Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Anti-Semitism Backfires

With anti-Semitism surging around the world, the age-old question arises again: why does it have such historical staying power, cyclically returning again and again? Of course, there are several complementary answers, but in the modern era one especially sticks out: socio-economic jealousy. If the Jews are so successful in so many different areas of life, the reason must be nefarious (e.g., Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

There is no denying that Jews are successful way beyond their proportional numbers almost anywhere they live. Examples abound: Nobel Prize recipients (excluding the Peace Prize) – eighty times (!) their proportion of the world population; heads of state or government (President or Prime Minister) in almost every Western country despite their small numbers relative to the general population: Britain – Disraeli; France – Millerand, Blum, Mayer, Mendes-France, Debre, Fabius; Italy – Fortis, Sonnino, Luzzatti; New Zealand – Vogel, Bell; Australia – Isaacs, Cowen; Austria – Kreisky; Switzerland – Dreifuss; and even such far-off countries such as Honduras (Lindo) and Peru (Goldenberg, Kuczynski). The U.S. hasn’t had a Jewish President yet, but in every other top position their numbers are impressive (Kissinger, Albright, Blinken et al). [For a complete list of Jewish leaders throughout modern history, see:]

Interestingly, these two categories don’t seem to foment as much anti-Semitism as three others: culture, education, and finance. Here too there is no denying the data. But what anti-Semites don’t want to face (or are ignorant of), is that at least in these three central areas of life, it is anti-Semitism itself that shares the brunt of the “blame.” It is worth understanding how this came to be.
The first two fields – education and culture – are related. The story here starts 2000 years ago. With the destruction of the Second Temple (arguably, the first major, anti-Semitic attack in world history), Jews had to find a replacement for the Temple cult. The rabbis came up with education and scholarship (e.g., the Talmud) as the core element of post-Temple Judaism (this “explains” the contemporary Haredi refusal to serve in Israel’s army, because “Torah learning is our occupation”). This at a time back then when around 98% of the world was illiterate. Obviously, such a focus gave Jews a huge advantage in any endeavor that demanded reading, writing, and thinking.

This also occurred at a time of growing Christian anti-Judaism (the term “anti-Semitism” is a much later nomenclature) in which, among other things, Jews were forbidden to own land, the mainstay of medieval economics (more of which in a moment). Thus, education and literacy held another advantage for the Jews uniquely: “portability.” With increasing pogroms, inquisitions, and national ejections (exile), it was easier to move to another place without losing one’s main economic resource – in this case “brainpower.”

In short, to use a somewhat anachronistic term for the pre-modern era, Jews became the world’s first “Information Age” workers, garnering centuries of experience way before the rest of the world entered that age (in the 20th century). There is a somewhat derogatory expression in Yiddish for what many Jews were doing occupationally: luftgescheft (“air work” i.e., professions that had little physical basis: education, literature, etc.), but this was actually a harbinger of the most productive type of work in the contemporary era!

To a large extent, cultural work was (is) also a type of luftgescheft. Here a world-famous example will suffice as representative of how anti-Semitism led to Jewish dominance: Hollywood. In 19th century Europe, many Jews were involved in show business (e.g., vaudeville) and other types of public performance. When they arrived on America’s East Coast shores at the turn of the 20th century, they faced significant challenges. First, economic restrictions, as established Gentile businesses and industries were often closed off due to discrimination. Second, social exclusion, with quotas and restrictions limiting opportunities in education and housing.

What to do? Move west. Hollywood was just starting out, so that without any established hierarchy it didn’t maintain any barrier to entry. Moreover, in typical American fashion it exhuded a spirit of entrepreneurialism that resonated with Jewish immigrants who were accustomed to forging their own path in a challenging environment. The rest is history: most of the major Hollywood studios (e.g., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) were established by Jews, and this continues to a somewhat more limited, but still significant, extent to this day.

Finally, regarding finance, here too the anti-Semitic origins go far back in time. In 325 CE, the First Council of Nicaea forbid Christians from lending money with interest. Given that at the time a large part of the western world was Christian and Jews were not bound by canon law (therefore exempt from those usury restrictions) – and as noted above, Jews were also prohibited from engaging in farming (and certain trades) – they stepped into this economic void decisively (if not eagerly: Jewish law had restrictions about lending money with interest to other Jews, but this did not apply to dealings with non-Jews).

The Christian restrictions against usury were ultimately relaxed but by then Jews had mostly come to dominate the banking and finance industries (e.g., the Rothschilds), continuing to this day. For instance, Jews constitute less than 2% of the American population, and yet many top banking executives, financial leaders, board of director members, and academic economists are Jewish – Soros, Yellen, Greenspan, Fink, Dimon, Summers, Stiglitz – the list goes on and on.

The bottom line (literally and figuratively), anti-Semitism is harmful to Jews and is viewed by anti-Semites as a curse on Jews. But if we turn our perspective around to the historial reality, the picture changes radically: Jewish excellence and “numerial superiority” in key walks of life are a product of Jewish adaptation and ingenuity in the face of earlier persecution and discrimination. Anti-Semites would do well to remember the famous quote by the cartoon strip character Pogo, looking in the mirror: “we have met the enemy, and it is us.”

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) presently serves as Academic Head of the Communications Department at the Peres Academic Center (Rehovot). Previously, he taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published five books and 69 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book (in Hebrew, with Tali Friedman): RELIGIOUS ZIONISTS RABBIS' FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Between Halakha, Israeli Law, and Communications in Israel's Democracy (Niv Publishing, 2024). For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: