The question of why so many Jews have been so good at making money is a touchy one. For hundreds of years, it has been fraught with suspicion, denial, resentment, guilt, self-hatred and violence. No wonder Jews and gentiles alike are so uncomfortable confronting Jewish capitalistic competence. Still, in his slim essay collection “Capitalism and the Jews,” Jerry Z. Muller presents a provocative and accessible survey of how Jewish culture and historical accident ripened Jews for commercial success and why that success has earned them so much misfortune.
As Muller, a history professor at the Catholic University of America, explains it, much anti-Semitism can be attributed to a misunderstanding of basic economics. From Aristotle through the Renaissance (and then again in the 19th century, thanks to that Jew-baiting former Jew Karl Marx), thinkers believed that money should be considered sterile, a mere means of exchange incapable of producing additional value. Only labor could be truly productive, it was thought, and anyone who extracted money from money alone — that is, through interest — must surely be a parasite, or at the very least a fraud. The Bible also contended that charging interest was sinful, inspiring Dante to consign usurers to the seventh circle of hell (alongside sodomites and murderers). In other words, 500 years ago, the phrase “predatory lending” would have been considered redundant.
Lending at interest was thus forbidden across Christian Europe — for Christians. Jews, however, were permitted by the Roman Catholic Church to charge interest; since they were going to hell anyway, why not let them help growing economies function more efficiently? (According to Halakha, or Jewish law, Jews were not allowed to charge interest to one another, just to gentiles.) And so it was, Muller explains, that Judaism became forever fused in the popular mind with finance. In fact, Christian moneylenders were sometimes legally designated as temporary Jews when they lent money to English and French kings.