Purchasing Power: The Economics of Modern Jewish History

Purchasing Power: The Economics of Modern Jewish History

Purchasing Power: The Economics of Modern Jewish History

Purchasing Power: The Economics of Modern Jewish History


How has the ability of Jews to amass and wield power, within both Jewish and non-Jewish society, influenced and been influenced by their economic activity? Purchasing Power answers this question by examining the nexus between money and power in modern Jewish history. It does so, in its first section, by presenting a series of case studies of the ways in which the economic choices made by Jewish businessmen could bring them wealth and influence. The second section focuses on transnational Jewish philanthropic and economic networks. The discussions there reveal how the wielding of power by Jewish organizations on the world stage could shape not only Jewish society but also the international arena.

In this way, the contributors to this volume reposition economics as central to our understanding of the Jewish experience from early modern Rome to contemporary America. Its importance for the creation of the State of Israel is also examined. As the editors write: "The study of culture and identity has proved valuable and enlightening (and, in some senses, also comfortable) in understanding the complexities of Jewish history. Perhaps we should now return to the issues of the material bases for Jewish life, and the ways in which Jews have exploited them in their search for wealth and power. Our understanding of the Jewish past will be immeasurably enriched in the effort."

Contributors: Cornelia Aust, Bernard Cooperman, Veerle Vanden Daelen, Jonathan Dekel-Chen, Glenn Dynner, Abigail Green, Jonathan Karp, Rebecca Kobrin, Adam D. Mendelsohn, Derek Penslar, Adam Sutcliffe, Adam Teller, Carsten L. Wilke


Rebecca Kobrin and Adam Teller

It is perhaps no coincidence in our current age of global capitalism, when many comment upon the power of the economy and economic institutions to shape the world, that we are considering anew the larger role of the economy in Jewish history as well as the place of Jews in economic history. In recent decades, the social, and then the cultural, turn in historical research pushed questions concerning Jews’ economic activity to the sidelines. This does not mean, however, that economic issues themselves were in any sense marginal in the Jewish historical experience. They most certainly were not. Nor could they have been, since Jews, like all other individuals and groups in human society, had to engage with the economy in one way or another in order to survive.

This last statement, banal as it may be on a superficial level, is important because it points to many of the key questions in Jewish economic history as it is beginning to be understood and practiced today. What was the significance of being Jewish in determining the forms of economic activity undertaken by Jews in different times and places? What were the relative weights of individual and group factors in that process? When did Jewishness abet the formation of commercial alliances and when did it aid in such processes? What might be meant by the use of the term “survival” from an economic . . .

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