Anticapitalism and the Emergence of Antisemitism

by Stephanie Chasin (Author)
©2020 Monographs 284 Pages


The longest-lived stereotype of Jews with the broadest appeal is the idea that Jews are money-driven. From the fictional moneylender Shylock demanding his pound of flesh to the Wall Street banker, for centuries Jews have been portrayed as caring only for profit and motivated by greed. This is a construction that is allied to the history of anticapitalism. Whether medieval theologians or antiglobalist protesters, capitalism is commonly criticized as exploitative and immoral as are the providers of capital. This book tells the story of how, when, and where Jews and capital became negatively stereotyped. With a new perspective, it places the issue of antisemitism within a larger ideological question, debated since the beginnings of capitalism. Is making money off money immoral and is there such a thing as "excessive" profit? The book shows that Jews were not the sole creditors or even the dominant ones, that their history was not one of unceasing hostility, and that it is when that stereotype of Jews and money is a political tool that it is at its most dangerous.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 “The Shadowy Realm of Usury”
  • 2 “The Purses and Leeches of Princes”
  • 3 “The Filthy Rich”
  • 4 “In the Name of God and Profit”
  • 5 A Dangerous Game of Monopoly
  • 6 The Virtue of Vice
  • 7 The “Regeneration” of Jewish Usurers
  • 8 The Globalization of Capital
  • 9 Sharing the Wealth
  • 10 The “Tyranny of Usury” Conspiracy
  • 11 “Mr. Moneybags”
  • Index


A 1933 definition of the word “Jew” in the Oxford English Dictionary reads: “As a name of opprobrium: spec. applied to a grasping or extortionate person.” Even as late as the 1970s, the term “Jew” was commonly used to refer to a greedy person. The link between Jews and money is, as one writer noted, a “terribly durable myth,” that has ebbed, halted, lay dormant, and flowed again through history. A recent upswing in antisemitism in Europe and the US includes comments made by public officials about Jews and finance that some years ago would have ended in a resignation. In February 2019, Ilhan Omar, the Democratic representative for Minnesota, tweeted that the relationship between the US and Israel was “all about the Benjamins.” In France, Yellow Vest protesters (Gilet Jaune) protested outside the Rothschilds bank in Paris, holding signs referring to “Banksters” and condemning “slavery by usury” (l’esclavage par l’usure). In England, the Labour party is rife with antisemitism, and one slogan used by some supporters twisted Jeremy Corbyn’s mantra, “For the many, not the few,” replacing the last word with “Jew.” In 2018, Corbyn defended a 2012 mural by the American artist Mear One which depicts hook-nosed Jewish bankers sitting at a large Monopoly table stacked with money. The table rests on the backs of faceless black men. In March 2019, a carnival float by the group Vismooiln in the Belgian city of Aalst, Belgium, featured a grotesque version of two Orthodox Jews. While their hands ←vii | viii→grabbed moneybags, a rat sat on top of another sack filled with cash. The float was decorated with gold and silver coins. The response by the float makers was that it was a piece of satire, no different to the polemical cartoons put out by the magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.1

This idea that Jews are money-driven and that capitalism is Jewish has a long history. This longstanding myth is the subject of this book. It explores the interconnection that ran, and still runs, across the political and social spectrum and was constructed over centuries by critics of capitalism. From medieval usury (lending at interest) to modern capitalism, Jews were depicted as the bearers of this economic system that has been denounced as everything from extortionate to evil. In the modern era, German economists Karl Marx and Werner Sombart were two of the leading proponents to claim that capitalism was a Jewish invention and formed what was called the “Jewish spirit,” in their respective books Zur Judenfrage (1843) and Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (1911).2

Notwithstanding the enduring stereotype, as Julie L. Mell points out in The Myth of the Medieval Jewish Moneylender, the number of Jews who took up usury as a profession was small and, by the late twelfth century, Christians, mainly Italians, had entered into moneylending in significant numbers and, in many places, dominated the profession. That said, even though it is true that most Jews were not financiers, this does not negate the ones who were. It does not erase them from history, nor should they be. Individual Jewish moneylenders, however small a number, were not inconsequential. Some were high profile figures and extremely wealthy and influential; most were small to medium-scale financiers, as Mell documents, who helped people start small businesses, buy their merchandize, supply their daughters with dowries, pay taxes and other bills, and just get by during bad harvests and hard times. To argue their insignificance simply because they were not numerically dominant, as Mell does, suggests an unease with this link between any Jews and capitalism along with a desire to put a great distance between the two. It is not the case that Jewish moneylenders were virtually non-existent. The myth lies in the transference of that professional identity of a relatively small number of Jewish individuals onto Jews collectively. This myth is compounded by others, suggesting that Jews have an inherent ability for finance and that the love of money is an innate trait.3

