Money (illustration)
Money (illustration) Flash 90

One of the most pervasive stereotypes around the world is that the Jewish people have an intimate relationship with money. This stereotype has bred both antisemitism and admiration: Jew-haters reproach Jews of being greedy and materialistic. Philo-Semites look up to the relatively large number of wealthy Jews as worthy of emulation.

Most Jews and Jewish organizations understandably resent and oppose the stereotype. They argue that in fact there are millions of Jews who are financially not well off and that in this regard Jews and Jewish culture are no different to any other people or culture in the world.

The first point in their argument is absolutely correct, as anyone who has visited the rundown neighborhoods of Jewish cities can bear witness to. Nevertheless, the second point is more a tribute to politically correct discourse than to the religious, sociological and historical factors that have influenced the relationship of Jewish people to money.

1) Unlike Christianity and Islam, Judaism does not view honestly-earned wealth in a negative light. On the contrary, it sees it as a reward for faith and virtue that grants special social and ethical responsibilities. Whereas traditionally the paradigm of the perfect Christian was embodied by the monk or hermit who lived far away from riches, the Hebrew Bible praises the wealth amassed by the Patriarchs. Judaism does condemn hedonism and love of luxury, but it does not criticize earning wealth.

In this respect, Judaism is closer to Islam which was founded by a prophet who had once been a successful trader. Nevertheless, whereas Islam criticizes focusing on success in this world and even names its charity tax “zakat”, implying that money is dirty unless purified by helping the poor, Judaism focusses on making the most out of this life and names its charity tax “tzedaka”, which alludes to the portion that justice demands be assigned to the less fortunate.

2) Unlike most Christians and Muslims, and just like Greeks and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Jews were kept away from agriculture and forced to succeed in commerce and finance. As stereotypes about the Scots, Dutch, the Genoese and Gujaratis suggest, most nations that have specialized in commerce or finance are reputed to be stingy and greedy. It may well be that this is a side-effect of occupations centered around buying and selling goods rather than producing them, but it is a stereotype that involves most mercantile nations – by no means just Jews.

3) Due to widespread persecution, and until the Holocaust, for Jews owning money made the difference during centuries between living a bearable existence or landing in the dungeon of the local duke or pasha for not paying the poll tax imposed on Jews. When money ensures survival, one learns to value it far more than when it merely grants access to frills and luxuries.

These points are all elaborated at length by the former French minister Jacques Attali who wrote an insightful book about the subject.

Now that we have established that for different reasons, Jews have historically had far better reasons to value money than most non-Jews, I will provide my take as to why this relationship is so resented by so many non-Jews.

1) Envy.

2) There are billions of people on the planet who still believe that wealth is a zero-sum game. Instead of realizing that honestly-earned wealth makes all of society wealthier, they assume that any community whose members are better-off is leeching resources from the rest of society. Hence, the popularity of portrayals of Diaspora Jews, Armenians and other successful minorities as parasites.

3) During past centuries most societies were ruled by landed aristocracies which lived off the sweat and taxes of peasants and common people. In order to mask the injustice of this social structure based on ruthless exploitation and shameless parasitism, aristocrats promoted a social etiquette demanding that money be talked as little as possible about. It was and remains in much of the world a sign of good breeding not to talk about money. For this reason, the character of, for example, Christians and Muslims who openly talk about money traditionally tend to be seen as crass and lowly.

Since historically Jews have had role-models other than landed aristocrats, the result is that they are tendentially less prudish about money than Christians and Muslims. When interacting with Jews, Christians and Muslims project their own cultural values on the Jews they encounter, considering them crass and lowly in light of their own cultural prejudices. They did and do this, even though there is no a priori reason for not talking openly about money.

America, whose culture is founded on Puritan ethics, rugged individualism and the American Dream is also a country where people love to talk about money. As an Italian, raised in a Catholic family that looked up to blue blood, I never grew accustomed to this facet of American culture.

Nevertheless, the reason I did not attribute the “mammonism” of American culture to Jewish influence - like many Europeans do - was that the Jews I met at Yale were neither more greedy or materialistic than my non-Jewish peers.

On the contrary, I found a disproportionate number of them to be more active in social causes and to look forward to amassing wealth in order to aid these causes. This vein of Jewish philanthropy discerned during my college years, is alive in the hundreds of foundations and charitable causes funded by Jewish millionaires and billionaires.

For these reasons, I consider it a mistake for Jewish institutions to deny the historical, sociological and cultural traits that shaped Jewish attitudes toward money. On the contrary, I think it would be better if society learned that wealth honestly earned is the foundation of most progress and of all social welfare.

Rafael Castro is an Italian-Colombian Noahide who lives in Berlin. He can be reached at rafaelcastro78@gmail.com

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