Image: Stacks of coin in front of shadowy figures. Art by Pete Linforth via pixabay.com.

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 Jewish 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.

“All Jews are 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.

According to the Pew Research Center’s study of religious groups in the U.S. and income distribution, 44% of American Jewish households  make above $100,000 per year, the highest percentage of any group. Some possible reasons for this:

  • Jewish culture values education highly, and higher education correlates with higher earning power.
  • Until recently, in each generation, Jews have been shut out of “old” professions and have therefore sought careers in emerging fields. For instance, when the American film industry was getting started, most white Americans looked down on people in entertainment. Jews established many of the first studios because that field was open to them. Being early in new fields means higher risk, but higher rewards for those who succeed.
  • Jews in America benefitted from a coincidence: Antisemitism decreased dramatically in the US after WWII, at the beginning of the post-war boom. Jews were not “redlined” out of the housing market, unlike other minorities. The growth in the housing market was the single greatest builder of middle-class wealth in US history.
  • The Jewish practice of tzedakah encourages the giving of low- or no-interest loans within the community. Jews who have “made it” contribute to organizations like the Hebrew Free Loan Society that give assistance to entrepreneurs that qualify, and to households in temporary distress.

While it is not true that all Jews are rich or have access to wealth, it is true that as a group, Jews have prospered in America. Jews faced considerable prejudice but were able to establish themselves in newer, riskier industries where the initial return is high. Partly they were able to do that because within the Jewish community there is a tradition of helping young people get educations and start businesses. Furthermore, while Jews faced prejudice in America, including redlining, they did not face the systematic institutional racism that African Americans have faced.

The linking 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, “All Jews are rich” is a central belief for many antisemites.