The association between Jews and capitalism would be meaningless, or harmless, if the capital-based profit economy and its institutions were not widely seen as a vice. It is not enough to try and distance Jews from capitalism as that would not undo this centuries-old stereotype. The myth of the inherent evil of capitalism has to be attacked as well. To its harshest critics, capitalism is exploitative ←viii | ix→and oppressive, and the people who practice it were, and are, naturally motivated by “the greed of gold,” as Sombart described it, rather than the common good. Financiers have long been cast as society’s villains, whatever their religion, and that continues today with groups such as Occupy Wall Street and Extinction. Rebellion. Whether it is a thirteenth-century preacher denouncing usury as uncharitable, Karl Marx’s comment that money is the Jews’ god, the alt-right White Nationalists who chant “The Jews will not replace us,” and disparage free trade and global markets, or an American actor retweeting a cartoon of an arm bearing the Star of David while its hand crushes a multitude of people and has a tag line that reads, “Follow the money,” there is a consistent and enduring connection made between a mythical “vampiric” capitalism and a mythical “vampiric” Jews. Ulrike Meinhof, a member of the anticapitalist terror organization, the Red Army Faction, stated that, “Antisemitism is really a hatred of capitalism.” It might be more correct to say that antisemitism and anticapitalism feed off each other.4

In his book The Ascent of Money, Niall Ferguson notes that debtors have always been more numerous than creditors and financial scandals and crises have always caught people’s attention. So much so, that the myth evolved whereby capitalism was the cause of all financial problems, the source of poverty and financial volatility, instead of prosperity and stability. Financial innovations, such as credit and deposit banks, were imperative for the move from a subsistence existence (which was at the mercy of the weather, a person’s health, or warfare) to a surplus economy destined for the local and overseas markets. Ferguson rightly argues that a democratic state that implements an economy that has banks, bond markets, stock exchanges, and a property-owning populace—all made possible by credit—is generally in better fiscal state than those that do not have these institutions. That is the case whether they are medieval feudal or modern-day economies. It was the creation and evolution of banking that was the necessary first step in the “ascent of money.” As Ferguson writes, poverty is not caused by “rapacious financiers exploiting the poor,” but has “more to do with the lack of financial institutions” and access to credit. And that development of banking began at the moneylender’s bench (banci) in the market square.5

To say that it is a myth that capitalism was the source of poverty and all financial problems is not to deny corruption and failures on the part of individuals or groups. The temptation towards greed, a human weakness on which medieval critics based their anti-usury campaigns, led some to extort, defraud, and commit other acts of dishonesty, but no more than in any other business. Capital can, of course, be recklessly or deceitfully employed, but that is human folly and personal corruption. Capital has funded profitable businesses, turned ideas into ←ix | x→inventions, patronized culture, and created a better standard of living for the majority. As William H. Goetzmann claims, the emergence of interest (along with the invention of debt) were “the most significant of all innovations in the history of finance.” Where Ferguson is mistaken, however, is in declaring that financial services were disproportionately provided by members of ethnic or religious minorities, excluded from land or public office and that their success in finance was due to their network of kinship and trust. Not only were Jews not the majority of moneylenders historically, it is yet another myth to claim that all Jewish moneylenders were forced into the profession due to lack of opportunities. Contrary to the idea that they were left with no other livelihood but moneylending, Jews were involved in all kinds of employment, at all economic levels. Nevertheless, this remains a common contention in histories of antisemitism and Jewish history. 6

Despite the ongoing efforts to depict the Jews as “the Other” in the history of antisemitism, Jews were not eternal pariahs, living apart from Western European society. There were brutal attacks in various places at various times and this book documents the consistent efforts to taint Jews as immoral because of their presence in moneylending. Yet, Jews also had business contacts, friendships, and sexual relationships with Christians. They were not a “bloc” standing around, generation after generation, waiting for the next expulsion or violent event, frozen in anticipation. People traded, delivered babies, healed the sick or hastened their death, sold bread, cut diamonds, harvested their grapes, and collected coral, among many other things. And those other things included lending money at the banci in medieval Europe, speculating at the early stock exchanges in Amsterdam and London, or, today, trading on Wall Street.

