Why Do Some People Think All Jews are Rich?

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.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

20 thoughts on “Why Do Some People Think All Jews are Rich?”

    1. It appears to be a part of human nature that we like to think badly or look down upon someone. Most of the world’s great religions, including Judaism agree that we can do better that that if we choose.

  1. Thank you Rabbi. As Jews in Europe once lived conscripted lives, forbidden to own property, we had to carry money as money, instead of making investments like non-Jews. When we all sit down and look at history, we can break through these awful assumptions.

  2. I don’t think all Jews are rich, but is it very well known that Jews are good with math!
    So maybe the average person think, if they are good with counting, they must have a lot of money lol

  3. Thank you, RabbiAdar, I’m not good at all with maths either! That’s a relief for me, to hear that there are other Jews quite dummies with Maths, too! I thought I was the only one to be impaired! 🙂
    I’m used to say: “Give me a profitable business to run and, in a fortnight, I’ll turn it into a non-profit organization!” So much for the legend!

    I must confess too, that I’m poorly lateralized: if I give you directions, check on a map or GPS… Right and left are opinions to me, not landmarks!

    Apart from that, sociology studies show that Jews are equally dispatched on the income scale as the population as a whole. I know well-off Jews, Jews struggling to make ends meet, and Jews on public allowance.
    Well, hardly the legend!

  4. Other stereotypes includes Jews and lack of manual labor, Jews being doctors and business people.

    Much of this was Ashkenazi reality in Europe. Jews couldn’t own land or become skilled stonemasons, so no manual labor like builders and farmers. No landownership meaning transient population, which means professions like physicians, and people who speaks multiple languages and familiar with different parts of the world since Jews are frequently expelled from one part of Europe to another became good with business.

    The Mizrahi and Sephardi population in the Middle-East had a different fate. The Ottoman Millet did not prohibit professions, but asked for taxation and limited residency areas. Persian Jews were allowed almost all professions, even today they are still drafted into the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran (though they are barred from any rank involving intelligence). Compared to Europe, much more tolerable though I’m sure it was far from emancipated.

    So in a global sense, there is no “Jewish profession”… except for Rabbis and Hazzans lol

    1. You are so right, TK! The situation of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews was quite different, but they faced problems, too. Since the extensive contact between the Nazis and some of the Arab states in the 1930’s and 40’s, those Ashkenazi stereotypes have become part of the image of Jews in the Arab world, even though the history is, as you point out, quite different.

      Thank you for your always-thoughtful comments.

  5. I’d find this article a lot more interesting if it didn’t start off with a straw man argument. Demolishing ‘all Jews are rich’ is as trivial as countering ‘all Muslims are terrorists’, and gives your argument similar credibility. Both statements are obviously and demonstrably false. Very few jew haters or counterjihadists use either.

    I’m currently researching Jew hatred/ conspiracy theories, and the actual accusations are not hard to find, namely that there is a Jewish elite which controls/ owns banks, mainstream media, academia and politics, and that Jews look after their own in preference to non Jews. I’d be a lot more interested to read your arguments against these actual accusations.

  6. Do American Jews have disproportionate wealth to population proportion? Yes. The Forbes billionaire list is 30% Jewish. For roughly 2%-3% of the population, that’s a lot. Imagine if another small minority group had wealth at those rates. Then Native Americans (1%) would make up 15%. Non-Hispanic Asians (6%) would make up 60% of the list. But what really sets us Jews apart is that if you look at the billionaire lists in Eastern European, Western European, and South American countries, Jews nearly always have a large presence, oftentimes making up the majority of the list. No other group in the world can compare to that. Thus why we Jews are thought of as rich. Because as a people relative to other groups, we really are! Straw man arguments can’t hide that fact 🙂

  7. Really interesting clarification, I believe Jews have been targeted and mistreated. Do you believe that in some countries people are taught at schools since young age that Jews are like evil aliens!
    Propaganda is a deeply rooted idea planted in minds of the masses.

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