In an earlier issue of The American Interest I coined and mused about the term “Jewcentricity.”1 I meant by it the old and widespread propensity to exaggerate, in both positive and negative ways, the role of Jews and Judaism in an array of events past, contemporary and even future. Pointing out that Jews as well as non-Jews have indulged the tendency, I argued that Jewcentricity’s different varieties collided to produce a mutual multiplier effect, giving rise to some silly but also some serious and generally unhelpful outcomes. Exaggerations, I suggested, cause trouble, and we already have quite enough of that with the unvarnished world as it is.
What was then a neologism suited for an essay has since become one encased within a book. A fair bit of that book concerns the past, but only as a way to better understand the present and peer into the future. It is that latter task that occupies us in this second and final coming of Jewcentricity to the pages of this magazine.
Jewcentricity has waxed historically mainly in places where Jewish communities have existed over stretches of time, mostly in the lands of Abrahamic faith—in what we call the West and in the domains of Dar al-Islam. There have been exceptions: America started out as a highly Jewcentric place, mainly a philo-Semitic one, without very many Jews; some Japanese early in the 20th century developed a less benign, altogether unique Jewcentric narrative, also in the absence of any living, breathing Japanese Jews. Today, however, Jewcentricity is spreading far and fast to many places where there are not and never have been significant Jewish communities. Why is this, and what, if anything, does it mean?
Jewcentricity has been spreading for some time now because the Abrahamic world itself has been growing. Both Christianity and Islam are gaining new adherents in places where neither has previously been widespread. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, both Islam and Christianity have been gaining converts, Christianity even faster than Islam. In much of East Asia, not least South Korea and China, “low church” Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant movements are also growing rapidly. Such movements usually carry with them at least vaguely philo-Semitic sentiments, though often with the passive-aggressive characteristics of dispensationalist theology wherein Jews remain God’s Chosen People…until they all convert or die in the upheavals of the end of days. Such sentiments, if they grow popular enough, may one day influence national policies, at least on the margin, toward Israel, its neighbors and the wider Muslim world. The drama of Korean Christians being taken hostage by the Taliban in the wilds of Afghanistan in 2008, and how that played politically back in Korea, may be a harbinger of things to come.
Jewcentricity is also spreading, however, because it is being globalized like so much else. Just as increasingly larger numbers of people need not be in physical proximity to talk, engage in commerce and otherwise exchange views, so the distribution of images, storylines and stereotypes about Jews is no longer bound to where Jews actually live. Also, as with much else, the technology and the social techniques of globalization are affecting the content of Jewcentricity, making it both more eclectic and abstract.
While Jewcentricity is hitching rides on the transmission belts of globalization, most of the destinations remain a mystery. What happens when a Seinfeld rerun, invoking a harmless Jewish stereotype about cloying Jewish mothers in order to get a laugh, alights in a small town in Indonesia? When news items about Holocaust deniers in Austria or Germany being jailed for hate speech make their way to Senegal? When a curious youth in Cape Town, stimulated by such a story, tasks a search engine to seek more information and comes across anti-Semitic invective without the background knowledge to see it for what it is? The answer is that we don’t know. But so what? Why should we expect narratives about Jews to proliferate more than other narratives in a globalized world, and what difference would it make if they do?
We should indeed expect Jewcentric narratives to spread more than most. Not only will interest in Jews travel wherever Abrahamic faiths proliferate, but the transmission belts of globalization will connect images of Jews and Judaism both to America and to perceptions of global capitalism. These, needless to say, are perennial hot topics that are arguably getting hotter the more concussive the clatter of creative destruction becomes.
The United States of America is endlessly interesting to large numbers of people, and it’s easy to see why. It is the wealthiest mass society on earth, simultaneously the freest and most egalitarian society in history, and the place where science and technology, married to the global marketplace, generate change on a worldwide scale above and beyond that of all other sources. Whatever its current economic afflictions, others (whose afflictions often go even deeper) still look to Washington and New York for leadership. And as everyone knows, America happens to be, not coincidentally as many see it, both Israel’s closest ally and host to the wealthiest and most influential Jewish community in the world.
Because of this triangular relationship, images of America overseas cannot be easily separated from images of Jews in, and as a part of, America. It would seem to follow that if those abroad with little personal experience of Jews have a basically positive feeling toward America, they will, all else equal, probably not bear negative attitudes toward Jews. If they value affluence and individualism, and are themselves upwardly mobile, they are more likely to have a positive disposition toward America and Jews by association as well. But if they respect traditional hierarchies, value communal or corporate identities over individual ones, and see their own social positions as vulnerable to the new global forces that have insinuated themselves into their societies, then, all else equal, they will have a more negative view of America, and of Jews along with it.
