Blackened by Filthy Lucre

How the Jews Are Tarnished by Money

Two Sides of a Coin: Abe Foxman (left) and Jerry Muller discuss Jews, money and capitalism from different perspectives.
GETTY IMAGES and PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS
Two Sides of a Coin: Abe Foxman (left) and Jerry Muller discuss Jews, money and capitalism from different perspectives.

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published December 01, 2010, issue of December 10, 2010.

Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype
By Abraham H. Foxman
Palgrave/Macmillan. 256 pages, $26

Capitalism and the Jews
By Jerry Z. Muller
Princeton University Press. 272 pages, $24.95

The nexus of Jews, capitalism and money became an unholy one early on. One side of this coin is the classic anti-Semitic myth of “Jewish power”: Jews are money-grubbers and Jewish money controls the workings of the world. The obverse is the idea that the very nature of money itself — and by extension, capitalism — is inherently pernicious, and all it took was to identify the Jew with unproductive money to make him the villain.

Two new books explore the coin of money and anti-Semitism. Abraham H. Foxman, the highly visible national director of the Anti-Defamation League, explores with a vengeance the resurgence of the “Jews-and-money” stereotype.

Foxman’s book is the latest in a series of ADL-generated books, going back to a lurid series of screeds a la Walter Winchell in the 1970s that were basically collections of ADL memoranda on anti-Semitic thugs and actions rather than sober analyses of anti-Semitism. Foxman’s book is a cut above these; he makes every effort, pace the subtitle, to trace the stereotype from early times to present-day America.

Indeed, the strongest section of “Jews and Money” is the chapter “The Story of a Stereotype,” which is a cogent review of the history of anti-Semitism. Does Foxman overstate ancient anti-Semitism? Yes — but who cares? The chapter does a splendid job of recapping and recontextualizing, even for the knowledgeable reader.

The problem with “Jews and Money” is twofold. First is the confrontational in-your-face tone of the book, which is counterproductive. Second, and more important, are the book’s overstatements and occasional misrepresentations. For example, Foxman cleverly begins “Jews and Money” with the narrative counterpoint of a Jew, Aaron Feuerstein, a Boston industrialist who saved the livelihoods and probably the lives of whole communities during a period of financial downturn; and a Jew, Bernard Madoff, who destroyed lives with his evil financial activities. The point? The Madoff story became a vehicle for anti-Semitic expression: “It’s those Jews and their money….”

Unfortunately, the Foxman rendition of Madoff and the facts of recent history are not in alignment. While it is true, as Foxman repeatedly reminds us, that the crazies on the Internet had a field day with Madoff, in the general press Madoff’s Jewishness was discussed exclusively in terms of the “affinity crime”: Madoff used his Jewishness as a vehicle for preying on fellow Jews. Further, the fears of American Jews, professional and lay, that L’affaire Madoff would trigger expressions of anti-Semitism, were largely unfounded. But little attention to anti-Semitic fallout from Madoff was paid by the press and elsewhere, simply because there was so little to report. In this regard, the Madoff story followed a well-established pattern in American Jewish life, in which polarizing conflict situations — the Rosenbergs, Boesky, Pollard, the oil crises of the 1970s, the farm crisis of the 1980s — are accompanied by widespread expectations that anti-Semitism will flare up but lead to no such increase.

So with Madoff. In 2008–2009, the economic meltdown was so immense, with so many causes — to say nothing of the fact that Madoff was perceived as a “Jew-on-Jew” criminal — that Main Street did not say, “The economy is going to hell because of the Jew Madoff.” Moreover, precisely because Jewishness was intrinsic to the story, anti-Semitism was less likely to be a matter of concern.

The kind of coloration displayed by the Madoff story at the very beginning of “Jews and Money” sets an unfortunate tone for the rest of the book, suggesting that overstatement is acceptable.

