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Making Sense of Jewish Stereotypes


The stereotype is a printer’s aid. This one-piece plate, cast in type metal from a mold taken of a printing surface, produces an unvarying form or pattern, having no individuality. It speeds the process of producing printed material.

People use stereotyping to speed up thought processes in their daily lives – only they use a cognitive matrix instead of type metal. They attribute a set of complex characteristics to individuals they barely know on the basis of preconceived notions. This saves time anticipating the conduct of others – or their responses to ideas and actions.

But this racial or ethnic stereotyping is a collectivist way of thinking. It judges a person not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors – as if values and character are determined before one is born. It is based implicitly on the irrational and discredited doctrine of inherited, innate knowledge. So while stereotyping may provide cognitive shortcuts, it leads to false conclusions. It is an obstacle to human thought and social progress.

Still, most stereotypes did not arise in a vacuum. They usually developed after a behavior pattern or trait was seen with great frequency and consistency among several members of a racial or ethnic group. The mental process of generalization produced the stereotype. Some stereotypes are positive and some are negative. All are irrational and anti-individualist.

Thomas Sowell, economist and historian at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, investigated the roots of ethnic and racial stereotypes in his 1981 book Ethnic America. Many Jewish stereotypes are understood by viewing history. Jews have been stereotyped as being adept money handlers. In medieval Europe, many governments restricted money handling and money lending to Jews and Arabs, believing them to be practices morally inappropriate for Christians. Entry into many fields was barred to Jews. Those who were competent financiers were most likely to succeed in a society where they were essentially personae non gratae.

Jews and the professions

Jews learned by experience to develop skills in professions dependent on intellectual talents – they became teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants. In a Europe where Jews were always considered resident-aliens, subject to expulsion or expropriation at the whim of the political class, it made sense to have a livelihood not tied to the ground. A Jew in exile could resume his profession and offer a scarce and valuable service wherever expulsion landed him.

These money-handling and intellectual skills often gained favor with political power holders, bringing individual or group protection. Many Jews actually became tax collectors or other government officials and advisors. But it also made Jews hated by enemies of the regime and especially likely to become targets in the event of an overthrow.

For much of European history, dangers of popular resentment made it inadvisable for Jews to display any wealth or even evidence of prosperity. The need to flee at a moment’s notice made it a bad idea to keep whatever they had accumulated in immobile forms, and more sensible to have it in gold or jewelry

Viewed in this light, it is easy to understand the origins of the stereotypes of Jews as being miserly, as cunning and opportunistic money handlers, and as making excellent doctors, lawyers, and teachers.

One stereotype that is difficult to explain, however, is that of Jews’ being politically on the Left. Since the late 1800s, American Jews, for example, have supported political parties and candidates of the “progressive” bent. In the early part of the 20th century, this meant supporting Republicans. Jews voted predominantly Republican into the 1920s. As Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Democratic Party took on the cause of the Left, Jews switched parties, with more than 90 percent voting for Roosevelt.

A 1972 survey of Jews in New York called The Ethnic Factor, by Mark Levy and Michael Kramer, found three-quarters to be registered as Democrats. Half described themselves as “liberal,” and more than a fourth called themselves “moderate.” Jews are overrepresented among the radical Left. Sociologist Ernest van den Haag, in The Jewish Mystique, reports, “Out of one hundred Jews, five may be radicals. Out of ten radicals, five are likely to be Jewish.”

To be sure, not all Jews favor a powerful, activist, intrusive government. Nobel-winning economist Milton Friedman and laissez-faire advocates (and libertarian icons) Murray Rothbard, Ludwig von Mises, and Israel Kirzner are powerful intellectual forces, antithetical to the Left. Legal scholars Richard Epstein and Steven Posner favor minimalist government as well. Individualist psychologist Nathaniel Branden and iconoclastic psychiatrist Thomas Szasz are leaders of the modern libertarian movement. And Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, once part of the “inner circle” of individualist philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand (born Alissa Rosenbaum, a Russian Jew), can hardly be called a liberal.

Yet the stereotype is based on indisputable political data. While the stereotypes mentioned earlier make sense when viewed through a historical lens, this one does not. True, Jews for centuries have justifiably identified themselves as underdogs. This might make them more receptive to political movements purporting to fight for society’s underdogs. And in an earlier time, sycophantic pandering to the governing class was an act of self-defense.

Why should Jews trust the state?

But these are inadequate explanations. If any ethnic group should stereotypically exhibit an intense distrust for strong, intrusive, activist government, it should be the Jews. The Jewish experience with government has been one of repeated expropriation, expulsion, quota-based restrictions on economic and personal activity, and even systematic genocide. Despite these immense obstacles, the Jews have managed to succeed and even flourish in modern Western society. Under the modern “progressive” programs of wealth redistribution, high taxation, and “affirmative action’s” racial quotas and set-asides, they stand to lose so much of what they struggled to obtain.

Jews should embrace the libertarian spirits of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and Patrick Henry in their fervent commitment to a limited, minimalist government whose sole mission is protecting individuals’ equal rights. The political stereotype assigned to modern Western Jews is understandable when viewing political and electoral statistics. Attempts to reconcile the statistics with history leave many questions unanswered. It just doesn’t make sense.

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    Dr. Jeffrey Singer is a Phoenix-area surgeon who writes and lectures on regional and national public policy. He serves on the board of directors of the Goldwater Institute and is a contributor to Arizona Medicine, the journal of the Arizona Medical Association, and is a member of the Maimonides Society of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix.