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Prof. Aviad Kleinberg Photo: Michael Kramer
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Why are Jews considered rich?

Walk through history: Myth of wealthy, greedy Jew born in Europe in Middle Ages, when Jews were forced to charge interest on loans to Christians. 'They were like parking inspectors: Taking money for others and getting beaten up for it,' says historian

Tani Goldstein
Published: 05.06.11, 10:52 / Israel Business

Singer Roger Waters angered the Anti-Defamation League recently with a video screened during his concerts, which included images of planes dropping bombs in the shape of Jewish Stars of David, followed by dollar signs.

 

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According to the ADL, Waters used "the worst age-old anti-Semitic stereotype about Jews and their supposed obsession with making money."

 

The clip wasn't just directed just at Jews: The planes also showered crosses, Islamic crescents and commercial brands. But this incident shows just how deep this stereotype is rooted, even with the pacifist singer – who linked dollars to Stars of David of all items – and also with Jews, who are so irritated by this issue.

 

Jewish wealth: Ancient, murderous myth

Allegedly, the link to dollars could have been considered a compliment. However, millions of Jews have been humiliated, tortured and murdered on behalf of the "claim" that the Jews – sophisticated and greedy cheaters who "only love money" – gained control of the business world and became rich by exploiting the poor gentiles.

 

The Internet is filled with such statements to this very day: Delusional websites blame the "Jewish wealth" for intentionally causing the global financial crisis. Islamic preachers attack the Jewish capital which allegedly controls the world and works for Israel. Veteran American reporter Helen Thomas recently stated that the Jewish lobbies are "in total control" of the US Congress, the White House, Wall Street and Hollywood.

 

The fear of Jewish wealth is ancient. The slavery in Egypt – the first story in the history of the hatred directed at the Jewish people – began as a Hebrew success story: Joseph's managerial success and the people of Israel's moneymaking, which made the Egyptians jealous. But the myth of the rich Jew was born thousands of years later – in Christian Europe of the Middle Ages.

 

"The average Christian in the Middle Ages was convinced that all Jews are rich, that they're hiding huge treasures of silver and gold, and that they're deceiving the Christians and robbing their money through spells. These things appear in many folktales," says Prof. Dina Porat of the Chaim Rosenberg School for Jewish Studies at Tel Aviv University, who also holds the Alfred P. Slaner chair for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism and Racism.

 

How rich were the Jews in reality? Documents from the Middle Ages show that at least some of them were very wealthy. A correspondence conducted by a Jewish merchant from the 11th century who participated in a fair in Germany, for example, shows that the amount of money he made there equaled one-third of the treasures of Hungary's king.

 

Biographies of princes and dukes show that some of them had a Jewish advisor, "the court Jew", who managed their finances like Joseph.

 

But researchers are at odds over what was the standard of living of most Jews.

 

"The Jews' situation deteriorated over the years," says Prof. Aviad Kleinberg of the Department of History at Tel Aviv University, who specializes in medieval history. "In the early Middle Ages, from the eighth century to the 12th century, most of them lived quite well.

 

"The really rich people were the military officials, the government workers and the estate owners, and they were all Christians, because Jews were no allowed to work in the civil service and own land," says Kleinberg.

 

"But most of the Christian population comprised of land leasing peasants, while most Jews were craftsmen and merchants. In today's terms, both were very poor, but as a generalization, it seems the Jews were not as poor."

 

"The Jews came from the developed Middle East and brought along business knowledge. Jews were portable because they could stay in distant communities. They almost had a monopoly in professions which required traveling, like wine trade. In the Jewish society there was a bit more gender equality, and the women managed the business when the men were traveling."

 

"There was poverty among the Jews too," stresses Prof. Porat. "But they had efficient institutions for mutual aid. The rich Jews donated money. The community provided visits to patients, wedding ceremonies for young couples and charity for the poor. The Jews lived in higher standards of hygiene thanks to the ritual bathing and hand washing, and fewer died of plagues."

 

Richer from loan with interest?

The Jews in Western and central Europe became less wealthy in the late Middle Ages, from the 12th century.

 

"Society developed and the Jews were pushed aside," says Kleinberg. "The Christian craftsmen were organized in guilds and the Jews remained outside and lost their livelihood. The Christians opened universities and created new professions like medicine and advocacy, which required academic education, and the Jews couldn't study there. At the end of the day, they were pushed to despicable professions like loan with interest."

 

But engaging in loan with interest strengthened the Jews' image as rich people exploiting the Christians.

 

"The loan with interest did not make them rich. They were dealing with change. The Jews were just the middlemen who loaned the aristocrats' money to the poor. The aristocrats made most of the money.

 

"It's true that the poor debtors hated the Jews, with whom they had to settle accounts in their daily life. People hate those who collect from them directly, not the strong people behind them. Most drivers who get a parking ticket are angry with the inspector, not with the mayor who employs him, and the Jews were in the same situation as inspectors."

 

Jew with bag of money in his hand

"These loans were run like today's gray market," notes Porat. "The interest was 30%, and those who didn't pay it back were forced to provide their property as a guarantee, and if that wasn't enough they were killed.

 

"The Christians carried out the killings, but those who nagged the debtors were the Jews – and they were the ones subject to the hatred. The Christians thought the Jews were rich even when the Jews were really poor."

 

Why?

 

"The Jews lived in the city and worked in professions related to money. Jews who run very small businesses had some financial knowledge as well. They kept books, exchanged money and invested. This made ignorant Christians to think that they're rich.

 

"A peasant, who used money once a month when he came to sell and buy in the city, and encountered their sophistication and knowledge, thought to himself, 'They must be magicians who got their powers from the devil.'

