“American Jews do not fit the sojourner pattern, since their political involvement goes far beyond the support of Jewish causes. … Much Jewish political activity, whether right, center, or left, can be related to a perception of how to make America and the world safe for Jews. American Jewish support for domestic liberalism and internationalism can be interpreted in this way.”
Walter Zenner, “American Jewry in the light of Middleman Minority Theories,” 1980.
Merits of Middleman Minority Theory
The most obvious merit of middleman minority theory is that, like Kevin MacDonald’s theory of a group evolutionary strategy, it places an unusual and welcome emphasis on rational resource competition as the basis for social conflict involving certain minorities. By offering a socio-economic explanation for hostility toward Jews, middleman minority theory represents a unique space within academia where the otherwise ubiquitous “pure prejudice” idea that host hostility is self-generated (from psychological problems or cultural traditions) is summarily and comprehensively dismissed. Although this has not come without criticism, as seen in Robert Cherry’s denunciation of Edna Bonacich’s work as reinforcing bigotry, this emphasis has been able to continue largely untroubled thanks to its advancement under a hardline traditional Marxist interpretive veneer.
Middleman minority theory, especially the variant advanced by Bonacich, also insists that host populations do have interests, and that these interests are genuinely and seriously threatened by middleman minorities who drain away resources. These minorities then use their accumulated resources to build up power and influence, sometimes even to the extent of gaining considerable economic, social, and political monopolies over the hosts. Since these monopolies can be very difficult to dislodge, and since monopolies may satisfy some interests of host populations or segments of host populations, middleman minority theory insists that it is rational and somewhat inevitable that increasingly harsh and even violent measures will be taken against the offending minority. As a result, middleman minority theory offers a far more plausible and objective understanding of group conflict than many of the ideas that dominate the academic discussion of group conflict, especially conflict involving Jews. In addition, the outright rejection of “scapegoat” theories as “superficial,” and the lack of appeals to concepts of victimhood in such a framework, can only be described in the context of the current academic climate as utterly refreshing.
A second major merit of middleman minority theory is the emphasis that some strands place on the characteristics of the minorities themselves. Middleman minority theory contains within it three basic theoretical approaches. Context-based theories like that of Roscher, and revived to some degree by Nathan Cofnas (who is particularly concerned with the urban environment-context), argue that middleman minorities are essentially creatures of the societies in which they are found, and are for the most part created by opportunities, status gaps, and vacuums over which they have no control and which have nothing to do with their inherent characteristics (a slight advantage in intelligence being the only characteristic that Cofnas feels comfortable in applying). Situational theories, like that advanced by Simmel are similar, but place more emphasis on the culturally-located role of the trader, the Stranger, and the “sojourner as trader,” as the determinant factor in the creation of middleman minorities. Culture-based, or characteristic-based, middleman minority theories, however, tend to be more numerous, and more convincing. These theories, like that advanced by Weber and given tacit assent by Bonacich and Zenner, place strong emphasis on the broad range of traditions, ideologies, behaviors, and aptitudes of middleman minority groups.
The most frequently highlighted of such traits within middleman minority theory is ethnocentrism, which again dovetails with the primary emphasis of Kevin MacDonald’s theory. Ethnocentrism is acknowledged as a central factor in the maintenance of self-segregation among middleman minority groups, and is often supported by ideological beliefs such as the caste system, or what Zenner describes as “the Chosen People complex.” Ethnocentrism in middleman minorities is presented as crucial to understanding host hostility not only because of the way it facilitates the draining of resources from the host population, but also because of highly antagonistic correlates such as dual loyalty and a willingness to engage in lucrative but morally destructive (for the host) trading. Walter Zenner speaks of a “double standard of morality” that is
Expressed in dealings with outsiders, such as lending to them with interest, unscrupulous selling practices, and providing outsiders with illicit means of gratifying their appetites, while at the same time, denying the same means to in-group members.