* * *

This book is a broad inquiry into why, when, and how this connection emerged in Western Europe and became the most enduring stereotype underpinning antisemitism. How did the attitudes towards a market economy based on capital intersect with, influence, and affect the image of the Jewish moneylender? The fact that only a small number of Jews were ever involved in finance leaves the questions as to why usury was considered corrupt and immoral in the first place and why money/usury/capitalism/banking become bestowed collectively on all Jews? Why and how did this stereotype endure for so long and why didn’t it dissipate when Christians entered the field of usury or over the many centuries ←x | xi→that followed? And were there places or times that it was not as virulent as other regions at other periods?

To grapple with these questions, the book’s geographical scope begins with Western Europe and ends with the United States and Israel. It is in early twelfth-century Europe that we find a marked upturn of anti-Jewish rhetoric concerning Jews and usury. It is the contention of this book that this negative connection between Jews and money was forged during this time. That is not to say that objections about Jewish moneylenders were not heard in earlier times. But it was the confluence of three major developments during the late medieval period that sparked the idea that the capital-based economy was “Jewish.” First, a small number of Jews held a virtual, but brief, monopoly in moneylending. Second, this came at a time of immense economic change and, for political and economic reasons, the demand for capital greatly increased. Third, this prompted a reaction by those who were against the proliferation of interest-bearing loans, which they regarded as immoral.

For its critics, usury was not just a bad thing; it was a dreadful sin and harmful to the common good. It went against the idea of caritas (charity) which was a critical issue for members of a Church often attacked as too worldly, because it is uncharitable to profit off your neighbor’s financial distress. It devoured the poor and ruptured society. In contrast, the highest mark of virtue was to own nothing and to give everything freely. The idea that a component of an economic system, and the economic system itself, had a moral character encouraged critics to term the profession of moneylending as “Jewish” and those who were not Jewish but who practiced it, as “Judaizers.” It was circular reasoning: Jews were immoral because they practiced usury and they practiced usury because they were immoral.

The spur for this widespread concern over usury was the significant economic expansion in Western Europe that went hand-in-hand with the long and uneven transformation of the economy from feudalism to capitalism. As many historians have pointed out, this was not a neat transition from a so-called “natural economy” to a market economy. Barter continued, especially between families in rural areas, even as markets and fairs expanded. But more people desired products that could not be obtained from their family and neighbors, and so the need for coinage and capital grew. Stability after a period of Viking and Hungarian raids, combined with Western Europe’s greater fragmentation after the cessation of the Carolingian empire, and the desire of secular rulers to enhance their power and fill their treasuries, encouraged a greater reliance on capital in an increasingly global market. With the development of insurance, mortgages, limited regulations, legislation and policing for merchants’ safety, along with a vigorous circulation of credit, commerce and trade prospered ←xi | xii→over the centuries. Old ways of life were not automatically dispensed in favor of new. Instead, the economy evolved over time with news ways and institutions side by side with past customs and sometimes in conflict with them.7

The debate over usury was never static. It shifted over time and was dependent on the personal views and needs of the authorities and the various members of the population, as well as social, political, and economic conditions. Usury was therefore defined and redefined to accommodate the changes in economic and political society. Once interest loans were accepted, the debate changed to other aspects of the market system, such as “excessive” interest, luxury, and speculation. What is consistent is that, despite the small percentage of Jews involved in finance, regardless of the presence of Christians, and blind to the benefits the expanding commercial world brought to generation after generation, critics over the centuries derided Jews for money-hungry exploitation of the poor.

The issue of Jews and usury, banking, and capitalism, thus took place within this larger contest between those who claimed, at one end of the spectrum, that virtue and the common good rejected the pursuit of money and profit and, at the other end, those who understood that credit was an essential component in the growth of the economy. Some critics maintained that if Jews extricated themselves from the financial professions, they would be better subjects or citizens. Rather than making money off money, which was “parasitical,” they should take up “honest” and “real” occupations that were physical, such as agriculture and manufacturing. This was an argument regularly used by anti-usury critics against Jews, which led to discussions about the “regeneration” of Jews by physical labor. With the rise of national identities and racial categorization in the nineteenth century, the notion of inherently unmalleable traits altered the debate. By the modern era, the belief on the part of anticapitalists that those in finance were corrupt and corrupting, because capitalism itself was innately immoral and exploitative, was deeply entrenched in wide sectors of modern society. Even though bankers came from all different backgrounds, the myth endured that it was a “Jewish spirit” that pervaded capitalism.

Given the long history that forged the myths that Jews pursued gold at the expense of others and that capitalism is an immoral system, the two figures on the float in 2019 Belgium or the cabal around the Monopoly table needed no explanation to their audience.

* * *

There are some major terms that need explanation. Antisemitism is a word first popularized by the radical journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879. His purpose in ←xii | xiii→using this new term to describe his ideology about Jews in Germany was to distance his point of view from other anti-Jewish perspectives. His was not a religious animus, and he had no time for that sort of anti-Jewishness. The term emanated from the racial studies of the nineteenth century which described and categorized human beings into races and then attributed to those categorized races various characteristics. The categories into which humans were caged, were based on skin color and ethnicity. There were the Whites, the Blacks, the Yellows, and the Semites. The latter comprised Jews and Arabs but as Europe was home to a significant number of Jews and few Arabs, the term became synonymous with Jews. The term antisemitism was therefore racially charged and part of the modern world. Racial theorists contemplated the temperament of the various groups, giving the Whites the most favorable attributes, the Blacks the least. Jews were middling, given both good and bad attributes. But what is critical is that there was a significant shift in how Jews were regarded. Race was something finite and unchangeable. Character was set at birth. The term antisemitism, therefore, is more suited to describing the hostility to Jews from the late nineteenth century on rather than in earlier centuries. It is for this reason why the title speaks of the “emergence of antisemitism.” People in the medieval period or the early modern era did not share Marr’s outlook or generally think about Jews in a “racial” sense.

The words “moneylender” and “banker” are used interchangeably with the understanding that until the modern era, the lines of a banking profession were blurred. Most medieval bankers combined that profession with other, often related, occupations, such as goldsmith and moneychanger. The term capitalism, first coined in the mid-nineteenth century, is used in the broadest sense to refer to an economy based on capital as opposed to a service-in-kind or state-run economy. There is no sharp divide between a feudal system and a capitalist one—they overlap for centuries. I have therefore used the term capitalism throughout the book to describe a market profit economy based on capital and coinage and it is understood as a system without moral character. There was, and is, always potential for human economic dishonesty and exploitation, whatever the system, but this is not the focus of the book. There is no assessment as to whether some moneylenders were exploitative or not, as assessing each individual would be an impossible and fruitless task. Instead, capitalism is identified as a morally indifferent economic system that can be used well and productively by the honest and diligent, or poorly and unjustly by the inept, the reckless, and the dishonest.

There is a tendency in books and in popular culture to relate antisemitism to political views that are contrary to the author’s political stance. The terms “leftwing” ←xiii | xiv→and “rightwing” are generally unhelpful in the history of antisemitism, or, indeed, history in general, although they are frequently employed. Antisemitism is often labeled “right-wing,” but this is clearly erroneous. The stereotype about Jews and money comes from a wide array of people—from peasants and townspeople, from aristocrats to blue collar workers, from the educated and non-educated, from Liberals, Socialists, Conservatives, Communists, Anarchists, Utopians and populists. It is found in strikingly different countries. If the “Jews/money/capitalism” construction was not rooted in a wide range of people, then it would have endured as it has. Nor would it have any troubling effect if there had been no Jews in moneylending at a time that usury was a critical issue in society. The fact that so many people for so long connected Jews with capitalism, and capitalism with greed, made it a powerful weapon for antisemites in the modern era, as well a cause for antisemitism.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (March)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XVI, 284 pp.

Biographical notes

Stephanie Chasin (Author)

Stephanie Chasin earned her Ph.D. from UCLA. She taught at UC Irvine and UCLA as a visiting lecturer and worked as an independent researcher. Presently, she is an independent scholar specializing in Jewish and European history.


Title: Anticapitalism and the Emergence of Antisemitism