Friday, December 29, 2023

Review: Capitalism and the Jews

Capitalism and the JewsCapitalism and the Jews by Jerry Z. Muller
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An interesting collection of essays about European Jewry and the rise of modern capitalism. It is neither an economic history of capitalism, nor a history of European Jewry, but it does capture snapshots of both. Covering the middle ages up through the twentieth century, Muller’s essays examine the role of antisemitism and how that affected the relationship of Jews to modern capitalism. He argues that earlier religious antisemitism (large rooted in Christian theology) lead to the restriction of employment by Jews to areas of trade and commerce; and then as modern capitalism grows, the Jewish overrepresentation in trade and commerce leads to new forms of antisemitism. Muller also explores the Jewish involvement in the major social movements of nineteenth and twentieth century Europe. He shows that Jews were overrepresented in most of these movements, not just socialism and communism as is the common stereotype. Indeed, Muller argues, that only a small minority of European Jews were ever supportive of the socialist movements. And in the movements, Jews were also always a small minority. But Jewish involvement was conspicuous and tended to reinforce older antisemitic stereotypes, and so these newer antisemitic tropes develop. In one of the more tragic ironies of the twentieth century is that Jews were regarded, by the socialist left, as being evil, rapacious capitalists, but then, on the right, as being the leaders of communist vanguard. Muller also looks at the rise of nationalism and how Zionism fits into that both as a form of nationalism and a response to European nationalism.

All the essays are clear and informative, exploring the contours of this history in interesting and often novel ways. The analysis is at a more general level; a ten-thousand-foot view if you will, rather than getting into any great detail. As such, this is a good starting place, rather than the only or final account, for understanding the complex relationships of capitalism, socialism, antisemitism, and Zionism.

View all my reviews