From very early times the Jews were literate. They were a people who shared a common language with their relatives and with other Jews in other lands. This was a very useful skill for international trade. Literacy led not only to learning but had material benefits.
Being the "People of the Book" gave Jews dealing with commerce great advantages. Throughout the ages the participation of the Jews in the evolution of commerce was far out of proportion to their numbers.
Jews became integral to the international trade of the countries into which they settled or were hurled. This does not mean that all the Jews were dealing with international commerce or finance. Many Jews were seamen, artisans and even slaves.
Before the Rise of Feudalism
According to the material collected on the Hebrew History Federation website, Judaic maritime history begins with the association of the Judahites with the Kinanu, in the ports of Tyre Sidon and in Carthage.
The Canaanites disappeared from maritime activity after the Romans defeated the Carthaginians and conquered the Levant. The Jews however continued to be a significant factor in Mediterranean trade. Jews were not only ship owners and the financiers of commercial voyages, but sailors as well. Philo records that one of the four main occupations of the Jews of Alexandria was maritime activity in all its forms. The church leader Origen (AD 185-254), who was born in Alexandria, wrote that not only did Jewish carpenters, masons, and other workers of Alexandria cease work on the Sabbath, but that Jewish sailors did as well. Synesius (AD 375-413), the Bishop of Ptolemais, reported that on his voyage out of Alexandria, that the captain and more than half of the crew were Jews.
During the Roman occupation of Egypt, Alexandrian Jewish entrepreneurs became deeply involved in the sea trade. Ships carrying merchandise sailed not only to the Red Sea, but also to the Gulf of Aden and across the Indian Ocean.
The Roman rulers were not the traders traveling the routes, whom they held in low esteem, but the overlords who derived a healthy income from the activity of the traders. The Romans collected customs duties at military camps established to "protect" caravans along the African route sometimes amounting to as much as 25% of the value of the goods.
Since the 8th century BC, when the Assyrian ruler Tiglath-Pileser deported over 10,000 Israelites to Persia (this is according to the conqueror himself), Jews have been at the forefront of international trade. The subsequent Babylonian exile added many thousands of Judahite families to the Persian/Babylonian milieu. Persia became a center from which trade between the eastern and the western worlds evolved. The Jews were a bridge between those worlds.
Jewish bankers were involved in the development of Persian industry and initiated a system of credit. The surviving records of two Jewish banking families are among the most revealing documents of the Persian period. These were the Jewish banking houses of "Murashu and Sons," and "Egibi and Sons".
Tel Abib was one of twenty-eight Jewish settlements in the Nippur area that are featured in the Murashu records.
Most of the Jews referred to in the Murashu documents were of the lower classes, some of which were slaves. Two such slaves, one bearing a clearly Judaic name, were contracted by the head of the house of Murashu to repair the dam of the irrigation canal passing through Murashu property. The contract stipulated that damages would be assessed if the commitment was not fulfilled, a condition that infers that the "slaves" had independent property of their own which could be assessed!
There are a number of references to Jewish engineers who earned their living as irrigation experts. All fourteen canal managers known to us by name through these documents were Jews. They were responsible administrators who exercised a technical trade central to the economy of the region.
From the 5th century BC onwards, Jewish merchants traveled on land routs to China. Jewish merchants and artisans then established colonies at strategic points along those routes.
Glass beads appear to be among the earliest goods that found their way from Babylonia to China. Such beads were recovered from Chinese tombs at Loyang, the capital of China in Late Zhou Period.
Reverend William Charles White was the driving force behind the excavation of the Loyang tombs where a great variety of glass beads was recovered. Among these were the ubiquitous eye-beads of the same technique, design, and composition that had been produced in Judah and exported through Tyre and Sidon throughout the Mediterranean.
The same routs were used to exchange linen fabrics (Byssus) produced by Jews for silk. This route became known as the Silk Road.
The Chinese fancied linens as much as westerners fancied silks. Linens were therefore as marketable in China as silks were in the West. Woven linen textiles and glassmaking were both prime Judaic occupations in Alexandria. Jewish artisans dominated the inter-related trades of weaving and dyeing. As merchants, they dominated the market for fibers and fabrics. The Jewish weavers of Beth - shean achieved worldwide fame as producers of fine fabrics. The Jerusalem Talmud refers to the "fine linen vestments that come from Beth-shean."