An excellent example of this process in action is the fact Israel is the largest producer and host of international online gambling sites, while making it illegal for its own citizens to use such sites. Of course, we are talking here about a nation state rather than a minority population, but this contradiction, and the nature of Israel within the international community, will be discussed in a critique of the narrowness of middleman minority theory later.
A further merit of middleman minority theory is the heavy emphasis the cultural-characteristic interpretation places on group strategies. Middleman minorities, again with Jews being held up by both Zenner and Bonacich as an exemplar or especially acute case, are said to engage in constantly adaptive activity in order to manage their visibility, ensure their safety, advance their interests, accumulate power and wealth, and entrench themselves ever deeper within the host. Bonacich has indicated that Jews are especially keen to remain entrenched in the West, and the United States in particular, because it is financially and politically lucrative, and only a catastrophic weakening of their monopolies would bring an end to existing strategies. Zenner goes as far as to claim that “much of the content of American Jewish life can be seen as visibility strategies. Strategy here includes both unconscious mechanisms of coping with situations and consciously formulated plans.” Zenner speaks of a “dynamic process” whereby Jews minimise visibility to avoid hostility, maximise visibility when pursuing certain interests, and generally work unceasingly to make their image more favorable in the minds of the host. Again, all of this corresponds very well with one of the central themes of the Culture of Critique — the idea that Jewish involvement in certain intellectual movements could be seen in the context of a pursuit of Jewish interests either consciously or in ways that involved unconscious motivations and self-deception. It also maps very closely to MacDonald’s framework on Jewish crypsis and other attempts to mitigate anti-Semitism, advanced in the sixth chapter of Separation and Its Discontents.
Problems in Middleman Minority Theory
Given the prevalence of Jews in the development and promotion of the modern incarnation of middleman minority theory, including Georg Simmel, Edna Bonacich, Abner Cohen, Abram Leon, Walter Zenner, Werner Cahnman, Donald Horowitz, Gideon Reuveni, Ivan Light, Steven J. Gold, and Robert Silverman, a reasonable concern might be that middleman minority theory is itself an intellectual “visibility strategy.” Just as it has been posited that Jews tend to support mass migration because it will result in Jews becoming “one among many” ethnic minorities, and thus in their logic less conspicuous and therefore safer, middleman minority theory can act to reduce Jewish visibility by offering the idea that Jews are just one among many diaspora trading groups and their history and behavior is therefore not unique or worthy of special attention. It remains the case that even in those interpretations which highlight negative Jewish behavior and portray host responses as rational (e.g. the work of Bonacich and Zenner), the proposed framework still insists on some level of commonality, no matter how tenuous, with the experiences of other minority groups, and it ultimately places the blame for conflict on a much broader context, often the impersonal historical development of capitalism.
In other words, while the framework can deny that Jews are “victims” of host nations, these theories also deny that host nations are truly the victims of Jewish exploitation. Both are simply argued to be the victims of capitalism, and any sense of individual or group agency is rhetorically dissolved. Again, this acts to lower Jewish visibility and culpability and remains attractive for that reason. There are certainly good reasons along this line of thought for proposing that Steven Pinker’s promotion of the theory over Kevin MacDonald’s ideas has less to do with a serious engagement with the content of the work of Bonacich et al. and significantly more to do with deflecting the entire conversation into an area of discussion in which Pinker feels Jews are less visible.
A major problem with middleman minority theory is that it has a very uncomfortable and unsatisfactory way of handling the obviously unique aspects of the Jewish experience, especially in relation to the unprecedented involvement of Jews in post-Enlightenment Western culture and politics, something for which there is absolutely no parallel among other diaspora trading groups anywhere. As has been discussed, middleman minority theory was essentially first created, consciously or unconsciously, by scholars anxious to find a way to explain the Jewish experience. Attempts to connect this experience, amounting to some two millennia of history, with the much more modern and straightforward experiences of, for example, the Chinese in the Philippines or the Japanese in America, have been doomed to the grossest of generalizations and the clumsiest of associations. This has resulted in a steady stream of admissions within the field that the best way to interpret middleman minority theory is simply that it proposes an “ideal type” (essentially the Jews) with unfortunate “problems of fit between any actual ethnic group and this picture [the Jewish experience].” Zenner has conceded that the concept has been very “difficult to define so as to cover all groups so designated.” All of which calls into question whether this concept possesses any real efficacy as an analytical or predictive tool in a comparative sense at all.
An interesting point of difference between the Jewish experience and that of other diaspora trading peoples is that the latter are acknowledged as possessing a genuine sense of sojourn. In other words, their first generations tend to be truly temporary, semi-nomadic groups who aim to make money before eventually returning to a homeland. A subtly different experience is observed in the Jews, as noted by Jack Kugelmass in his 1981 PhD thesis Native Aliens: The Jews of Poland as a Middleman Minority. For Kugelmass, “the so-called “middleman” character of the Jew is seen as an aspect of the Jewish sense of sojourn, which unlike most sojourns is ideological rather than sociological in nature.” [emphasis added] Another way of phrasing this would be to say that the Jewish sense of sojourn is cultural-biological rather than contextual, and since the concept of sojourning has been a major feature of Jewish life since at least the writing of the Exodus, this difference between other groups is really so stark as to require a distinct analysis — something offered to an unparalleled degree in Kevin MacDonald’s A People That Shall Dwell Alone. In this analysis, it would appear that, unlike a relatively small number of other peoples who have merely adopted some tactics in order to pursue a specific diaspora trade role, Jews have, from time immemorial, given themselves over entirely to these strategies as an entire way of life — the “middleman minority” as a raison d’être.
This absolutely crucial distinction is linked to the remarkable fact of contemporary political life that the state of Israel exists largely according to the same strategies employed by Jews when in a diaspora condition. As stated above, an excellent example of the dual morality process in action is the fact Israel is the largest producer and host of international online gambling sites, while making it illegal for its own citizens to use such sites. The creation of the state of Israel has also exacerbated, rather than ameliorated, issues of dual loyalty in Jewish minority populations, even if these issues are more or less kept out of the public eye through diplomatic soothing around Israeli spying and the maintenance of certain taboos in the mass media. Israel itself would appear to be a kind of middleman minority archetype within the international community, cultivating close and lucrative ties with the elite (the United States), while engaging in more or less unchallenged exploitative and oppressive activities against lower social orders (Palestinians, and other vulnerable or indebted population groups in South America).
Like the “ideal type” of middleman minority, Israel heavily drains the resources even of its allies (U.S. military and diplomatic aid) and pursues its strategies in a ceaseless quest for security, while maintaining moral double standards and being rather shameless in engaging in what Zenner has described as the classic overrepresentation of middleman minorities in “morally shady” activities. Even in recent years, Israel has become notorious in the international organ trade, moneylending, and allegations of humanitarian atrocities. Israeli newspapers have also described their country as a “monopoly nation” due to the intense tendency towards economic monopoly in the country’s business life — a key feature of middleman minority life that Jews appear to continue to embody to an extent unparalleled in any other ethnic group. Further evidence for the apparently deep-seated, rather than contextual, nature of “middleman” traits in Jews might be found in studies indicative of a biological underpinning to Jewish ethnocentrism, such as that described by Kevin MacDonald in the Preface to the Culture of Critique:
Developmental psychologists have found unusually intense fear reactions among Israeli infants in response to strangers, while the opposite pattern is found for infants from North Germany. The Israeli infants were much more likely to become “inconsolably upset” in reaction to strangers, whereas the North German infants had relatively minor reactions to strangers. The Israeli babies therefore tended to have an unusual degree of stranger anxiety, while the North German babies were the opposite — findings that fit with the hypothesis that Europeans and Jews are on opposite ends of scales of xenophobia and ethnocentrism.
