The economic ecology of Jews as a rural service minority

The five million Jews who lived in the Pale of Settlement at the turn of the century were overwhelmingly over-represented in towns and in cities. They specialized in seemingly urban occupations, were relatively literate, and were almost absent in agriculture. This pattern persisted overseas where one third of them would eventually immigrate. Hence, Jews were typically characterized as an urban minority. I argue that the opposite was true. The economic ecology of the Jews, the patterns of choices of occupation and location, are described in a model in which Jews were countryside workers with a comparative advantage in rural commerce, complementing agricultural workers, and without comparative advantage in denser urban settings. Using data from the 1897 census, I show that the cross-sectional patterns across districts and localities were consistent with all the predictions of this model. When the share of Jews in the population grew, Jews spilled across two margins—occupational, as manufacturing workers, and geographic, as rural frontier men. Non-Jews were imperfect substitute for Jews, rendering the latter indispensable to the countryside economy. No evidence of urban advantage is evident in the data. Turn of the century Pale of Settlement Jews ought to be understood as rural workers, in and of the countryside. In this light, the patterns exhibited in the US after immigration appear as a sharp break from, rather than a continuation of, old country economic tradition.

That is the abstract of a new paper by Yannay Spitzer.  For the pointer I thank Ilya Novak.


"Non-Jews were imperfect substitute for Jews"

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You see a similar pattern in the American South, where Jews were often small town merchants. For example, singer Dinah Shore grew up in McMinnville, Tennessee, where her father owned the department store.

Jews tended to be pretty popular in the South, because they brought needed skills to rural areas. Southern elites viewed themselves as an aristocratic landowning class with political and military skills, and thus looked upon Jews as valuable complements who took care of middle class endeavors with which they couldn't be bothered.

There tended to be more anti-Semitism in the North than in the South, because Yankees had similar bourgeois skills, and thus competed directly with Jews.

For example, the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home of The Masters, became the most exclusive country club in the U.S. in the 1950s when President Eisenhower was a member. As it came to be dominated by northern CEOs, it stopped admitting new Jewish members until the 1980s. But Augusta National always had some local Jewish members from Augusta's small upper middle class.

I looked up the obituary of one Jewish ANGC member who was a local businessman in Augusta, a rather poor small city. He was a complete dynamo who was involved in countless civic organizations to make Augusta a better place.

That Jews were popular participants in the slave and Jim Crow South has largely been memoryholed by modern Jews who like to assume that of course Jews in the old South must have been persecuted radicals demanding equal treatment of blacks.

Sailer is correct. Many would be surprised by the large number of Jewish immigrants in the South during the 19th century, including my ancestors who settled in a farming community and prospered as merchants selling goods to the Gentile farmers who grew tobacco and cotton. Charleston has a very large Jewish population, many who are merchants and professionals whose ancestors settled there in the 19th and early 20th centuries. While it's true that many Jews settled in less populated areas like my ancestors, but their occupations were essentially urban: my ancestors not only sold goods to the Gentile farmers but extended credit to them as well. Atlanta, Birmingham, go to any city in the South and one will find a large Jewish population made up of successful merchants and professionals. Consider St. Paul, who traveled among the Gentiles in rural areas. His occupation? He was a leather worker, making tents and awnings that he sold to the Gentiles while converting them to His faith.

"That Jews were popular participants in the slave and Jim Crow South has largely been memoryholed by modern Jews who like to assume that of course Jews in the old South must have been persecuted radicals demanding equal treatment of blacks."

Could you share examples of this? Because my experience is that modern Jews who care about this are very aware of the role that Jews played in slavery and the Confederacy (military and economic) and after -- both acknowledging that southern Jews tended to support them, while at the same time objecting to certain ideas of how Jews were special in this regard. See, for instance,

That Jews were popular participants in the slave and Jim Crow South has largely been memoryholed by modern Jews who like to assume that of course Jews in the old South must have been persecuted radicals demanding equal treatment of blacks.

I think there were about 200,000 Jews in the United States in 1860, out of a total population of about 31 million. Most came from families who had migrated from the German states < a generation earlier.

my buddy in a farming village, once apart from the elkhorn family in the lower east side, distributed pamphlets on the notion of asking for cash. You trade you head for a hand, and a set of nostrils as once discussed.

There's a difference between the frankness of the ethnic press, like Tablet and Forward, and the reticence of the mainstream press, like the New York Times.

Here's a 2014 NYT piece that is frank about how pro-slavery Jews in the South were, and how surprising that fact is to contemporary Jews:

From this 2014 NYT piece:

"Still, the idea of Jews fighting or rooting for the South is bewildering to many Jews today, especially those descended from Russian Socialists who came to America with ideas of class and economic equality and who identified with blacks and other excluded groups."

