Here is an important exchange. Recently Jerry Muller, a Jewish professor of history at the Catholic University in D.C., published a splendid book called Capitalism and the Jews. Muller argues that Jews are great at commerce because of cultural training, family habits and dedication to texts, as well as from the tradition of filling a marginalized role in Europe, as usurers. Then capitalism became the defining order of European society in the 19th century, Muller says, and nationalism rose hand in hand with capitalism, because capitalism required literacy and education and nations could provide the structure for such development; and Jews became elevated within those nations as the professionals, and anti-Semitism was the response of people who lost status or who were in competition with Jews. It is a vital argument because it understands anti-Semitism as a real if hateful response to real sociological shifts, including the role of Jews as intermediaries between landowners and peasants in Eastern Europe (a hobbyhorse of mine) and follows along in the work of Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century, and Albert Lindemann–Esau’s Tears, which also “explained” anti-Semitism in terms of the rise of the Jews.
Now what is the exchange I began by referring to? At Amazon, the book was reviewed positively by Ira Stoll, the neoconservative former editor of the New York Sun. (I think this is the sage who said that those of us who demonstrated against the Iraq war in February 2003 should be investigated for “treason.”) But Stoll takes exception to some of Muller’s analysis:
Mr. Muller gets out onto the thinnest ice when he blames Jewish involvement in revolutionary activity and communism for inflaming European anti-Semitism. Sometimes, he frames this claim cautiously: "To be sure, in much of eastern Europe anti-Semitism long antedated the Bolshevik Revolution, and would have been a substantial factor in interwar politics even without the prominence of Jews in the Communist movement."
Other times he is more assertive: "In Germany, where political anti-Semitism had been on the wane before 1914, the role of the Jews in the postwar revolutions was the key element in the revival of anti-Semitism on the right."
That the Jews were being denounced as greedy capitalists at just the same time as they were being denounced as dangerous Communists suggests to me that the denunciations were, at bottom, more about hating Jews than about hating either capitalists or communists.
I.e., they hate us because we are who we are, they hate us no matter what we do. When actually Muller shows that Jews were drawn both to capitalism and anti-capitalism, and that revolutionary ideology clearly played a role in the Nazi stigmatization of Jews in the 30s. But no, any theory that seeks to associate anti-Jewish hatred and crime with an actual grievance must be expunged.
This is in the end a war over Jewish identity right now. If nothing we do has anything to do with the resentment against us, we can continue to run the Israel lobby in American foreign affairs and colonize and ethnically-cleanse Palestinian lands and, when Obama demurs, insist on having out the disagreement behind closed doors, because the goyim will hate us anyway and the lobby is the only power we have.
But if we actually have an effect on our own reputation we can be mindful of our presence in a multicultural world. And I would state, as Muller does historically, that we have tended to be a privileged group. He says that the Jewish response to that privileged status has been revolutionary anti-capitalist fervor (Marx and Emma Goldman) and even American Jewish liberalism– borne of guilt, he says, and providing an ersatz form of religious identity. I quarrel with Muller there. I sense that he is religious. But why is a spirited liberal political engagement out of a sense of guilt, or awareness of entitlement, ersatz, any more than studying ancient scripture and commentary that have little real bearing on our actual lives is ersatz? It’s a judgment on his part, and a bad one. In the next few days I am going to celebrate Muller’s historical achievement here, but also show how his book stops abruptly short of any present-day analysis.