Why have Jewish men and women succeeded in capitalist economies? How is it that Jews have come to be identified with both capitalism and with anti-capitalist movements like Bolshevism? Has capitalism been good to the Jews? Has it been good to Judaism? In a review of Jerry Muller’s Capitalism and the Jews, National Affairs editor Yuval Levin points out how the story of the Jews and capitalism is not simply one of Jewish material prosperity and anti-Semitic resentment. It is also about the moral life of the Jewish people.
In the end, the picture Muller paints is one of Jewish success against all odds—with every turn in the story providing fresh fodder for virulent anti- Semitism but also fresh paths to Jewish prosperity and prominence. Reactions against capitalism have often taken the form of reactions against the Jews, and it is in those places where capitalism has been ascendant and harsh reactions rare (especially the United States and Britain) that the Jews have thrived most. Their fate, Muller suggests, has been closely tied to the fortunes of capitalism.
While he tells a gripping story, and illustrates his case with copious evidence and arresting insights, Muller does leave some holes, especially with regard to Jewish religious and cultural life. He seems to describe both Jewish capitalism and Jewish anticapitalism as paths away from tradition. But in fact, the story of Jews in the age of capitalism has not simply been a story of increasing alienation from orthodoxy. Among the most interesting facets of that story are the means that Jewish communities have developed to take part in the economic life of the larger society while maintaining the coherence and integrity of their religious life. Almost entirely missing from his story, moreover, is the distinctly Jewish critique of capitalism: the ways in which some Jewish moral teachings, especially the emphasis on justice drawn from the words of the prophets, have been employed in condemnation of the ethic of capitalism.