How could this be even remotely "bewildering" to anyone who ever took a high school American history class? Do teachers just censor all the bits where Judah Benjamin rotates through the great offices of state for the Confederacy? Or do students pay attention only to the battles, and not the administrative and governance failures that helped bring doom to the Rebellion?

Many Liberal Jews and neo-Nazi/"White Nationalists" have memoryholed Southern Jewish history.

On the bright side, at least Larry David didn't act like Anderson Cooper when he found out his ancestor was a slave owner:

Larry David seems to feel that it's not good for the Jews to be considered too sacralized to ever be made fun of.

Whether they were in small urban areas or large urban areas seems rather irrelevant to me. The most interesting aspect of Jewish economic ecology is the near ubiquitous transition of the Jews from agriculture (almost all were farmers in the 1st-2nd century AD) to skilled occupations by the rise of Islam in the 7th century. By 1000 AD at the latest, the vast majority of the Jewish people (call 80%-90%) were engaged in commercially oriented skilled occupations all around the word (while the converse is true with respect to most of the Gentiles). Whether in Rome or in some small urban village doesn’t much seem to matter... in fact their spread would fit a model where they lived dispersed among the urban areas around the world (you can only have so many traders or leather workers in one location with such transport costs right?).

Setting all other data aside, if we take a close look at various written accounts, they seem to support this notion:

For example, when in 1170 Benjamin of Tudela wrote his travel itinerary describing the Jewish communities around the world, the transition of Jews away from agriculture into urban occupations was almost complete.

What is "rural commerce" as distinct from "urban commerce"? Technically it may be accurate that the groups specialised in urban common jobs in rural settings, but hard to argue this isn't still a preexisting advantage for doing urban type jobs in cities. That is, still correct to view the New World pattern of jobs as far more continuous than other groups that moved to cities (e.g. Irish, Sicilians, etc).

Traditionally, go back earlier than 1897 and the advantage is urban. As author states - "When the share of Jews in the population grew, Jews spilled across two margins—occupational, as manufacturing workers, and geographic, as rural frontier men", spilling over into the country, but not farming, because there were sharp limits to urban growth in Eastern Europe.

'appear as a sharp break from, rather than a continuation of, old country economic tradition'

The 'tradition' involved was not economic. To give a simple example, ghetto is meaningless in connection with any true rural setting, and its basis was not economic.

'ghetto (n.) - 1610s, "part of a city in which Jews are compelled to live," especially in Italy, from Italian ghetto "part of a city to which Jews are restricted," of unknown origin. The various theories trace it to: Yiddish get "deed of separation;" a special use of Venetian getto "foundry" (there was one near the site of that city's ghetto in 1516); a clipped form of Egitto "Egypt," from Latin Aegyptus (presumably in memory of the exile); or Italian borghetto "small section of a town" (diminutive of borgo, which is of Germanic origin; see borough). Extended by 1899 to crowded urban quarters of other minority groups (especially blacks in U.S. cities). As an adjective by 1903 (modern slang usage from 1999). Ghetto-blaster "large, portable stereo cassette-player" is from 1982.'

I had the impression that Eastern European Jews lived mostly in small towns (“shtetls”). Does the author classify these as “urban” or as “countryside”? His results will be greatly affected by where he draws the dividing line.

He's jonesing for attention by setting up strawmen and then debunking.

The economic ecology of Jews has historically been heavily determined by government regulation, yes? Is the paper describing freely-made economic choices, or people making a living within narrowly-drawn legal boundaries?

I wouldn't say I can claim to understand the degree to which Jewish occupational choices were regulated (and more so than the general population) in 1800s Eastern Europe, but it's fairly unlikely that they had preferences to opt into agricultural employment and were constrained from doing so, at least.

My understanding is that legal prohibitions upon Jews owning land were quite common in pre-modern Europe.

My understanding of this is far from complex, however as I understand it, pretty much true for the case regarding *ownership* of land, as land ownership is under a feudal model bound together by shared practice of Catholic Christianity and loyalty to the same church and god.

However, even when you get kings like Edward I forbidding the Jews from practicing moneylending but allowing them to practice trade, production and farming (as distinct from owning the land), it doesn't really take (and then there is the expulsion of Jews from England soon after, because they continue to practice moneylending and other related practices).

Generally the occupational transition away from actually working in agriculture also seems to have happened when there were no largely legal prohibitions on Jews owning land (before the proper development of feudal land tenure) -

I think the paper pays too little attention to formal and informal mechanisms of restricting where people lived in Russia. Spitzer only mentions the big cities as being outside the Pale of settlement, but in fact household registration was an important component of Russian life. This was later on made more restrictive with the Soviet internal passport system but it was partly based on features from the Imperial period. Without this restriction the Jews would have been much more urban. At the very least the cursory discussion of this matter is a huge lacuna for the paper.

" I argue that the opposite was true. "

As do I.

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