The exemplary quality of textiles and clothes produced by the Beth-shean Jews was noted by Diocletian in his "Edict of Maximum Prices". The edict paid particular attention to the woven produce of Beth-shean: "Textile goods are divided into three qualities: First, second and third. In each group the produce of Scythopolis appears in the first class."
Other important commodities traveling back from China were spices.
The Chinese paid for glass and linen not only with silk but also with, cinnamon, cassia (the bark from which a form of cinnamon is produced), jade, camphor, and a variety of other products.
Both India and China were sources of exotic spices, which were valued because they both enriched the taste of food and helped to preserve it in an era when refrigeration was as yet two millennia away. Spices were also valued for their medicinal properties.
The production and the use of dyes was an industrial secret of the Jewish traders and artisans. The royal purple (argaman in Hebrew) and the ritual blue (tekhelet in Hebrew) were two particularly important colors in the culture of ancient Israel.
Soap was used only by Mesopotamians in antiquity. Soap was unknown to the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. In Jeremiah we learn that the Judahites had full knowledge of both the production and use of soap: "For though thou wash thee with nitre, and take thee much soap, yet thine iniquity is marked before me, saith the Lord God."
Thus the Jewish traders before the Middle Ages spoke Arabic, Persian, Frankish, Andalusian, and Slavonic. They travelled from East to West and from West to East by both land and sea. From the West they brought adult slaves, boys and girls, brocade, beaver, pelts, assorted furs, sables and swords. They sailed from the land of the Franks on the Western Sea (Mediterranean) and set out for a-Faruma (a port on the easternmost branch of the Nile). There they transported their merchandise by pack-animal to al-Qulzum (on the Red Sea) several parasangs (a parasang is estimated to be anywhere from three and a half to four English miles) away. From al-Qulzum they set sail for al-Jar (Medina) and Jidda (the present port for Mecca), after which they proceeded to Sind (the Indus River valley), and then to India and China. From China they brought musk, aloe wood, camphor, cinnamon, and other products as they made their way back to al-Qulzum.
Silk and spices were not the only things brought back from the East to the West by the traders. Knowledge was brought back as well.
Jewish traders in India dealt in the Indian decimal system (with the critical use of zero). In the centuries after the fall of Rome, the Jewish traders translated Indian mathematics into Arabic and introduced the system to Islamic North Africa, thereafter to become known as the "Arabic number system." It was called this in the West not because the Arabs had invented it, but because the Europeans obtained it from the Arabs.
Most biblical scholars agree that the acceptance by the Jews of exclusive abstract monotheism in the 6th century was linked in some way to the national loss of the Kingdom of Judah and the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile to Babylonia. (John Bright, A History of Israel. London: SCM Press, 1960); (Rad, Gerhard von, Old Testament Theology, Vol. 2. Translated by D. M. G. Stalker. London: SCM Press, 1965); (David Aberbach, Imperialism and Biblical Prophecy 750-500 B.C.E. London: Routledge, 1993).
There have been many attempts to explain why the Jews, who before the First Exile, were no less polytheist than the Canaanites developed a concept of an abstract god. According to Freud's "Moses and Monotheism", Moses was assassinated by the Hebrews because he wanted to impose a religion that was too spiritual on them. From a materialist, namely scientific point of view however, the existence of the Jews after the exile outside of a Jewish state without any center dealing with international commerce is the reason for the appearance of an abstract god.
The Jews in the Middle Ages
Following the destruction of Rome, life in Europe was miserable for most people. However, when the instability and chaos of the Early Middle Ages receded and the invasions stopped, the medieval economy recovered and prospered. New agricultural methods such as the heavier plow, the metal horseshoe, and the shoulder harness were used. The peasants who produced the basic necessities of life were able to cultivate the land, and available farmland tripled. Peasants were at the core of medieval society: most of the farming people of Europe lived in villages of ten to several hundred families. These villages were located on manors that were ruled either by a local lord or a nearby monastery or convent. The manors were generally self-sufficient economic units, providing everything the lords and their peasant subjects needed. Villages were clusters of huts surrounded by the fields. Each family was assigned various strips of land, often unconnected, to plant. From these plots the farming families raised sufficient foodstuffs to feed themselves and the surplus was taken in form of tithes to the church and duties to the lord. Near the village would usually be a pasture where the plow animals and sheep, pigs, and cattle would graze on common land. There was generally a wooded area where the peasantry could forage for wood for fuel. Typically a village did not have schools, hospitals or other public buildings, although these features were beginning to appear in significant numbers in the medieval towns. The church was the cultural center of the village; it was where the villagers celebrated religious holidays, baptisms and marriages. The villagers told the time of day by the churches' bells and were buried after they were used in the churches' graveyards.
