The Greedy Jewish Moneylender
How did this become a stereotype?
There seems to be several reasons for this, all inter-related.
First, throughout history, Jewish people have, on average, been wealthier than non-Jewish people. The most obvious and likely explanation is that the Jewish culture traditionally emphasizes education and hard work.
From a book about networks:
We are compelled by the data [which demonstrates Jewish success] to fallback on more intangible explanations, such as genetics, or the educational benefits of Jewish family life, or some kind of Weberian “Jewish ethic” even more aligned with the spirit of capitalism than the Protestant ethic.
(Note: I don’t understand the reference to genetics there. That seems incongruous with the rest of the passage.)
But there are other, more sinister theories.
In the Middle Ages, Jews often worked in finance. Christian dogma at the time prevented Christians from loaning money to each other with interest. To get around this, a Christian would loan money to a Jewish middleman, with interest, who would then loan it to the intended Christian recipient, again with interest.
(This rule does not seem to be strictly Biblical. It was announced at the Third Laterean Council in 1179, and reaffirmed at the Council of Vienna in 1311.)
(Also, technically Jews couldn’t lend to other Jews with interest either. But conveniently, the mechanics of the transaction meant that no two people of the same belief where directly engaged with one another.)
This was an end run around religious law, and the side effect was that it put a Jew in the middle of a transaction in which they passively made money. This often caused resentment from Christians (even though it was their beliefs that required it), and moneylending became something Jews were associated with.
Consider the Shakespearean play The Merchant of Venice, written in the late 1500s. The entire plot revolves around a Jewish moneylender named Shylock – a name which itself has become a racial slur – who loans money to a Catholic merchant, and requires its repayment or a gruesome alternative, involving “a pound of flesh.”
Finally, Jewish society tended to be segregated due to escalating prejudice (see Borscht Belt). They were physically segregated in areas of a city called “ghettos,” and consequently, Jewish culture became naturally insular. This, combined with their general success in business and association with finance, resulted in jealousy and fears that Jews were quietly conspiring to hoard wealth.
A lot of bigotry is based on “sour grapes.” The Jewish people have traditionally been financially successful, which is desirable, so people who are jealous of this seek to justify their relative lack of success by explaining that “Jews are obsessed with money.” (Note that no one ever accuses a racial group of being “obsessed with soup spoons” or something else not inherently desirable.)
In the end, the stereotype has likely persisted because its convenient. Bigots want a reason to hate other groups, and this stereotype is handy.
Why I Looked It Up
I’ve been familiar with the stereotype for years. Some examples:
An episode of LA Law had a woman complaining that her daughter married “a little Jewish moneyman.”
I’ve followed the general excoriation of George Soros by the political Right, many characterizations of which make light of his wealth and Jewish roots in vaguely conspiratorial terms.
I read The Merchant of Venice years ago, and the stereotype was prevalent but never explained. I noted at the time:
Worth nothing about this play in particular: it’s anti-Semitic as hell. It’s uncomfortable in its stereotypical depiction of Jews. I’m wondering if every bigoted perspective of Jewish people as greedy money-lenders came from this play. The character of Shylock the Jew is a grand collection of every negative cliché associated with the Jewish people.
Then the stereotype was mentioned in passing in a book about the history of money, so I finally decided to look it up.
Added on January 13, 2022
In a biography of Sumner Redstone (born Sumner Rothstein), the author mentioned a 1939 Roper Poll which found this:
- Only 39% of Americans felt that Jews should be treated the same as everyone else
- 51% were “on a range of belief from wanting Jews not to mingle socially to wanting them deported”
- 31% agreed with the statement that “Jews have somewhat different business methods and therefore some measures should be taken to prevent Jews from getting too much power in the business world”
I tried to find the source, but couldn’t. However, the report is cited a lot – it’s apparently quite well-known in anti-Semitic research.
The Roper Center is a polling organization based out of Cornell University. I searched their site, but I could only find polls going back to 1964.
However, it turns out The Roper Center has only been around since 1947. It was founded by Elmo Roper, who had his own market research firm, founded in 1933. I assume this study was done under the auspices of that organization. Roper’s Wikipedia page doesn’t mention anything about the poll on anri-Semtism.
(Interestingly, however, it turns out Roper’s organization was the one that incorrectly predicted that Dewey would beat Truman in the 1948 presidential election, which led to the famous picture.)