Additionally, minor errors dot the book. The Jewish community federations in America do not raise anywhere near the $3 billion per year that Foxman reports. And contrary to Foxman’s implication, though Christian writer James Parkes was justly revered for exposing Christian-based anti-Semitism, he was not the pioneer in exploring it; mention ought have been made of the Catholic Malcolm Hay, whose influential “Europe and the Jews” (Academy Chicago Publishing, 2005; originally published in 1950 as “The Foot of Pride”) set the bar for all who followed, and who was excommunicated for his courageous writing. And, most important, there is the “Jewish power” question, asked frequently of Americans in polls. Foxman suggests it is bad news that 13% of respondents answered “Yes” to the question, “Which of the following groups [list includes “Jews”] have too much power in America?” But this is actually very good news. On the “Jewish power” question, Jews come out, at 8% to 13%, well below every other ethnic and religious group, except Hispanics.

Foxman’s argument is cogent, notwithstanding those flaws and the author’s sometimes over-the-top rhetoric; the negative nexus of “Jews and Money” is yet with us, and it is pernicious. But Foxman’s analysis has a basic omission, crucial to our understanding of the place of Jews in contemporary society, especially in America. In America the discussion about anti-Semitism is less about anti-Semitism — which is clearly out there, even as it is seriously diminished (as the ADL’s own surveys show) — and more about Jewish security, which is the ability of Jews to actively participate in society. This ability, absent in the America of 1910 (and in many parts of the world today), is unparalleled in the America of 2010. This is more than a nuance; it is a reality that is crucial to any discussion of anti-Semitism, and it is missing from “Jews and Money.”

“Jews and Money” ends, predictably, with one rather large prescription: a “national conversation” on prejudice reduction. Foxman’s somewhat flaccid peroration ignores a basic issue: It is by no means clear that prejudice-reduction programs — into which countless millions have been poured since the 1950s — have in fact reduced prejudice across the board. These programs are popular and may indeed do some good, since, at its heart, anti-Semitism is not a Jewish problem; it is a non-Jewish problem. But much research is needed before we assume that they are the right way to go. The ADL itself, to its credit, is doing pioneering research, long overdue, on the efficacy of these programs.

Experience has demonstrated that more effective means of reducing prejudice are those that effect social change: Improve the economic conditions of society, and anti-Semitism goes down, across the board. And on the constitutional front, the separation of church and state, mentioned by Foxman only in a single throwaway sentence, is probably the surest guarantor of the security of Jews (and of everybody else).

Historian Jerry Z. Muller also addresses the touchy subject of Jews making money, albeit in a different, more sober manner. Muller, a Catholic University academic, takes, in his splendid survey, “Capitalism and the Jews,” a historian’s approach to the money/anti-Semitism nexus: From earliest times, Muller argues, financiers, economists, and philosophers misunderstood what money was all about. Historically, money was thought of as a means of exchange, period. Money was incapable of being productive. What was productive? Labor. And anyone who eschewed labor for extracting additional money for money — read here the Jewish interest-charging moneylender — was a parasite at best, at worst a danger to society. Fast-forward to the modern era (where Muller’s scholarly narrative is brisk and fascinating) and to the identification of the Jew with the capitalist. Indeed, Muller argues that with the triumph of capitalism, anti-Semitism was enhanced, and as Jewish thinker Ber Borochov cannily noted (insightfully discussed by Muller), anti-Jewish resentment against the successful Jew was intensified.

But — and it is a minor “but” — in addressing anti-Semitism in the modern era, Muller gives insufficient attention to the profound shift to racist anti-Semitism from Christian religious-based anti-Judaism. Anti-Semitism was a witch’s brew in the 19th century, and Muller’s otherwise sophisticated analysis does not get its full flavor.

Is money the “root of all evil”? Perhaps not quite of all, but, as Foxman and Muller tell the story, it’s there. And it ain’t good.

Jerome Chanes is a contributing editor to the Forward and is the author of the award winning “Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook” (ABC-CLIO, 2004).



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