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July 30, 2005

Is Anti-Semitism Generic?

What do Jews have in common with Armenians, Ibos, and Marwaris? An historically similar pattern of economic and social roles—and of persecution. By Thomas Sowell.


The horrors of the Holocaust should have permanently discredited anti-Semitism but that ancient and venomous hatred has had a recent resurgence in Europe. How much of this is due to a growing Muslim population in Europe is a question for which there is no ready answer.

Many of the explanations of anti-Jewish attitudes and actions over the centuries, including mob violence and mass expulsions, have focused on things unique to Jews or unique to the Christian-Jewish relationship in Europe or the Muslim-Jewish relationship in the Middle East. Yet many of the same attitudes and actions—and some of the very same words and phrases—have been directed at other groups which have had none of the factors which are said to explain anti-Jewish attitudes and actions among Christians and Muslims. What these other groups—the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Ibos in Nigeria, Marwaris in Burma, overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, and Lebanese in a number of countries—have had in common with the Jews has not been religion, race, or language, but their economic and social roles.

These groups have all been, at some point in their history, “middleman minorities”—that is, people whose work takes place somewhere between producers and consumers, whether in retail trade or money-lending. Often these middleman minorities began at the petty level of a peddler with a pack on his back or a little pushcart. Even such large enterprises as Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Levi Strauss among the Jews, and Haggar and Farah among the Lebanese, began at the level of the lowly peddler.

Beginning as a peddler was a very widespread experience among Jewish men who emigrated from Eastern Europe to nineteenth-century America. The next step up was often owning a little retail shop. A similar pattern of petty retailing could be found among the Lebanese in Brazil and among the Chinese in Southeast Asia, as well as among other middleman minorities in countries around the world. In their early stages, these shop owners often lived in their little establishments. At one time Lebanese storekeepers in Sierra Leone simply slept on their counters at night. In India, Marwaris were often missed by census takers because they did not live in any residential neighborhood but in their own little shops in business districts. In America, Jewish storekeepers often lived in back of their stores or over the stores, as Milton Friedman’s family did.

What has been remarkable about such groups has not been simply their eventual prosperity but the utter poverty from which their prosperity arose over the years or generations. People on welfare in America today live better than the immigrant Jews did on New York’s Lower East Side. A 1908 study, for example, found that about half the families on the Lower East Side slept three or four people to a room, nearly one-fourth slept five or more to a room, and fewer than one-fourth slept two to a room. During that same era, Chinese immigrants typically arrived in Southeast Asian countries in similar rock-bottom poverty. According to Victor Purcell’s landmark study, The Chinese in Southeast Asia, “Immigrant Chinese arriving in Indonesia usually brought nothing but a bundle of clothes, a mat, and a pillow.” It was much the same story with Lebanese immigrants to colonial Sierra Leone and, in a later era, Korean immigrants and Vietnamese refugees to the United States.

These and other similarities among middleman minorities in countries around the world have caused the overseas Chinese to be called “the Jews of Southeast Asia,” the Ibos to be called “the Jews of Nigeria,” the Parsees to be called “the Jews of India,” and the Lebanese to be called “the Jews of West Africa.”

What is chilling is what other things these groups have been called. “Parasites” has been another epithet applied to middleman minorities because, as retailers or money-lenders, they do not produce any physical product but are simply intermediaries between manufacturers and customers. “Bloodsuckers” is another epithet expressing the notion that middleman minorities do not add anything to the wealth of a community or nation but simply manage to extract a share of the existing wealth for themselves, at the expense of others. This charge has rung out against innumerable middleman minorities, from the villages of India to black ghettos in the United States.

In many times and places, middleman minorities have been forced to flee for their lives from mobs or have been expelled en masse by political authorities. Yet the departure of these supposed “parasites” and “exploiters” has not been followed by a more prosperous life by the rest of the population but usually by economic decline—sometimes catastrophic decline, as the economy of Uganda collapsed after middleman minorities from India and Pakistan were expelled during the 1970s. Similar things happened after the expulsions of Jews in Europe in various periods of history or other middleman minorities in parts of Asia.

“Clannish” is another epithet applied to the Parsees in India, to the Jews in the United States, and to other middleman minorities in places in between. To a certain extent, clannishness goes with the territory, so long as these groups remain locally predominant in retailing or in money-lending. Where a minority operates most of the retail stores or pawn shops and other money-lending places in a community with a different majority population, the whole basis of the middleman minority’s livelihood is their cultural difference from that majority. Southeast Asian peasants who did not save could get loans and credit from overseas Chinese middlemen only because the overseas Chinese did save. For the overseas Chinese to allow their children to become part of the larger culture around them and absorb their values and behavior patterns would have been to have the family commit economic suicide. The same has been true of other middleman minorities around the world.

The economic necessity of maintaining a separate culture has meant not only social separation but also resentments of that separation by the surrounding community—resentments that could easily be whipped up to political hostility or outright violence by suitably talented demagogues. This has happened in innumerable times and places, as mobs have been aroused to lethal fury against the Marwaris in Burma, the Ibos in Northern Nigeria, the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Lebanese in Sierra Leone, the overseas Chinese in Saigon, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur, and the Jews in many parts of both medieval and modern Europe.

Lethal violence against middleman minorities has been on a scale seldom approached by violence against other kinds of minorities, such as conquered indigenous groups or formerly enslaved people. All the blacks lynched in the entire history of the United States do not add up to as many people as the number of Chinese slaughtered by mobs near Saigon in 1782, or the Jews killed by mobs in Central Europe in 1096 or in Ukraine in 1648, much less the slaughters of Armenians by mobs in the Ottoman Empire during the 1890s or during the First World War. Only the Nazi Holocaust exceeded the slaughter of Armenians and, while the Holocaust was the ultimate catastrophe for Jews, it was also the culmination of a long history of lethal mass violence unleashed against middleman minorities around the world.

Why such venom against this particular kind of minority? Why such violence against groups who are themselves typically non-violent?

Part of the answer may be the role of middleman minority, as such. Retailing and money-lending have long been regarded by the economically unsophisticated as not “really” adding anything to the economic well-being of a community, even when the people engaged in those activities have not been a separate group within the community. After all, both medieval Europe and the Islamic countries regarded the charging of interest as a sin and, in other societies in Asia and Africa, it was considered morally suspect, even without a religious prohibition against it. An often-cited article by a British economist who was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II pointed out how middleman economic activities arose spontaneously among the POWs—and how the individuals who engaged in these activities were resented by the other POWs, even though these individuals were not from some middleman minority, but ranged from a Catholic priest to a Sikh.

For much of human history, most people did arduous work in agriculture, and the rise of industrial societies meant for most of them simply the transfer of the scene of that arduous labor from the farm to the factory. In that setting, people who made a living more easily, and with clean hands, just by selling what others had produced, and who received back more money than they had lent, were readily resented. Add in the factor of ethnic differences in the case of middleman minorities, and there are the ingredients for resentments to arise spontaneously and for demagogues to be able to raise those resentments to a higher pitch.

Perhaps even more important is the inherent threat that middleman minorities present to the egos of others when those minorities begin in poverty and then rise above the economic level of those around them. What are those others supposed to make of what has happened? Inspiring as rags-to-riches stories may be to some, especially observers at some distance, to those immediately in contact with the middleman minorities, who have seen them arrive destitute, often with little more than a few words of the local language, and then rise above the people around them, this phenomenon offers few alternatives other than to question themselves for having let these newcomers outperform them or to become hostile to the newcomers and be ready to believe that they have done something illegitimate to achieve success—the latter explanation being one that is usually readily supplied by demagogues and readily accepted by those who hear it.

When people are confronted with a choice between hating themselves for their stagnation or hating others for their progress, they seldom hate themselves.

Despite studies in the United States showing what hard work and frugal living usually preceded Korean immigrants’ reaching the point where they could even open a small shop in a black ghetto, and the very long hours of work put into those shops to enable them to survive economically, it has been widely believed in the black community that the success of the Koreans or other Asian immigrants has been due to some government favors which those immigrants received and which have not been available to blacks. What else can the residents of those ghettos believe without a high cost to their own egos? A black official in charge of a state agency that dispenses aid to small businesses recalled being besieged with claims from a black audience that his agency helped Asian businesses get started in preference to helping blacks. Nothing he said about the preposterousness of the notion that he would do that made any dent on the audience. The cost of believing him was just too high.

The role of ego in the hostility toward middleman minorities is shown in other ways as well. Even killing them has often not been sufficient for those who hate them. They must also be humiliated and dehumanized. Their women must be stripped naked in public, as Armenian women were during the mob violence in the Ottoman Empire and as Jewish women were in the Nazi death camps, and whatever sadistic humiliations could be thought of were inflicted on men and women alike. When it was suggested during the 1990s that the Asians who had been expelled from Uganda 20 years earlier should be brought back in hopes of restoring that country’s economy, the hostile responses included that of a group which threatened to kill them “in the most despicable way ever” if they dared to come back. Simply killing them would not be enough to assuage the wounded egos of those they had so greatly outperformed.

The movement of particular minorities out of the middleman occupations in which they began does not necessarily lead to an abatement of the hostility against them. The same capacity for hard work, frugal living, and long-term planning which was essential for survival as middleman minorities has often lead to great success in education, in the professions, and in large-scale business enterprises.

Even middleman minorities with little or no education themselves have often seen the value of education for their children. Thus, even though the Chinese immigrants who arrived in Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century were often illiterate, once they began to prosper in their little shops and other enterprises, they began to finance the creation of Chinese schools. In later generations, the Chinese minority in Malaysia produced an absolute majority of the students at the University of Malaysia, until government-imposed quotas cut back their numbers. They were an overwhelming majority of those receiving degrees in engineering in the 1960s—404 Chinese to 4 Malays. This concentration of college and university students from middleman minority backgrounds in the more difficult and more remunerative specialties has been a common pattern, whether among the overseas Chinese in Malaysia, among the Lebanese in Brazil, or among Jews in a number of countries.

Lebanese immigrants to various countries have, in their early stages, included many who were illiterate and few who were highly educated. Nevertheless, they—like the Chinese, the Jews, the Armenians, and others—came from a culture that valued education, even when most of them had very little education themselves. Nor was education the key to their initial rise. Typically it was after becoming established economically as entrepreneurs that middleman minorities could then afford to dispense with their children’s labor in order to let them go to school instead and, still later, pay for them to continue on into higher education.

In schools and colleges, the children of middleman minorities tended to excel, whether among the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, the Chinese in Southeast Asia, or the Jews in the United States. But even the Jews, with their legendary reverence for learning, did not rise in America initially through education. A survey of students in the College of the City of New York in 1951, when the students there were predominantly Jewish, showed that only 17 percent of their fathers who were born before 1911 had completed the eighth grade.

Consider again the case of the Korean immigrant or Vietnamese refugee who has set up a small business in one of America’s black ghettos. Although this small-scale entrepreneur may have begun with very little money and may never become fluent in English or polished in manner, nevertheless his growing prosperity over the years may become manifest to ghetto residents, and his American-born children are likely to be heading off to colleges, perhaps prestigious colleges, while the children of many of the people in the community around his shop have prospects of low-paid jobs or unemployment, and many face prospects of jail. Add in the factor that this community lives in an atmosphere where “unfair” disparities are resented by those who set the tone in both the general society and in the local ghetto. All the ingredients are there for attitudes and actions which are called “anti-Semitism” when directed against Jews but which are very similar to the attitudes and actions to which other middleman minorities have been subjected in many times and places around the world.


Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.


Adapted from the new book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, by Thomas Sowell, published by Encounter Books. © 2005 Thomas Sowell.

Available from the Hoover Press is Controversial Essays, by Thomas Sowell. Also available is Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays, by Thomas Sowell. To order, call 800.935.2882 or visit www.hooverpress.org.