Professional Re-Stratification of the Jews in the Works of Oxaal/Weitzmann and Blohm/Cahen

Essay, 2009

7 Pages, Grade: B+



(Pavel Vasilyev)

In his 1781 essay, “Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews”, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, one of the key leaders of the German Aufklärung, famously stated that “everything the Jews are blamed for is caused by the political conditions under which they now live”.[1] This was one of the arguments in favor of the Jewish Emancipation, and it implied that the Jews would improve their economic position and move from “corrupt” occupations in usury and commerce into more “productive” professions (primarily, agriculture) once full civil equality is achieved and all repressive laws are abolished. The similar rationale was behind the reforms that Joseph II initiated in Austria in the 1780s. In general, Enlightenment thinkers and policy-makers believed that the unequal distribution of the Jews in various sectors of the economy was the product of the feudal corporate society. Thus, the Emancipation was supposed to change the situation radically and provide a more just allocation of the Jewish specialists into different professions.

However, it proved just not to be true. The first major social change in post-Enlightenment Europe, the French Revolution, brought the Jews full civil equality. The years that followed it, however, showed that the Jews were unwilling to abandon their traditional occupations and business strategies and migrate to the agricultural professions. Moreover, in its own turn it might have been one of the reasons behind the Napoleonic backlash in the mid-1800s.

In this essay I will discuss whether Emancipation of Jews in Europe in the nineteenth century was actually followed by the desired change in Jewish economic position and occupational strategies. In doing so, I will concentrate on the two countries where legal emancipation had already been achieved by the end of the nineteenth century – Austria and the Netherlands, as presented by Ivar Oxaal and Walter R. Weitzmann[2] and J. C. H. Blom and J. J. Cahen.[3] To achieve the above-mentioned goal, I should analyze several major problems: 1) Jewish outcomes in terms of economic position (alleged and real wealth and poverty in the Jewish communities); 2) over-representation and under-representation of the Jews in certain sectors of the economy; and 3) the reasons behind various career strategies of the Jews and various possible explanations of specifically Jewish economic behavior.

Jewish wealth and Jewish poverty

One of the most persisting stereotypes about the Jews – widespread in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but still present in the contemporary world - is that “they [are] all very rich”.[4] It is interesting, however, that the Jews were not generally considered a prosperous group before the emancipation. Of course, there were several images of rich and greedy Jews that constituted a certain part of pre-modern anti-Judaism (such as that of Shakespeare's Shylock). But when Dohm spoke about the Jews in the late eighteenth century, he saw them as poor, oppressed and backward people who were “bound by laws which scarcely permit … to breathe” and forced “to be submerged in the base routine of earning a precarious livelihood”.[5] Emancipation was supposed to improve economic standing of the Jews or at least draw them away from the poverty (it was implicitly connected to their moral and civil (bürgerlich) improvement).

And indeed, we can see that by the end of the nineteenth century there was a widespread awareness of the alleged Jewish economic and financial power in many European countries. This assumption was reiterated in various conspiracy theories in such different contexts as republican France and autocratic Russia and formed a core of modern anti-Semitism in both imperial Vienna and democratic Amsterdam.[6] But the question remains open: to what degree did this perception of the Jews as a wealthy and prosperous group reflect European reality?

The works by both Oxaal/Weitzmann and Blom/Cahen convincingly show that the Jews “were not, of course, all rich – indeed very few of them were”.[7] Moreover, certain demographic processes that followed the Emancipation in Austria (such as immigration of poor and traditional Jews from Galicia) contributed to the fact that the socio-economic status of the Jews on the whole began to worsen. Indeed, the “ideal types” of the late-nineteenth century Viennese Jewry were not all-mighty bankers and financiers but rather “the peddler, the old-clothes dealer, and the Lumpenproletarier, scraping an irregular existence on the periphery of the economic system”.[8] (It is important to remember that proletarianization was even more rapid in Eastern Europe and the United States).[9]


[1] Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, “Concerning the Amelioration of the Civil Status of the Jews,” in The Jew in the Modern World, ed. Paul R. Mendes-Flohr, Jehuda Reinharz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 31.

[2] Ivar Oxaal and Walter R. Weitzmann, “The Jews of Pre-1914 Vienna: An Exploration of Basic Sociological Dimensions.” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 30 (1985): 395-432.

[3] J. C. H. Blom and J. J. Cahen, “Occupations, Economic Role, and Poverty,” in The History of the Jews in the Netherlands, ed. J. C. H. Blom, R. G. Fuks-Manfeld, and I. Schöffer (Oxford: The Littman Library of the Jewish Civilization, 2002), 242-249.

[4] Oxaal and Weitzmann, 419.

[5] von Dohm, 31.

[6] Oxaal and Weitzmann, 419, 420, 423; Blom and Cahen, 247.

[7] Oxaal and Weitzmann, 419.

[8] Ibid., 424 (emphasis added).

[9] Oxaal and Weitzmann, 428.

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Professional Re-Stratification of the Jews in the Works of Oxaal/Weitzmann and Blohm/Cahen
University CEU San Pablo Madrid
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Pavel Vasilyev (Author), 2009, Professional Re-Stratification of the Jews in the Works of Oxaal/Weitzmann and Blohm/Cahen, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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