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Jews and money Jews and money
by Joseph Gatt
2019-04-09 10:06:51
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The myth goes that under Christian canon law in Europe Christians were not allowed to loan money with interest and that Jews were the usurers and gave loans with interest, and that's how the Jews became very rich and dominated global finance.

Now this myth needs a little bit of historical clarification, of putting things in the context of the day. Until the plagues of the 15th and 16th and 17th centuries of Europe, Europe was a confederation of feudal kingdoms where lords owned large plots of land and vassals tilled the land. Merchants travelled around the country and sold goods, mostly non-perishable goods, and commodities like gold and silver and metal and silk and spices were traded around the continent. The same could be said about Arab countries and Persia where the Jews lived. This was before the industrial revolution.

jews0001Back then, merchants were of all nationalities and were kind of outcasts in society, some were Jews, but they were of all faiths and nationalities. Merchants were outcasts because they traded making money for opting out of social life, because they were travelling most of the time, either by boat or by cart. Back in the day people thought leading a socially responsible life was a duty, a communities were tight-knit, although historians argue that both men and women tended to “disappear” from the community more frequently than one thinks.

Now the lords owned land and didn't really need loans. The merchants occasionally needed loans to buy new cars or new boats or to pay for their journeys and got the loans from all kinds of people, Jews and gentiles. Of course gambling was a major pastime in the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, and people always needed to loan money to repay their gambling debts.

But back then people loaned money from people they had close connections to, often people they had blood ties with. There's a simple reason for that, which is that back in the days there was absolutely no guarantee that you would get your loans paid back. The government of all places was where a lot of merchants and people got their loans, and debtors’ prison was a common form of punishment for those who couldn’t repay their loans.

Now the risk was double for the Jews when loaning money. First, the Jews had absolutely no guarantee they would get their money back. Second the Jews had no guarantee that they would be staying in the country, as the Jews were often told to leave the country altogether. That's two good reasons not to loan money. In the Middle Ages and through the Renaissance, the Jews were mostly craftsmen, some chose to lead to life of merchants, while others simply worked in agriculture. Remember that meat and wine have to be Kosher, along with all animal products, so Jews often worked their own land to produce grapes, wine, herded cattle, and in some cases produced other agricultural produce.

Now this was during Canon law times. The plagues, the French revolution, the American revolution, and the enlightenment movement led to Canon law gradually being replaced by Napoleonic law or Civil law. Civil law had its implications for Jews. They were now considered equal under the law in several European places and in North America, were now allowed to mix freely with other Europeans.

That led to two movements in European Judaism: the Haskalah movement and the Orthodox movement. The Haskalah is the Jewish enlightenment movement, where until the 19th century Jews only studied the Torah and the Talmud, many Jews started studying texts from other contemporary European thinkers like Hobbes, Kant, Darwin, Locke, Paine, Voltaire, Rousseau and so on, along with the classical Greek and Roman texts. The Jews also started dressing like Europeans, marrying non-Jews, and expecting the Synagogue experience to resemble Church experience. Before the 19th century only prayers were recited in the Synagogue, and the Synagogue was said to be a disorganized place with people talking to each other during prayer and children running around.

Now the Synagogue included sermons, singing, and the kind of discipline you would see in Christian churches. Jews started working in jobs Europeans worked in, living in neighborhoods Europeans lived in, and joined in the industrial revolution. The Orthodox movement started in the 17th century as a marginal sect (there were several marginal sects throughout history) but gained ground in Europe as a response to what some Jews viewed as assimilation and as Jews becoming non-Jews or at least acting like non-Jews.

As for the Jews and banking, Jews joined all other nationalities in the banking business, but Jews had a couple of assets that a lot of gentiles didn't. The banking business is about who you know and about what you know. You need to know the business, and you need to know a lot of people and get people to trust you. The Jews were often more meticulous in what they knew, because the Talmud and the Torah are meticulous, long, tedious texts, and the Jews knew a lot of people because the Jews were accustomed to living in egalitarian communities outside the realm of the kind of slave-master or tribal relationship that prevailed in Europe.

Naturally Jews started joining the banking and legal and medical professions, sometimes being excluded from those professions by laws banning Jews from being lawyers, or in some cases bankers. While bankers and lawyers and doctors were of all nationalities and came from all kinds of backgrounds, Jewish bankers tended to irritate non-Jews because Jewish bankers treated their clients with strict egalitarianism while most European bankers had that pomp that remained from feudal times, and often treated their clients like vassals. Naturally the Jews sometimes fared better than non-Jews in the banking system, but non-Jews had the advantage of owning large plots of land, and non-Jews had much larger capitals to start banks with. The Jewish banker was that banker who would start off as a clerk, learn everything there is to learn about the business, and make his was up to the board room.

While some Jews were bankers, lawyers or doctors, a majority of Jews did not work in those professions. A majority of Jews from the 19th century up to the years leading to the Shoah were clerks, accountants, shopkeepers, artisans, tailors, pub owners, cigar peddlers, factory workers or teachers, some worked in the Kosher agriculture business, but politics was often off limits to the Jews. While some European and North American countries did allow Jews to run for office, back in the day a Jew running for office was the equivalent of an African-American or a woman running for the American presidency today, something viewed as novel and different.

So to sum it up, some Jews tended to end up in higher positions in society and to stay in higher positions in society because they know their stuff, and they treat their clients as equals. But the Jews, to this day, never really were the dominant force in banking, finance and investment. But when Jews do make it in banking, finance and investment, they tend to talk about it with authority, because they know their stuff, and they know, mix with and respect the people who work in the business.

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