More Money, More Problems

Jacques Attali Tackles the Controversial History of Jews and Finance

By Yoel Sher

Published April 18, 2003, issue of April 18, 2003.
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Les Juifs, le monde et l’argent: Histoire économique du peuple juif (Jews, the World and Money: An Economic History Of the Jewish People)

By Jacques Attali

Librairie Arthème Fayard, 638 pages, 25 euros.

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Almost nothing sells better than a book about Jews, especially if its author happens to be Jewish: Gentiles will buy it to find further backing for their prejudices, while Jews will buy it to learn, with some trepidation, how one of their own presents them to the outer world. This is especially true when the book deals with as emotionally charged a subject as Jews and finance, the topic of Jacques Attali’s latest publication.

Putting out a book like this was a smart move on the part of someone who, for a decade (1981-1991), was a close adviser to French socialist president François Mitterrand and the founder and first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, created in 1990. The book has not yet been translated into English, but it should be, especially given Attali’s status in the world of finance.

Attali, a Jew of Algerian background, is a long-standing member of the French establishment. From 1973 onward, he published no fewer than 32 books, an average of one per year, in addition to dozens of articles, including a regular column in L’Express. After graduating summa cum laude from the prestigious École Polytechnique, he continued his studies and graduated from L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Saint-Etienne and Ecole Nationale d’Administration. He has a doctorate in economics and has also received honorary doctorates from Haifa University and the University of Kent. Since 1970, he has been teaching at the École Polytechnique and Université Paris Dauphine, as well as other institutions of higher learning in France.

Despite certain weak points, Attali not only dissects and attacks the image of the Jew as genetically and magically linked to money; he presents a positive image of the Jew, while describing the tragic reality forced upon the Jewish people throughout history.

The historical background is common knowledge. Jews were prevented from engaging in agriculture or working as artisans, with fields reserved for members of the professional guilds, and instead forced to loan money — an economic activity forbidden to the Church faithful. But Attali takes the history lesson up a notch by arguing that Jews engaged in financial affairs because they were eternal wanderers: From the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise and the Mark of Cain, through the journeys of the Patriarchs between the Euphrates and the Nile and the Israelites wandering through the Sinai Desert on their way to the Promised Land, to the exile of the Jews from their homeland and their dispersion among the nations of the world, money has always been the Jewish people’s highly portable instrument of survival. And this wandering, Attali argues, may be responsible for another feature of Jewish life: the belief in one God. A nation continually on the move had no time or opportunity to become involved with the statues of a multitude of gods or for adopting the gods of the places where it briefly sojourned.

Into this economic history, Attali weaves the Jews’ faith, theology and culture vis-à-vis the circumstances that their history imposed on them. To this aim, he divided his book into five chapters: “Genesis” (2000 BCE to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.), “Exodus” (from 70 C.E. to the First Crusades in 1096), “Leviticus” (from 1096 to the French Revolution in 1789), “Numbers” (from 1789, the Emancipation movement and the Industrial Revolution to 1945 and the Holocaust) and “Deuteronomy” (from 1945 to the present day, the creation of the State of Israel and the relationship between Israel and the Jews of the Diaspora).

This division is historically logical, but the association of the major periods in Jewish history with the five Books of Moses, although original and symbolic, is artificial. (For example, the Book of Joshua would have been a better rubric for the chapter on the Jewish people’s return to its historic homeland.) But aside from its arbitrary division of Jewish history, the book reads like a fascinating epic. The shift from life in the kingdoms of Judah and Israel to life in Babylonian exile, the dispersion of the Jews along the Mediterranean basin before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the role the Jews played in the Roman Empire as Christianity spread throughout the world together constitute a historical mold that Attali skillfully presents to his readers.

Prior to the Crusades, the Jews served as a cultural and economic bridge between East and West, with Hebrew functioning as a commercial lingua franca. But the constant scarcity of cash during the feudal period increased the weight of the yoke on Europe’s Jewish communities. Since the Jews could be neither knights nor tenant farmers, they remained aliens, forced to pay for their protection with ransom money. Christian rulers settled for a fixed, periodic but rather limited revenue from the Jews but more often squeezed the sponge dry through expulsion and the confiscation of assets (the latter option encouraged by the Church).

Anti-Jewish prejudice filtered down into the thinking of the leaders of the Enlightenment movement of the 18th century. At a time when most Jews were living in abject poverty, Montesquieu wrote that “wherever you find money, you are sure to find Jews.” The economic revolution and the Emancipation, an era of enlightenment and progress for many, brought enhanced prejudice for Jews. Karl Marx, himself a Jew, spouted an extremely anti-Jewish approach, calling for the disappearance of the Jewish entity as a basic precondition for the termination of capitalism. And German sociologist Max Weber, author of “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” felt perfectly justified in branding Judaism as a collective plot.

With this, Attali has set the stage for the ultimate evil, and Nazism strides upon that stage with planned, precise steps: Economic motives and considerations are an integral part of the monstrous machinery of destruction, and Soviet totalitarianism aims to liquidate the Jews for being a religious, national group. From amid the ruins of European Jewry emerges the State of Israel, and traditional antisemitism is directed against it, disguised as opposition to Israeli policies. Arab states disseminate “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in a wide variety of languages and are not troubled by the fact that this is a forgery prepared more than a century ago by the czarist secret police.

In light of this display of knowledge, one can only regret the errors and imprecision that can be attributed to a slovenly editing of material that was apparently gathered by various researchers. We are told that Nathan Birnbaum of Vienna invented the term “Zionism” in 1890, while a few pages later, Israel Zangwill of London is credited with the invention of the word. Referring to the creation of the Hashomer organization, Attali erroneously dubs it “Hashomer Hatza’ir,” a movement founded in Poland 10 years after the organization’s establishment. The inclusion of Gamal Abdul Nasser’s resignation as Egyptian president among the results of the Yom Kippur War borders on sloppiness — because you do not have to be a historian to know that the war was conducted by Anwar Sadat, while Nasser resigned in the wake of the Six-Day War, six years earlier, and died in 1970.

Even more glaring is the presentation of the “Jerusalem Declaration” as a historical document. Napoleon Bonaparte was purportedly going to issue this declaration for a return to Zion and for the creation of a Jewish state on April 20, 1799, after first capturing Acre and reaching Jerusalem. The authenticity of the declaration is highly questionable, and the declaration is acknowledged only in its German version, which was revealed in Prague and published in 1940.

Hopefully, a new edition of Attali’s book will appear, translated into English and cleared of the errors of the first edition. The book could make a significant contribution to the refuting of the myth of Jewish finance that embraces and strangles the world. Israel’s economic woes apparently are not enough to prove the falsehood of one of humanity’s most ancient and most strongly rooted legends.

Yoel Sher has served as Israeli ambassador in Paris, Prague, Hong Kong and Lima.

Reprinted by permission from Ha’aretz.






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