As well as dealing poorly with obviously unique aspects of the Jewish experience, a significant portion of middleman minority theory is devoted to context-based narratives that are often in stark contrast to, or completely disproven by, the historical record. With the exception of the work of Kevin MacDonald, which demonstrates a very extensive engagement with works of history, a general weakness in all of the late twentieth-century sociological studies discussed above is the fact that, despite their incredibly ambitious claims about the historical trajectory of capitalism or middleman minority populations, there is a quite serious neglect of any of the relevant historiography. This leads, in the case of the modern adherents of Simmel, Roscher, and Leon, to the constant repetition of error-laden tropes such as the idea that Jews turned to commerce because they were prohibited from owning land (rather than arriving as profit-seeking financiers), that Jews were most often invited into nations by elites seeking a financial stimulus, or that Jews were banished from countries once their position as loan merchant was superfluous. In fact, these three tropes, all of which remove Jewish agency and characteristics from consideration, are essentially the pillars of context-based middleman minority theory pertaining to Jews, and are absolutely crucial to Roscher’s ideas in particular.
The historical record is now acknowledged as more or less complete in relation to the issue of the Jewish ownership of land. It has been conclusively established, for example, that the general trend across Europe was that Jews were in fact able to possess and own land during the centuries immediately following their initial spread and expansion in Europe (c.1000–1300). Restrictions on land ownership were later enacted as penalties for exploitation or as part of a system of elite land transfer—e.g., the desire of the English kings to obtain the land of indebted lesser knights, and doing so by financially compensating Jewish moneylenders for forfeited lands they could no longer legally hold.
One of the correlates of the land ownership trope is the astonishingly naive assumption that land ownership would preclude involvement in financial speculation. Again, the historical record contradicts this. Mark Meyerson’s Princeton-published A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain (2010), for example, offers an expansive analysis of Jewish landowners in Spain who “did not necessarily cultivate the land themselves” and combined wine production operations worked by non-Jewish peasants with “lending operations and tax farming.” Pointing to the prevalence of early Jewish land ownership in Poland, France, and Germany, in which Jews enjoyed a “privileged status available to few Christians,” Norman Roth has described the trope that Jews were forced out of agriculture by restrictive laws and the violence of the Crusades as “patently absurd.”
The theory that Jews, and by tenuous implication other middleman minorities, were most often invited into nations by elites seeking a financial stimulus or to fill a “status gap,” is also contradicted by the historical record. The early entry and expansion of Jews in Europe is relatively well-documented, the dominant trend being that Jews either presented themselves before elites in order to solicit business, or that they acted as financiers for conquest and then followed in the wake of the conquerors (e.g., the well-documented role of Jewish financiers in Norman Conquest of England and Strongbow’s conquest of Ireland). Ireland’s Annals of Innisfallen (1079 A.D.) record: “Five Jews came from over sea with gifts to Tairdelbach [King of Munster], and they were sent back again over sea.” Unless Tairdelbach (Turlough O’Brien, 1009–86) had undergone a dramatic change of mind, it’s likely that the arrival of the Jews hadn’t been preceded by an invitation. In fact, unsolicited approaches for request to settle and establish financial activities are in evidence from the time of O’Brien to the 1655 “Humble Address” of Manasse ben Israel to the English government.
A very common form of government documentation found in the study of Early Modern Jewish communities are the charters outlining their terms of settlement, and these are very revealing. Rather than act as economic catalysts, Jews are more frequently observed following the trail of already economically improving areas, hoping to profit from their advancement. As Felicitas Schmeider has pointed out, in terms of the German context, “permission to settle Jews in a newly privileged town is one thing kings were frequently, if not regularly, asked for, especially in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.”
