Mercantilism and the Jews

When tolerance became profitable

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The practical monarchs of Western Europe were aware of this fact; they recognized the usefulness of an experienced mercantile people, a footloose urban people with international connections, avid, even desperate, to exploit opportunity wherever it might be found. Hence the age of mercantilism, which was also the age of absolutism, coincided with the transfer of the Jewish problem from the religious to the political sphere.

Viewed as an additional source of national power, certain classes of Jews were extended grudging toleration by the rulers of the Netherlands, England, even later of France and Bran­denburg‑Prussia. Of course the new toleration was not granted to all Jews, or even to most of them. The great majority still was involved in peddling, and was confined to the slum or ghetto neigh­borhoods of Europe's cities. But the growth of a class of "excep­tion Jews" revealed the dichotomy of attitude of many European monarchs.

Frederick II of Prussia: A Model Enlightened Despot

Frederick II of Prussia was an example of this kind of ambivalence. He was perhaps the most brilliant of the enlightened despots, a man who created a strikingly taut and efficient cameralist administration,who fancied himself the patron saint of European rationalism.

But Frederick personally despised the Jews. In his Political Testament of 1752 he described them as the most dangerous of all sects, "avaricious, superstitious, backward," a group that stood in the way of the general progress of mankind. We have seen the degrading disabilities he imposed on his captive Jewish population. [Such disabilities included restrictions on family life (marriage and family movement were strictly regulated), domicile, and synagogue construction, to name a few]

Nevertheless, Frederick was perfectly capable of sublimating his prejudices in order to make effective use of the Jews in the mechanism of his state. This sense of dynastic responsibility explained his determination to prohibit Jews from engaging in some branches of trade, and his willingness, on the other hand, to permit them into other branches. It explained the fact that he made life miserable for them by the most cunning variety of re­strictions and, at the same time, singled out individual Jews for bounties, concessions, and special privileges, appointed them as court purveyors, entrusted factories and companies to them, and used them as the intermediaries in his export trade.

For Frederick was first and foremost a mercantilist; he was willing to exploit any group capable of contributing to a wealthy Prussian state and an efficient Prussian bureaucracy. When, in 1763, therefore, Frederick grudgingly permitted younger children of Jews to join their older brothers or sisters beyond the ghetto walls, he demanded in return that the parents either establish factories or "promote the marketing of home products outside the countryside." Because agrarian Po­land was a source of raw materials and a natural market for Prussian manufactured goods, the king resolved to use his Jews, long familiar with the Polish commercial world, as his principal intermediaries.

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Howard Sachar

Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.