different story. According to comparative historian Derek Penslar, ethnic and religious anti-Semitism in the West has faded significantly as a result of the rise of multiculturalism and secularism over the past century, but even with the great strides towards equality made by liberalism over the 20th Century, economic anti-Semitism is as much a “distinct and constant” presence as it ever was.

It’s interesting, then, that this pervasive and unyielding form of anti-Semitism doesn’t, in fact, go too far back in history and it was, at one time, a fairly localised phenomenon. Prior to the Middle Ages in Europe, hatred of Jews was primarily theological in nature to Christians and mostly ethnic in the eyes of the Greek and Roman Empires. Further, while economic anti-Semitism is on full display in the modern, post-colonial Islamic world, during Islam’s Golden Age, anti-Semitism only really existed to the extent that Jews were viewed – like Christians, in fact – as second-class citizens who enjoyed a certain “protected” status in Islamic lands.

Though both of Islam’s sibling Abrahamic faiths were seen as inferior to Islam because they refused to accept the authority of Mohammed, their “familiar connection” and adherence to monotheism gave Jews and Christians far greater status in Muslim countries than those who were not “of the Book”. Even Maimonides, who was chased out of his native Spain by a group of extremist Muslims in the 12th Century, otherwise enjoyed good relationships with Muslims. This is a far cry from today’s radical Islamic world that still readily embraces the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as fact, despite its being so thoroughly and definitively exposed as an obvious hoax over a century ago.

Economic anti-Semitism actually only really began in earnest in Medieval, Christian Europe, where Jews were largely forbidden from working in more prestigious fields and were forced to take on “unsavoury” jobs such as tax collecting and moneylending. On the latter point, in a grotesque display of irony, moneylending was held in such low esteem because of a Christian injunction against lending money with interest – an injunction that was, of course, taken directly from several places in the Tanach. Like much of Christian theology, Christianity’s negative view of moneylending was also greatly influenced by Aristotelian philosophy (especially via Thomas Aquinas), which viewed profiting from usury (moneylending) as “unnatural” and those who functioned as usurers (moneylenders) as engaged in a “sordid trade” of making money from money.

For Jews, the prohibition against lending or borrowing with interest applies only to those loans made with other Jews, meaning that lending to non-Jews with interest is permissible. So, Christians pushed Jews into a trade that they knew was broadly acceptable to Jews, but forbidden and even despicable to them. Even as they depended on Jews for these services and, in fact, left Jews no choice but to take such career paths in the first place, those same Christians hated Jews for it.

Unsurprisingly, with Jews forced into this very particular role, a highly negative correlation between Jews and money was established in Christian Europe from that point on. After all, loan sharks and tax collectors, who seemingly take money away from those who often need it the most, are easy figures to hate. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that hatred for those individuals who practiced such professions would spread to the wider group of people to whom those “money-grubbers” typically belonged.[1]

Rich Man, Poor Man, Beggar Man, Thief

Proving once again that there is no actual rhyme or reason for the hatred of Jews, this basis for economic anti-Semitism morphed and transmogrified so much over the centuries that it at times came to represent the exact opposite of its original stereotype. While the original view of the Jew was of one who contributes nothing to society by dedicating all of his time purely to the pursuit of money rather than providing any actual goods or services, this stereotype was flipped on its head in the early 19th Century. Jewish Emancipation greatly changed the lot of Jews in Europe during the industrial revolution, as Jews were free to move away from society’s least-wanted jobs towards entrepreneurship and business, including middle- and upper-class jobs.

What resulted from this was that Jews were no longer the subject of scorn for being a nation of “Shylocks”, but now the subject of envy of the kind that has persisted until this day (“the Jews will not replace us”). Jews were no longer “vermin” working those jobs that no one else wanted, but were those who stole the jobs from “good, hard-working *insert group of people looking for a scapegoat*” and took control of the country’s economy. “Shylocks” became “Sassoons”, and economic anti-Semitism had a new face.

This was certainly a view held by the original wave of communists and socialists who saw Jews as being the devilish personification of capitalism itself. And it was certainly a view propagated by the founder of socialism, Karl Marx, in his foundational essay on socialism, “On the Jewish Question”. Of course, Marx was Jewish (though his family converted to Christianity when Marx was still a child – ironically as a way for his father Heinrich to be admitted to practice as a lawyer), as were a number of the founders of this radical economic movement, so even as the socialists were decrying Jews for representing the worst sides of capitalism, capitalists condemned Jews as dangerous communists who wanted to rob the middle and upper classes of their wealth.

These two conflicting sides of economic anti-Semitism reached their most lethal potency in the early 20th Century in both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Shockingly, despite these and other seismic events that shook the world in the 20th Century, despite even the establishment of a Jewish State and the rise of a new form of anti-Semitism (anti-Zionism), they still exist today.

We may have a state of our own, we may have better relationships with Christians than in any other time in history (it was genuinely unsettling to write so negatively about Christians in the above paragraphs), but that old hatred still exists among our enemies. Our relationship may have soured with, if not Muslims, then at least an increasing wave of militant Islamists and theocratic Islamic countries, and we may be living in a world where Germany is one of the greatest and most steadfast allies of the Jewish State, but when it comes to both neo-Nazis and Islamic terrorists, all newer expressions of anti-Semitism simply can’t match that enduring cry of anti-Semites everywhere: “the Jews will not replace us”.

  1. [ED: In searching for stock photos related to the search term: “moneylending”, one of the first images that came up was of an Orthodox Jew, with no explanation whatsoever for the image’s connection to moneylending.]

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