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Capitalism and the Jews Paperback – November 27, 2011

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In four fascinating essays, Muller (The Mind and the Market) sensitively examines how centuries of nomadism and diaspora have shaped Jewish financial life. Particularly intriguing is his essay The Long Shadow of Usury, which traces the roots of Jewish financial life to the time when Christians were banned from lending at interest, but Jews, following the law in Deuteronomy, were allowed to charge interest to gentiles (but not each other). Farmers and laborers could not understand the value—economic or social—of gathering and analyzing information, and Jewish usurers were cast as suspicious and parasitic figures. Muller explores why Jewish populations have been both disproportionately successful in capitalist societies and the system's loudest critics. Of paramount interest is his portrait of a people driven by exile and oppression to emphasize strong social networks, self-sufficiency, and higher education. Muller backs up his bold assertion—that capitalism has been the most important force in shaping the fate of the Jews in the modern world—with elegance and care. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"In his slim essay collection Capitalism and the Jews, Jerry Z. Muller presents a provocative and accessible survey of how Jewish culture and historical accident ripened Jews for commercial success and why that success has earned them so much misfortune. . . . While this book is ostensibly about 'the Jews,' Muller's most chilling insights are about their enemies, and the creative, almost supernatural, malleability of anti-Semitism itself. For centuries, poverty, paranoia and financial illiteracy have combined into a dangerous brew--one that has made economic virtuosity look suspiciously like social vice."--Catherine Rampell, New York Times Book Review

"In four fascinating essays, Muller sensitively examines how centuries of nomadism and diaspora have shaped Jewish financial life. . . . Muller backs up his bold assertion--that capitalism has been the most important force in shaping the fate of the Jews in the modern world--with elegance and care."--Publishers Weekly

"It's a subject rarely given its due in respectable circles. Yet an appreciation for market economics does run deep in Judaic tradition and helps explain the prominence of Jewish bankers, from Mayer Amschel Rothschild to Lloyd Blankfein. In concise prose free of academic jargon, Muller ticks off factors that gave Jews what he calls 'behavioral traits conducive to success in capitalist society.'"--Calev Ben-David, Bloomberg

"Muller, a noted historian, takes a fascinating look at how Jews have shaped capitalism and how capitalism has shaped the Jewish experience from medieval times to today."--Fareed Zakaria GPS

"Muller is keen to rescue from apologists, ideologues, and anti-Semites the exploration of what he describes as the Jews' 'special relationship' with capitalism. . . . This book is both scholarly and speculative, analysing the sociology and the anti-Semitic pseudo-sociology of the Jews' participation in capitalism. It will not be the last word on the subject, but it is a genuine contribution to it."--Anthony Julius, New Statesman

"A work of intellectual history. . . . Muller is acutely aware of the irony that Jews have been attacked sometimes for being the quintessence of capitalism and sometimes for being the quintessence of anticapitalism. The merit of his book is that it takes seriously the need to understand how historical circumstances bring this about."--Robert Solow, Moment Magazine

"According to Jerry Z. Muller, professor of history at Catholic University, capitalism has been the most important force in shaping the fate of the Jews in the modern world. . . . Muller focuses squarely on the relation between them in four interlocking essays that explore, respectively, Western thinking about Jews and capitalism, the Jews' own responses to capitalism, Jewish involvement in Communist movements, and the rise of ethnic nationalism that came about as a response to capitalism's relentless march in the 19th century and onward."--Steven Menashi, Commentary

"A model of clear thinking and useful information about how accurately to understand the long and complicated relationship between Jews, capitalism, and anti-Semitism. A valuable read."--Ira Stoll, The Future of Capitalism blog

"In a 1972 lecture, 'Capitalism and the Jews,' Nobel laureate Milton Friedman presented a paradox: Jews 'owe an enormous debt to free enterprise and competitive capitalism,' he said, but 'for at least the past century the Jews have been consistently opposed to capitalism and have done much on an ideological level to undermine it.' According to historian Jerry Muller, Friedman's paradox may make for a great headline, but it cannot be substantiated. Only the first premise is true--there is little doubt that capitalism has benefited Jews. And as Muller shows, there is equally little doubt that Jews have excelled at developing capitalism in the West."--Guy Sorman, City Journal

"Taboos can't last--and now, a real historian has broken this one. Jerry Muller, himself Jewish and a professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, has published a book of four essays, Capitalism and the Jews, that sets out to explain why Jews have enjoyed such exceptional success in modern capitalist societies such as ours."--Tim Colebatch, The Age

"Muller, a historian at Catholic University, has given us four lectures on economics aspects of Jewish life in the modern world. . . . [T]hey are thoughtful and occasionally insightful."--Peter Temin, EH.net

"Capitalism and the Jews is a work of scholarship, but it's an especially accessible and illuminating one. It is a book that every Jewish capitalist, actual or aspiring, out to read and ponder."--Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal of Greater L.A.

"Muller (history, Catholic Univ.; Adam Smith in His Time and Ours), a well established historian of capitalism, is brave to tackle this subject, laden as much with the place of Jewish people in the markets as with the trappings and traps of anti-Semitism. . . . Stimulating."--Scott H. Silverman, Library Journal

"A stellar work of intellectual history."--Sheldon Kirshner, Canadian Jewish News

"A well-documented, historical investigation into an often hidden subject that the author makes easily accessible."--Abe Novick, Baltimore Jewish Times

"If you want to understand why Jews have done phenomenally well in capitalist societies and at the same time have been some of capitalism's harshest critics, this history will help you understand."--Nick Schulz, National Review

"A great book."--William Easterly, Aid Watch blog

"Jerry Z. Muller's recent book is neither a polemic nor a setup for a bad lounge joke but is instead a compelling, sober essay about an elephant that has been sitting in the middle of Western history for the past two centuries at least: Jews have been inextricably woven into the history and evolution of capitalism. . . . A fascinating history."--Zachary Karabell, Truthdig.com

"[T]his book introduces some basic issues and ideas about Jewish economic history and can serve as a provocative starting point for learning more about the subject."--Choice

"[A] short book, which could be said to provide the economic background of the Jewish catastrophe of the 20th century. Muller's work, though focused on cultural and not environmental differences, might remind some readers of Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs, and Steel' (1997), which explains the basis for the gaps in material success among regions around the world. In both books, the authors, in laying bare the historical processes, help to disabuse readers of their prejudices."--Steven Silber, Haaretz

"In the meantime, in a lean and compact volume, Muller has offered a rich and valuable history filled with insights about the character of capitalism and the sources of anti-Semitism--both of which could hardly be more timely subjects."--Yuval Levin, Jewish Review of Books

"Muller provides a refreshingly frank account of the major role of Jews on both sides of capitalism's ideological barricades. His brisk and lively book is a welcome sign that historians are moving beyond a stale preoccupation with challenging stereotypes, and are now more willing to engage candidly and directly with the economic dimension of Jewish history."--Adam Sutcliffe, Jewish Quarterly

"Although Muller examines mostly European areas, he occasionally cites examples from the United States. His book can be thus read as an attempt to deepen the mutual understanding of historical realities in Europe and North America. The strongest point of Capitalism and the Jews lies in Muller's multifocal perspective and interdisciplinary erudition."--Pnina M. Rubesh, European Legacy

"[T]his small book is filled with interesting material and presents its subject in a clear and lively fashion."--Marty Roth, Outlook on Books

"The book offers an interesting and new perspective into the economic history of the Jews, which is a by-product of their religious and cultural history."--R. Balashankar, Organiser

"Capitalism and the Jews is an important study that affords readers a lucid and extremely accessible analysis of what is no doubt a central topic in Jewish and western history. It is a welcome addition that joins recent efforts to make us more aware of the significance of the economy for our understanding of the modern Jewish experience."--Gideon Reuveni, Enterprise and Society

"Providing a fresh look at an important but frequently misunderstood subject, this book will interest anyone who wants to understand the Jewish role in the development of capitalism, the role of capitalism in the modem fate of the Jews, or the ways in which the story of capitalism and the Jews has affected the history of Europe and beyond, from the medieval period to our own."--World Book Industry

"Muller's book can be highly recommended. Stylistically polished, accessible, informative and provocative--it is a little gem."--Jeremy Leaman, Journal of Modern Jewish Studies

"Capitalism and the Jews is a must book for our times."--Betty Mohr, Le Bon Travel & Culture

"[P]rovocative and inspiring essays. . . . Muller's approach is far reaching."--Franziskus von Boeselager, Moving the Social

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (November 27, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 069115306X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691153063
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.6 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #785,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ira E. Stoll VINE VOICE on February 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
With columnists for major newspapers denouncing banks as "blood-sucking," the financial industry as "parasitic," and one big bank as a "vampire squid" - well, what exquisite timing for the release of the book Capitalism and the Jews.