European commerce expanded dramatically in the 10-14th Centuries. Early medieval trade had been largely local, with merchants exchanging perishable items over short distances. By the 11th century, however, long distance trade was beginning to revive. The Medieval West re-established trade relations with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world, trading goods for Islamic silver and Byzantine gold. This helped re-establish a currency-based economy in the West.
By the late 12th century, the merchants of Western Europe were moving continuously along Europe's waterways and roads and trade was displacing agriculture as the most dynamic force in the European economy. The trade boom caused the growth of the cities and industry. This growth was disrupted for a time in the Late Middle Age by the Black Plague of the 13th century and also by a series of wars, but the developing importance of trade, which lead to the growth of the cities ultimately was one of the main factors which ended the medieval period and its feudal agricultural system. Manufacturing was slower to develop in Western Europe than trade. Medieval manufactured products were typically made by artisans who produced goods in their own shops and sold them directly to the public. Various industries were organized by guilds: professional organizations that controlled how their industry operated and protected their members' interest against outsiders. They secured each member a share in the trade by regulating prices and competition, and by limiting the number of people who could join a trade. The guilds also operated as social units, conducting banquets and religious festivals and seeing to the care of widows and orphans of its members and proper burial of its deceased.
The expanding economic activity sparked a growth in town life. The German word "burg" in its various forms came to be used to describe the towns whose inhabitants became known as "burghers". Towns were much more heterogeneous and volatile than the countryside, and contained a mix of commoners and members of the aristocracy, students and scholars, as well as runaway servants and peasants. Medieval cities and towns were relatively small; in the 11th century a typical town had about 5,000 inhabitants, but towns grew as commerce expanded and on the eve of the Black Death of AD 1349 many Italian towns had over 100,000 inhabitants. The cities were the center of growing heresy, an early expression of anti-feudalism.
The Inquisition was established as a formidable tool for the establishment of papal dominance. 12th century popes ordered bishops to stamp out heresy within their dioceses. The accused were denied legal counsel, interrogated by torture, and required to prove repentance by naming accomplices. As the church was required not to spill the blood of those the church found guilty it usually turned them over to the secular authorities. Being burnt alive was a common method of execution for heretics. The Inquisition was only carried out against heretics (Catholics who had abandoned their faith for false beliefs), but this category included converted Moslems and converted Jews.
Between AD 900-1300 the kings in some parts of Europe managed to replace the severely decentralized political order of the 9-10th Centuries with more organized political structures known as feudal monarchies. The office of the king was declared sacred by the church in order to provide legitimization. The king's main duty was to enforce peace within the realm and administer justice as well as to raise and lead national armies against external foes.
Feudal monarchs were overlords within the feudal structure. They did not have direct authority over the mass of their subjects — between the king and most of his subjects were several layers of lesser vassals with whom the king shared power. Under the feudal structure kings had contact primarily with their chief vassals and the subjects of the king's own domains. The king did have the right to seize territories of an unfaithful vassal. Kings governed through a series of relationships and lacked the financial wherewithal to provide more than basic services to their realms. In 12th century England provided the most organized and best governed of the medieval feudal monarchies; the French feudal monarchy developed more slowly but by 14th century had become a model for other states. Strong feudal monarchies failed to develop in Germany and Italy, a factor that would influence their later development.
The Jews living in feudal Europe dominated by the Christian ideology had more a difficult existence than the Jews living in Islamic states. They were excluded from most occupations except trading and the lending of money. Anti-Semitism was encouraged amongst the commoners who also believed a good deal of nonsense about the Jews. They held the Jews collectively responsible for Jesus' death since it was the Pharisees who had pushed the Roman government into executing him. Widespread rumors in the Middle Ages claimed that the Jews practiced blood sacrifices at their religious ceremonies and killed Christian children, poisoned wells, and spread disease. The Jews were subject to massive attacks during the Crusades and during the spread of the Black Death in the 1300s, when the European population went truly hysterical.
