The Economic Factor and Its Influence upon the History of Our People

Ḥayim Horowitz


Now let us see whether the economic factor has influenced the history of our people in Europe, and in what ways this influence can be seen. [ . . . ]

In the final analysis, the Jews were necessary in European history as a distinct and unique people, dispersed and separated among the nations, who served as leaven in the dough of commerce and industry. The latter, during their early development, profoundly undermined the condition of the lower classes, and accordingly the Jews were hated, despised, and constantly tortured and persecuted. The rulers of these lands also had a profound need for the Jews; and also received great benefit from the persecutions, expulsions, and hatred for them since they forced the Jews to pay high taxes to the treasury or to leave all their possession behind to the kingdom. Accordingly, the Jews increasingly separated themselves from the other nations: refraining from the company of their [non-Jewish] neighbors and lived in special quarters of the city. Gradually the “marking of the Jews” and their separation were established in [sumptuary] law, forcing Jews to wear special clothes with a special badge—the mark of disgrace. [ . . . ]

And this mark of disgrace—the haters and boycotters of the Jews could not understand the persistent riddle of the existence of this persecuted people. They did not see or understand that they themselves were giving the Jews the strength to overcome them—to survive—despite all the persecutions and trials, laws and edicts. They did not let Jews work the land, and they also forbade them to work in industry. They left them only petty commerce, which also entailed mortal danger, as well as finance and moneylending, which were forbidden to Christians, along with the mark of disgrace. They failed to understand that commerce and money played a considerable role in the history of the European peoples, and gave those who held them great power and courage, endowing them with property and well-being. They failed to see that the mark of disgrace and frequent persecutions strengthened among all the Jews, wherever they were, a unifying consciousness that made their memories, when they lived on their own land in peace and quiet, even more pleasant and precious. Their haters failed to understand that through the persecutions they strengthened the bond between Jews in all countries, especially the bond that tied them all to their desolate and abandoned Land—and they became a living and active people among the many nations that surrounded them and sought to erase them from the earth.

The development of commerce and industry also led to isolationism among the Jews themselves. The prosperous merchants and those usurers, who lent money at interest, grew richer by the day, while the smaller ones became impoverished and destitute. There were many poor beggars. The peddlers and poor who wandered between the towns became a tool in the hands of the rich, who used them for their needs and businesses. However, after the Christians learned to engage in commerce, the condition of the petty merchants in the European countries deteriorated sharply, and the Jews as a whole were badly impoverished, even if the rich among them had much capital. The prohibition against working in crafts, which was issued against them by the guilds formed by Christian craftsmen, bitterly damaged them. A deep rift emerged then among the Jews. The rich who provided money at usury and the prominent merchants, as well as a small number of petty peddlers and tradesmen who accompanied these merchants, remained in the countries of Western Europe, since they were still needed by those nations. But most of the people were pushed out of these lands and began to move increasingly “from west to east”—from countries that had already developed commerce and industry to lands where commerce was only beginning to develop. [ . . . ]

Only from the seventeenth century on, as the large manufactures [pre-industrial factories] were established in America and distant islands, and commerce developed still further—only then did the condition of the Jews in several countries improve a little. The major industrial owners brought in many workers and divided the labor among them. The result of this division was a reduction in prices, and independent artisans could no longer compete with the manufacture owners and grew more impoverished by the day. The large number of peasants, who were prohibited by the artisan guilds in the cities to engage in crafts, became laborers and also supported the owners of the manufactures, helping them in their struggle against the nobility and guilds. The significance of capital increased still further—Jewish merchants and their financing were vital to the manufacture owners. Accordingly, Holland, England, and France reopened their gates to exiled Jews, who were granted privileges beneficial to their businesses.1 Those Jews who remained in the German lands were no longer expelled from there. It is true that in most of the countries of Western Europe, the Jews were still bothered by irksome laws and heavy taxes; they still lived in separated ghettos. King Frederic III, the philosopher, enacted laws restricting the rights and number of the Jews and the number of marriages each year, lest their population grow too significantly.2 But slowly, the prosperous burghers gained strength—the large manufacture owners and the major merchants—over the nobility, the Catholic clerics, and the artisan guilds. Then with this revolution the Jews received the same rights as all citizens. The “third estate” gained power, thus improving the condition of all Jews in Western Europe.3

In France, the Jews received civil rights at the end of the last century after the great revolution; in Austria and Germany, which did not progress so far, this came only in the middle of the present century.

