Who Did the Choosing?

Instead of reading about the Israeli elections and Maghreb terrorism last week, I spent my free time reading The Chosen Few: How Education Shaped Jewish History, 70-1492, by Maristella Botticini and Zvi Eckstein (Princeton University Press, 2012).

The book, which appeared last autumn, has sparked controversy among historians since 2003, when its basic ideas were first broached in a working paper, “From Farmers to Merchants: A Human Capital Interpretation of Jewish Economic History”; all the more so since Joel Mokyr, of Northwestern University, organized a conference at Tel Aviv University in 2010 at which experts hashed over the manuscript of the book.

I have the feeling that, eventually, The Chosen Few will have changed the course of history in the Middle East much more decisively than did the election; but no more than the election do I know how. Not all by itself, of course, but as part of a broad reinterpretation of the history of the peopling of the world, underway for a century and a half, that has begun gathering force since the 1990s.

Consider:  There is a standard story about the history of the Jews, though it has several variants, thanks to historians and social scientists from Flavius Josephus to Karl Marx, Max Weber, Thorstein Veblen and Simon Kuznets. After the destruction of the Second Temple following a rebellion against Roman rule, in 66-70 of the Christian Era, the Jews were dispersed from their homeland, ceased farming, and began a diaspora as a merchant minority lasting nearly 2,000 years

From a population of around 5.5 million in the early first century of the Christian Era, 2.5 million of them living in Israel (meaning the land bounded by the Mediterranean Sea, the Jordan River,  the Arabian Desert and the Red  Sea), the worldwide Jewish population declined to 1-1.2 million in the early seventh century. It remained about the same for the next five hundred years.

Jewish historians have emphasized the role of constant persecutions, expulsions, and massacres. European historians have emphasized the restrictions that developed in the Middle Ages: with Christians banned from lending money at interest, and Jews excluded from craft and merchant guilds,  Jews had little choice but to hone their skills as money lenders, bankers and financiers.   Economists have fastened on a slightly different angle:  an environment of constant threat led Jews to invest in portable skills instead of land, and turned them into an urban population of traders, entrepreneurs, bankers, financiers, lawyers, physicians and scholars.

Botticini and Eckstein tell a very different story.  It turns on three historic encounters of the Jews – with Rome, with Islam, and with the Mongol Conquest – beginning with the profound transformation of Judaism that commenced after the destruction of the Second Temple in the first Roman-Jewish War.  That war was brutal – the Roman historian Tacitus estimated that 600,000 were killed – but it affected factions among the Jews very differently.

The wealthy Sadducees, who had operated the sacrifice franchise at the Temple,  lost their source of income.  The Zealots and the Sicarii, who had fomented the rebellion, were wiped out, first in Jerusalem and, three years later, at Masada. The Pharisees, on the other hand, to which the scholars and sages of the Jerusalem academies mostly belonged, did not participate in the war. They survived the massacres and gradually took control of Judaism, re-establishing the ruling council of the Sanhedrin in the coastal town of Jabneh.

There was a second war with the Romans, beginning in 132, known as the bar Kokhba revolt, after its leader.  This time the Pharisees led the way – minus most of their scholars. The Samaritans, a rival sect, sided with the Romans.  Emerging Christian sects remained mostly uninvolved. Again the Jews were routed, but only after three years of siege warfare – as much as another half million dead.  Judea ceased to be an independent state. The centers of Jewish leaening moved north to the Galilee.

But when you look at deaths, including subsequent episodes, such as the massacre of the Jews in Alexandria, they’re enough to explain only about half the population decline over those six centuries.  What happen to the other 2 million Jews?  The answer, Botticini and Eckstein think, is to be found in the events that transpired after the fall of the Second Temple.

One strut of Judaism– the Temple – had collapsed. There would be no more pilgrimages required of all Jewish males to make animal sacrifices before the sacred site. So the other strut – the Torah, an account of the origins of the world and the Jews’ early history in it – grew stronger.  Even before the Second Temple was destroyed, Joshua ben Gamla, a Pharisee high priest, had issued a decree that every Jewish father send his six- or seven-year-old son to primary school to learn to read and construe the five books – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – that make up the written Torah. In the turmoil of the next hundred years, that norm gradually grew stronger. The high priests of the Pharisees became rabbis. The academies that flourished after the Second Roman war in the Galilee created the Mishna – the six-book canon on which all Jewish law is based. Rabbinical Judaism emerged, and with it the world’s first system of primary education, centered on the synagogue.

It is that education system – or, rather the cost of it – that accounts for the missing Jews, Botticini and Eckstein say. Reading would have conferred little advantage in a farm economy.  So large numbers of Jews, confronted by the new requirement, simply opted out.  They became Christians or Samaritans, and went about their business.  And over the next 450 years, the period historians call the Talmud Era, during which vast commentaries on the Mishna were written by scholars in Israel and Mesopotamia, these processes of self-selection only intensified the Jewish demographic collapse. (The rapid expansion of Christianity during these years is an interesting part of the story.)