Mr. Muller's work is, on the whole, a model of clear thinking and useful information about how accurately to understand the long and complicated relationship between Jews, capitalism, and anti-Semitism. It's a valuable read for anyone who wants to understand why all the talk about the difference between the "Wall Street" economy and the "Main Street" economy isn't necessarily as benign as it might seem.

The book by Mr. Muller, a professor of history at Catholic University, consists of a short introduction and four chapters. It's the first chapter, "The Long Shadow of Usury," that's the most enlightening.

"Usury was an important concept with a long shadow. It was significant because the condemnation of lending money at interest was based on the presumptive illegitimacy of all economic gain not derived from physical labor. That way of conceiving of economic activity led to a failure to recognize the role of knowledge and the evaluation of risk in economic life," he writes. "So closely was the reviled practice of usury identified with the Jews that St. Bernard of Clairvaux, the leader of the Cistercian Order, in the middle of the twelfth century referred to the taking of usury as 'Jewing'" says Mr. Muller, noting that the interest rates charged by Jews, "in keeping with the scarcity of capital in the medieval economy and the high risks incurred by Jewish moneylenders, whose loans were often canceled under public pressure, and whose assets were frequently confiscated," ranged from 33% to 60% a year.
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Professor Jerry Muller makes a compelling case in showing that the attitude of Jews towards capitalism was overshadowed by the contemptuous view that Christianity held about trade and commerce for a long time (pp. 33; 158). Until the 19th century C.E., anti-Semitism was predominantly religious in nature, grounded in the sympathy that the Christian churches had for peasants and artisans, the sources of "sweat" labor (pp. 18; 28; 54; 70; 116).

At the same time, these churches failed to understand the economic value of gathering and analyzing information (pp. 19; 116; 205-206). Christianity officially regarded trade and money lending as "unproductive," "parasitic," and "usurious" best left to those outside the community of the faithful, i.e., the Jews (pp. 8; 15; 23-25; 27; 37-38; 43; 116-117).

The "cultural capital" of Jews positioned them well to play a disproportional role in (early) modern capitalism for the following reasons (pp. 4; 9; 209; 213):

1. Judaism was more favorably disposed toward commerce than Christianity which was inclined to glorify poverty (pp. 5; 77; 81-85; 110-115).

2. Jewish culture prized "religious intellectualism" which was easily transferred from religious to secular learning (pp. 70; 87-89).

3. Judaism favored a lifestyle based on discipline, the conscious planning of action, and the avoidance of intoxication (p. 88).

4. Jewish success in the market was based upon longer time horizons. Success for those Jews starting at the low end of commercial life required a willingness to work long and hard and to save in order to accumulate capital (pp. 58-59; 61; 88-89).

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Format: Hardcover
Professional historian Jerry Z. Muller's new book on Capitalism and the Jews is a collection of four essays covering four various topics concerning capitalism and Jewish and European history. The first essay covers medieval European history into modern European history. Ever since the Middle Ages in Western Europe, Jews were associated with the handling of money. It was more than just money lending, however, Jews were lenders of money with interest: a practice that was seen as sinful and "blood-sucking".

Usury was considered a base practice for several reasons. For one, writers from classical antiquity saw no justification for deriving money from money; "Money does not beget money," the old proverb went. The most influential of these classical writers was Aristotle, whose works were disseminated to the Christian West in the High Middle Ages, and whose philosophy worked its way into the thought of Catholic theologians. Interpreting the passage on interest from Deuteronomy (Deut. 23: "You may lend with interest to foreigners, but to your brother you may not lend with interest") liberally such that "brother" meant all people, usury became sinful in Catholic lands in the 12th century. Indeed, the Second Lateran Council expressly forbade the practice in 1139, and Dante's Inferno would place usurers along with murderers and blasphemers in the seventh ring of hell.

Yet from about 1050 to 1300 "new agricultural surpluses in Europe made greater commerce and urbanization possible, and that made the economic function of lending money more important". As the Italian wit Benvenudi de Rambaldis da Imola put it, "those who engage in usury go to hell; those who fail to engage in usury fall into poverty".
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