You’ve heard the stereotypes, and the nasty little comments: “Jews are all rich.” “Jews control all the banks.” “All Jews are obsessed with money.” Some readers may have had pennies thrown at them. As a reader asked recently, where does this come from?
First, notice something: the word “all.” Any time you see that word, put on your skeptical hat! Global statements are a sign that there’s irrationality involved.
“Jews are all rich.” – Not true. Half a million Jews live under the poverty line in New York City alone, according to a study by the UJA-Federation of New York. So why do people say that or think it? In purely contemporary terms, it is true that a higher percentage of Jews earn more than $100,000 than any other “faith group” in America, according to this chart from GOOD and Column Five. It is also true that there are individual Jews who are famous for their wealth, for example, George Soros and Sheldon Adelson. But no, not all Jews are rich, and the majority of rich people are not Jewish. Some Jews are grindingly poor.
The association of Jews and money goes back to the Middle Ages. The Bible forbids usury – taking or paying interest on a loan “from your brother.” (See Exodus 22:24, Deuteronomy 23:20-21, and Leviticus 25:35-37 for examples.) Jewish law discouraged lending to non-Jews as well as forbidding lending at interest to other Jews.
However, sources of income for European Jews prior to about 1800 were extremely limited. Jews were barred from most professions and guilds. Moneylending was a viable way to make a living, especially since Christians were barred by their own laws from lending money. Thus moneylending became a niche for Jews. It was a dangerous niche, however: no one likes their creditors.
Financial skills are also portable. Jews were uprooted again and again from their homes in Europe, and those with portable skills were the best equipped to survive. One side-effect of the various expulsions was that families were often scattered to different cities. Having trusted family members in financial centers like Amsterdam, London, Paris, etc meant that money could be moved easily across the continent. For a more detailed history of Jews and banking, there’s an excellent article in the Virtual Jewish Library.
So yes, there are connections between Jews and money. But not all Jews are rich and not all Jews have access to wealth.
One way that these ideas spread was a hoax called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It was produced sometime in the early 20th century in Russia or the Ukraine. It purports to be a blueprint for world domination by a Jewish conspiracy. It claimed that Jews plan to dominate the world by economic means. So even today, that is a central belief for many antisemites.
As for being “obsessed with money,” one might suggest that anyone making such a statement should take a look in the mirror!