Jews and money: The stereotype, the history, the reality

All Jews are rich. They’re really good with money and own all the banks. Oh, and they control the media, too, not to mention the government.

So go the stereotypes that have followed Jews for centuries. They are hateful and hurtful canards, and have triggered immeasurable Jewish suffering throughout history.

As a people, Jews traditionally have been extraordinarily generous, civic-minded and philanthropic. But the stereotypes endure, perhaps in part because there is an underlying truth: In this country, Jews overall are better off financially than most.

So what’s up with Jews and money? It’s a complicated question, and for the most part the collective Jewish community has avoided discussing it.

There is a tacit taboo on talking about the relationships connecting Jews and wealth, power and influence. It pushes buttons for some, and generally is not mentioned in polite society.

That is, until now. The Jewish Community Center of San Francisco is hosting “Loaded: Jews & Money,” a series of events, lectures and discussions that touch on various aspects of the subject.

Eliot Spitzer

The series, which runs through May, is the latest of the Manovill Conversations, sponsored by the Laszlo N. Tauber Family Foundation.

Organizers know the topic might make some people uncomfortable. They say, bring it on.

“It’s a sensitive, emotional arena, and brings out all kinds of reactions,” said Barbara Lane, the JCC’s director of Arts & Ideas. “We wanted an environment to discuss some volatile issues in a reasoned and intelligent way.”

The numbers are telling, though they aren’t the whole story. A 2008 Pew Forum Institute study found that Jews are the nation’s wealthiest religious group, with 46 percent earning $100,000 or more a year, compared with 18 percent of the overall population.

As for mega-wealth, the most recent Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans included nearly 100 Jewish billionaires — a striking statistic for a group that represents less than 2 percent of the population. Then again, financial criminals such as Bernie Madoff and Jack Abramoff embarrassed many in the Jewish community.

Rabbi David Wolpe

It adds up to plenty of fodder for the JCC series. Panelists and lecturers include Rabbi David Wolpe, Slate journalist Matt Yglesias, writer and essayist Daphne Merkin, filmmaker Lewis Cohen and a certain former New York governor who built a reputation for prosecuting Wall Street profiteers — some of them Jews.

Presenters will touch on the history of Jewish success in business, and how resentment hardened into an often lethal form of anti-Semitism. They also will consider the flip side: how tzedakah, the giving of charity, is a hard-wired Jewish value, and how countless Jews throughout history have been poor as dirt.

A highlight of the series is Cohen’s searing 2012 documentary “Jews & Money,” which explores its title subject through the horrific case of Ilan Halimi.

The handsome 23-year-old Jewish Frenchman was kidnapped, tortured and dumped in a suburban Paris park in 2006. The thugs who killed him were sent to prison.

Why did the gang known as “The Barbarians” single out Halimi? Under interrogation, they told police it was because he was a Jew. They assumed he must be rich and could afford the $500,000 ransom they were demanding. Turned out he was just a cellphone salesman.

Daphne Merkin

“Jews & Money” screens at the JCC on Wednesday, April 17, followed by a conversation between Cohen and former San Francisco Jewish Film Festival director Peter Stein.

In addition to the details of Halimi’s ordeal, Cohen’s film surveys the history that informed the hate crime. Ancient tropes — such as that of the rich Jewish banker and the greedy Jewish moneylender, immortalized by Shakespeare’s Shylock character — served as background noise, infecting the minds of the criminals who murdered Halimi.

One of the series’ lecturers who will speak to such historical stereotypes is scholar Jerry Muller, author of “Capitalism and the Jews.” Muller, a professor of economic history at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., will discuss his book on May 7.

He thinks the time is right for a series like this, even though its subject may make audience members squirm.

A poster for the film “Jews & Money”.

“Jewish wealth is a stereotype,” Muller said, “but in almost every society in which Jews have been granted a modicum of equal legal rights, even if there was social and religious discrimination, they tended to do disproportionately well economically. In central and western Europe, and eventually the United States, Jews were the wealthiest group on average by a wide margin.”

He also busts the myth that the ghettoized Jews of medieval Europe languished in poverty.

“It’s not true that for most of European history the Jews were poorer than the surrounding population,” Muller noted. “They were richer and certainly a lot more literate. It’s true they didn’t have many rights, but then the vast majority didn’t have many rights.”

He attributes Jewish success in business to Jewish culture, which tended to emphasize literacy and education. Moreover, the kinds of occupations Jews were allowed to enter typically required, and resulted in, knowledge of commerce.

Jews, he said, knew “how to buy and sell.”

“Because they were often excluded from other areas of economic activity, like land owning,” Muller added, “Jews tended to be on the lookout for opportunities, for new markets, new commodities or new ways of retailing. [Jews] often began as peddlers, which is a way of reaching untapped markets. Later on they were involved in a number of new forms of retailing, such as department stores, catalogue sales, then box stores.”

Still from the film: kidnap victim Ilan Halimi photo/courtesy of stephanie yin

Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is another participant in the series, delivering an April 29 lecture called “Money, Politics and Democracy.”

Spitzer grew up in a wealthy Bronx neighborhood and graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. But as attorney general in the early 2000s, he went after white-collar crime related to securities and Internet fraud. That meant targeting titans from Wall Street’s biggest firms.

And that meant going after rich Jewish bankers.

“Why did we do it?” he asked in an interview with j. “In an odd way, I always felt people who are fortunate to live within that context probably should have had a better understanding of how Wall Street works.”

Spitzer never factored ethnicity or religion into his prosecutions. But years later, after a promising governorship that ended in disgrace because of his involvement in a prostitution scandal, he has a few observations about Jews and money.

“The topic is something Jews need to think about,” Spitzer said. “In more modern parts of society, [stereotypes] have primarily disappeared, though there is some residual discrimination around. But in other parts of the world I see lots of stereotypes.”

Still from the film: Shylock figurine.

Rabbi David Kasher did not have to travel around the world to experience stereotypes firsthand. Recalling his days as a yarmulke-wearing rabbinical student in New York City 10 years ago, he remembers more than once people throwing quarters at him and saying, “Pick it up, Jew.”

Kasher, director of education at Kevah in Berkeley, will talk about tzedakah, poverty, justice and wealth disparity — the poorest place in the United States is Kiryas Yoel, a haredi Orthodox community in New York where 70 percent of the residents live below the poverty level — at the series event “Three Rabbis Walk into a Room.”

He believes Judaism takes a markedly different approach to money, wealth and business compared with other faith traditions.

“It doesn’t have disdain for the gritty everyday world of wheeling and dealing,” said Kasher, who also teaches at Berkeley Law. “Part of that is rooted in a theology which sees everyday human life as central in the divine scheme, and sees this world as an important place for religious focus.”

From the mid-1800s, a depiction of Shylock by British illustrator Sir John Gilbert

Jews generally tend to avoid playing into the stereotype of the “crafty Jewish businessperson, given the hostility and real violence that has followed forth,” he said.

“But we are sometimes so on guard that we’re unable to access what Jewish tradition presents us. Stretching back to the patriarchs, the Bible often portrays cleverness and success as virtues, as signs of wisdom, divine favor and blessing. That’s very different from an ethic that says there’s your religious life, and there’s the grimy transactional world some of us unfortunately have to participate in.”

Whether or not the series alters the conversation about Jews and money, organizers see plenty of potential good coming out of the process.

The series is meant to “empower the community to talk about this [subject],” said Stephanie Singer, a key organizer of the event as the JCC’s manager of lectures and special programs. “This belongs in a public forum.”

“There is justifiable pride in what Jews have achieved in a relatively short period in this country,” added Lane. “We understand the reluctance to talk about it, but we have a safe environment to tackle this.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.