During the 9th and 10th Centuries, the Christian Reconquest of Spain from the Moslems caused a wave of Jewish immigration as the Spanish rulers threw out the Jewish as well as Moslem inhabitants of their new territories. Many ended up in the French and German territories as well as in North Africa and Turkey. As persecutions continued in Western Europe, many Jews eventually moved to Poland and Lithuania, forming large Jewish settlements there.
In AD 1179 the Third Lateran Council forbade Jews from living in Christian communities and exiled the Jewish populations to ghettos - walled sections of the city where the Jews lived apart from the rest of the community. European rulers also periodically exploited popular sentiment by killing or expelling Jewish money-lenders and seizing their property.
In the 12th century a popular form of Christian devotion sprang up, the "Cult of the Virgin Mary," which featured folk tales of popular saints and martyr stories. These plays and tales showed Mary playing a prominent role in saving people, especially children. Jews often appeared as stock villains in these pieces, which were performed on church steps and repeated in Catholic dogma lessons. The Jewish villains were depicted as constantly plotting to kidnap and kill Christian children or attack the community. Jews functioned in these stories as a focus for all the uncertainty and fear of the people; as scapegoats who could be blamed for any breakdown in the medieval sense of security.
The key to understanding the origins of anti-Semitism in this period is the fact that the Church, as a part of feudal society, wanted to discourage the growth of the cities. The common feature of the Jews since the exile by the Babylonians has been their mode of living as city dwellers.
From the time of the Babylonian exile, Jewish communities were rarely established in the hinterlands. Jews have lived in ports, or along trade routes, or in administrative and industrial centers, rather than in the country-side as peasants living off the land. Feudal society was essentially a caste society. It was desired that everyone "should remain in his place." It was extremely difficult, if not impossible for bourgeois to enter the nobility, just as the noble who lowered himself to the practice of a trade or to engaging in business was disdained. Peasants were prevented from escaping to the cities, and the Jews for them were part of the dangerous city.
The church, which forced the Jews to deal with usury, used it later on to justify the persecution of the Jews. Unfortunately, the idea that the root of anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages was a result of the function of the Jews in usury penetrated even the left.
The False Interpretation of the Origins of Anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages.
In 1942, shortly before he was murdered by the Nazis, Abraham Leon wrote a well known book called "The Jewish Question" in which he developed his thesis of the Jews as a people-class, or a class that was transformed in the Diaspora from people dealing with commerce to a pre-capitalist financial class – usurers. This was an occupation that became outmoded with the rise of capitalism. It became an obstacle to the further development of the forces of production. As a result the Jews were pushed East to less developed parts of Europe. The following are some excerpts from this book:
"It was consequently the economic development of the West which destroyed the commercial function of the Jews, based on a backward state of production. The commercial monopoly of the Jews declined in the degree that the peoples, whose exploitation had fed it, developed.
"In the beginning, the economic transformation reaches only certain important urban centers. The seignorial domains are very little affected by this change and the feudal system continues to flourish there. Consequently, the career of Jewish wealth is still not ended. The seignorial domains still offer an important field of action to the Jews. But now Jewish capital, primarily commercial in the preceding period, becomes almost exclusively usurious. … If during the preceding period "Jew" was synonymous with "merchant," it now begins increasingly to be identified with "usurer."
"From the thirteenth century on, the importance of the German cities grows. As elsewhere, and for the same reasons, the Jews are eliminated from commerce and turn towards the banking business. The center of gravity of Jewish usury is concentrated in the nobility. …But this state of affairs could not continue indefinitely. Usury slowly destroyed the feudal regime, ruined all classes of the population, without introducing a new economy in place of the old.
"Everywhere in Western Europe, and in part in Central Europe, the twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth centuries are the epoch of the development of Jewish usury. But economic evolution brings about its rapid decline. The definitive expulsion of the Jews took place at the end of the thirteenth century in England, at the end of the fourteenth century in France, at the end of the fifteenth century in Spain. These dates reflect the difference in the speed of economic development within these countries. … Feudalism progressively gives way to a regime of exchange. As a consequence, the field of activity of Jewish usury is constantly contracting. It becomes more and more unbearable because it is less and less necessary.