 

"In any event, the image of the rich Jew came first of all from religion and was nurtured by the church," says Porat. "The drawings, the sculptures and the plays in the churches presented imaginary treasures of Jews and appalling images of them as blood-sucking leeches.

 

"The church is responsible for the fact that the Jews were the only ones engaging in credit, as it forbade the Christians to loan to each other directly with interest – but only through Jewish mediation."

 

Where did the church itself draw these images from? It's possible that the priests, who were well familiar with the Exodus story, were influenced by it in some distorted way. But it seems that the main Jewish image they were affected by was Judas Iscariot, Jesus' disciple who turned him in, according to the New Testament.

 

"According to the story, Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus for 30 shekels, a lot of money," says Porat. "The act became the symbol of treachery and greed. The Christians, most of whom could not read or write and knew the stories from pictures, were unaware of the fact that Jesus was Jewish, but knew that Judas was, because of his name and because he was drawn as the Jews of their time – with a small bag of money in his hand."

 

Jews always considered materialistic

And yet, Porat and Kleinberg stress that the real and imaginary wealth of the Jews was not the main motive for the hatred against them.

 

"I doubt that the money issue was the main 'claim' against the Jews in the Middle Ages," says Kleinberg. "Jews were persecuted for many reasons, most of them related to religion, although they were always considered materialistic. The Middle Ages literature describes the Jew – and the Muslim – as a person who is only interested in sex and money. That's how strangers are always treated in closed and fanatic societies, regardless of how rich they really are."

 

Kleinberg believes that the Jews' impoverishment in the late Middle Ages aggravated the persecution. "The Christian society was intolerant and didn't like foreigners or people who were different, but accepted them when they needed them, sort of like foreign workers are treated today. In the early Middle Ages the Christians needed the Jews' professional knowledge, so they were treated reasonably.

 

"The shocking violence against the Jews we know about from the literature began mainly from the Crusades at the end of the 11th century, and became a widespread phenomenon in the West since the 13th century. Beforehand, the Jews lived for hundreds of years safely under the personal and direct protection of the kings, which was considered a special privilege. The persecution began when they were no longer needed."

 

The late Middle Ages in Western and Eastern Europe were bad times for the Jews. They were locked in ghettos, beaten up, imprisoned, tortured, expelled and murdered in masses. The hatred created a strange development: The Jews were persecuted, among other things, for "being rich". As the persecution increased – they became poor, and as they became poor – their status diminished and the persecution grew stronger, but the wealthy and exploiting image remained unchanged, even when there were no more Jews around.

 

The most famous work of art about the greedy Jewish moneylender is William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", which was written in England in the 16th century, 300 years after all Jews were banished from the country.

 

Town's Jews were 'parking inspectors'

The violence prompted the Jews to immigrate from the West to towns in Eastern Europe – Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Romania and Hungary – which became the biggest Jewish center in the world sometime during the Middle Ages.

 

Eastern Europe was poor and backward – the economic reality in the West in the early Middle Ages continued in the East for hundreds of years later, and the Jews in the small towns benefited from it.

 

"In Eastern Europe there was no middle class, and the Christians needed the Jews who developed the economy, like they did earlier in the West," says Kleinberg. "The Jews were among the few in Eastern Europe who had businesses knowledge, in later periods too, even in the 16th century. They established the first banks there and controlled entire fields, like textile.

 

"Until the 19th century they were almost half of the urban population in Eastern Europe. The kings and aristocrats welcomed them and gave them the protection they lost in the West."

 

The hatred and stereotypes against the Jews existed in Eastern Europe just like in the West, but until the 17th century there were only few attacks on Jews. Like in the West, the severe pogroms in the small towns began after the Jews were pushed there too into the status of "parking inspectors".

 

"The Jewish town was the property of the local aristocrat, the 'land owner', and the Jews lived there in exchange for services they gave him," says Prof. Israel Bartal of the Department of Jewish History at Hebrew University. "Many Jews were lessees. The feudal system determined that all assets – like gristmills or bridges – belonged to the aristocrats. The aristocrat handed the assets to the Jews to manage them.

 

"This was how the method worked: The land owner let the Jew use the property for land leasing fees of, let's say, 1,000 zloty. The Polish and Ukrainian peasants paid the Jew for using the gristmill, paid him a fee to cross the bridge, and paid him for the beer they drank at the pub.

 

"If the Jew charged 2,000 zloty, he earned 1,000. If he charged 1,000 he didn't earn a thing. In any event, the Jew stood in front of the peasants and was subject to their grudge, curses and beating."

 

'Gold treasures buried under town'

"The Jews in the towns were poor too," says Bartal. "They lived in density, two or three families in a three-room cabin, and ate mainly bread or potatoes.

 

"But the poorest Jew was a bit wealthier than the peasants in the neighboring village. The peasant was a vassal while the Jew moved freely. The peasant was illiterate while the Jew had some knowledge.

 

"Therefore, in the villages there were tales about the Jews' imaginary wealth and the sacks of gold they are hiding, allegedly, underground. To this day there are people in Ukraine who believe there are gold treasures hiding under the places where those miserable towns were.

 

"So when they had the chance they went out to rob Jews, and when popular revolts broke out against the aristocrats, like the Khmelnytsky uprising of the Cossacks in the 17th century, the Jews were slaughtered."

 

The process the Jews underwent in the Middle Ages in the West – persecution, impoverishment, poverty and more persecution – happened later on in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries to millions of Jews in Eastern Europe too.

 

At the end of the 19th century, most of the Jews in Eastern Europe – in other words, most of the Jews in the world – were as poor as church mice. But the image which stuck to them – the sophisticated, deceptive and rich tribe, which exploits the gentiles – did not disappear. On the contrary, it grew stronger and became the main "case" of anti-Semitism in the 20th century.

 

 

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