Summary of Capitalism and the Jews

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Good etiquette advises that discussing religion, money and politics with strangers is not prudent, but, fortunately, professor Jerry Z. Muller ignores this maxim. Instead, this broadly published academician presents four exceptional essays assessing the role of Jews in developing capitalism in terms of complex social, historical and religious structures. He wrote the series, which covers centuries of history, over the course of 30 years of study. His combined notes and bibliography alone are 29 pages. Muller tellingly shows the relationships among the political, theological and economic ideas that created some of the best and worst events in modern society. getAbstract highly recommends this enlightening, accessible work of contemporary scholarship.

About the Author

Jerry Z. Muller is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. His previous books include The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in Modern European Thought and Adam Smith in His Time and Ours.



Complex Reasons

Capitalism has been good for the Jews, and the Jews have been good for capitalism. In the Middle Ages, Jews migrated widely, primarily settling as guests in host nations and functioning as a religious group of merchants in exile. Over the centuries, historical forces, including nationalism and extreme political movements, shaped the way they earned their livelihoods and practiced their religion. Despite being seen as outsiders, they were positioned for meaningful economic participation when modern capitalism emerged in the 1600s. But nationalism, anti-Semitism and racism imbued the public view of their achievements with hostility, which affected Jews’ self-perception. Jewish intellectuals, such as Moses Mendelssohn, worked to link the economic benefits Jews provided to their other, overall contributions to society.

Changing capitalism, economic inequality and the dawn of ethnic nationalism created many disenfranchised groups. As nations modernized, these trends also drew attention to the Jews – particularly those with wealth – as religious, cultural and financial outsiders. In the 1900s, some Jews turned to communism, capitalism’s antithesis, and to...

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