"The transformation of all classes of society into producers of exchange values, into owners of money, raises them unanimously against Jewish usury whose archaic character emphasizes its rapacity. The struggle against the Jews takes on increasingly violent forms. Royalty, traditional protector of the Jews, has to yield to the repeated demands of congresses of the nobility and the bourgeoisie.
"It is in this fashion that the Jews were progressively expelled from all the Western countries. It was an exodus from the more developed countries to the more backward ones of Eastern Europe. Poland, deeply mired in feudal chaos, became the principal refuge of Jews driven out of every other place."
The thesis is clear, yet it is of great interest for Marxist historians that Leon did not analyze the conditions of the Jews in Moslem Spain. He simply wrote: "The social and economic position of the Jews in Moslem Spain is not known with accuracy. There is, however, not the shadow of a doubt that they belonged to the privileged classes of the population."
It is a pity that Leon was not familiar with the situation of the Jews in Moslem Spain. It would have spared him an interesting but false thesis.
The Jews of Spain
No one familiar with the history of the Jews in Moslem Spain could argue that the Jews are "a class or, more precisely, a people-class" –dealing with usury.
Leon is right of course to show the stupidity of the idealist argument of the Zionists that claims that there is something unique in the survival of the Jews that can be explained only by their religious beliefs. The fact that the Jews have not been assimilated for so many centuries must have a materialist explanation that can be found in the context of their position in production. Nathan Weinstock, who in his book "Zionism a false Messiah" defends Leon's thesis of the Jews as people-class, is right of course when he wrote:
"In fact Jewish history offers the most striking example of the process by which ethnic minorities fulfilling a distinct socio-economic role within a given society preserve their own identity and do not become assimilated into the surrounding population. The same phenomenon can be found in less finished form in the case of the Gypsies, the Armenians of the Diaspora, the Copts, the Chinese merchants in South-East Asia, the Moslem traders in the cities of China, the Hindu usurers in Burma and, until the Second World War, the German minorities in the Slav countries".
This however does not change the fact that Wienstock and Leon are wrong when they insist that the Jews were simply a group of people based on a pre-capitalist economic function. Furthermore, where Leon's case rests on avoiding the issue of Moslem Spain, Wienstock gives us a false account when he writes that: "After Rome fell, they were gradually transformed into a mercantile class through a process of selection which eliminated the poorer Jews. The christianised Jewish farmers merged with the surrounding population. The only ones to preserve their Jewish ethnic, cultural and religious characteristics, an originality retained by virtue of their social function, were the merchants and brokers and, especially in the Eastern countries and Moorish Spain, the artisan class."
He is quoting Goitein, who describes "(the acceleration of) the process by which the Jews were transformed from a people engaged mainly in manual trades into one whose most characteristic occupation was commerce". It was during the first centuries of Islam that the Jews of the Moslem world, abandoning agriculture, began to take up those occupations, and only those occupations, with which they have since been traditionally associated: traders, spice merchants, financiers, goldsmiths, jewellers, craftsmen, etc.
This is simply untrue. The Jews of Moslem Spain were much more integrated into Spanish society. They were able to flourish in politics, in the economy, and in culture. They became physicians, astronomers, treasurers and tax collectors. Samuel HaNagid (AD 993-1056) became the head of the armies of the Moslem ruler of Granada, while at the same time writing poetry and studying philosophy.
Haim Hillel Ben Sasson, in the monumental work (Haim Hillel Ben Sasson, A History of the Jewish People. Harvard University Press: 1976, page 395.) summarizes Jewish livelihoods in the Islamic Countries in this way:
"The diversified branches of the crafts and commerce were the main occupation of Jews in the cities. At the same time there were other Jews, in the border areas of the Caliphate and in Africa, who continued to engage in agriculture for a very long time.
