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).