[an error occurred while processing this directive]

Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

Provided as a service by Case Western Reserve University


Shofar - Book Review Index

Jewish Contributions to Civilization: An Estimate, by Joseph Jacobs.  Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009.  334 pages.  $119.00.   

General readers continue to show interest in popular books on “Jewish contributions to civilization”; witness, for example, Thomas Cahill’s best-seller The Gift of the Jews (New York: Anchor Books, 1999). Joseph Jacobs’ study, published posthumously in 1919, stands in contrast to such light fare. Jacobs (1854–1916) had astounding command of Jewish history, philology, literature and folklore, which he marshaled to battle widely circulated and widely accepted antisemitic claims that Jews were alien to or had corrupted Western civilization. On the contrary, Jacobs insisted, Jewish culture was inseparably intertwined with that of Western Civilization. 

Jacobs argued against seeing antisemitism as a constant undercurrent in European popular culture; rather, he said, hatred of Jews is a top-down phenomenon, a political tool manipulated by those in power. In his view, modern, racial antisemitism was principally a political and not a social phenomenon. He held that late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century reactionary nationalist politicians followed a path laid by Otto von Bismarck in manipulating racialist antisemitism, aided by writers like Houston Stuart Chamberlain, Heinrich von Treistschke, and Werner Sombart. Jacobs hoped to use his history of Jews’ valuable contributions to European civilization as a cudgel against reactionary nationalism and antisemitism.

According to Jacobs, European Christian culture and Jewish culture share common biblical values. For more than a millennium their religious rituals and institutions also were identical, as (with notable exceptions) were their basic theological principles. Jacobs contends that the early medieval European state system incorporated Jews as nationals with special status. The Catholic Church, though, sought to degrade Jews as noxious aliens, and with the rise of the “Church Empire,” membership in the national community became identical with Christian religious orthodoxy. Jacobs argues that Jews nonetheless belonged to the common life of early medieval European societies. Moreover, Jews functioned as intellectual intermediaries between the Muslim and Christian worlds, both as translators and (to a lesser extent) as direct contributors, and thus assisted in the European rediscovery of classical culture and science and in European assimilation of Arabic scholarship.

Jacobs argues that Jews’ ability to travel between the Muslim and Christian realms explains their role in early medieval commerce, a role that—like Jews’ participation in usury—was eventually usurped by Italians and Germans. In examining the influence of Jewish thinkers like Moses Maimonides and Baruch Spinoza (as well as the impact of Kabbalistic studies) on Catholic and Protestant intellectuals, Jacobs describes what he calls a natural give and take of ideas. He contrasts this to the portrait of Jews as outsiders encamped in Europe made popular by Houston Chamberlain.  In discussing the early modern period, Jacobs anticipated arguments by Jonathan Israel and other recent scholars on the Jewish role in European mercantilism. In particular, he points to features in Jewish society that facilitated the Jewish role in military provisioning in the 1500s and 1600s, such as ties between families in the post-1492 Diaspora and the pyramidal relationship between Jewish economic elites and networks of Jewish peddlers. Jacobs contends that the work of Court Jews and Jewish factors, like indirect Jewish intellectual influence, contributed to the rise of early modern national monarchies. The Reformation then worsened conditions for Jews in Europe, in that it replaced the Church Empire with the “Church State,” which similarly determined citizenship on the basis of adherence to (Christian) creed. Still, Jacobs argues, the national monarchy’s needs in matters of war and commerce bit against restrictions based upon faith, while the Reformation cracked the door towards religious toleration. 

Although Jacobs emphasizes Jews’ role in the creation of international finance, he argues that Jews had no significant part in the birth of joint stock companies, stock markets, or industrial entrepreneurship, and therefore had little to do with the birth of capitalism. Jacobs specifically refutes Werner Sombart’s claim that Jews, as a race, were the progenitors of capitalism. Nor, according to Jacobs, did Jews have much direct influence on the late eighteenth- century political revolutions in America and France that drove the nail in the Church State, introduced the ideal of religious equality, and divorced citizenship from religious creed. Revolution and emancipation created Jewish liberalism, and not the other way around; in the wake of the French Revolution, though, individual Jews proved vital to the elaboration and propagation of liberal (and socialist) ideas. Jacobs interprets Bismarck’s turn away from accommodating liberals, towards embracing the reactionary old elite of nobles and churchmen who hoped to restore the Church State, as the model for a counterrevolutionary assault against liberalism and liberty.  In the new reactionary iteration of the Church State, though, elites replaced “creed” with “race” as the justification for attacks against Jews—be they rhetorical, legal, or, as in Russia, physically violent. Thus the cause of countering antisemitism was intertwined with the defense of liberty against reaction.   

Historical research, of course, has come a long way since 1919. Regarding evidence as well as analysis, readers interested in an introduction to the place of Jews in European history should turn to more recent studies. On Jacobs’ theme, for example, one might read The Jewish Contribution to Civilization: Reassessing an Idea, edited by Jeremy Cohen and Richard I. Cohen (Oxford: Litmann Library of Jewish Civilization, 2007). Still, like Cecil Roth’s The Jewish Contribution to Civilization (first published in 1940), Jacobs’ study is a fascinating historical document, essential to anyone interested in Jewish historiography and of great interest to those investigating early twentieth-century intellectual history. The Gorgias Press edition is a facsimile of the 1919 first edition printed in Philadelphia by the Jewish Publication Society of America. It adds no new introduction or annotations to the work, and thus is identical to the free digital copy of the 1919 edition available through Google Books. 


Michael C. Hickey

Bloomsburg University