"Jewish craftsmen were plentiful in the cities and made up a large part of the Jewish population. In fact, it appears that this economic class had existed as early as the end of the classical period. A hostile Moslem writer went so far as to claim that 'among the Jews one finds only dyers, tanners blood-letters (i.e., barbers and surgeons), butchers and waterskin repairers.' However, he was referring only to those occupations to which he wanted to draw attention (as being the most demeaning). More objective sources mention also Jewish blacksmiths, gold and silversmiths, harness-makers and shoemakers, some of whom were itinerant craftsmen working in Moslem villages."
The Ottomans wisely made welcome Jews escaping the tentacles of the Inquisition. In return, the Jews built factories on the Bosporus that supplied the munitions and artillery that enabled the Ottomans to build a great empire.
In 1791, William Lempriere wrote a work on his tour of the Ottoman region, in which he described the condition of the Jews in each district. "Every part of the empire," he wrote, "more or less abounds with Jews, who originally were expelled from Spain and Portugal, and who fled into Barbary as a place of refuge. These people are not confined to towns, but are spread over the whole face of the country. Mount Atlas itself not excepted" …The whole country depends on their industry and ingenuity and could hardly subsist as a nation without their assistance. They are the only mechanics in this part of the world (and are) entrusted in the coinage of money, as I myself have witnessed. "(William Lempriere, A Tour From Gibraltar to Tangier, Salee, Mogodore, Santa Cruz, Tarudent, and thence over Mount Atlas to Morocco... London: 1991, pp 188-92)
According to "Jews in Spain VI: A Political-Economic Study" by Abraham A. Neuman (1942):
"By the High Middle Ages, most Jews in Spain lived within the aljamas (Jewish quarters) in the cities, and had city-based jobs, although some managed country estates.
"Jews developed extensive commercial operations in Barcelona under Christian rule. They owned fields and vineyards through allodium (outright ownership) or as tenants. When they traded lands with bishops or other church officials, the transfer deeds were written in Hebrew or at least have a Hebrew signature.
Their professions throughout the peninsula included:
High government officials: diplomats, bailiffs, ministers of finance, tax collectors, and royal concessionaires of mills and salt marshes.
Scholars: physicians, lawyers, teachers, scribes, rabbis, judges, preachers, cantors, notaries, town clerks, and couriers.
Financial officers: brokers, bullion merchants, moneylenders, cambists or money-changers, and international traders.
Merchants of: skins, furs, leather, wool, cloth, silk, timber, spices, oil, carriages, cattle, horses, mules, "corn", grain, and wheat.
Shopkeepers: bakers, butchers, and general merchandise.
And more: mine operators; sheep raisers; flax growers; glove and leather products manufacturers; soap and candle makers; dressers of skins; makers of armor; makers of anchors; minters; smelters; braziers; jewelers; watchmakers; sailors; ship owners; shoemakers; carpenters; tailors; locksmiths; blacksmiths; vintners; weavers; dyers; tanners; gilders; parchment-makers; bookbinders; rope-makers; saddle makers; upholsterers; clothiers; professional gamblers and lion tamers!"
At the end of the 19th century, Mordechai Hacohen in his work "Hanaghid Mordechai", documented the fact that virtually all crafts and commerce of North-central Africa were in the hands of the Jews. "The Jews appear as a group, specializing in trading and crafts, which is ritually and socially separated from the Moslems, who specialize in agriculture... The Jews are non-combatants, not being allowed to carry arms. Yet in their role as smiths, they are responsible for making and repairing arms."
"(Jewish) blacksmiths," Mordechai continued, "fan charcoal fires and create useful tools: hammers, axes, hatchets, scythes, plows, and all the other tools required by the people of the region. They also repair weapons. These artisan's shops are in the entrances of their homes. The Berber who needs any tool will bring the metal and the charcoal to the Jew's house. "(Further information about the role of the Jews as artisans under Islamic rule can be found in HHF Fact Paper 19-IV Jews in Africa, Part IV The Islamic Diaspora.)
Leon's thesis as a matter of fact justifies anti-Semitism. If the Jew is an obstacle to historical development, then history has to remove him. From a scientific point of view however, this thesis is one sided and therefore false. It is not that only a segment of the Jews dealt with money lending, while many Jews were forced into it; but it is enough to point out the fact that the Lombardies who charged an interest rate of 250% were not persecuted to show that this thesis is wrong. More to the point however, is that it was in the interest of rising capitalism to remove the obstacles on the path of the complete integration of the Jews. Contrary to Leon's thesis anti-Semitism is not an expression of the need of the forces of production. It is an expression of the decay of the feudal and later on of the capitalist system. It is a reflection of the fact that history has left the full integration of the Jews to socialism.