And so you may see, dear reader, that from the perspective of economics, Jews played a special function in the Middle Ages—a vital function in European history. They helped create the age of capitalism—our present age; with their toil and blood they fertilized the fields of commerce; they were needed not only as a distinct people, the Jewish people, but also as a persecuted and tortured people, despised and hated. They were the victim whose blood was always sacrificed by the nations at the altar of the “Golden Calf.” Yet despite this, these were good days for the existence of our people as a nation. It is true that in the Middle Ages Jews were forbidden to purchase land and be artisans; they were placed in the ghetto and subjected to heavy taxes. A special mark—the mark of disgrace—distinguished them from other inhabitants. But the Jews continued to be active in commerce and finance; they had their special courts; and sometimes they were even entitled to sue Christians involved in conflicts with Jews before their court. In most cases, emperors, kings, and princes protected them and their commerce—their property and capital. Their businesses—and even the persecutions, which they always faced due to this commerce—reinforced among the Jews in all their countries of residence a sense of kinship and shared nationhood. Even their language, Hebrew, lived in the letters of merchants and in court rulings, truly becoming a language that unified all Jews: the nation’s language. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews filled an important role in the life of the European peoples: a role that certainly caused them much woe, but they lived, developed, and influenced the history of these nations; their language, too, lived and developed—and hence they survived to this day.

This is not the case now.

Our current era, the era of capitalism, is continuing to develop, and it, too, is the source of the “conflict of interests” and class war, which has spawned a new form of Jew-hatred suited to these modern conditions, i.e., antisemitism. Most of the antisemites are small merchants and petty craftsmen, whose condition deteriorates daily due to the development of “industrial factories.” These antisemites are not a danger to us, because they have always been our haters and rivals; they have fought against us but not vanquished us. Our misfortune today is that we have no function as a people in the life of the European nations since we have become superfluous, since none of the Western European countries have any need for our work and labor. As a result, there is now no class that sincerely desires our survival as a distinct people, as Jews. The railroads and steam engines have united all peoples and lands; commerce and finance have become the ambition of many Christians, and we are no longer needed as a bond that unifies lands and peoples. There is no need now for the Jews’ separation, commerce, and labor. Jews who live in different lands are gradually moving away from each other: the living bond that connected and unified the Jews is no more, and with it, Jewish unity has vanished and is merely a slogan in the mouths of our haters and rivals. Among the Jews of Western Europe the sense of nationhood is weakening—assimilation is marching forward in powerful steps.

The Middle Ages were bad for us, but nevertheless they were, perhaps, better for our nationhood than the happy days of light and freedom!

If we could survive until now, it is because we bought our survival at a dear price. The nations saw fit to let us survive because we always paid for our survival with our blood and labor, and we always felt ourselves to be strangers and aliens, living and surviving by the mercy of the nations. [ . . . ] If we do not wish to cease to exist as a nation, then we have no alternative but to live like any other nation on our own soil and in our Land!

Berlin, Ḥayim Dov Horowitz

Translated by


[A number of government decrees in England, France, and Holland in the seventeenth century extended rights and privileges to Jews for the sake of economic utility, centuries after their forced expulsion from France and England.—Eds.]

This king issued a law stating that, on marriage, every Jew must purchase various utensils and objects from the government-owned manufacture. The philosopher [Moses] Mendelssohn received, before his marriage, twelve large [porcelain] monkeys, the size of men, which are still standing in the home of his heirs. (Otto Henne am Rhym: Kulturgeschichte der Juden).

[The third estate, the common people, first enfranchised by the French Revolution.—Eds.]


Ḥayim Horowitz, “Ha-gorem ha-kalkali ve-hashpa’ato be-toldot ‘amenu” [The Economic Factor and Its Influence upon the History of Our People], Mi-mizraḥ u-mi-ma‘arav, no. 4 (1899): pp. 90, 97–101.

Published in: The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, vol. 7.

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