During a gathering on Monday to mark the fifth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin cracked a joke about Jews and money.
According to the Associated Press, in a meeting with residents of Crimea that included religious leaders, Putin responded to a comment by a local Jewish community member regarding financial difficulties. “So, the Jews have problems with finances!” Putin answered laughing. “Such a thing could only happen in Crimea!”
Was Putin’s joke just bad taste, or outright antisemitic?
And yes, Jews have also excelled financially, but their success in business continues to be one of the main sources of antisemitic conspiracies in which Jews are accused of being cheapskates, or Jewish wealth is blamed for controlling the world’s economy.
There are no real statistics on Jewish wealth, but there is a general assumption that most Jewish people are quite well-to-do. Jews around the world have certainly been successful in many professions. As a people group, the Jewish people continue to make major international contributions in the fields of medicine, science, high-tech, literature, cinema, security and business.
So, what’s wrong with Putin’s snide remark? Historically, Jews did learn to manage money because they were not allowed to own lands in the countries where they were exiled. The “wandering Jew” could only take what fit in his pocket or on his cart as he was forced from place to place by greedy landowners.
In Christian countries, the Jews often became moneylenders and bankers because of the church’s ban on “usury,” a misinterpretation of the biblical concern to prevent a rich man from overcharging the poor when they were in debt. Jews were thought to be dirty and miserly because they were forced to handle the Christians' “filthy mammon.” But the Jews were honest brokers, and Christians quickly learned to trust them to provide profitable financial services.
For example, in 1785, King Wilhelm IX, Europe’s richest man, would not trust anyone other than the Rothschild family to provide his empire’s banking services. Mayer Amschel Rothschild, founder of the Rothschild banking services, was born in 1744 and raised in Frankfurt’s Jewish ghetto. At the time, Jews were forced to live in ghettos to keep them separate from Christians, and were unable to leave these ghettos on Sundays or on Christian holidays. But they were asked to handle the king's money.
So what’s wrong with Putin’s anecdote? Putin’s goal at the gathering was to make the residents of Crimea feel part of Mother Russia. “Russia has taken you into its fold with delight and joy,” Putin flattered the crowd. “We will fulfill all of our goals … because we are together now.” Then Putin used the well-known antisemitic putdown about Jewish wealth to try and let the locals know that they are all part of the same Russian (not Jewish) family. According to reports, the Crimean crowd laughed along with Putin’s dirty joke.