All else is rarely equal, however. How those abroad feel about America and “the Jews” as a conjoined phenomenon is influenced by many factors. It makes a difference, for example, if they live in countries where there once were significant Jewish communities—in Germany or Poland, for example—for that history, and how it ended, has left a complex residue of images and emotions. Indeed, there is no one way that conjoined contemporary images of America and Jews play out—even in Arab countries.
The image of America in Morocco, to take one example, is shaped by the fact that U.S.-Moroccan strategic ties are of recent origin and are based more on mutual interests than on cultural affinity. If Morocco shares cultural affinities with countries outside the Arab world, it is with France and Spain, not America. The image of Jews in Morocco, too, has had little to do with associations by way of America, but a lot to do with a continuous millennium-long communal history of Jews and Muslims living side by side.
Now contrast Saudi Arabia, an Arab country whose strategic relationship with the United States is several decades older, but which as a modern state has never hosted a Jewish community of any size. Saudi images of Jews are therefore closely bound to perceptions of Israeli and American Jewish influences on U.S. Middle East policy. So despite sharing the same general anti-Jewish religious biases, Morocco is not so welcoming of outright anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist conspiracy theories, whereas they permeate the Saudi elite. When, on October 25, 2008, the Saudi king warned his listeners that associates of Satan were waging a “veiled economic war” against Islam and “the sons of Islam”, he was almost certainly referring to standard Wahhabi conspiracy theories about Jewish money and power.
To make the contrast yet more vivid, right next door to Saudi Arabia, on the island of Bahrain, Emir Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa decided in the spring of 2008 to appoint a Jewish woman, Huda Nunu, as Bahraini Ambassador to the United States. The Bahraini royal court insisted that the appointment of Ms. Nunu, one of only 37 Bahraini Jews, was not a publicity stunt. Indeed it was not; but the fact that the Emir may believe that a Jew can have outsized influence in Washington—a belief based on a Jewcentric image about Jewish court power in the United States—probably did not hurt.
The association of America and the Jews in the minds of foreigners is nothing new as a type, and the type is defined by its meshing of global images of capitalism with the state avatar most vigorously promoting it. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, a form of global elite envy and anti-Semitism was associated with British power. In those days the sun never set on the British Empire, the wealthiest, largest and most militarily formidable in the world. The British Jewish community then was not as large or influential as the American Jewish community is today, but its influence was not negligible: A certain banking family named Rothschild was not an insignificant player, for example, and there were a score or so more of well-endowed others.
However, it was not the number or actual influence of Jews in Britain’s politics and its economy that really mattered in stoking Jewcentric conspiracy theories. It was more the twin facts that Britain was a proponent and catalyst of modernity, and that those who feared such forces often saw the Jews as the vanguard of all that was frightening about the British. John Atkinson Hobson, who mightily influenced one Vladimir Lenin, condemned economic imperialism around the turn of the 19th century in part by working a strong element of anti-Semitism into his materials. He saw, as Philip Zelikow described it, “a cabal of Jewish bankers and merchants lurking behind Britain’s excesses”, and after World War I similar conceptions persisted: “Many writers in Europe, especially in the defeated nations, decried the new ‘Anglo-Saxon empire’ that they accused Britain and America—and the Jews, of course—of having created.”2
The 19th-century idea of the Jews as the leading edge of a culture-shredding modernity did not come from nowhere. It bore a certain resemblance to an older xenophobic European narrative that saw a sinister alliance between the tyrannical overlord (the poritz, in the Yiddish vocabulary of the epoch) and the Jews those overlords had invited via the community’s intermediary (the shtadlan) into the towns of the land to bring crafts and stimulate commerce, mostly to benefit the coffers of the ruling elite. As feudalism gave way to early capitalism, the role of Jewish communities sometimes became even more instrumental to evolving political economies, contributing to the organization and maintenance of larger and more administratively adept political units. By the side of many a noble in the 15th century sat the court Jew—the hofjude—as financier and all-purpose facilitator.
So it was not so strange that many distressed European agriculturalists and urban industrial workers of the 19th century, whose lives had been abruptly altered by new patterns of commerce and migration, blamed Britain, and often enough the Jews, for their misfortune. (The phenomenon did not entirely skip the United States; the Populist movement featured its share of anti-Semites.) Britain had become the metaphorical global poritz, the Jews the collective shtadlan, Rothschild the archetypal hofjude.
The old narrative descended in a way on the Arabs, too, during the Great War. With the November 1917 proclamation of the Balfour Declaration, the Jews got the greatest power on earth to support the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine. As with the Polish, Ukrainian and Russian peasants of earlier centuries, the combined efforts of Weizmann and Balfour looked to the Arabs of geographical Syria and neighboring countries like an alliance of overlord and Jew ganging up on them. Haim Weizmann, the head of the Zionist Executive, was the hofjude, and Sir Arthur James Balfour, Britain’s wartime Foreign Minister, in effect played the role of the poritz.
Anti-Americanism remained a minor element in anti-modernist conspiracy theories as long as Britain held pride of place as the world’s grandest liberal imperial power. Today, however, the transformation is manifest: The U.S. elite is the metaphorical poritz, the American Jewish community and the State of Israel are conjointly the world’s hofjuden, and the self-proclaimed downtrodden of the earth—the resentful Third World intellectual heirs of Frantz Fanon who dominate the United Nations General Assembly—are the imagined victims of this conjectured alliance. This is one way to understand what it means when Deputy Foreign Minister Fatima Hajaig of South Africa says at an anti-Israel rally that “control of America, just like the control of most Western countries, is in the hands of Jewish money.”3 It is the context for statements like that of UN General Assembly President, Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, from Nicaragua’s Sandinista leadership, when in November 2008 he likened Israel’s conduct in the occupied territories to “the apartheid of an earlier era.” “We must not be afraid to call something what it is”, said Brockmann, although he evinced no fear when he theatrically hugged Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad upon visiting the General Assembly for the “Palestine Day” festivities.4
The new narrative of Jewcentric conspiracy differs in its details from the older versions beyond that of having substituted the United States for Britain, and there is disagreement within as to particulars. For some, the Jews in Israel control the American Jews, who in turn control the American government. For others, Israel is just a cat’s-paw of America, and America’s own Jews are mere servants of the American plan for global domination. But the essence is the same. Just as the late 19th-century idea of a conspiracy between British imperialists and the Jews was addled, pseudo-romantic nonsense, so it is with conspiracy theories about Israel, American power and American Jews today. That does not stop increasingly large numbers of people from believing them, however, as has been on display at supposedly progressive Durban “human rights” conclaves in recent years.
There is no excusing new forms of barbarism and bigotry dressed up as “progressive” ideology. But even delusions do not come from nowhere. There is an historical basis for associating Jews with capitalism and the leading powers that spread capitalism in times past. In other words, those looking to devise conspiracy theories about Jews for fun and profit do not need to search far for facts they can distort.
For historical reasons too ornate to detail here, Jews in Diaspora developed out of necessity a primitive system of finance and contract law that enabled them to symbolize and move value. Of course, the gentiles helped a lot, especially in Europe: In medieval times, when the Church forbade both usury and, most of the time, the right of Jews to own land, Jews were virtually the only ones who understood and could practice rudimentary banking—or “money-lending” in the more sinister-sounding parlance of the time.
That Jews were not only literate in the main but also numerate provided obvious advantages in this regard. They could devise budgets, calculate investment ratios, set and adjust interest rates, even imagine the concept of insurance. Thus, at a time when economic exchange was almost exclusively immediate, concrete and often barter-based, Jews created an abstract, transnational economy. This capacity provided them many advantages over their non-Jewish neighbors. Because they had law that engendered mutual trust, Jews could combine assets when necessary to make large transactions and spread risk. Since Jews could do this more readily than most others, it became possible for them to amass more capital so that non-Jewish merchants would turn to them for loans and for arranging to finance imports and sell exports. Jews thus came frequently to dominate foreign trade and customs operations among states in which they lived.
It was natural, too, that rulers would turn to the Jews to finance public works and the requirements of war. Financing government and those who governed is largely what enabled Jews to become the aforementioned hofjuden. Since there were few other reliable methods of finance across political boundaries, Jews often became the vehicle through which princes and barons expanded the range of their dealings beyond the limits of relatively small territorial units. This is the logic behind the clout of the great European Jewish banking families like the Rothschilds and the great Middle Eastern merchant families like the Sassoons. And it is the reason that, at the start of the modern capitalist era, this well-worn distribution network and facility in managing business relationships enabled Jews to often be first in the trade of new commodities such as wheat, wool, flax, textiles, dyes, sugar, tobacco and distilled spirits.
