Publisher:  Varda Books
Original Publisher:  The Jewish Publication Society
Published:  2002
Language:  English
Pages:   285

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About the Book

The Jewish contribution to economic progress has been far-ranging, but it has received insufficient attention from historians, owing no doubt to the special difficulties involved in addressing so complex an inquiry. Aspects of Jewish Economic History represents an attempt – one of the few heretofore – to survey what the author calls “this vast and formidable subject.”

By means of a series of interconnected essays Professor Arkin, a long-time student of economic history, first takes the reader from biblical and postbiblical times through some of the main centers of Jewish economic life in the Middle Ages. He then discusses the underlying features of West European Jewry during the early modern period of mercantilism, offers stimulating new viewpoints on the attitudes of Shakespeare, Sombart, and Mark, evaluates the careers of some of the great financial families like the Rothschilds, and concludes with a reassessment of Jewish economic activity in modern communities as different from one another as the United States, South Africa, and Israel. An annotated bibliography provides guidance for further study.

Few ventures into the field of Jewish economic history have made serious attempts at objectivity. Such studies as there are have been largely a matter of hit-or-miss: according to the prevailing climate of pro- or anti-Semitism, it was argued – whether offensively or defensively – that the part played by the Jewish people in economic development had been all-embracing, or that after all it was insignificant. Professor Arkin does not purport to cover the whole gamut of the subject, but in the topics selected for discussion, he has tried to move away from the traditional stance of the model-builders and avoids the trap of attempting to draw too many lessons from history. He is also acutely aware of some of the difficulties in determining the relationship between Jewish business enterprise and the “dismal science” of economics.

“Within the past few decades,” the author notes, “a number of important monographs have appeared, based on original manuscript sources, which are specifically devoted to particular aspects (some of them very narrow indeed) of [Jewish economic history]. These will make it possible to treat great parts of the field anew and in a much more scientific manner.”

In the interim it is his hope that “the present work may serve to cut some narrow channel that will link the rising lake of the specialist probings with the broad ocean of Jewish historical research, which generally has disregarded economic trends, enabling the waters of each to flow more easily into the other.”


List of Illustrations



1 Farming in Biblical Times

2 Trade and Industry in Biblical Times

3 An Economic Survey of Jewish Life during the Pax Romana


4 Byzantine Jewry and the Medieval Economy

5 Jewish Traders in the Medieval Mediterranean World

6 Jewish Economic Activities in Medieval Islam

7 The Jewish Moneylenders of Roussillon

8 When the Jewish Goose Stopped Laying Golden Eggs

9 The Economic Background to the Expulsion of Spanish Jewry


10 Amsterdam Jewry during the Age of Mercantilism

11 Economic Background to the Restoration of English Jewry

12 The Jews in Early British Economic Thought

13 Mercantilism and the Jews of France


14 Shakespeare and the Usury Theme

15 Sombart, Modern Capitalism, and Jewish Enterprise

16 Marx’s Writings and Jewish Enterprise


17 The Brothers Goldsmid

18 The Rise of the Rothschilds

19 The Don Pacifico Affair

20 Marcus Samuel: Oil Giant of British Jewry


21 Jewish Economic Activities in Colonial Brazil

22 The Mainspring of American Jewish Enterprise

23 The Jewish Impact on South African Economic Development

24 Israel’s Economic Rebirth

Selected Bibliography


An Excerpt from the Book

It is instructive to speculate briefly on the vacillating attitudes adopted toward the Jews by British economists during the century or so that followed readmission, since that era of Jewish consolidation coincided with the vital formative period of classical economics which was to culminate in the appearance of Adam Smith’s masterly synthesis, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776.

Dispassionate inquiries into economic problems were few and far between before the middle decades of the seventeenth century. There had been, of course, a growing spate of pamphlets on a host of topics ever since the appearance of the printing press in England, but the bulk of these writings were special pleadings in behalf of particular vested interests. Specific references to Jews on the contemporary scene are rare in these early tracts, but they do contain frequent biblical allusions to the economic activities of the ancient Israelites in order to bolster or refute diverse arguments.

Although the playwrights of the Elizabethan Age (especially Marlowe in The Jew of Malta and Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice) had propagated the concept of the Jew as a ruthless type of moneylender, the Utopian philosophereconomists of the seventeenth century adopted a much more enlightened view. Sir Francis Bacon, for instance, in his posthumously published outline of an ideal commonwealth, The New Atlantis (1627), places Jews as well as Christians on his imaginary island, allows them religious freedom, and puts some of his most important views into the mouth of Joabin, a Jewish merchant. And in the very year (1656) when the behind-the-scenes negotiations were proceeding between Menasseh ben Israel and Cromwell’s government for the readmission of the Jews, James Harrington, in his Commonwealth of Oceana, gave a realistic and sympathetic account of traditional Jewish money-lending activities and suggested that a good cure for the economic ills of Ireland would be to colonize it with Jews, who should be invited to make it their promised land and be given complete freedom to practice their customs and to own property.

The New Atlantis inspired the organization in 1645 of the Invisible College for the discussion of natural philosophy, out of which the Royal Society grew. The founding of the Royal Society in 1662 was to exercise a profound influence on English scholarship and letters, and in the sphere of economics it encouraged a tendency to subject economic phenomena to scientific methods of inquiry. One of the most influential of the new school of writers was Sir William Petty, whose many and varied economic tracts served as a much-needed antidote to some of the orthodox mercantilist views of his predecessors. Petty severely criticized many traditional English prejudices, as became a man of the world who had traveled extensively abroad, yet he could not bring himself to adopt an objective standard toward the Jews; although he acknowledged their importance in Dutch commerce and in the trade of the Turkish Empire, he went on in his Treatise of Taxes (1662) to assert: “As for Jews, they may well bear somewhat extraordinary, because they ... hold it no disparagement to live frugally, and even sordidly among themselves, by which way alone they become able to under-sell any other Traders, to elude the Excise . . . as also other Duties, by dealing so much in Bills of Exchange, Jewels and Money, and by practicing of several frauds with more impunity than others; for by their being at home every where, and yet no where they become responsible almost for nothing” (Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, ed. Ñ. Í. Hull, 2 vols. [Cambridge, 1899], 1:84). Having thus thrown in his sympathies with those commercial elements who had been opposed to the readmission of Jews by the lord protector, Petty then made some curious suggestions on the desirability of subjecting recent Jewish immigrants to a strict discipline and to higher levies.

In contrast to these biased views of Petty’s, the closing decades of the seventeenth century witnessed a more favorable attitude on the part of many writers, coupled with a widespread recognition of the Jews’ potential importance to the expanding English economy. At this time one of the main concerns of pamphleteers was why and how the Dutch were able to conduct such a flourishing foreign trade, and in his Observations upon the United Provinces (1672) Sir William Temple suggested that religious tolerance and freedom might be one possible reason, m mentioning in particular that “the Jews have their allowed synagogues in Amsterdam and Rotterdam.” In 1680 the anonymous author of Britannia Languens, or a Discourse of Trade expressed concern that, while Jews in England “cannot buy a house,” the French were “angling” for them, with Louis XIV offering the prosperous Leghorn community all sorts of inducements to settle in Marseilles; the removal of civil disabilities on the Jews, this writer added, would be in the economic interest of the whole nation. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes five years later led the Protestant countries to hold out many special inducements to attract skilled Huguenot merchants and craftsmen; in England Charles Davenant—who believed that national welfare depended upon an active policy stimulating an increase of population—went a step further by suggesting that the country become “a general Azilum” for all economically useful aliens, singling out the Jews specifically.