It’s hard to imagine a more provocative title than “Capitalism and the Jews.” In fact, as I was reading the book, it was striking how many people glanced at the title and gave an ever-so slight but discernible double take. But Jerry Z. Muller’s recent book is neither a polemic nor a setup for a bad lounge joke but is instead a compelling, sober essay about an elephant that has been sitting in the middle of Western history for the past two centuries at least: Jews have been inextricably woven into the history and evolution of capitalism.

The title of Muller’s provocative series of essays comes from Milton Friedman, the apostle of free markets who for decades ruled over the economics profession from his perch at the University of Chicago. But Muller — himself a professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. — has a wider range by far. Friedman was interested mostly in the conundrum of why Jews, who had profited so much from the rise of free-market capitalism, were so often the leading critics of it. Muller is compelled by the multiple facets of Jewish influences on and attitudes toward capitalism. Jews were central to the formation of capitalism before the 19th century. They have been central to its defense, and they have been central to movements that have rejected it, communism in particular. They have embraced it, and rejected it, nurtured it and fled from it. It is anything but a simple relationship.

There’s no question that Jews have excelled in free-market societies over the past two centuries. Their places of prominence in the Western world reads like a conspiracy manual composed by zealous anti-Semites: In German on the eve of World War I, Jews composed upward of 40 percent of the corporate elite. In Hungary in the 1920s, Jews accounted for 54 percent of the owners of commercial establishments and 85 percent of bank directors. Jews for the entire 20th century were massively overrepresented proportional to their numbers in academia, medicine and finance and as lawyers, architects and engineers. In the 1980s, according to Forbes’ annual survey of the richest Americans, Jews made up a quarter of the list even though they accounted for only 3 percent of the population. They constituted one-fifth of the faculty of elite universities, and of the 38 Nobel winners for economics between 1970 and 2008, 22 were Jews.

book cover

Capitalism and the Jews

By Jerry Z. Muller

Princeton University Press, 272 pages

Buy the book

But Muller is intrigued that with such unequivocal success came not triumphalism but ambivalence. Jews in Western society have attracted unwanted attention because of that success, and many Jews responded either by rejecting capitalism or rejecting Judaism and attempting to assimilate. Before the rise of capitalism, Jews were often the moneylenders and the money-changers in Europe, because of the long-standing prohibitions against usury among Christians. They often occupied similar positions in the Muslim world. They also excelled as merchants, both because their outsider status led to strong familial networks that were essential to trade in an era before modern banking and because Western aristocrats disdained making money from trade. As the Western world became more secular and more capitalist in the 19th century, Jews had an edge, but that in turn was often turned against them.

Many of the formative thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries — ranging from Voltaire to Marx to Max Weber — pointed to the Jews as central to the character of capitalism, and not in a good way. Marx assailed the Jews for having one god: “Money.” Others were more complimentary, especially Friedrich Hayek, who lauded the dynamism of both capitalism and the Jews. He dismissed the traditional animus toward the Jews as the result of ruling elites who were seeing their position in society undermined by modernity resenting the success of the Jews in taking advantage of the Industrial Age. But Hayek’s views were hardly representative, and were overwhelmed in the first half of the 20th century by the waves of anti-Semitism that reached an apex with Nazi Germany.

Muller makes a compelling case that the embrace of communism by some European Jews was a catastrophe. On the one hand, that link supported all sorts of conspiratorial anti-Semitism; on the other, it backfired as Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Russia turned against the Jews. In Hungary, Jews were at the vanguard of the Communist movement, led by Matyas Rakosi both after World War I and then again after World War II. While most Jews were lukewarm about communism and in fact more focused on Zionism and creating a new Jewish state culminating with Israel in 1948, there were enough who turned to communism to create the perception of a strong bond between Jews and the international Communist movement. Because Jews suffered from a backlash against their success at the practice of capitalism, many Jews sought alternatives that would allow them to live more securely, either in their own state, or by assimilating, or by the pursuit of a post-capitalist system of equality promised in theory by communism. But in Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism proved a deeper force, and all that the embrace of communism ultimately accomplished was to give majority populations one more excuse to blame the Jews for societal ills and punish them accordingly. Jewish Communist leaders were everywhere purged by the early 1950s.

Muller offers no neat or satisfying conclusion, other than to briefly synopsize the work of Ernest Gellner, who wrote insightfully about the dilemma of Jews as a “Diaspora community” that found great success in a manner that in turn produced great peril. The success of the Jews was not much different than other Diaspora groups, such as ethnic Chinese throughout Asia, but unlike the Chinese, the Jews had no homeland. That was seen as a critical weakness, and one reason for the creation and avid defense of Israel. As Israel became a beacon of international Judaism, it also absorbed much of the criticism that Diaspora Jews used to receive — though it is also true that Europe Jews were decimated by the Holocaust and hence no longer as prominent in European society.

But the Jewish question lives on in different ways in the United States, a subject beyond the scope of Muller’s work. Jewish support of Israel evolved in the 1960s and 1970s into a core aspect of American grand strategy, with evangelical Christians in the United States just as adamant about that policy as any Jewish group and with the U.S. foreign policy establishment turning Israel into a key pillar of American strategy in the Middle East. It’s unlikely that the currents of conflict that these policies have created will have the same consequences for American Jews that the endorsement of either capitalism or communism did in Europe a century ago. That may be the fear, but there’s scant evidence that the present is about to recapitulate that past — the emotional tenor of any discussion about Jews and Israel notwithstanding. Muller’s essays are compelling primarily as a work of history, a look at the links between the formative ideas of the modern world and the role of a small but disproportionately important minority in determining that trajectory. It’s a fascinating history, but its message for our present is modest at best.

Zachary Karabell is president of River Twice Research and a commentator on CNBC. He is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World’s Prosperity Depends on It” (2009).

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.