With all this in mind, it is not surprising that some have suggested, pace Max Weber and his Calvinists, that it was the Jews who created modern finance capitalism out of the cauldron of the dying feudal age. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of such suggestions is that of Werner Sombart, who wrote in his 1911 book, The Jews and Modern Capitalism, that
Israel passes over Europe like the sun, at its coming new life bursts forth; at its going all falls into decay. Arm in arm the Jew and the ruler stride through the age which historians call modern. To me this union is symbolic of the rise of capitalism, and consequently of the modern State.
Sombart reasoned that modern finance capitalism requires the existence of an abstract financial infrastructure with at least a modicum of impersonal institutional trust. It requires not only labor and capital mobility but also forms of credit, and the legal right both to collateralize property and to securitize and trade debt. It requires reliable contract law enabling financial instruments to remain valid regardless of who holds them. He understood how new this was, and that it was the Jews who had pioneered and mastered the arts of finance. Sombart argued that when conditions were finally right—when transportation technology had reached a certain level of development and the early modern state had managed to create a rudimentary central administrative capacity—the Jewish experience with domestic and especially international finance jump-started the modern finance capitalist system.
Whether this is really true I leave to specialists in economic history. But Sombart’s case is not rendered silly just because he, an anti-modern romantic who joined the Nazi Party in 1933, disliked both Jews and finance capitalism. After all, the role that Jews played in the epoch of early modern capitalism, first in the United Provinces and then in post-Glorious Revolution England, is well known. It is no coincidence that the two seminal theoreticians of securities and the stock market were Iberian Jews living in Amsterdam in the 17th and 18th centuries: Don Joseph de la Vega and Isaac de Pinto.5 Nor is it a coincidence that William and Mary, having come to England from Holland, were familiar with Jewish financial services. William was friends with Solomon Medina, an agent of the Machado and Pereira families who had been the chief provisioners of the Dutch military for some years. The Medina family and other Jewish families later financed William Pitt’s Seven Years’ War against France, and subsequently recommended—and shaped—the establishment of the Bank of England.6
There is plenty more such history one could recount, but the point is clear enough: Jews have been innovators and adepts of systems of abstract finance, and pioneers of capitalist technique on behalf of a succession of capitalist great powers, for so long and with such a degree of prominence that a basis for Jewcentric conspiracy theories has by now been hardwired into the imagination of mankind. And the evidence continues, seemingly, to accumulate.
Thus when the Soviet Union dissolved itself at the end of 1991, triggering a free-for-all grabfest over the disposition of former state assets, who out of some 300 million Soviet citizens became the most successful Russian oligarchs? Boris Berezovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Mikhail Friedman, Alexander Smolensky and Leonid Nevzlin were prominent among them—all names, familiar to anyone who has followed post-Soviet Russia, of (at least half) Jewish ethnicity. Or, for that matter, just ponder the names of prominent architects of U.S. economic policy in recent years: Volcker, Greenspan, Rubin, Summers, Bernanke, Geithner, Orszag… Is it really so outlandish to expect a proliferation of Jewcentric conspiracy theories in our unpredictably teetering capitalist future, especially with the Internet encouraging political pamphleteering on a global scale at a time when more people than ever are politically aware, thanks to the rise of urbanization, literacy and rudimentary education?
To the extent that the new political awareness of formerly passive people corresponds to the anxieties generated by the creative destruction of globalization, they seek ways to understand what is challenging them. Unfortunately, the infospheres of many non-Western peoples—that is, the cumulative total of information available to them over the course of their lives—are limited by the fact that most countries do not permit complete freedom of the press, cannot afford a serious global news infrastructure, and have school systems that often do not teach history as a subject that relies mainly on facts. Layered onto traditional folklore and decades of entrepreneurial anti-Semitic effort—the early 20th-century Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Henry Ford’s infamous 1920 pamphlet, The International Jew, are widely available in many non-Western languages—it is not hard to see how snippets of news about Jews launched or dragged in from outside can be subject to Jewcentric distortion. They certainly are throughout the Muslim world. But, in fact, the ingredients for global virtual Jewcentricity are in place, and examples are proliferating at a brisk pace.
Some are quite bizarre. In April 2008 the Bolivian government, seemingly under the influence of Cuban and Nicaraguan advisers, appeared to employ the Star of David as a symbol of evil on new government ID cards. The new cards apparently were given mainly to non-indigenous peoples in eastern Santa Cruz province, the center of opposition to the Morales regime, in numbers vastly larger than the tiny Bolivian Jewish community. Attempts to get to the bottom of this incident have been inconclusive—the government denies all. But the weird facts speak for themselves.
East Asia has been and remains rich in virtual Jewcentric fantasies. The terrorist cult Aum Shinrikyo, which launched a deadly sarin gas attack on a Tokyo subway in March 1995, was a rabidly anti-Semitic group. Not long before the attack, it published a 95-page anti-Semitic rant blaming Jews for everything from putting cryptic designs into Japanese currency to the Kobe earthquake that had occurred earlier that year. None of its members seem to have ever met a Jew.
In South Korea, as Jason Lim put it, “There is a widespread belief that Jews supposedly control the world through shadowy governments and institutions, fanned by best-selling books and exposes.”7 Conspiracy theories about Jews using tropes similar to those in the Protocols are common. Even a popular comic-book series by Lee Won Bok taught millions of Korean children that Arab terrorists attacked the United States because “Jews use money and the news media as weapons to control the United States.” They learned, too, that the “final obstacle” for Koreans trying to make good in America “is always a wall called Jews.”8
In China a 2007 bestseller called The Currency War, by Song Hongbing, describes Jews planning to rule the world by manipulating the global financial system. This is why some in China believe that the current economic mess is in fact a secret Jewish conspiracy, despite the fact that the total number of Jews in the world is smaller than the statistical margin of error in the Chinese census. A leading Filipino business magazine recently argued that Jews have always controlled the economies of the countries in which they have lived, including America today. It, too, implies that the current American economic crisis is the result of a deliberate Jewish conspiracy.9
The new virtual Jewcentricity is also affecting countries where there are Jewish communities, but in new ways. One such case concerns Turkey, where some secular fundamentalists charge that Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is a secret Zionist doing the bidding of the Jews. A book by Ergün Poyraz, The Children of Moses, sports on its cover a huge Star of David encircling the Turkish Prime Minister and his wife.10 The book has been quite popular, and some Turks believe, too, that Erdogan’s infamous spat with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the 2009 Davos forum was staged to deceive Turks into thinking that Erdogan is genuinely critical of Israel.
What is the likely trajectory of globalized Jewcentricity? Well, it depends—but not on the Jews.
If global capitalism survives its current straits and ends up making most of us richer, freer and happier, then new manifestations of Jewcentricity could end up mostly harmless—a sub-branch of celebrity culture, in effect. But even successful global capitalism is bound to produce losers as well as winners. Perhaps there will be more losers than winners, or perhaps just relative losers, which is usually more than enough for most political purposes. While some argue that liberal institutions and even democracy are bound to follow successful applications of macroeconomic common sense, others contend that contemporary global capitalism resembles old-fashioned carpetbagging on a planetary scale. If global capitalism either is or is widely seen to be manipulated so that a relative few gain huge wealth at the expense of the majority—and if Jews, like George Soros for example, seem prominent among the winners—then “virtual” anti-Semitism will be a growth industry.
The role of the State of Israel in all this, too, whether it actually functions as a platform for Jewish global entrepreneurs or not, is clear: It will be blamed for being the global hofjude to globalization’s poritz cabal, whoever the discomfited imagine them to be.
The globalizing world of the 21st century is so far a play without a final scene, or even a settled plot. The players and the audience, however, seem to be merging into a drama unprecedented in its scope. From the looks of the global economy as of mid-2009, the play seems more likely to end up as a tragedy than as a mere drama. But whatever happens, given the history of Jewcentricity, it would be strange if the Jews did not somehow play a major role on that stage, whether they want to or not.
2Zelikow, “The Transformation of National Security: Five Redefinitions”, The National Interest (Spring 2003).
3Quoted in the Economist, January 31–February 6, 2009.
4See Shlomo Shamir, “Top UN Official: Israel’s Policies Are Like Apartheid of Bygone Era”, Haaretz, November 24, 2008.
5Their books, still classics in their field, are De la Vega, Confusión de confusiones (1688) and De Pinto, Traité de la Circulation et du Crédit (1771).
6Recounted well in Amy Chua, Day of Empire (Doubleday, 2008), p. 195.
7Lim, “Am I a Korean Racist?” Korea Times, December 24, 2007.
8Quoted in Choe Sang-hun, “Anti-Semitic Comic Book in Korea Stirs Anger in the U.S.”, International Herald Tribune, February 25, 2007.
9See Ian Buruma, “The Jewish Conspiracy in Asia” (Project Syndicate, 2009).
10See Mustafa Akyol, “The Latest Jewish Conspiracy: ‘Moderate Islam’ & the AKP!” Turkish Daily News, May 5, 2007.