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Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in Modern Europe

Author(s):Penslar, Derek J.
Reviewer(s):Godley, Andrew C.

Published by EH.NET (January 2002)

Derek J. Penslar, Shylock’s Children: Economics and Jewish Identity in

Modern Europe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. xii + 374

pp. $45 (cloth), ISBN: 0-520-22590-2.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Andrew C. Godley, Department of Economics, Reading


Derek Penslar, Professor of Jewish history at the University of Toronto, has

embarked on an ambitious research agenda, and this monograph is a very

encouraging first fruit. First Penslar wants to understand and contextualize

the debate on the ‘Jewish problem’ in modern Europe, and so ultimately to

explore the societal origins of mid-twentieth century European anti-Semitism.

Because so much of contemporary discussion was framed in economic terms,

Penslar focuses on how the perception of the Jews in nineteenth century Europe

altered with the emerging intellectual framework of modern political economy.

Thus, Jewish economic man emerged during the halcyon days of laissez faire out

of earlier Physiocratic stereotypes of the pauper and plutocratic merchant


This is a worthwhile contribution in itself, because for too long Jewish

history has seemed insulated from and unconcerned with the emerging research

agendas of other areas of history, notably economic history. Penslar therefore

joins with many of the current younger generation of Jewish historians in

trying to understand the modern Jewish experience firmly within the context of

the host societies and economies in which they were living. The real step

forward here, however, is not so much in a deep and detailed understanding of

changing Gentile perceptions, but of how Jews internalized those stereotypes.

Penslar articulates this internalization of shifting Gentile perceptions

through the writings of several leading (mostly) German Jewish intellectuals

in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The emotional and

intellectual underpinning of so much of this output, argues Penslar, was the

fragile progress of emancipation. Much of the tone of Jewish writing on Jewish

self-identity was therefore apologetic and romantic.

Penslar then traces the principal outcome of this process, which was in an

ever-growing investment in communal philanthropy. First, this was for the

simple ameliorative purpose of reducing communal poverty and so avoiding

Gentile stigma. Ultimately, and fully in keeping with the spirit of late

nineteenth century social reformism, Jewish philanthropic agencies embarked on

wholescale social engineering. The Jewish communal elite invested in programs

to divert migration streams, to alter the occupational profile and to improve

the educational backgrounds of the teeming Jewish masses from the East. The

overwhelming majority of these interventions were wholly unsuccessful. The one

outstanding exception was of course Zionism.

While Zionism was exceptional in terms of its eventual success, it was a

program wholly representative of the matrix of Jewish self-perception. Penslar

outlines how early Zionists, in common with most westernized Jews as well of

course as Gentile opinion, saw Jewish culture as arrested and backward (p. 66)

and so how, “mainstream Zionist thinking contained much of general Jewish

social policy’s sense of embarrassment and shame, its internalization of

economic anti-Semitism and desire to demonstrate to the gentiles that Jews are

not inveterate schnorrers” (p. 239).

This is an impressive work. While not a work of economic history, Penslar’s

monograph provides important insights for any researcher interested in Jewish

economic history. While not quantitative, he is perfectly comfortable with a

numerical approach and so avoids falling into the familiar trap of placing

undue emphasis on unrepresentative cases. The book is well researched,

original in conception and ground breaking. Above all, however, he provides a

valuable bridge between Jewish and economic historians and one that will be

well traveled in the coming years.

Andrew Godley is lecturer in economics at the University of Reading and

author of Jewish Immigrant Entrepreneurship in New York and London,

1880-1914: Enterprise and Culture (Palgrave, 2001).

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII