Since the 12th century, religious myths (Jews as deicides) have been complemented with economic stereotypes. Jews were described as rich and rampant as well as “money-lenders”, “bargainers” and “usurers” – a view still commonplace today. Excluded from land ownership, agriculture, and the Christian merchants’ and handicrafts guilds, Jews were increasingly limited to the small trade, peddler and junk trade. The money trading with interest played a special role, which according to church dogmatics violated divine doctrine and remained forbidden to Christians.
Greed, Money-lending and Usuary
During the 14th century, popes and councils repeatedly condemned money lending, which was decried as “Jewish usury”, and in this way aided the animosity of Christian debtors towards their Jewish creditors. The stereotype of the obdurate and greedy Jew who mercilessly exploited the plight of his Christian environment crystallized out. This image penetrated deeply into people’s worldview through legend and myth, folk tale and caricature. It can be found in the characterization of Shylock in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice“, in Werner Sombart’s concept of “creating (schaffendes)” industrial capital and “collecting (raffendes)” finance capital, and in nowadays frequently used antisemitic expressions which no longer target “the Jews”, but are articulated in indirect, encrypted versions, in allusions and codes such as “puppet of the Rothschild‘s”, “high finance” and “elite of the US east coast”. Furthermore, as capital personified, Jews are repeatedly the target of regressive criticism of capitalism: In doing so, they are reduced to their quality as carriers of money, made responsible for economic crises and identified with social restructuring and upheavals.
In the past, the Jewish minority covered the need for money for the growing economy despite the interest ban. On the other hand, it was precisely because of this that they were discriminated against and persecuted as scapegoats.
In medieval Europe, contrary to common prejudices, Jews were active in many industrial sectors outside of the money trade, for example as craftsmen or farmers. As merchants, they contributed to the prosperity and development of cities and communities, primarily through their far-reaching trade relations. It is important to emphasize that most of the Jews in Europe were not rich.
Judenfeindschaft von der Antike bis zur Neuzeit (article by Julia König “Antisemitism from antiquity to modern times,” published on November 23, 2006, on Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung)
Ökonomiekritik und Antisemitismus (article by Malte Holler “Economic criticism and antisemitism” published on “Anders Denken – Thinking Differently” – the online platform for criticism of antisemitism and educational work)
Antisemitism Uncovered: Myth – Jews Are Greedy (article published on the website “Antisemitism Uncovered” by Anti-Defamation League)
Geldjude – Wikipedia (The Jew with the money purse in Rosheim, Source: Wikimedia)
Poster of Jewish bankers walking through a parted red sea of blood – Collections Search (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Antisemitismus – Finanzjudentum – Politik – SZ.de (Antisemitic cartoon, 1943: A Jew portrayed as a greedy businessman. Photo: Süddeutsche Zeitung from the article “Antisemitism – Financial Judaism”)
Antisemitic political cartoon entitled “Rothschild” by the French caricaturist, C. Leandre, 1898. – Collections Search (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
Moneten und Mythen (Photo: Protest – Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park, New York in the article “Monets and Myths” on the website juedische-allgemeine.de)