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June 26, 2011
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Sunday School

JERUSALEM — Expectations were high in the autumn of 1970 when Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick opened their new musical on Broadway. Their previous collaboration, Fiddler on the Roof, a buoyant examination of the difficulties of maintaining cultural identity in czarist Russia, had been an enormous success. It entered the repertoire immediately. But while The Rothschilds ran for 505 performances and won a couple of Tony awards, the play hasn’t been heard from since.

The Rothschilds’ failure to grip the ‘70s imagination was evidence, writes Derek Penslar in Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe, that the forceful myth of family solidarity that had been essential to Jewish consciousness in the nineteenth century no longer resonated as strongly in the twentieth. He quotes Nicholas de Rothschild, of the family’s British branch: “None of us is Bill Gates.  He has done it in this century.”

I‘m in Jerusalem for the first time in many years, attending a summer school at Hebrew University on the economics of the recent crisis. Penslar’s book is one of three I have been reading in the evenings, hoping to catch up a little on what I’ve missed. I don’t mean recent political developments, though of course there have been plenty of them. I mean the relationship, in general, of this part of the world to all the rest. The other books are The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts, by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman; and 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War, by Benny Morris. Naturally I have finished none of the three.

Penslar, a historian who teaches at the University of Toronto, is a scholar’s scholar.  As he says, his book is not about economic thinkers who happened to be Jewish (Ricardo, Marx), but instead Jewish activists who happened to think about economics. His intricate story has to do with how Jews learned to cope over the centuries with peculiarly economic forms of anti-Semitism, as exemplified by Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

The stereotype they encountered was always double-edged, Penslar says: Jews as beggars and thieves, on the one hand; as money-lenders and canny manipulators on the other, from the court Jews of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, bankers who financed European monarchs’ foreign wars, to titans of the early twentieth century of the sort portrayed in by Robert Musil as Arnheim in The Man Without Qualities. (The character was loosely based on Weimar Republic foreign minister and banker Walter Rathenau.)

The response devised by Jewish leaders was doubled-edged, as well. A program of  “educating Shylock,” that is, a sweeping reconceptualization of all aspects of Jewish life, including economic behavior, emerged from the Jewish counterpart of the Enlightenment, the Haskalah. Moses Mendelssohn, a German-Jewish industrialist and philosopher, was one of its leaders; he died in 1786. A hundred years later, an encomium declared: “[Mendelssohn] was the first… to introduce the novelty of seeking a purpose and a novelty for one’s actions…. He taught his children and his disciples not to toil in vain. He himself was an accountant… and accounting is what he taught them. The word went forth from [Mendelssohn] that we must seek reward for our labor, and that it is therefore in vain to toil for Torah.” (The composers Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn were among his grandchildren.)

Modern Jewish economic sensibilities undoubtedly started somewhere else – among the Western European Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492, Penslar notes, But “the science of Jewish political economy,” concerned with re-aligning a religious community as to become be vital part of European civil society, had its origins in Germany. Within a century, the new thinking had proved so successful in creating a Jewish elite of bankers and stockbrokers in Europe and the United States that Kauffman Kohler, leader of American Reform Judaism in the late nineteenth century, would claim triumphantly that Jewish commercial spirit and capital had built almost all the great cities of Europe. “Russia needs the Jews more than the Jews need Russia,” Kohler wrote in 1883, “and the German kaiser knows better than the tsar or the Prussian Junkers what this [Jewish] trade has accomplished for the ascent and flowering of nations.” It was easy enough to speak boastfully in the New World

The other response to anti-Semitism – its approach to the swelling population in the nineteenth century was  becoming known as “the Jewish problem” – was to develop a systematic program of philanthropy designed to ameliorate the lot of the poor. Organizations arose after 1860 to control immigration to Germany to from the East, to redirect it to the New World, and to engage in planned colonization there and elsewhere A German-Jewish back-to-the-soil movement grew up in parallel to Zionism but lacked the international political support that the World Zionist Organization enjoyed. The movements were cousins, Penslar says.  The former couldn’t work in somebody else’s country; the latter received a terrible impulse momentum from the slaughter of two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population in the Holocaust. After 1945, “the Jewish question” was gradually reformulated as the problem of Israel and Palestine.

So the moral of Shylock’s Children is that little-appreciated political economic doctrines developed internally by rabbis, scholars, activists and publicists over more than two centuries “solved” the Jewish problem. Anti-Semitism hasn’t gone away, but it certainly has changed, especially in the United States. “It’s completely different,” the novelist Roth told the Financial Times last week, a few days before he was to be honored with the Man Booker Prize. “When I was growing up Jews couldn’t even go to medical school; now when there is a list of ‘minorities’ in the US, Jews aren’t even mentioned.” Who needed The Rothschilds in 1970 after Portnoy’s Complaint appeared in 1969?

And why write about books I haven’t finished?  Especially a book as demanding as Penslar’s? Because it is Saturday, and I’ve run out of time. The relevance to economics is clear enough, I hope. No one who writes on strategies for economic development, for instance, can fail to recognize the significance of the Jewish nation-building that began centuries before the thriving city of Tel Aviv was established on empty land a few miles along the shore from the ancient Mediterranean port of Jaffa. Correspondingly, the story of the foundations of modern secular Judaism casts light on difficulties facing the the displaced Arabs of Palestine in establishing an independent state.

The modern world has no more striking example than Israel of successful social policy and social engineering. Nobody else has the advantage of a three-thousand year narrative (except, perhaps, the Chinese). And many other nations have incorporated the Hebrew Bible as a source of solidarity and a guide to practical life, for the saga of Israel is, after all, “the world’s first fully articulated national and social compact, encompassing the men, women and children, the rich, the poor, and the destitute, of an entire community,” as Finkelstein and Silberman write towards the end of The Bible Unearthed. But every nation must have its story, a story created by those who live it, step by step.

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