The thesis of Abraham Leon is in opposition to the position of Lenin and Trosky and even to that of Karl Kautsky, who prior to the historical betrayal of the Second International was a leading Marxist theoretician. His views on this question as we shall see later influenced Lenin and his fight against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.
Karl Kautsky's thesis on this issue was published for the first time in 1912
under the name: "Are
the Jews a Race?"
Unlike Leon, who defined the Jews as a people-class, Kautsky starts from the definition of the Jews as a caste of city dwellers in the Middle Ages evolving in the direction of becoming a part of the working class in developed capitalist countries in Western Europe and the USA - which was true at the time he published his work. He started with the following explanation:
"… the great mass of the Jews has constituted for two thousand years an exclusive, hereditary caste of urban merchants, financiers, intellectuals, including some artisans, and has developed, by practice and accumulation from generation to generation, more and more of the traits peculiar to all these strata, as opposed to the peasant masses of the rest of the population.
"The Jews have always been distinguished from the latter since the termination of the existence of the Jewish state; they have always seemed strangers to the rest of the population, a condition encouraged in the Middle Ages by the fact that each vocation within the city was always concentrated in a certain quarter of the city. Within this quarter, if several races were represented, each of the races had its specific section. In addition, in the case of the Jews, we also have the peculiarity of their religion and their rite, all of which are matters that have nothing to do with race traits. But while the Jews may always have appeared foreign, they were not always treated as enemies. Whether the Jews were regarded favourably or not depended entirely on the needs and conditions of the country in which they lived. The opposition which is frequently represented as a natural race hostility was determined by very mutable economic circumstances."
Unlike Leon's thesis of the outmoded Jewish occupation, Kautsky argued that "Wherever there was need of merchants or financiers, or intellectuals in general, and wherever the native supply of such elements was insufficient, the Jew was welcome."
"For the Jews in Christendom fared somewhat as the Germans in Bohemia. As long as they were needed in order to develop and encourage the growth of cities and in order to invigorate trade, they were welcome. When the cities began to develop a class of native financiers, traders, and artisans, the imported foreigners, once they had become established, were no longer regarded as a welcome assistance, but as an undesirable competition, as "undesirable aliens". …. While the Jews had been sought for in Western Europe down into the Thirteenth Century, every effort was made from that time on to make life unbearable for them, to abridge their rights; they were maltreated, plundered, and driven out, if not actually slain. Wherever a wretched existence is still possible for them, their activity is restricted in every possible way. They are prevented from engaging in large-scale commercial enterprises, are forbidden to own land, to practise a trade. Nothing is left to them but the trade of usury and a petty huckstery and colportage. The haggling Jew as a type of the Jewish "race" is a product of Christian charity."
"We may mention - merely as a curiosity - the fact that it was during this period of the most intense persecution that the Jews were forbidden to visit disorderly houses. Thus Queen Jeanne I issued such a prohibition in AD 1347 for the City of Avignon. This pious and virtuous potentate reserved the privilege of visiting the bordello for Christians. By reason of its endurance into the 16th Century, this privilege was transformed into a greater privilege on the part of Christians to acquire syphilis. Perhaps as a measure of compensatory justice, Christians were forbidden to obtain treatment from Jewish physicians.
"The reader will observe that the health of the Christians was not enhanced by the persecutions of the Jews."
The crucial difference between the thesis of Kautsky and Leon's is that where Leon sees the Jewish mode of existence as an obstacle to the development of capitalism, Kautsky's argument is that the opposite is true.
"It was not until industrial capital became strong that the general position became more favourable to the Jews.
"Industrial capital arises not only in opposition to feudal landlordism and to guild handicraft and financial capital. The latter aim at attaining privileges from the state, while industrial capital seeks to maintain free competition within its ranks. The greater the competition among merchants and those who hold the power to grant credits, the better will industry flourish. It was in the interest of industry to permit Jewish traders and Jewish financiers to compete with Christians, to abolish the barriers which kept out the former. This attitude was fully in keeping with the general tendency to abolish mediaeval guilds. The ghetto was one of the mediaeval corporations. It had to go, in the interest of a speedy evolution of capitalism; though it continued, in some cities, into the Modern Era, its fate was sealed.