By 650 the Jewish “brand” was very strong – it meant universal literacy and commitment to maintain it from generation to generation.  But by now there were barely 1-1.2 million Jews, some 100,000 of them in Israel, others scattered lightly in North Africa and Europe, and 750,000 in Mesopotamia and Persia, almost all of them still farmers.  Only in the Fertile Crescent had Jew begun moving to town to become shopkeepers and artisans

This much is the armature of The Chosen Few.  Two more grand historical encounters are required to put it to work.  The rise of Islam, following the Prophet Muhammad (ca. 570-632), created an enormous empire under two caliphates in the seventh and eight centuries, boosting the growth of cities and creating commercial economies where none had existed before. Opportunities for those who could read and write were everywhere; Jews almost universally abandoned farming, moved to cities; the now-familiar pattern of occupational specialization emerged. The Jews who settled in southern Spain after the Umayyad dynasty took possession of it in 711 were especially successful; within decades they had established a near monopoly in international trade. And 450 years later, prosperous Jewish communities from Samarkand to Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba, engaged in all forms of long distance trade, money-lending, medicine and crafts.

Then came the Mongol Conquest.  In 1219, Genghis Kahn stormed out of Central Asia along the Silk Road and Armenia.  He looted Persia; his son conquered Russia and marched on Vienna, steering off into Hungary and Poland at the last moment. His grandchildren turned south, sacked Baghdad, and occupied Damascus on their way to Cairo, leaving the European Crusaders in control of the eastern Mediterranean.

When the Mamluks defeated them in Egypt in in 1260, the Mongols finally turned back.  But by then the Muslim world was in decline.  And the prosperous Jewish populations that had thrived under Islamic rule had little choice but to convert to Islam: since they could no longer make a living in the ruined cities, they would return to farming (except  in Iberia), or to attempt to migrate to Central or Western Europe, where their participation in economic affairs would be more tightly controlled by rival kings than had been the case under the caliphs.

That set that stage for the great expulsions of the modern era, beginning in 1492.  It is not that the Jews were the only highly skilled specialists in Europe in the early Middle Ages, say Botticini and Eckstein. Non-Jews worked at crafts, trade, money-lending and long-distance finance as well.  But virtually all Jews worked in these highly-skilled city-based occupations, at a time when most of Europe was populated by illiterate peasants.

The heart of the matter, then, has to do with the question of whether Jews’ specialization was a question of segregation or choice. The systematic persecutions mainly began later, the authors say, after the Jews had become well established. Then, as now, financial intermediation required high levels of skill and trust.  It provided a better living than most other occupations. European Jews possessed four key advantages necessary to succeed, the authors say:  they had capital; they were good at networking, they understood numbers; and they were literate.

In this context, “the Chosen few” means something quite different from what it has historically been taken to mean. Instead of God’s Chosen People (and what religious sect has not thought that?) it is the Jews themselves who are seen to have done the choosing, having begun two thousand years ago,  after their war with the Romans, when the hawks perished and the doves chose to require everyone in their community to learn to read. If the story of the Jews is to be rethought – beginning with the invention of primary education and universal literacy – then the history of humankind must be rethought as well including, for instance, the central role the Islamic Empire played as well.

This may be the first you have heard about The Chosen Few, but I pretty much guarantee you that it will not be the last. “The Jews and literacy” is a very different question from that of “the Jews and capitalism,” anterior to the former in all respects.  It will take decades to work it through.  The project began in a lunch room conversation between the authors when both were teaching at Boston University. It has turned into life’s work for each, Botticini at Bocconi Univerity in Milan, Eckstein  as professor at Tel Aviv University and dean of the School of Economics at  the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya.

Today they are working on a second volume, dealing with the years from 1492 to the present.  Avner Greif, the Stanford economist whose 2006 book Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade has done more than any other scholar to put institutions, rules, norms and history on the economists’ map, calls The Chosen Few “a masterpiece.”  He is probably right. I could be wrong, but I believe that the book has begun a conversation much more far-reaching than anything that happened at the Israeli polls last week.

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The annnual meeting of the Allied Social Science Association, dominated by the American Economic Association but including sessions of some sixty other smaller societies, isn’t as widely reported as it might be, not by me or by anyone else.  This year I didn’t even manage to learn the attendance.

Happily, James W. Fox did.  Fox is a retired US Agency for International Development official who annually writes up his impressions for a circle of development economist friends. I’ve always found his reports interesting and instructive.  This year I gained his permission to post his account.

3 responses to “Who Did the Choosing?”

  1. This is a fascinating set of ideas, and I haven’t read Botticini & Eckstein. But I’m confused about the extent to which this undermines previous ways of thinking. Somehow Jews and Christians seem to have managed to prosper better than other “tribes” in the ancient world. Reading Orlando Patterson I got the sense that when most tribes were defeated by Rome they lost large shares of their people to slavery and those who became slaves ultimately wound up freed but in cities disconnected from their ethnic origins. Those who remained on the land didn’t seem to have maintained the powerful identity that the Jews and Christians maintained. A key element of traditional stories I’ve read has always been not that the Jews were unique in considering themselves “chosen” but that they were unique in the coherence and strength of their self-understanding, and it held them together. From what you’re saying, it seems that Botticini & Eckstein are presenting a new understanding of how this happened – new details, really – but not such a radically new story. Am I missing something?

  2. I took the time to write a long discussion on the failures of this book but you have not posted it here… Let me just inform you that stone tablets from 2500 years ago have neen found that make it clear that this book is amazingly WRONG! Jews were not illiterate farmers… they worked in trade, shop keepers, civil servants, money lenders, scribes… the authors of this book are obvious fools.

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