Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492”
by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein, Princeton UP, 344 pp, $34.95
Excerpt from review by Manuel Trajtenberg, Haaretz, Aug 2 2013

In the mid-seventh century, there was an historic encounter between the Jews and then-ascending Islam. That encounter was destined to strengthen the literacy revolution that had taken root centuries earlier among the Jews, and to channel it in unexpected directions. The immense Muslim empire that arose after the prophet Mohammed’s death sprawled from the Iberian peninsula all the way to India and China. Within it was inculcated not only the religion of Islam but also a dominant language, Arabic, new institutions and laws. The empire’s growth led to the development of many new industries, commerce expanded and new cities were erected. This tremendous wave of globalization and urbanization sparked increased demand for educated professionals with intellectual skills. The effect these changes had on the Jews was dramatic: Between 750 and 900, nearly all the Jews in Mesopotamia and Persia, some 75% of world Jewry at the time, left farming, moved to the big cities of the Abbasid Caliphate, and began to specialize in an array of literacy- and education-based professions, which were much more lucrative than farming. This change in the employment structure of the Jewish people occurred even before any legal restrictions were imposed on them with regard to land ownership.
In their book, Eckstein and Botticini therefore come up with an original and bold answer to the great historical question of why the Jews became a people of merchants, tradesmen, grocers, bankers, scholars and doctors. Not because of injunctions or necessity, they contend, but rather due to a clear, relative advantage that they developed over centuries as a result of a traumatic event, destruction of the Second Temple, that led to an effort to the endowment of literacy among every Jew. That process prepared the Jews to take on key roles within the awakening economy of the Muslim empire, since their skills were well suited to the needs of a burgeoning urban and global world. The Jews went out in search, metaphorically, of the USAia of those days, immigrating to locales where their skills made them highly sought-after, such as Yemen, Syria, Egypt and the Maghreb, and later on to Western Europe. Belonging to a collective with a strong identity enabled them to maintain inter-regional ties regardless of where they resided, and also to enforce contractual agreements from afar, something that was very helpful in commerce. This can also explain the dizzying success of the Jews in professions related to the credit and financial markets. In the 12th-13th centuries, moneylending was already a typical Jewish occupation in England, France and Germany, and also their main profession in Spain, Portugal, Italy and other Western European lands.
The explanation put forward here contradicts the prevailing view that the Jews of Europe in the Middle Ages specialized in moneylending because they were barred from membership in craftsmen’s guilds, and because Muslims and Christians were forbidden to lend money with interest. “The Chosen Few” argues that the Jews in Western Europe willingly specialized in that profession and in banking because they had the right skills and conditions: the ability to read and write, mathematical prowess and institutional means to enforce contracts; capital that was initially amassed from their work as merchants and craftsmen; and unprecedented networks that enabled them to communicate with each other throughout the Diaspora.

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