The theory that Jews were banished from countries once their position as loan merchant or general role as a middleman minority was superfluous is also forcefully contradicted by the historical record. Just as medieval Jews perceived that they were the innocent victims of evil Gentiles, so Jewish historiography has overwhelmingly portrayed the expulsions as the result of “rumors, prejudices, and insinuating and irrational accusations.” Context-based middleman minorities theories absorbed these tropes and reinvented them in narratives that blamed the expulsions on the fact that Capital had simply exhausted the usefulness of the Jews. Such understandings of the expulsions have only very recently come to be revised, most saliently in the work of Harvard historian Rowan W. Dorin, whose 2015 doctoral thesis and subsequent publications have for the first time helped to fully contextualize the mass expulsions of Jews in Europe during the medieval period, 1200–1450.
Dorin points out that Jews were never specifically targeted for expulsion qua Jews, but as usurers, and notes that the vast majority of expulsions in the period targeted “Christians hailing from northern Italy.” Jews were expelled, like these Christian usurers, for their actions, choices, and behaviors. What the period witnessed was not a wave of irrational anti-Jewish actions, or for that matter an impersonal reflex of glutted Capital, but rather a widespread ecclesiastical reaction against the spread of moneylending among Christians that eventually absorbed Jews into its considerations for common sense reasons. A number of laws and statutes, for example Usuranum voraginem, were designed in order to provide a schedule of punishments for foreign/travelling Christian moneylenders. These laws contained provisions for excommunication and a prohibition on renting property in certain locales. The latter effectively prohibited such moneylenders from taking up residence in those locations, and compelled their expulsion in cases where they were already domiciled. It was only after these laws were in effect that some theologians and clerics began to question why they weren’t also applied to Jews who, in the words of historian Gavin Langmuir, were then “disproportionately engaged in moneylending in northern Europe by the late 12th century.” The Church had historically objected to the expulsion of Jews in the belief that their scattered presence fulfilled theological and eschatological functions. It was only via the broader, largely common sense, application of newly developed anti-usury laws that such obstructions to confrontations with Jews became theologically and ecclesiastically permissible, if not entirely desirable. And once this Rubicon had been crossed, it paved the way for a rapid series of expulsions of Jewish usury colonies from European towns and cities, a process that accelerated rapidly between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The lack of engagement with developments in historiography is worsened to a large extent by the absence of a truly cross-disciplinary approach in most, if not all, existing middleman minority analyses. This is particularly glaring in the works of Bonacich and Zenner which, while making multiple and apparently crucial references to conscious and unconscious group “strategies,” fail to engage in any kind of historiographical or psychological scholarly contextualization. How exactly such strategies as “visibility strategies” can operate at group level are left completely unexplained and without any substantial evidence beyond common sense observations of Jewish behavior. The lack of a cross-disciplinary approach in such instances doesn’t necessarily mean that these ideas are wrong, or that “visibility strategies” don’t exist, but it does mean that explanations and evidence are still required. To date, the only convincing attempt to fill in such gaps, and offer a truly cross-disciplinary approach (incorporating history, sociology, and psychology) to the idea of group strategies, is found in the work of Kevin MacDonald.
As stated at the outset of this essay, it isn’t at all clear how any of the aspects of middleman minority theory obviate the need for a deeper theoretical framework in which to understand the behaviors and contexts under study. Middleman minority theory, as remarked above, is an incomplete tool, and has little to offer in terms of deeper explanatory value for such relevant key concepts under discussion as resource competition, ecological strategies, visibility strategies, and social identity theory. Middleman minority theory, or at least some strands of it, is useful and valuable in the study of Jews to the extent that it places an unusual emphasis on group conflict as arising from resource competition, the characteristics of Jews (including Jewish ethnocentrism), and the existence of group strategies. There are, however, multiple, serious inadequacies in middleman minority theory, including the possibility that it is in part itself a “visibility strategy,” that is has a general problem of definitions, that it fails to adequately deal with unique qualities of the Jews and their experiences, that it generally fails to engage with the historical record, and that it has no real explanatory or predictive frameworks for many of the ideas it discusses, including group strategies. I am forced to concur with Edna Bonacich that, in regards to the study of Jews, middleman minority theory should be conceived, at best, as “a useful sensitiser to a host of interrelated variables.”