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How Jews Became a Merchant Class

jan peczkis|Wednesday, August 10, 2016

This fascinating, scholarly work begins with a large amount of Jewish demographic detail. At the time of the destruction of the Second temple (65), the Jewish population of the Middle East, North Africa, and eventual Europe was in the 2.5-8.0 million range. By 650, it had plummeted to 1.2 million. (p. 112). After a slight rise, it bottomed out at about 1 million in 1492. (p. 18, 49-50).

An Eye-Opening Account of How Jews Became a Merchant Class By Jan Peczkis on October 23, 2012 Format: Hardcover This fascinating, scholarly work begins with a large amount of Jewish demographic detail. At the time of the destruction of the Second temple (65), the Jewish population of the Middle East, North Africa, and eventual Europe was in the 2.5-8.0 million range. By 650, it had plummeted to 1.2 million. (p. 112). After a slight rise, it bottomed out at about 1 million in 1492. (p. 18, 49-50).

Ancient accounts speak of a large fraction of Israel's Jewish population exterminated by the Romans during and after the Bar Kokhba revolt. (p. 20). Some modern scholars doubt the extent of this murder. (p. 112). In any case, a large fraction of the world's Jews remained in eretz Israel after the Bar Kokhba revolt. However, this population was always outnumbered by that in the Diaspora, especially in Mesopotamia and Persia. (p. 17).

Why did Jews switch from farmers to merchants? The authors examine, and found wanting, the argument that Jews were driven by persecutions, restrictions, and privations to major in commerce. In actuality, at the time that Jews largely abandoned agriculture, there were few if any restrictions on Jews engaging in non-economic occupations. This was true of the Roman Empire, Persian Empire, Byzantine Empire, and Muslim caliphates. (pp. 54-57). Restrictions on Jewish land ownership existed, but did not appear until centuries after Jews had largely abandoned agriculture. (p. 58).

Nor is it correct that Jews feared investing in land because of its vulnerability to confiscation. At the time that Jews had largely abandoned agriculture, Jews enjoyed considerable security. (p. 59). By the time Jews did face significant persecution in (and expulsions from) Christian lands, in late medieval and early modern times (notably after about 1250: p. 48), they had already been merchant class for some centuries. (p. 60).

By the time of the persecution of Jews in Columbus-era Spain, many Spanish Jews had achieved considerable wealth, numbers, and cultural prominence. (p. 49). Major persecutions of Jews in Islamic countries also long postdated Jewish merchant status, "The most severe persecutions and forced conversions of Jews (and especially Christians) occurred in the early eleventh century in Egypt, under the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim. In the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa under Muslim rule, the Almohad rulers massacred Christians, Jews, and dissenting Muslims and forced Christians and Jews to convert to Islam." (p. 149).

Pointedly, many peoples faced severe persecutions, yet did not abandon agriculture in favor of trading, banking, financing, law, or medicine. This was true, for example, of the early Christians in the Roman Empire, the Samaritans under the Byzantine and Abbasid rulers and, more recently, the Gypsies (Roma). (p. 60).

Urban living was hardly a prerequisite for religiously- and culturally-motivated self-segregation. The Jewish movement away from agriculture began in Muslim-ruled Mesopotamia and Persia in the eighth and ninth centuries, and then in Christian lands a few centuries later. By that time, Jews had already enjoyed many centuries of self-segregation while engaging in agriculture. (p. 62).

The key to understanding Jewish prominence in commerce, and later usury, owed to the early and long-term religiously motivated Jewish emphasis on universal male literacy. (e. g, p. 2, 5, 78). Moreover, this learning was lifelong (p. 146), and the Jewish community punished the non-compliant. (p. 85). The latter eventually led a considerable fraction of uneducated Jews to find Judaism too demanding, and to convert voluntarily to Christianity. (p. 7). Education among Jewish males in general became prominent during the Talmudic period (10-200)(p. 77), and began to have a significant economic impact after about 200. (p. 82).

Why the several-centuries (minimum) delay between widespread Jewish literacy and the emergence of Jews as a commercial class? Botticini and Eckstein believe that it owed to the generally gradual development of urbanization and commerce in all the lands that Jews lived. (p. 139).

The prominence of Jews in usury was a long-term development. Jews voluntarily engaged in usury (p. 8). They engaged in it in part because, as liquid wealth, it was less vulnerable to the shocks of the market. In addition, Jews had close familial and economic ties with each other. (p. 223).

The authors reject common explanations for Jews majoring in usury. For instance, while Jews were banned from craft and merchant guilds in Europe, the same held for Jews in the Byzantine Empire in the early Middle Ages, yet those Jews never became prominent in moneylending. (p. 238). Nor did Christian and Muslim bans, on co-religionists engaging in usury, create a default niche for Jews. For centuries, the Church had discouraged, but did not forbid, Christians engaging in usury. Only centuries after Jews had specialized in usury did the Church strongly condemn the practice among Christians, and, even then, European Jewry rarely held a monopoly on moneylending. (p. 240). As for wine-trade issues, these also developed after Jews became specialized in usury. (p. 241).

In the end, the same education that gave Jews a large advantage in commerce provided the same in usury, (quote) In a medieval Europe populated largely by illiterate people--with the exception of merchants, traders, moneylenders, priests, and monks--the Jews had a comparative advantage in writing and reading contracts, business letters, and account books. As traders, they were already accustomed to conducting business through agreements in documents and letters. They also had the arithmetic skills that enabled them to calculate interest and exchanges rates. (unquote)(p. 243).

The authors plan a sequel to this book, covering the life of Jews after 1492. For now, they point out that the spectacular Jewish successes in many endeavors are a recent development, (quote) As Joel Mokyr documents, Jews contributed very little to the development of ideas, technologies, or institutions during the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, or the Industrial Revolution. The minor role in these fields is in striking contrast with the prominent role Jews played in the commercial and financial sectors during the seventeenth to nineteenth century. Only beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century did the Jews play a major role also in science, technology, philosophy, and literature. (unquote)(p. 271).
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