"... It became absolutely necessary for the new and rising mode of production to liberate the Jewish intelligentsia and to cut off the uninterrupted blood-letting practised by the Church, particularly the Catholic Church, with its commandment of celibacy, on the non-Jewish intelligentsia.
"... Only by overthrowing this authority could the path be cleared for a most speedy evolution of the new mode of production. In this process, industrial capitalism found allies only in the lower classes, in the proletariat and in the peasantry, as well as in those strata of the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia which were not among the privileged classes and which could advance only by means of an elimination of all privileges. Thus modern democracy arose with its pronouncement of the equality of all creatures in human form. The natural consequence was an effort to emancipate Judaism, and also - on the other hand - an alliance between the energetic, aggressive elements of Judaism and revolution. Only through revolution could Judaism be liberated.
"The liberation of the Jews was realised in the great French Revolution and in its minor successors. It was heralded by an increasing tolerance for the Jews in the mare advanced capitalist states, first in Holland, then in England, beginning with the Seventeenth Century, a change which brought many Spanish and Portuguese Jewish or pseudo-Christian capitalists to those states. Finally, the Jew obtained equal rights with all other citizens. Thereupon he began to rise rapidly in capitalistic society, to whose needs he had become so perfectly adapted, in trade, in banking, in journalism, in medicine, in jurisprudence. But simultaneously there also began the Jew's adaptation to non-Jewish society, his assimilation."
Clearly there is a major difference between the two theses. Where as Leon's thesis leads to the conclusion that anti-Semitism is the result of the need for progress in history, for Kautsky, anti-Semitism is a reflection of the crisis of the petit bourgeois in decaying capitalism.
"…The opposition to liberalism; assumes, as is well known, quite a different form among the proletariat than among the petty bourgeoisie. Both find their social position in capitalistic society intolerable. But, in the case of the proletariat, the achievements of democracy and of capitalist economy are the presupposition for its own liberation. The proletariat does not seek to neutralise these achievements of democracy, but rather to annex them, to utilize them in its own struggle.
"...Considerable portions of the petty bourgeoisie, turning from liberalism, do not seek their salvation in advancing beyond liberalism, but rather feel themselves obliged to retrace their steps, to become politically and economically reactionary, in which process they find allies in the powers that had been surmounted by liberalism.
"Powerless to combat capitalism as a whole, it has no other recourse than to fight individual, partial manifestations of capitalism and thus to join the political reaction, of which it expects, of course in vain, an economic reaction also.
"In this situation, it finds a fruitful soil for the reawakening of anti-Semitic tendencies. The battle against capital as a whole seems hopeless. But the conflict with Judaism, with Jewish capital, which is so unpleasantly felt by many a non-Jewish capitalist, seems to afford better prospects of success.
"Thus, since the 'seventies of the Nineteenth Century, we again find movements in rather extensive sections of the population of Germany, Austria, France, etc., which favour a political disfranchisement, and a legal restriction or at least a social boycott of the Jews. Aspirations which unite with the anti-Jewish hatred on the part of narrow-minded circles and with the contempt for the Jews on the part of feudal arrogance, to both of which they impart renewed strength."
Kautsky's explanation for the situation of the Jews in Russia and Poland is very different from Leon's. He argued that it is precisely because of the backwardness of Eastern Europe, which was unable to overcome this limitation imposed by Western Europe, that the Jews were not able to develop the capitalist mode of production and were forced to live on poor crafts rather than industry.
"The situation became much worse with the penetrating of Western capital After the Crimean War … At a single stroke, the natural economy of the peasant was transformed into a commodities economy, which under the given circumstances did not improve the operation of his farm, but rather ruined it by reason of a more and more intensified robbing of the soil. An increasing proportion of the country population was driven into the cities. ... But in the cities, these persons found no quickly growing industry which might have been able to absorb them, nor did the deteriorating peasants offer any adequate market for such an industry. Competition grew among artisans and peddlers. The Jews were now oppressed more and more; their situation - never very brilliant - now became more and more hopeless. But the non-Jewish population also suffered; the frame of production was too small to accommodate all."